Vision, comical mediocrity and cynical publicity stunts – psychologically dealing with unemployment

The political year has kicked off with a silly contest between the Minister for Community Services Jenny Macklin and Greens MP Adam Bandt in relation to being able to live on unemployment benefits. It’s a very sad state of affairs.

As someone who has experienced and recovered from the extremely depressing and debilitating effects of long term unemployment, what strikes me is how petty and trivial this issue is treated by the political class.

If you’re a politician and you want to deal with the issue of unemployment, you don’t go around saying you could live on welfare benefits and then get your back room people to bury what you said by using the word “inaudible” on the transcript in order to avoid the question reappearing in future dealings with the media.

Nor do you take what appears to be the “pro-poverty” stance of the Greens by demonstrating your ability to “suffer” by living like someone receiving unemployment benefits in the interests of cynical political purposes and attacking the ALP from the left.

What you do as an elected representative of the community is paint a picture of an optimistic and inspirational future. Something to strive for and something that can make the clouds of despondency begin to dissipate.

As someone who has been in the situation where your life breaks down, your health deteriorates and your social relationships fall to pieces, the thing that holds all of it in place is the view that your circumstances are fixed. The view that you are and always will be an unemployed person. There is no other identity for you but that one. You have no choice.

This fixed, self referentially processed identity tells you over and over again that you will always be a stupid, pathetic, depressing, lazy, worthless, guilty, struggling, lonely, dependent, despondent, unhealthy, unemployed person who will always be on the hamster wheel of despair and anxiety, always rejected by people (this is before you get to thinking about potential employers) regardless of how much effort you give and worst of all: you will never have a future!

Then comes the self blame and the shame for thinking these thoughts, the mental imagery such as the scrapheap of humanity or the adult still at primary school and on it goes. What’s really awful is when an opportunity opens up right in front of you but you fail to seize it because you’re stuck in this constant stream of thinking and when you think about what happened, the emotions intensify.

I know that it can get to the place where you wonder whether it’s worth it. Fortunately for me, I never got to that place but I certainly feared it.

In short, this is an extremely dark, depressing and disheartening state of affairs we’re dealing with here and it’s not going to be solved with a simple $50 increase to the unemployment benefit by itself. The actual issue needs to be psychologically and emotionally wrestled to the ground.

As a politician, you aren’t communicating a sense of optimism, inspiration or empathy to people when you say you’re going to live like them for a week. You’re actually making things much worse.

The way to get people out of this situation is through radical vision and an understanding of both this crippling world view and how to eradicate it from people’s brains.

Here’s what Paul Keating said during his 1993 election night victory speech in relation to dealing with unemployment:

“The people of Australia have taken us on trust and we’ll return that trust and we’ll care about those people out there, particularly the unemployed – we want to get them back to work.

If we can’t get them back to work immediately, as sure as hell we are going to look after them. We are not going to leave them in the lurch. We are not going to leave them in the lurch and we are going to put our hand out and we are going to pull them up behind us.

And we are going to move along. This country is going to move along together. We have such enormous opportunity. This world recession is now starting to dissipate; we’ve made the break out of it. America’s started to turn – it won’t be that long before the Japanese economy starts to turn, and hopefully we’ll be away and running in the nineties in a low inflationary period of prosperity”

Whether or not this resonated with people at the time is irrelevant now. In this day and age, you won’t see many politicians talk this way. This sort of talk requires big thinking, a process of illustration and a level of emotional resonance that simply can’t be acquired through thoughtless media management and cynical publicity stunts. Compare the indented passage above to the last couple of days of silliness and you’ll see why people have disengaged from the national conversation.

2 thoughts on “Vision, comical mediocrity and cynical publicity stunts – psychologically dealing with unemployment

  1. kevinbonham January 6, 2013 at 9:40 am Reply

    This is an excellent post and I thought it was sad that it was receiving no comments while the Abbott IVF debate receives dozens. Unemployment policy in Australia is a through-and-through disgrace and I quite agree that it needs to go far beyond just the question of rate and get into other questions. I’d include in that list: stigmatisation, the unreasonable and often demeaning demands placed on recipients just to appease wedging about “bludgers”, the offensive and often just plain false assumptions regarding what partners of recipients want to do with their money, and also the general competence levels of a system in disarray.

    I tried to cut Labor slack on their not doing much about this given its wedge issue status and other challenges while they were new in office, and given how much Howard ramped up the “mutual obligation” aspect, but they’ve been there quite a while now.

    A big problem is that a lot of those affected by the awfulness of the management of unemployment in Australia are politically demotivated/alienated/underskilled and very difficult to organise; some may even fear losing benefits if they speak out while others may even agree with the same policies that harm them. Pity because a political party devoted just to massively reforming Centrelink would be quite potent if anywhere near all long-term or on-and-off Centrelink recipients supported it.

    I’ve tried to write about this issue from time to time and usually can’t keep myself from going into fully-fledged rant mode.

    • Gordon January 6, 2013 at 10:27 am Reply

      Thanks Kevin. I agree with a lot of what you’ve written.

      I actually agree with the concept of mutual responsibility. When you are unemployed for long enough, you begin to feel as though it’s everyone else’s fault and the way society is structured and you ignore a lot of the things you’re doing that are contributing to your situation. It’s about regaining a sense of psychological self respect and dignity independent of the welfare system.

      Mutual obligation by contrast is a very nasty political concept invented by the conservatives to play to downward envy and the concept of “reciprocity”. There is no interest in helping people out of their situation. It’s all about laying blame at people for the way they are and their circumstances.

      I think Labor governments are more interested in mutual responsibility over mutual obligation but they get caught in a lot of the Howard/Abbott rhetoric without appreciating the nuance which leads to nothing substantial on policy being done.

      What I tried to communicate in this post was the psychology of someone in the situation. Reform by itself is one thing. Getting someone who’s in this headspace to see a better future for themselves and regain their life is another.

      What people like Bandt don’t understand is that his publicity stunt makes people in this situation feel there is no way out. It’s a very sad state of affairs and far more complex than many people appreciate.

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