What really matters

Thu Mar 26 2020 21:14:01 GMT+1100 (Australian Eastern Daylight Time)

About a week ago - or maybe it was three days ago, I'm having trouble keeping track these days - the leader of the Australian Labor Party said something utterly predictable and yet highly revealing. It was around the time Qantas announced it was standing down 20,000 workers - two thirds of their workforce - and forcing them to use their accrued leave. If they didn't have any, CEO Alan Joyce helpfully suggested they might be able to compete with the tens of thousands of casually employed hospitality workers whose shifts had disappeared, for a job stacking chronically empty shelves at supermarkets.

"We can't let this crisis change the structure of our economy", said Anthony Albanese. The so called leader of the so called party of "labor" (sic) was at pains to emphasise his satisfaction with the very economic structure that has left so many workers bereft in a time of public health crisis. COVID-19 is not the only disease endangering people right now. The fact that most of the restaurant and cafe workforce was on 'casual' contracts, able to be dismissed or denied shifts at a whim, or that one of the largest and most profitable companies in Australia can simply 'stand down' two thirds of its workforce without pay, or that Australian fruit production can't function without thousands of Pacific Islanders on 'special' visas working under semi-legal pay and conditions, reflects a deep structural disease in Australia's economy.

On Tuesday night Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared - fewer than 60 seconds after running through a list of expanded bans on certain types of work - that "all workers are essential workers", and "if you have a job, it's essential". This sort of brain-dead ideological posturing was just as unsurprising as the Labor Party declaring undying love for neo-liberal capitalism, but did come off as somewhat more unhinged. What we're getting around the world - particularly in countries with "highly developed" economies - is a quick lesson in the limits of capitalism, and more importantly, the possibilities of collective government. Contra Anthony Albanese, we can't let this crisis fail to change the structure of our economy.

Australian news websites have slowly pivoted over the last fortnight from stories about how property prices might "hold up" to stories about newly jobless people having to choose between buying food or paying rent. After decades of declaring that unemployment payments were perfectly adequate - in the face of overwhelming evidence they were contributing to entrenched poverty - the Liberal Party has suddenly discovered that "Jobseeker allowance" is completely inadequate for "ordinary" people, and effectively doubled it. Additional $750 payments to low-income people that were originally conceived as economic stimulus are now being described as additional support for subsistence. Amid this sudden turnaround in government rhetoric, I've seen people both here and in other countries calling for a strong campaign to bring in a permanent Universal Basic Income (UBI). I think this is misplaced.

A cash income is certainly nice - and the hundreds of thousands of Australians who applied for Centrelink payments this month have suddenly discovered what the Australian Unemployed Workers Union[1] has been saying ever since they formed: unemployment payments are insufficient to keep people alive and healthy, the system is too complicated, and the government has deliberately made the entire process demeaning and lengthy. But there's another problem with conceiving a universal basic "income" as the solution to a precarious existence: it misplaces the cause of the precarity. Cash incomes are easily rendered inadequate by the very market forces that a UBI is expected to overcome. Fixed incomes and rising prices have triggered plenty of riots over the last several thousand years.

What we've seen in the last month is a sudden clarity about what people really need. Combining the things the suddenly-unemployed are most concerned about, and the things the suddenly-anxious are stripping from supermarket shelves, a reasonable list of basic needs might look something like:

  • safe, secure housing
  • well-resourced universal health care
  • reliable access to medicines
  • basic hygiene products (soap, toilet paper, tampons, etc)
  • fresh food

I'm cautious about the last two items, in terms of the role of governments. But it's quite clear to me that government guarantees on the first three would deal with most of the reasons people are calling for a UBI in the current crisis. It's housing in particular that causes so much stress: and not just because of COVID-19 induced job losses. Insecure or unsafe housing is a major contributor to homelessness, family violence, drug dependency, petty theft, and insecure employment. Little wonder there are calls in Australia and elsewhere for government-mandated rental relief and bans on eviction.

Free and secure housing. Universal, well resourced healthcare including dental and mental health. Cheap and accessible medicine and basic hygiene products. Guarantee those, and a whole suite of problems disappear. Let's not forget what really mattered in the crisis, when it's over.

  1. Sling them a donation if you can. ↩︎