One of the biggest political surprises of the Australian government’s COVID-19 response was the sudden but temporary doubling of the $550 a fortnight NewStart unemployment benefit to $1100 a fortnight with a JobSeeker allowance, and the suspension of harassment through mutual obligation.
The government intends to withdraw the JobSeeker top up and halve the unemployment benefit in September, in what it calls a snap-back.
After 25 years of NewStart declining in real value, and repeated rejection by governments of demands for very modest increases, this is a critical moment for building working class solidarity for secure livelihoods for all.
Resistance is being planned to stop the return of the unemployed to destitution, and for the extension of the increased benefit to excluded groups, people on disability payments, visa holding workers, and aged pensioners. JobSeeker pays more than the aged pension.
People are contacting the Australian Unemployed Workers Union in rising numbers, and the AUWU is setting up new local branches. Anti-Poverty Networks, and activists from benefit recipient groups are also keen to keep the rate, and for all people not in jobs to receive it. Climate activists who see the need for radical social change are also interested.
There are some small signs of support from unions and union activists, for these demands, but they need to be considerably expanded. Tim Kennedy, National Secretary of the United Workers Union has expressed support, and published more comprehensive and radical demands on incomes including that the unemployment benefit should be raised further to the level of the minimum wage. UWU members are being encouraged to discuss them. The MUA backed May 1 Movement in Sydney is supportive. It organised a 150 strong car convoy for workers’ rights on MayDay. An ACTU report focuses on job creation, presumably across the public and private sectors. There is one mention in the full report of support for keeping the JobSeeker increase, and free childcare. There is as yet no sign of other unions actively taking up demands to maintain the benefit rate.
The demands of a Keep the Rate campaign should be that the minimum benefit rate for everyone on income support, including aged and disability pension recipients, be the JobSeeker scheme $1100 per fortnight. There should be no mutual obligation requirements. Visa holders who cannot get JobKeeper should get JobSeeker.
These are the most urgent and essential demands to place a floor under poverty, and the most winnable demands for this year. To win will require a huge effort of organisation and agitation, that reaches into workplaces for commitment to participate, deeper below formal statements of official support. Unions can be slow to act at the best of times, and the distancing measures that prevent physical meetings slow decision-making even more. Yet the insecurities of livelihoods exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic leads many more workers to recognise the need for a decent level and system of income support. We should also demand that Labor and the Greens commit to support Keep the Rate, and call on affiliated unions and members of those parties to push for that commitment.
A campaign to Keep the Rate can win not only a higher minimum standard for incomes. It can strengthen and generate longer-lasting self-organisation amongst the unemployed, benefit recipients, and in workplaces. By also discussing political and economic issues, and other proposals on incomes, employment and for deeper social change, the campaign can educate an energetic core of activists with bigger ambitions for fighting capitalism.