Voluntarism vs. Compulsion

The more things change …

Almost all jobseekers will be required to work for the dole under tough new federal government rules expanding the scheme.

The government is making it mandatory for jobseekers aged 18 to 49 to work for their welfare payments from July 1, 2015.

Those aged 18 to 30 will be required to work 25 hours per week while people aged 31 to 49 will have to work 15 hours.

Those over 50 will have the option of participating in the program.

The new rules will ensure jobseekers are actively looking for work, assistant employment minister Luke Hartsuyker says.

“It also allows jobseekers to give something back to the taxpayers and community that supports them,” he said on Sunday.

Work for the dole currently applies to jobseekers aged up to 30, who have been out of work for a year, in 18 locations of high unemployment around the country.

They have to work 15 hours per week for six months to receive welfare payments.

The expanded scheme is part of a new employment services model to be announced by Hartsuyker and the employment minister, Eric Abetz, on Monday.

Sadly, there will be no employment counsellors like the magnificent Gorgeous Dunny around to help this time.

GD, thank you as always for sharing your wisdom and compassion with us.

(Image Credit: BUPA))

Voluntary Work is for Free. But it’s Not for Nothing

I still remember when I saw that showcard with that message. A Volunteers group carrying it saw me. It struck me as quite profound, and with their permission, I had a poster made of it.

In the transition to work – whether from school, injury or illness, raising a family, or long-term unemployment – it can be one of the most valuable aides to obtaining paid employment. It addresses so many different needs on so many fronts.

For those not familiar with the job market, there is some doubt about its value. Is it not just a cheap way of getting work done and avoiding paying a fair price for the work? Well, there are various forms of exploitation. Some unscrupulous businesses have been known to give people ‘work trials’ of a week or so and never come up with paid work offers, or even worse, claim that the person taken was unsuitable. In the days when they were staffed properly, both State and Commonwealth Departments of Employment would crack down on such activity.

Some forms of commercial work experience could work. In particular, schools’ work experience programs, when well-coordinated and well supervised, could offer students valuable work experience, references from the temporary employer, and even possibly a job or trainee offer on completion of schooling.

In my work as an Employment Counsellor, however, I had in mind community organisations, and for a number of reasons. First and foremost, most depended heavily on volunteers to function, yet had a critical role in the community. Think Country Fire Services, the State Emergency Services, Lifeline, St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, hospital auxiliaries and aged care facilities, animal shelters, conservation parks – right down to school support groups, sporting clubs and service groups like Rotary and Lions.

Taking on voluntary work can be a winner on so many fronts. Firstly, it can give someone skills that they may not yet have but which can be applied to paid work. Young men (mostly, albeit I have known females in the Citizens Military Forces do similar) can obtain endorsements for driving a truck and/or forklifts and machinery. Those endorsements make them more competitive in going for paid jobs. At the same time it can be a great boost to their morale to work with an older peer group and gain their approval. Confidence and self-belief is critical to finding work.

And there is the pride that comes from doing community work, which is highly valued within the community and appreciated by those directly helped by the volunteers.

I had the most striking example of that when Pauline called to see me at Warrnambool CES. She was a bright, cheerful girl aged 26 years seeking Labour Market Program (LMP) assistance to study for her VCE at TAFE Warrnambool. She aimed at becoming eligible to study for a social studies degree, eventually to help others like her.

Pauline had been my predecessor’s, Robyn’s, client at Portland CES. She explained a little of her history to me, but I asked if I could get Robyn’s case notes before proceeding, and she arranged to meet me a week later.

Although Pauline had given me some background, Robyn’s case notes were startling to read. It was impossible to reconcile the young woman described with the bright young Pauline I had so recently interviewed. Yet Pauline readily confirmed that it was so. For it was a tale of horror.

She had been subject to violent abuse from early childhood to adulthood. Even school offered no respite. She was grossly obese and the subject of taunting and bullying throughout her school years. Her already timid nature meant that school became unbearable. And as if this were not enough, she was interned for schizophrenia several times at Brierly Psychiatric Hospital. (I learned later that she was the victim of sexual abuse while at Brierly.) It was little wonder that she left school the day she turned 15. From that point she rarely ventured outside the house, except as required by the CES and DSS to claim the benefit.

Robyn took on the case after Pauline had been registered unemployed for over 6 years at Portland CES. During that time she had neither applied for any job nor for training assistance. In fact, she had been offered a place on various courses for the unemployed and referrals to Skillshare, but had either declined or had simply not replied.

