Are jobs and housing hotter than climate?


Although climate change is humanity’s greatest issue, the reality for many WA voters is that insecure work and housing are more pressing issues

By Rob Delves, Green Issue Co-Editor

The climate emergency is now so dire and the Labor-Liberal responses so grossly inadequate that surely The Greens state election campaign must highlight our plan for a rapid transition to a zero emissions economy. What issue comes even close to this in importance?

None. No issue could claim to be more important in its potential to shape the sort of world we want to live in. The scientific evidence makes clear that climate action must be number one priority.

However, when we’re thinking about priorities there’s something else to consider: who are the people we’re addressing? We need to win hearts and minds by starting our conversations where people actually are in their lives. And when we do start there, I want to argue that for a large cohort of voters our priority focus should be on a decent house and a decent job. For many people, the harsh reality is their work (or income) and housing situation are far from secure. We can bring climate mitigation into the conversation, blend it into what we are offering, but we shouldn’t start there.

I’d like to illustrate this argument from my own experience but first by noting something from Tim Flannery’s recent book, The Climate Cure.  In Chapter 8, entitled An Australian Coal Compromise, he retells an exchange with a Hunter Valley farmer who was pushed off his land due to drought and then found work in coal - the very industry that he knew was contributing to climate change and the drought. The man had two children and needed the income:

          ‘Can you tell me…am I doing the right thing?’ I was heartbroken for the man, barely able to respond at first. But finally I said we all must put our families first. I ached that he and his family had been so let down. He and his family deserved so much better.

During my years at university and early years teaching in Victorian schools, I’d always been active in many campaigns: Vietnam War, Apartheid, Oxfam’s work for Third World justice. It just seemed obvious that these were priorities and “why the hell weren’t others making these big-picture issues the focus of the lives – just like me?” It took a few switches out of my comfort zone to rattle my orthodoxies.

The first one was 1973. I took 12 months leave from my comfortable life in Melbourne for a plunge into the London unknown. My finances were typical of thousands of my generation making this journey – enough for about three months of frugal living. The first two weeks were about the joys of living in an over-priced and over-crowded rooming house, enjoying going Ooh Aah as I walked for hours around the London Monopoly Board and over-indulged in Theatre-land. I loved all that, loved the difference of it all, but I was burning through my savings. So…WHAT NEXT?

Pretty obvious really. I needed a more permanent place to live and a job, pretty fast.  It took about two weeks, during which this search took up all my concentration. Once I had these two essential bases of the good life, I could socialise with co-workers, explore my local area, get involved in union activities, participate in “Agitprop” events as the Brits called them, even join the Labour Party. In other words, the home and the job gave me security and rootedness in my community, so I could now get involved in the abundance of life outside my own immediate needs.

The second one was 1977. In less than a year, the teaching scene went from teacher shortage to serious over-supply. I had a job, but hated it, so applied for everything going. Stories abounded of school principals randomly binning 80% of the application letters so they only had to deliberate on about 20 or 30. Finally I did manage to find a new job. It was primarily because a friend “applied pressure”, something that I found distasteful – but, hey, ethics were well down my list by this stage.

This experience blew a big hole in my naive belief that a decent secure job was always my due because of the wonders of my magnificent qualifications and experience. Fat lot of good those wonders would have done me if I’d arrived in London in 1977 rather than 1973. We’re all vulnerable and insecure if the economic settings and government supports aren’t favourable.

The third one was 1989. Reverse culture shock in the form of trying to re-establish in Perth after 16 years away – this time accompanied by a partner and baby. Both the house and the job were much harder to find this time, especially the house, as landlords weren’t keen on the baby. That 12 months of renting opened my eyes to how the system is stacked in favour of owners against tenants. In Britain and much of Europe the tenant has more power because the laws are based on the understanding that the place you live in is yours, it’s your home. At first I could only find a part-time job, so we struggled to get secure and settled. All our focus was on trying to get these basics sorted and involvement in the big environmental and social justice issues wasn’t on our priority list.

For me, these episodes of home and work insecurity were mercifully brief. However, on reflection, there was a fair bit of luck involved as well. I also realise that the economic system was much more favourable for younger people: Today millions of Australians are facing years where their housing and work-income situations are precarious. Therefore I believe that our Greens messaging needs to acknowledge that many people are in a position where a decent home and work are more immediate and urgent issues than climate change action. So that’s where our conversations must start. We have important policies on these issues – policies that are bold, that address the urgency of the problem, that are different to the Labor and Liberal offerings.  

Our key message is that government must step in to address the serious market failure and hence extensive unmet need in both housing and jobs. For a long time, the private market has been failing to provide enough rental accommodation for increasingly large numbers of lower income people. Home ownership and private rental are of course essential, but housing provided by government is the important third tier that has been seriously underfunded. Currently for state housing there is a long waiting list,  just for those in extreme need.

However, in my view it is crucial that state housing must cater for a much wider clientele than those in extreme need. The genius of the UK Council Housing Estates I observed in the 1970s was the glorious variety of people who inhabited them – the total opposite of a disadvantaged ghetto. Thatcher wrecked it with her policy of sell-offs combined with chronic failure to build new state housing. In Australia, Labor was committed to a strong public housing sector throughout the first half of the 20th Century. Then the 1949 election ushered in Menzies “private ownership is the best” crusade – a crusade which Labor, to its shame, has also embraced ever since. The message is that renters are losers (temporary or permanent) and those renting state housing are double losers – and treated appropriately. The Greens beg to differ. Our Housing for All approach is based on equality, on the belief that renters must have the same rights as owners:  this is my home, I’m secure here and I can put down deep roots in my community.

What is our message about a secure and decent income? Well, first of all we must talk about the enormous job opportunities that open up as a result of encouraging private and public investment in the transition to a green economy (which includes a caring economy). Several individuals and organisations have done important detailed research on this – for example Ross Garnaut, Clean State and Beyond Zero Emissions.

With regards to a secure income, there is debate about whether government money should be directed into a Jobs Guarantee or a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Maybe we can have some form of both? The Greens seem to be edging towards a Jobs Guarantee, especially in our federal policy message to young people. Three advantages of the Job Guarantee spring to mind:

  • It provides the individual with more money than a UBI.
  • It is a more direct way of getting people into the jobs that need to be done in things like the caring industries, adapting to climate change impacts, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, rewilding and rehabilitation of landscapes.
  • It gives more power to employees and hence helps rectify the current situation where employers usually have too much power, due to low union membership, high rates of unemployment, the growth of casual and gig economy work. The Job Guarantee means employees know that a public option is always there – an option with decent pay and conditions. This emboldens them to demand better pay and conditions. The public option means there’s less fear about losing their job. Having a Jobs Guarantee thus puts pressure on all other employers to lift their game.    

It should be noted that having a large state housing sector with secure tenancies, renters rights and affordable rates performs the same function with regard to the balance of power between landlords and tenants in the private housing sector.

Apologies if I’ve used too many words here, because our Greens message can be simply stated. The government must accept a much larger role in ensuring that everyone is provided with the security of a decent home and a decent job (or income) – two issues that dominate the waking thoughts of many WA people.

Photo credit: "the joys of working from home" by Ben McLeod is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]