Open letter to Richard Marles MP, Shadow Employment Services Minister, 22 January 2022

Dear Mr Marles,

I hope this letter finds you well. I am an Australian voter. I am writing because as of today I have been given to understand (Poxon, 2022) that the position of your office is that it would be “too risky” at this time for Labor to support any initiative for the suspension of Centrelink mutual obligations. I question your office’s position for a number of reasons. Some are as follows.

Mutual obligations have never worked. They “ha[ve] no effect on the likelihood of being employed, but adversely [affect] the quality of that employment,” and “hinder rather than help the unemployed return to employment” (Gerards & Welters, 2021a & 2021b). They subsidise employers’ engagement of labour and exert downward pressure on wages (Productivity Commission, 2002, pp. 2.6–2.7); they disaffect their unwilling “participants” from society (Warburton & Smith, 2003); they are a colossal waste of public money (Aston, 2016). Moreover, even under what were considered normal conditions prior to the pandemic, mutual obligations placed an unnecessary strain on the administrative resources of Australian businesses — a strain which they could well do without, and have explicitly asked to (Henriques-Gomes, 2021).

Under the present conditions, mutual obligations forcibly expose job seekers to a highly transmissible (Burki, 2021), highly virulent pathogen which is not only potentially lethal, but is now known to be a frequent causative agent of disabling, quality-of-life-destroying chronic disease (Malik et al., 2021; Poudel et al., 2021; Shah et al., 2021) by mechanisms which are becoming better-understood and verified empirically at a rapidly increasing rate (e.g. Guedj et al., 2021; Ortona & Malorni, 2021; Pretorius et al., 2021, etc.).

Job seekers are forced to live on a payment below the poverty line (Melbourne Institute, 2021), are consequently exceptionally likely to have been forced into poorer-than-usual health (Tinson, 2020), and are therefore at strongly elevated risk of severely adverse outcomes in terms of both acute and chronic clinical course (Mahase, 2021).

Advocating the suspension of mutual obligations is directly consistent with the ALP’s current National Platform (2021); I refer you in particular to items Foreword.7, Foreword.9, 1.12, 1.16, 1.17, 1.22, 2.4, 2.5, 2.6, 2.9, 4.7, 4.65, 4.93, and 5.35, among others. Failing to advocate for such a suspension directly contradicts the letter and spirit of the National Platform for similar reasons.

Far be it from me to teach grandmother how to suck eggs, or to impugn the competence of a Party with such an unblemished reputation for the skilful management of crises of public trust (e.g. Miller et al., 2020). However, those asking the Party to support the suspension of mutual obligations are asking the Party to advance a simple, straightforward, unambiguously practically necessary implementation of the principles to which it has already publicly committed. They are also asking it to support increased social participation, prudence in public spending, reduced red tape for business, and upward pressure on wages — not to mention the rescue of the Australian citizen from the individually inexorable onward march of systematically avoidable pain, disability and death.

Supporting a suspension of mutual obligations would demonstrate Labor’s compassion and its competence in virtually every soundbite-friendly aspect of public policy at the same time. Failure to support a suspension raises pressing questions about the seriousness of Labor’s commitment to winning the next election — and unseriousness at this juncture is arguably ethically (and very possibly electorally) unforgivable.

If you and the Party will not support a measure which is very clearly to the Party’s own benefit and to the benefit of society in general, Australians as a whole deserve to know why, in very clear and thorough detail, and the number who will not be satisfied until they know may prove critical to the Party’s future.

With due respect,
Isabelle Moreton


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