Without remembering all the history, I’d expect that she’d probably have been cut off benefits from time to time over this non-replying. It was a situation calling out for some intervention. What was her future?

It was so unpredictable whether she would come to the office even under threat that Robyn took the unusual initiative of calling on her at home. At least then Robyn was able to see her and talk with her. Robyn probably called more than once, because the first call would have been entirely regarding getting information about her. It would have been clear that her home, although Pauline’s haven from the world, was not at all joyful.

The brutal father had by then passed on, but living with her mother was barely an improvement for Pauline. Pauline’s mother, too, had long been beaten but she showed no empathy or support for Pauline. Instead of love, it seemed to be a relationship based on getting used to each other.

Robyn would have discussed Pauline’s rights and obligations for claiming Newstart allowance. In essence, she was expected to be making some effort to find work and/or to obtain some skills to make herself employable. Pauline was doing none of that, and the question then was whether the government should be paying her an allowance at all. Robyn would have been caring and considerate enough not to put the point that bluntly, but she would have made it clear to Pauline.

With a person having no employment history, poor formal education, no employment skills and no perceivable dreams or expectations, the starting point, classified as “not work ready”, simplifies it. Voluntary work experience is where it must begin. Robyn had the additional challenges that Pauline had no identifiable peer group, given her unhappy school experience. So she made an interesting recommendation that Pauline work as a volunteer at Lewis Court twice a week.

Lewis Court is an aged care facility at Portland. The clientele are mostly elderly women, and the requirement generally was to offer them some support in providing them with meals and tea, and general companionship – that might be playing dominos or cards with them.

Pauline, not wishing to risk losing her income support, complied with Robyn’s recommendation. She commenced as arranged. The staff, the volunteers and their clients were all quite kindly and patient. Pauline was used to domestic work at home. So, apart from adapting to more people than she had previously known, it was not difficult for her.

She started to enjoy and to look forward to her routine. She told me about the critical turning point in her life.

“One day I served a cup of tea to this elderly lady. As I was about to walk away, she tapped me on the hand and said,

‘Oh, Pauline! Whatever would we do without you?’

“Do you know that by then I was 22 years old, and that was the first time that anyone had said anything good about me? I was overjoyed by the sincere kindness of the lady. I could not stop thinking about it afterwards. I was valued and appreciated as a worker and a human being! I knew that I could do things – after always being told I was worthless.”

Sometimes the simplest acts of kindness can reach out over the abyss of despair. It is a feature of Charles Dickens novels how somebody suffering a grave illness or imprisoned falsely can be given solace from another’s gentle act of kindness or caring.

From that moment she gained belief in herself and what she might do. She tackled her voluntary work with more enthusiasm and joy. She realized she might yet do something with her life. With encouragement from her supervisors and Robyn, she addressed her obesity with a diet and basic exercise program. Over the next two years she did bridging education at Year 10 standard through TAFE at Portland.

By the time I took her case in Warrnambool she was ready to study for her VCE. She intended to complete that over two years before studying for a degree. I was seeing the finished product of Robyn’s outstanding work. Pauline was by now an attractive and cheerful young woman of 26 years who had self-confidence and high expectations.

I approved assistance to take on the VCE over two years. She had by then settled in Warrnambool and commenced her studies. I saw her occasionally as she reported her progress. She remained cheerful and positive, and was able to provide good passes at the end of the year. In the following year, she sought and received my approval for program assistance to complete her VCE. Later in the year, she reported that she was struggling.

It was not the difficulty of the course that was the problem. Her mental health issues, combined with a physical disability, had led to some time off. She struggled to keep up, but persevered.

At the end of the year, I was pleased to record that she had passed. But it had taken a very determined effort from her. She was pleased at achieving that goal, but the experience convinced her that undertaking tertiary studies would be too much for her with her health limitations. She qualified easily for Disability Support Pension. She had made up her mind to live within her limitations. She would do voluntary community work through a church group. Time off because of her disabilities would not then be an issue.

So the end result was a little less than we had hoped for. But when you look at the total history of the girl, you have to say it was still a positive outcome. From an obese, bullied recluse, she had become a warm, lively woman with a cheerful positive outlook. I am sure she would have been able to give the benefit of her experience to others in need.

Twenty years on, I’d still see her occasionally in my post-retirement work as a taxi driver. She retained her cheerful disposition and remained warmly friendly towards me. Her physical disabilities occasionally limited her, but she had long learned to live with them and to work her life around them. It was good to see so much joy taken from a life that had started with so little hope.

