Prisons, jobs, and big wins

Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”


The above quote came from Robert F. Kennedy, during his 1968 campaign for presidential nomination. The campaign didn’t end very well – Kennedy was assassinated within a few months of giving this speech, and ultimately the far less idealistic Richard Nixon was elected president that November. But I was reminded of this quote this week when I read another politician spruiking a different set of ideals to his electorate. This was a media release from Queensland Labor MP Mark Ryan, which I quote in full:

Minister for Police and Minister for Corrective Services Mark Ryan has updated the Queensland Parliament on the major economic stimulus being delivered to the Rockhampton economy.

The $241 million expansion of Capricornia Correctional Centre is progressing rapidly.

Minister Ryan revealed there have already been approximately 193,000 hours of work undertaken on the project.

More than 172,000 of those hours have been completed by Rockhampton workers.

That means nearly 90 per cent of the work has been contributed by local workers, which is a real boost for the Central Queensland economy.

A big win for the local community!

Importantly, the work being completed by local industry to expand the prison will further improve the safety of officers and prisoners.

Importantly, the project is expected to deliver 172 jobs to the region during construction.

And the opportunities will continue once the project is complete with another 130 full-time permanent jobs created at the prison.

There will also be flow-on opportunities for local businesses to help with keeping the centre running by providing necessary services.

The expansion is a jobs winner for Central Queensland.

Queensland Corrective Services is one of the region’s biggest employers – with 310 staff committed to keeping communities safe.

We are building the infrastructure in the regions, providing the training, and investing in Queenslanders,” Minister Ryan said.


It’s a bit odd, isn’t it? I almost feel like I’m reading satire. Presumably in the absence of any other “big wins” it can offer, the Queensland Labor government is claiming a new bigger prison as great news for the community.

For one, this is a good example of how the idea of “the community” is always selective – here, it presumably doesn’t include the (mostly poor and indigenous) people who either are or have their family and friends locked inside that prison.

It also is a bizarre attempt to spin what most would see as a loss for the community – prison expansion not only means more people being locked up; it also indicates that prison is not doing its job in preventing crime. Rates of recidivism are high, indigenous over-representation has still not been addressed, methamphetamine addiction has emerged as another social problem we can find no other way of dealing with.

Never mind the fact that our prisons are continually being criticised. Just looking at the prisons under Mark Ryan’s department in Queensland; there was a recent damning investigation into the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, plus the Queensland government forced to cancel contracts for privately run prisons following a scathing report from the Crime and Corruption Commission. Far from being big wins, our prisons seem to be failures on several levels.

All of this funded by the taxpayer to an extraordinary extent. The $241 million spent on this project a fraction of the roughly $4 billion (over $100,000 per prisoner) governments in Australia annually spend on prison.

If the government wanted to get creative about actually delivering good news in the face of our overcrowded prisons, they could look into ideas like “Justice Reinvestment” – a program where communities are asked to look at the amount of money spent on imprisoning drug and other minor offences; and imagine better ways of investing that money in society – ways that could hopefully prevent anti-social behaviour.

The media release, of course, is not really in response to some wonderful news. It is political spin-doctoring, undoubtedly to do with the impending federal election and marginal seats in central Queensland. But the other thing that struck me about this is the way in which it was spun – anything can be turned into good news politically by using that magic word: “jobs”.

“Jobs” is the religious dogma of Australian politics, the unquestionable virtue. It’s heresy to raise the question of whether jobs really are always a good thing, or what the jobs will actually contribute to the world. Labor’s prison construction is one example, another is the federal government’s “good news” that they want to turn Australia into one of the top 10 weapons manufacturers in the world, even when in practice that means selling weapons to Saudi Arabia to be used on innocent Yemenis. The other persistent example is the debate over jobs in the fossil fuel industry. Note the timing of Federal Liberal’s approval of Adani’s groundwater plan with one eye on those same central Qld seats; remember Adani’s original claim, like religious tricksters of old, that their project would create 10,000 jobs when the actual number is around 1,500. To raise any of these questions though is frowned upon and unlikely to be listened to anyway.

