By Matt Keogh MP

08 January 2021

Former US president Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville, had a now infamous saying about their campaign strategy — “It’s the economy, stupid.” 

If 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have taught us anything, it’s that really, “it’s about the people, stupid.” 

Throughout the pandemic, most State premiers have won plaudits from their citizens for prioritising health and safety above all else. Putting people at the centre of decision-making has seen the re-election of the ACT, Northern Territory and Queensland governments, and the approval rating of WA Labor Premier Mark McGowan higher than any other in Australian history. 

Making sure the lived experiences of real people are taken into account is in stark contrast to the approach of the Morrison Federal Government, which in many ways created the appearance of action — for example the creation of the National Cabinet — but has not actually put people at the centre of its decision-making. 

At the beginning of 2020, we had “the bushfires”, where our Prime Minister famously responded to criticism with “I don’t hold a hose, mate”. A more people-centred response, as Australians were clearly calling for, would have seen the leader of the nation actually leading — responding to the human and environmental crisis unfolding across the nation. 

Then, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the Morrison Government’s fixation on the economy over people. Don’t get me wrong, a vibrant economy that provides for all Australians, protecting jobs and keeping businesses operating is vitally important. But the point of the economy is not headline GDP numbers, it is the people those numbers represent. 

This fixation was seen in Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s admiration for Margaret Thatcher, who famously declared “there is no such thing as society” — 2020 sure proved that idea wrong. Then there were the Morrison Government’s full-frontal attacks on the economic consequences of the Victorian second wave lockdown. 

Despite doing the right thing in providing a substantial supplement to many Centrelink payments during the pandemic, the Government has decreased these supports, initially while Victoria was still in lockdown and again this week as NSW faced fresh outbreaks. 

The amount of the JobSeeker payment pre-COVID-19 left most recipients well below the poverty line. The Government says now, despite the pandemic still going, it is appropriate to reduce the payment as less people are now relying on it. That makes no sense at all and is clearly not a people-centred approach. 

The amount of the payment clearly makes a huge difference to the people who do still rely on it. 

The Minister for Social Services said they need to “strike the right balance between income support and incentives to work” . This shows a fundamental lack of awareness. People do not aspire to be on welfare. Ordinary Australians very much know that the best way for them to succeed and look after their families is to have a job. 

But a few casual shifts do not put food on the table for a family and pay rent or a mortgage. A people-centred approach would not say to those who were in full-time employment and now find themselves unemployed, your JobSeeker payments will be dropped to a level where you have to choose between food and rent in an effort to ‘incentivise’ you to take a casual job for a few nights a week with no guarantee of regular shifts and now with lower penalty rates. 

Alas, this seems to be Scott Morrison’s approach. 

Then there are the negative effects this can have on community health as people are required to travel across cities for multiple casual jobs to make ends meet when there is a deadly virus on the loose. 

As we cautiously yet optimistically embark on 2021, let’s make sure that it is people who are at the centre of Government policies and all our decision-making.