Compulsion was always a difficult concept for counsellors. Some took the view that progress in counselling could only be made if the client was there willingly, and that threats could stand in the way of frankness and genuine progress. There is merit in that argument, but the practicalities were that since others paid for our services, they were entitled to some say on where we took the interview. Inevitably, in country areas we would get called on to assist in helping to clear the registry of very long-term unemployed.

Those who had been claiming unemployment benefits for over six years were subject to reviews. It could take a number of directions from referral to another benefit such as disability support pension, to a reconsideration of how some were classified. Some remained registered even though they often had seasonal or part-time work. So in a sense they were not necessarily claiming benefits all that time, nor were they unable or unwilling to obtain work.

So counsellors went through the recalling process often to clarify our records of where people fitted in the unemployed spectrum.

Of course, there were bound to be some who were not making any effort either to obtain work or to improve their employability. And this helped create the dilemma for counsellors. I resolved it in my own way. Strictly speaking, I could not breach anyone for failure to comply with activity test requirements. The most I could do was report the incident to the CES for a staff member to take action. I used a carrot and stick approach.

I could not take any action other than to pass on my no-result to the CES. However, the facts were six years on unemployment benefits. Sooner or later, given the political crackdown, someone would ask, why should we continue to pay benefits to someone not making any effort to change the situation?

Why not instead use the situation to your advantage? We had all sorts of Labor Market Programs for which you qualified. Take advantage of one of these, get paid for doing so, and you would have skills to get work and go off benefits – a win-win for all of us.

On the other hand, turn your back on all that and you lose whatever public sympathy there might be for your position on benefits. They’ll get you. The politics of the situation demand it.

Neil was such a case. He was in his late thirties. In addition to being registered unemployed for over six years, he had skills in demand. He was a trade qualified fitter. Neil had moved from the city to Dunkeld some years before. Although it was only a small community, it was quite close to Penshurst, where an agricultural engineering company prospered. Dunkeld was also not much further from the city of Hamilton, where there was also demand for fitters.

When interviewing Neil, it became pretty clear that he had become disillusioned with factory work and moved to Dunkeld for a change in lifestyle. He had, in the jargon of the day, ‘dropped out’. I made it clear that, morally, I could not dispute that decision. It was more a question of whether the taxpayer should pay for it.

Under the laws as they were, we could not reasonably pay unemployment benefits to a fitter when employers in the vicinity could not fill such positions. His life choice was one thing, but he needed to look at other employment or self-employment options.

One the other hand, there was a range of Labour Market Program (LMP) assistance available to him as a long-term unemployed. Apart from wage subsidy employment and job training and placement programs, there was full training assistance to get a qualification or ticket, which might enable work. There were also opportunities for self-employment under the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS).

At that point, all I wanted to do was plant the ideas and make him aware of all the support available. My key argument was that Neil should look at making a decision about his future now, while there was so much support around. It may not be there indefinitely. An election was due in two years.

A change in government may lead to a change in attitude to long-term unemployed. There is no guarantee of indefinite support. Use the system rather than allowing it to use you.

I arranged a follow up interview a few weeks later. It was pleasing to discover he’d given the matter a lot of thought. He definitely did not contemplate returning to fitting. I could have placed him in work immediately, but there seemed no point if he had moved on. Instead, he had discussed NEIS with his partner and felt that was the way to go. I believe he and his partner had already moved towards a cottage industry of sorts.

From memory, it was something like repairs to home appliances and tool sharpening. The benefit of NEIS was that he had a guarantee of a year’s income support, plus it was not means-tested. Often a problem with attempts like this was that earnings had to be declared, and then your benefit was reduced. If he could live on the benefit and pocket any earnings he made, he had a chance of building up some capital.

From that point, all I needed to do was help him with the NEIS applications and refer his case to the person coordinating NEIS placements. He was accepted readily enough. Part of it involved doing a training course in running your own business and working out a business plan.

I did hear later from the CES Manager and the NEIS agent that he did well, and that he spoke very highly of my helpfulness. I was pleased at that. My aim had been to bring him rationally to the decision that change needed to start with him. Attached to that was that it was better to move while support favoured you, rather than wait until threats occurred.

It’s a balancing act. The theory of counseling is correct. You must have the person at least willing to listen or participate. I did not feel much compunction about getting the client in for a compulsory interview. It was what the CES had assigned me to do. They wanted to reduce the number of very long-term unemployed on their lists.

