Why the government's 'internships' plan is the opposite of welfare for the unemployed

"The government will farm out young dole recipients to private business - including supermarkets and cafes - to work in ...

"The government will farm out young dole recipients to private business - including supermarkets and cafes - to work in low-skill positions for as little as $4 per hour." Photo: Stocksy

There's a queasy sense of deja vu about contemporary Australian public life. Politicians play out the same petty conflicts around the national dinner table, sniping at each other like estranged relatives forced together for another agonising Christmas lunch.

The same spiv-generated slurry of nonsense dominates the same TV and newspaper offerings, and the same beige commentators crawl back to the puddle to gobble it down and throw it back up again. People who haven't changed their minds since the late 1980s demand innovation, as though the right nerd, given a texta and some butchers' paper, will invent a shiny bauble to fix all our problems, or at least distract from them for a while.

It's almost like national vertigo: we're told we're moving forward. All political conversations must reference the future or the challenge of transitioning to something new. But if we close our eyes, we feel waves of nausea: we've been stationery the whole time. We're in a fake car, sitting in front of a green screen, on which the same five minutes of footage has been playing on a loop for the past 20 years.

The 2016 Budget is a landmark we've passed half a dozen times already, and everyone knows it. A bit of light relief about carp herpes doesn't change the fact that this is a known quantity, a pile of spew on the footpath on Saturday morning in the same spot as always. Forget analysing 'winners and losers', they're the same people they've always been: the winners keep winning, the losers keep losing. "The long 1990s roll on," said a friend of mine, gloomily, the other day.

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"It is worth trying new ways to get young people into real jobs," said Treasurer Scott Morrison. "The cost of not doing so resigns thousands of young Australians to a lifetime of welfare dependency."

This year it's a harebrained scheme to place young Newstart recipients in underpaid internships, a reheated Work for the Dole policy that ticks all the usual Liberal party boxes: it's cheap; it uses blatant coercion to discipline the poor; it stubbornly ignores structural economic problems; it offers business interests an opportunity to profit from desperation; and it seems designed to erode the conditions of workers on minimum wage, who will now compete with an endless supply of unemployed youths who are forced to work for free.

The plan is this:

PaTH ... pays businesses to take on young unemployed people for up to 12 weeks at a time in low-paid internships, and gives those businesses lump-sum bonuses of up to $10,000 if they hire their new interns at the end of the trial period. The young jobseekers themselves, who will work between 15 and 25 hours a week at their new internships, will receive $100 a week on top of the Newstart payments they're already getting.

Under PaTH, workplaces will get a $1000 payment from the government for each new intern they take on.

In case that wasn't clear, it means the government will farm out young dole recipients to private business - including supermarkets and cafes - to work in low-skill positions for as little as $4 per hour. Business won't have to pay the "interns" anything, despite the Fair Work commission's guidelines advising that this is illegal where the intern is doing real, value-producing work. Instead, the government will just marginally top up their dole money.

So the business not only receives $1000, it also receives government-sanctioned free labour.

After 12 weeks there's nothing to stop the supermarket taking the $1000 payment, firing the intern, and doing the same thing all over again. Yes, they have the option of hiring the intern and pocketing an even sweeter ten grand wage subsidy; but why would they, when there's more free labour and another $1000 to be gained by getting another pimply sucker in to stack the shelves?

Even the tenuous value proposition of a 'regular' internship, undertaken to get a foot in the door of a professional field, doesn't apply if you're working in a supermarket. Australian Internships defines an internship as "the missing link between academic studies and work experience," whereas this scheme sounds more like the missing link between unemployment and indentured servitude.

Very clever, especially when you consider the epic campaign the Libs have been waging to get rid of weekend penalty rates. Combined with vocational deregulation, which has led to conmen using millions of dollars of public money to defraud people with intellectual disabilities, these policies provide a glimpse into the Turnbull government's ideal labour landscape: threats of homelessness or unemployment being used to extract maximum profit from workers who have no security, no safety net, no assets, and no alternative but to keep feeding themselves into the grist mill one day at a time.

It's a vision of brutal proletarianisation, wrapped up in bullshit that might just sound optimistic to people who have been conditioned to expect the future will be better for them than the past. How could 'the future' be bad? Isn't the trajectory of our society one of inevitable progress? Nope, sorry, the luxury robot world will be reserved for the wealthy, and everyone else will be sweeping supermarket floors for $4 an hour at midnight on Sundays.

As far as the Libs are concerned, that's the proper use of technocratic instruments: to create a new kind of young worker, a docile, democratically enfeebled servant who is grateful to be given a fake job at the local Woolies.

Go home to your mouldy share house, do some braindead memorisation work on your useless private VET college certificate, and try to put yourself to sleep so you don't miss your Centrelink appointment in the morning. No smoking, it's too expensive; no nightlife, the boomers don't like it.

There's nothing new about this future, because it's already happened. Most human beings in most big societies have lived this way: as one face in an immiserated mass, controlled by a small elite whose only incentive to share the spoils of their domination is not being beaten to death by a resentful peasant with a rusty hoe. We might have longer lifespans and better reality TV than your average medieval serf, but for people at the very bottom of the heap - young, unemployed, poor - things aren't all that different.

This is what ScoMo means when he talks about the future: more efficient exploitation, more innovative methods of coercion, shinier technological instruments created to serve these ends. Our future, the one where we're happy and equal and free, is rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror. No wonder we're feeling sick.