A cynical view of youth summits


By Tony Smith

Prime Minister Keating has argued that youth unemployment — for the whole "cohort" — is "only" 10%. He claims credit for increasing school retention rates in the age group, so perhaps this calculation is reasonable.

Others argue that real rate is much higher. Besides, a continuum means nothing to the individual. The way Keating talks, you would think that everybody in Australia is 10% unemployed — that the burden is shared. It is not.

The prime minister also admits that the overall rate is 10.6%. Now if he is correct, it would appear that the young are actually better off than the unemployed generally. So, granting that he is right, why should he call a summit on youth unemployment in particular?

Well, a few reasons suggest themselves. They are all political, all cynical, all unfortunate, but they all fit nicely with Keating's style. If the summit is another Keating red herring, then the invitations for attendance are about right. On Couchman's program on ABC TV on July 1, young unemployed people gave a panel of guests a difficult time. Keating's summit will be dominated by the people who have helped create the problem.

Minister for employment, education and training Kim Beazley, opposition industrial relations spokesperson John Howard, and representatives of the ACTU and Confederation of Australian Industry attempted to patronise their audience. They claimed to want to listen, but departed almost certainly with a clear indication that young people are not convinced of the sincerity of our decision-makers.

Keating's advisers will no doubt view the session with some alarm. Hosting a summit on unemployed youth is a different prospect from a summit of unemployed youth. Nevertheless, it is clear that the young are less than impressed with yet more talk, especially by people of another generation in secure employment.

This summit must have seemed like a good idea. The government would assume that the young are economically ignorant and politically unsophisticated. The young could be baffled with technical jargon. In the end you can always resort to the argument: "Oh, but you kids just don't understand".

Fortunately, many of the young do understand. One of the participants in Couchman, for example, very accurately identified the inconsistency in the arguments about an educated work force. Government and industry spokespersons insist that Australia has a changing economy and that people will constantly need to update their skills. Keating has deplored the idea that people might become locked into "dead end" jobs. But proposals for a "training wage" obviously ignore the fact that such a system is not the stepping stone to employment claimed by the powers that be. Rather, there is every chance that such a system may entrench people in "dead end training". One unemployed woman from the Illawarra, for example, explained the she had been retraining for three years. Training does not create the jobs.

But training can become a means of keeping the unemployed in order, and of ensuring that industry has a cheap supply of labour. At this stage in the argument, the government would no doubt resort to the line that the opposition would be worse. Unfortunately, that is not an argument at all, and is successful only in the debased medium of parliamentary question time — which many unemployed people have no doubt watched.

Politically, the summit has potential for several outcomes. Given that many of the young unemployed have parents similarly blighted, it is likely that many parents would be inclined to take the self-sacrificing attitude that their children should have priority. They, and indeed, all of the older generation of unemployed, might be inclined to give the government credit for doing something about unemployment. This may even persuade them to vote Labor yet again — at least on a two-party preferred basis.

The young unemployed on the ABC television program saw the problem clearly. The government's job must be to create employment through the public sector. By placing spending into the community through wages, a strong public sector generates economic growth. If the government fears a flight of capital, then it is for it to act like a government and to run the economy rather than let the economy determine political priorities.

Keating's '80s experiment of deregulation and economic rationalism has failed. The lesson is not that Australia needs more of the same through privatisation.

When people are hurting, the pain is hardly eased by the knowledge that the system is somehow safe for those whom it protects. In the final analysis, the sales pitch may fail. There is sufficient cynicism abroad for mere window dressing to be totally rejected. The best hope is that cynicism will not prevent the young from exercising the franchise in the coming election. I wonder if the government has the courage to conduct an enrolment campaign through the CES?