The trick was, having got the person there, to convince them that I was on his/her side about an issue needing to be resolved. The LMP programs and my offer of follow-up vocational or other advice or support were keys to convincing them that it was not threatening.

I had to rely heavily on my marketing/selling skills and my empathy. That is, my ability to put myself in the position of Neil or whoever was my client. If I succeeded in that, in then became easier to map out an agreement leading to a beneficial outcome.



Hello champion patrons of

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Once again it is my privilege to welcome you all to anther edition of 

It’s been a somewhat difficult week  for all but remember 

Grab a drink if you wish,open bar

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Have a great time everyone.

Accent on Humour

Jaycee returns as Guest Author, with an interesting piece on generational changes in types, and appreciation, of humour. Thank you, Jaycee – it is a subject of considerable interest to me.

Recently, I wrote a cameo piece about a cross-dresser and the time and place he came out publicly in a small country town. I wrote it as (I thought) a humorous piece, acting on the logic that where or whenever such an event happened, be it in the place chosen for its degree of comfort and camaraderie, or in the main street in full drag, it was bound to be confronting in a pathos – bathos scenario that could occasion a few laughs from the distance of many years hence. I sent it to a younger person employed in an local government artistic / cultural occupation as an adjunct to a conversation we had on certain local issues. I was mistaken … at least, mistaken in the perception of what a new generation of readers finds funny. Perhaps, as has been suggested, my aged, male, working-class perception of what is or is not funny is now thoroughly dated! “It’s just not funny anymore” has been at odd times leveled accusingly at yours truly. I’ve had my own doubts before … it may be time to believe it!

Though, when one analyses the condition that creates a moment of humour, so that a laugh involuntarily springs from our lips, it is understood as the sudden leap from pathos to bathos and the swiftly altered situation thereof – like the flaying of arms and legs in a sudden banana-slip moment – a kind of slapstick suddenness … but something has changed. There now seems to be some hesitancy to guffaw innocently at others foolishness or mishaps. You think about it – how long since you have heard a string of good jokes? I used to hear many … one tuned one’s ear for the grand joke from a good joke teller. They were considered rare treasures … one good joke could make or break a reputation in any front-bar! You remember that “Clayton’s … the drink you have when …” advert’ with … what’s isname? … oh yeah! … Jack Thompson, THAT was the accepted locale for the dispersion of male humour. I’m sure that other gender has a similar locale!

Now it’s all gone, but people are still laughing, the guffaws are still coming … but what are we now laughing at, if not socially incorrect slapstick? I think we are more inclined to seek out humour in the more perverted absurdities of life – in the increasingly bizarro-behaviours of people and situations. I think we are finding more laughs in a kind of sado-humour than we did before … and it is a worrying thing. I’m not saying certain ghastly racist/sexist jokes aren’t deserving of the dustbin of history, but there is a worrying criticism of satire that is very over the top censorship. There seems less inclination to humour, and more inclination to litigate such skits as one would find on The Hampster or Ripping Yarns or Python etc.

Yet, I have seen rise alongside such cruel treatment that one occasionally views on a channel-surf expedition of Reality TV, an appreciation of sado-humour, where cruel or victim-selection programs top the ratings. I have watched several so-called funny home-videos skits that seem to me to be brutal and dangerous … one can see such moments have been deliberately staged to get the video on the show. Same with those competitive cooking / singing programs etc. There can be no better display of sado-humour than one sees on such channels … yet they are the top-rating programs. What gives?

One can track the evolution of such sado-humour back to the days of try-hard Hollywood black humour, where the big studios tried their hand at so-called crime-comedy. I remember the hit movie Beverly Hills Cop was the beginning of the genre … it was billed as a comedy, yet I counted seven quite brutal killings in the show (I was a “forced” viewer – was taken to the cinema against my better judgement by acquaintances who “just loved it and you will too!!”) … I hated it – it made me wince. I’m a sensitive bloke.

Indeed, the humour of the aged, white, working male may be dated beyond redemption … but the basis for such humour, i.e., the situation comedy surely will not date. The spectator / viewer, looking on to the unfolding of a unscripted public slapstick moment, whether by accident or by self-deprecation, surely must be allowed a release of laughter at the ironic absurdity of the situation without guilt or remorse, rather than be driven to approvingly laugh sneeringly, cruelly, publicly, at the misfortune and hard-luck of others.

Bring back The Hampster crew, I say!