This is How You Restore True Full Employment in Australia

“So far as it can humanly contrive, never again will the dole queues be seen in this country. Never again will competent workmen stand idle for months and years while limitless work remains to be done. Never again will young men drift hopelessly from town to town and from State to State, searching for the jobs which, in all this wide land, did not exist for them.”

Ben Chifley, 1949.


It is a stark and painful reminder of the follies of the last century that what was a powerful statement of factual accomplishment in 1949 is today seen as the dreams of the delusional.

As a society we once embraced the idea of full employment. We embraced the idea that the most precious of the finite resources available to our nation is the men and women who comprise it; that the wealth of our nation is in the well-worn hands of our working countrymen.

It is an idea that has slowly been eroded since the rise of neoliberalism in the 70’s, an insidious spectre of wastage and artificial scarcity that  leaves our society stagnant and pallid. We have transitioned from a country of full employment to full employability, which is the farcical notion that endless reiterations of training programs will provide people with the skills they need to attract employment, employment that does not exist for them.

The Indue card is the latest example of this mendacious disregard for our society that the neoliberal holds. The superficial argument for its unjustifiable existence is that the men and women who make up the un- and underemployed are helpless drunks, louts and liars. That the state, in the best interests of these misfortunate souls, should deprive them of what mediocre freedom they have to ensure that they don’t waste it on addiction and unproductive escapism. The reality is that it is a mechanism to justify an economic rent to a significant figure within the National party for “managing” the administration of this scheme and ensuring that the paychecks of the poorest in our society end up in the hands of large supermarkets, rather than local greengrocers who are not a part of the “approved” list of vendors.

It is the latest in a story of unrepentant favouritism to corporatism. It further consolidates decades of unjustified handouts to inefficient, stagnant corporations, with the most vulnerable in our society used as pawns to mask the true play at hand. It robs the true powerhouse of our nation, the hardworking small and medium business owners, of necessary income with which to grow and flourish; it reinforces the malpractice of companies that cheat dairy farmers and import produce from foreign lands at the expense of ordinary local farmers. It is the latest attack on a fair Australia and one step further into the neoliberal, no, neofeudal hell that benefits only the very richest in our society.

So, given this, what is the alternative?

The alternative is to disregard the fallacious assertions of neoliberalism and to return to that policy of full employment. The policy of full employment is built upon the recognition that the limitless fiscal resources of the Federal government can be used to employ the most precious of all resources available to our country: us!

In more detail, the full-employment policy program is one which realises that using a buffer stock of minimum-wage employees is a far more effective way to ensure price stability in the economy than using a buffer stock of unemployed people. Our current system is built upon the fallacious idea that 5% of the population at any time MUST be unemployed to achieve price stability; that the suffering of the minority is a necessary evil to ensure the prosperity of the many.

The full employment policy is, therefore, a two-fold improvement on our current system. 

The more obvious of the two improvements is the humane treatment of our brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. It is a policy that replaces the cruel and inhumane “work-for-the-dole” programs currently in place with actual jobs, jobs that accomplish real and meaningful work in a way endless training courses never will. Everyone who currently waits for hours on the phone to Centrelink to acquire their mockery of a “livable income” via Newstart could instead have full-time work (if they choose it) at a socially-inclusive minimum wage until they find higher-paying work, work that is meaningful to their community, and that is provided by their local council. That work would always be available to them if they wanted it.

The second and more wonky, improvement upon our current system is that it is a far more effective way to ensure aggregate demand and limit the destructive potential of recessions, as well as accomplish price stability.

But what would these jobs actually be? A comprehensive report by the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE)[1] identified the substantial demand for unskilled labour by local councils, particularly in regional areas that suffer from chronic under-funding.

Low-skilled, accessible jobs would include things like builder’s labourers for public housing — an area experiencing chronic under-supply that is projected to experience significant growth in demand over the following decades. The maintenance of poorly paved footpaths and public transport amenities, such as bus shelters, is also a candidate for low skilled work. Gardeners who can maintain the aesthetic beauty of our community gardens and collect trash that pollutes our civic spaces and tarnishes the environment would also be doing work valuable to the community.

Less strenuous, socially-oriented jobs would also exist in a program of full employment. Not everyone who is currently unemployed is suited to the rigours of manual labour — the aging, or those with physical ailments, could partake in one of the variety of non-manual labour positions available, including teachers’ aide; clerical worker at a community radio station or newspaper; after-school assistant; event assistant, helping to promote local festivals and fetes; canteen worker; or childcare worker in a regional area, where demand is high but insufficient to generate the corresponding private sector business. The aging population of Australia also highlights a growing need for community support of our increasingly elderly society, where food preparation assistants and local community transportation services are increasingly required and yet unavailable.

To return to an earlier point of how the full employment policy is a two-fold improvement over our current system, the second, and more technical, improvement upon our current system that full employment offers is that it is a far more effective way to ensure aggregate demand and limit the destructive potential of recessions, as well as accomplish price stability.

Keynes, a key economist of the 20th century, pointed out The Paradox of Thrift in the ’40s. The paradox effectively states that people naturally tend to save more money when they fear losing their jobs, which in turn leads to reduced spending. The reduced spending of customers, in turn, is the loss of income for businesses who understandably lay off workers in order to remain viable. Those unemployed workers, in turn, can no longer spend, which leads to further losses of income for business and so on and so forth until you reach a point whereby no one has any income, worker and business alike.

The policy of full employment puts a floor beneath the economy, limiting how far the economy can fall during a recession. Workers laid off during a downturn from high-paying jobs would have minimum-wage work with their local council instead, if they choose it. It can be thought of as an automatic stabiliser for the economy, expanding during a downturn and shrinking as the economy grows again, ensuring a minimum level of income for businesses and workers alike. In our current system, those workers would instead experience a dramatic loss of income as they applied to be placed on the punitive Newstart scheme and the recession would only deepen, compounding the suffering of all in society. 

Inflationary episodes can also be regulated by changes in the distribution of the ratio of people employed in the local council job pool relative to higher-paid work, rather than unemployed to employed. It provides a price anchor to the markets through the income of the lowest paid in our society and the minimum worth of one hour of unskilled labour.

A society built upon full employment is one where job-seeking agencies are irrelevant, one where welfare cards do not exist, one where small businesses can actively compete with corporations for customers and be rewarded for good practices.

 It is a society where productivity and wage growth can once again be linked as the bargaining power of workers is restored, and where hard work brings its own reward.

It is time to return to the successes of our forefathers and ensure that “never again will the dole queues be seen in this country.”

[1] Cook, B, Mitchell, W, Quirk, V and Watts, M; 2008, ‘Creating effective local labour markets: a new framework for regional employment policy’, Centre of Full Employment and Equity, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, 2308, Australia.

By Joshua Dalton of Modern Money Australia