I think these are questions worth being asked though. I can think of a few others too – do we actually enjoy our jobs? One use of taxpayers money I would like to see would be a statistical analysis of what percentage of conversation is dedicated to people complaining about their jobs. I think it would give the weather and sport a run for their money. The dominance of “jobs” in our psyche has run us dry of any other topics to talk about.

To what purpose do all these jobs go? Some, as we’ve already said, are hardly the most productive pursuits in a holistic sense. Of course most jobs go towards making a profit for employers, most of which trickles up to big corporations and the wealthiest portion of society. To them, “jobs” is always code for “profits”; which gives some idea of why our media corporations are all too happy to join in the “jobs” obsession.

“Jobs” is rarely about the question of what we can contribute to the world to make it better, or about how we can allow each person to fulfil their potential by using their unique abilities to get us there. “Jobs”, in fact, is never measured in qualitative terms – only ever in numbers.

Like a lot of politics, the rhetoric about “jobs” mostly seems to be about fear – the fear of not having a job and therefore not having financial security, status, or a sense of purpose. That fear grows larger as we fight a losing battle with the processes of automation and globalisation.

Who can blame people for fearing the loss of their job? Not only because the tide of casualisation is gradually pushing more and more people closer to that point, or because our social welfare system is being ignored or actively dismantled. But also because we have all grown up in a system that tells us a job is all we have. “Study hard or you won’t get a good job”, we were told as kids; and since then we have been continually told our livelihood, value to society and personal identity all come from this thing which produces money for someone else yet we are supposed to grovel for and be thankful for. Many people probably can’t even conceive of a way to spend our time without a job; or a world where anything gets done without the carrot/stick dynamic of a paid workforce.

I personally would like to see some politicians promising less paid work – let’s say a four or even three day work week. Less stress on our lives, less stress on the earth that comes from a planet full of constant producers and consumers. More jobs to go around though. More time to pursue our passions outside of profitable work, to raise our kids, to spend time with the people we love. More time to think about what we really want our lives or our world to look like. More chance to define our lives by what we choose, not by what we are forced to do to survive.

Mostly it seems we are going in the opposite direction. Unpaid overtime is rife, while many workers in the varied gig economy never really clock off. Many people though are living out what I’ve articulated right now, choosing to work less and live with less money in order to have more freedom in life. They are generally not starving as a result, or living without any sense of purpose.

But could it ever come from our politicians or figures of influence? It’s not easy to take on the power the “jobs” narrative holds over society; especially given the way that paradigm plays to the advantage of powerful lobbyists and media interests. It would take courage, creativity, and a holistic vision of a better life and world beyond the short term thinking of job numbers.

A tough ask in other words (though hopefully the fate of poor Bobby Kennedy is not always the way it ends). But surely not that much harder than trying to sell the construction of a new and bigger prison as a “big win”.


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2 responses to “Prisons, jobs, and big wins

  1. Carmel Ashworth

    Well in short it’s thanks to you and the Dowlings that have slowed my life and thinking down. I’ve been taught to share (with my local community), ask (for help or guidance), find (food from bins) and all that means I can say no to lots of paid work. Currently down to 8 hours a week and I’ve been able to afford this by learning from you guys. I grew up with nothing much in my family (clothes, toys, posessions etc…) so wasn’t a huge leap but easy to be swept away by the digital rot. I do a job I enjoy with children and disabled adults, go home to organize the family before collecting the kids from school. We paint, write, read alot of poetry, play music, walk, billycarts, swim, do puzzles, lego, touch football, play with mice in our sandpit and chill in the cubby. None of which costs much at all. Unfortunately alot of our neighbors are indoors on screens. We go barefoot in our op shop clothes but are happy. Lifes what you make of it..some days are exhausting some dandy. It’s great to just do your bit and do good to others.

  2. ostomacadel

    Well written Andy.
    It’s very important to have critical analysis of the political spin on jobs and the notion that ‘jobs are everything’ Thanks for re-imagining a better future in which we might spend less time in jobs we don’t enjoy and more time on the things that really matter: reflection, gratefulness, creativity and caring for those around us.

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