Centrelink’s Automated Debacle Shows We Need To Rethink Welfare And Work

By Tim Hollo January 10, 2017

This was first published in the Canberra Times

There is a dark irony in the fact that many of those who have been hit by Centrelink’s automated debt recovery debacle are on benefits in the first place because automation is dramatically changing the face of work, making it harder for many people to find secure, paid employment.

While the still-unfolding event is a political mess for the Turnbull government, and a personal tragedy for those caught up in it, it’s important that we reflect on what it means for how our politics deals with welfare and work.

I see three important lessons to not just stop this awful situation from happening again, but to transform our outdated, punitive, compliance-based system of welfare into a 21st-century system to enable and encourage people to contribute to society and lead meaningful lives. Each of them points to the wisdom of seriously considering a completely new model: a universal basic income, paying everyone a subsistence wage, recouped through higher taxes on those most able to pay.

Firstly, the fact that many of the errors are due to inappropriately averaging occasional earnings over a year shows that governments don’t understand how the nature of work is changing. While this averaging never would have been appropriate for people finding themselves in and out of work, in an “Uberised” world of zero-hour contracts and ever more precarious and insecure work, it makes no sense whatsoever.

Just as taxi licensing regimes have to face up to Uber, and urban planning needs to deal with AirBnB, our welfare system needs to change to catch up with technological disruption. At the very least, it will need to be more flexible, less prescriptive, with a broader understanding of employment. Ideally, it would be reinvented in the form of something such as a universal basic income. That would provide everyone with some level of basic security, on top of which we could choose to work in different ways and at different times.

Secondly, we need to grapple with a future with less paid work. Governments – both Liberal and Labor – proudly replacing Centrelink case workers with computers is a microcosm of how automation is reducing the amount of paid work available.

In recent years it has become clear that manufacturing job losses due to automation late last century were the tip of the iceberg, with lawyers, truck drivers, insurance clerks, anaesthetists and many others now being replaced with artificial intelligence. A CSIRO report last year projected that 44 per cent of Australia’s jobs are at risk of automation in the coming years.

If anything approaching this comes to pass, it’s clear that our current approach to welfare can’t survive.

Innovation, education and training are as important as ever in this context. But they will not be sufficient. Working less, sharing jobs and institutionally supporting people to do so, will be vital. As Elon Musk has suggested, it’s difficult to imagine a way to navigate this world without some form of universal basic income.

Thirdly, the fact that caseworkers, whose job it has been to help people find work and manage their welfare in the meantime, are being replaced with computers focused on compliance and punitive measures should give us real pause for thought.

In a world where as many as half of our jobs may disappear, and what work remains is becoming ever more insecure, we are going to have to change our attitudes to work and welfare.

The myth of the dole bludger will have to be ditched. But so will the cultural norm of hard work that sees working long hours as a status symbol and holds paid work in higher esteem than other socially valuable activities such as caring, creativity or building local communities. It can, in fact, be argued that the rhetoric around “working families” that has been so enthusiastically adopted by parties of the centre-left is inherently exclusionary and derogatory towards those who, often through no fault of their own, cannot find paid employment.

Work is, and will always remain, an important part of human activity. The problem arises when our culture, society and economy make paid work the centre of our existence, when we reduce our value as human beings to what we can sell our labour for. That is when the norm becomes damaging. And, when social and technological changes force us to confront a world with less work, this norm needs to be replaced.

The Centrelink debacle presents us with an opportunity to rethink welfare and work. Instead of just fixing a computer glitch, we should ditch the punitive and compliance-based system that is so utterly unsuited to the contemporary world. It’s time to move to a new system that encourages and enables all people to contribute to society in various ways, through paid work or volunteering, through caring for others or creating beautiful and provocative art, or simply by being.


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