The pursuit of full employment where every Australian wanting to work was provided the means to work was once at the heart of the Australian Labor Party. Now we face an economy in crisis, as the current public health emergency negatively impacts economic activity, particularly in areas the neo-liberal orthodoxy deems ‘non-essential’. But this shock came when our economy was already reeling from the damage done by decades of neoliberal globalisation and the withdrawal of the state from its role in supporting innovation and investment. This new challenge to our systems comes after decades of degradation, dismantling the system supports, the networks that provided resilience, and the surge capacities of the public sector workforce.
From 1975, full employment and the urgency of government to create employment opportunities was abandoned. When neoliberalism declared there is no society, and no alternative to degrading our communities at the altar of the economy, the project to destroy our social cohesion, atomise our society and fragment our communities went into overdrive. Four decades later, our survival depends on regenerating our environmental, social and economic ecosystems, recreating resilience, and nurturing a healthier world for all people and the environment on which we rely.
What does this degradation look like? Our manufacturing industry has been slashed and sent offshore, our public services have been stripped down and hollowed out, and the wealth gap and life opportunity gap have been growing to levels history warns render democracy perilously fragile. We are exporting raw materials and paying top dollar to import the final products, while more and more Australians face involuntary unemployment or low paid insecure employment.
The NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment) is the current method to define the level of employment we are aiming for. It assumes we must keep a portion of the population involuntarily unemployed to avoid potential risks of inflation. Currently, full employment is accepted to be achieved at an unemployment rate of 4.5%. That still leaves nearly half a million workers out of work. It is a neoliberal decision to prioritise unemployment and wage suppression. This needs to change! Let’s focus on ensuring everyone that wants a job can get one, instead of demonising the unemployed when the system is purposely keeping them out of paid work.
Too many Australians have graduated into a bewildering world of work in which casual work is the norm, and so-called entry level jobs require years of experience. On the job training, traineeships and apprenticeships are rare, higher education and skills training require access to wealth or acceptance of large debt, while the idea of affordable and secure housing seems a pipe dream to many. Depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and anger are reaching epidemic levels – even before the pandemic hit.
It is now abundantly clear - we must change direction urgently.
We must switch from a culture of exploitation and atomisation, to a culture that nurtures our systems – that cares for country, for people, and for our communities.
It’s time for some smart economics. It’s time we make the collective decision to let go of the economic shibboleths keeping us trapped in this pathway of deterioration. Smart investment doesn’t just mean tweaking the bad structures, it means imagining better social and economic systems and building them from the foundations up. It means thinking long term and big picture. And above all it means planning and mobilising our nations resources to achieve our shared goals.
This is what we can do to reach there: We need to expand the public sector to include enough jobs for everyone who needs one by introducing a public employment guarantee. Funded by the federal government, but implemented locally, providing public and community services to our regeneration project, stimulating local economies, and ending involuntary unemployment.
As part of our efforts to tackle climate change we should build publicly-owned renewable energy with storage system to power this country, and boost industries of the future that can help with our decarbonisation. This will provide an opportunity to create the large-scale apprenticeship programs we need to assist young peoples transition into the workforce.
Decades of underinvestment and shortsighted planning has left us with fragile and ill-equipped infrastructure that cannot cope with our changing climate or our changing social and economic needs. A Labor federal government must provide leadership and funding for resilient infrastructure for a climate challenged future – and of course all the good jobs that come with it.
Committing to genuine full employment means investing in the Australian people, the Australian environment, and the future of this country, and ensuring shared and sustainable prosperity for years to come.
Ella Factor is a union organiser and rank & file policy advocate for social justice based climate action and economic policy development.