MUNGO MACCALLUM. The Cost of a Job.

Apr 21, 2020

It has only taken a week for the simple beauty of JobKeepers to become a little tarnished.

Some employers and unions are squabbling over how, or even if, the $1500 a fortnight to the 6 million workers affected should be delivered.

And those who have missed out are complaining more loudly about being dudded. They include some million casual workers without a year’s continuous tenure, about the same number of migrant workers on temporary visas, a swathe of foreign students and virtually the entire arts community.

On top of that, the aviation industry has got in for its chop and the universities are only the most aggressive groups demanding subsidies of their own. Be in it, mate.

And on the other side, some of the country’s lowest-paid will receive an unexpected and unearned pay rise – a free gift from a government not known for disbursing welfare. This has produced howls of outrage from the envious rich who want their own handouts indexed in proportion to their previous salaries. Grumbling all around. even without the impasse over the schools — which should open, and when and by how much.

It should be emphasized immediately that JobKeepers is overwhelmingly good policy. Sure, it was conceived in haste and birthed before its bureaucratic midwives were entirely ready for it, but the glitches can be fixed.

However, they will not be cheap, and nor, of course, is the original package. So it is fair to ask just how the cost-benefit analysis will deal with the horrendous expense: will it be worth it?

As the name implies, it is primarily about keeping jobs – keeping the dole queues as short as possible, And last week we got a guesstimate from Treasury about the potential numbers involved.

The bean counters modelled the most likely outcome as unemployment rising by some 700,000 workers, with the rate rising to 10 per cent. by the end of May  A pretty grim prediction – but it could have been a lot worse. Without JobKeepers it would have been 15 per cent, nudging into serious depression territory. In other words, JobKeepers will save about another 700,000 jobs

And with the total expenditure at $130 billion, with almost certainly more to come, this works out at the privileged price of a bit under $200,000 per job.

Of course, it is not as simple as that – JobKeepers will have numerous side benefits as well. It may keep sections of the economy breathing during its indefinite period of hibernation, at least until the rainbow gold of Snapback miraculously emerges from the darkness, And it should help in instilling a modicum of confidence to both business and consumers desperate for reassurance that the government is actually doing something.

And it would appear that saving jobs is still cheaper than saving lives. – just. Last year Treasury calculated the cost of a life at $213,000. Obviously all that really demonstrates is that you can prove anything with statistics. But those are the Treasury numbers, and they are the best we are likely to get.

And they may well add to the debate about just how you can compare lives – are they all sacrosanct, all of equal worth? The question has now moved out of the metaphysical and into the economic.

On that level, there can be no real argument. I am 78 and in poor health – I have only a short time left and even that will be limited in productivity and achievement. My grandchildren are flourishing teenagers with many worthwhile decades ahead of them.

Obviously, if I was faced with an irrevocable choice over which of us would survive and which would perish, it would be a no-brainer and I would not hesitate to step aside as gracefully as possible.

But – and it is a non-negotiable but – I would want it to be my decision, not that off the government or any of its agencies.  Life and death decisions must be personal ones, without either permission or refusal from the state.

This has always been the case over issues the politicians and theologians describe as matters of conscience, Abortion is a matter for the women concerned, not for a cleric or parliamentarian. The same applies to euthanasia or any other form of voluntary suicide.

And for this reason, I have been a lifelong opponent of capital punishment and a pacifist, although I admit that the latter stance can not always be a practical option. When some bastard is kicking you to death it can be hard not to resist.

But with any luck the dreadful of options of whom to triage into the ventilators and who into the grave will not confront us. Through a combination of good management, good discipline and, it should be admitted, good luck, COVID-19 appears to be coming under control, so much so that Scott Morrison is foreshadowing a relaxation of some restrictions for some people in some places.

The idea seems to be that in another week or so the trend will be solid enough to be declared definite. Then, for the next three weeks, the emphasis will be on making sure that the most important tools, testing and tracing, can be consolidated. And this, controversially, may be contingent on at least 40 percent of Australians embracing new technology to tell the authorities which contacts they have had which have led to infection from the virus.

The final, crucial step is that when the outbreaks have been detected, they must be controlled. We have had considerable success at that; it is now a matter of hanging on, at least with the prospect of a silver lining glimmering on the horizon

And if everything works, we can start the long process of supercharging the economy – an ambitious aim given that Australia’s growth rate has been stagnant for at least the last five  years, and without the prospect of an indefinite global recession

And importantly, we can start with a limited resumption of parliament.  Some may not regard that as much to look forward to, but they should. If ever there was signal that the panic is over and we are attempting to get back to normal, that will be the best indication that the government is fair dinkum.

Mungo MacCallum is a former senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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