This column presents a design idea that will eliminate unemployment, provide a universal wage, improve cities, repair country and create a more equitable society. “Make no small plans” as Chicago architect Daniel Burnham once said.

The basis of this ambitious plan is a ‘Piece Corps’, similar to its homonym the ‘Peace Corps’. President John F Kennedy established the latter in 1961, when he uttered the immortal words: "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

JFK’s idea for the Peace Corps was to ”promote world peace and friendship through three goals: to help the peoples of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to help promote a better understanding of Americans …; and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples …”

The Piece Corps’ aims for the same nobility, if a somewhat more limited scope. Its name comes from the idea of making big changes in small steps: piece by piece. Many parts of our country are broken, made all the more noticeable from COVIP (the coronavirus pandemic).  

We cannot hope to fix all that at once, but we can make inroads if we do it in pieces. We can identify a hundred projects that would benefit the physical quality of our cities and country regions, and the lives of indigenous and vulnerable parts of society. That’s the first half.

The second is to select unique projects that need a very large labour content, that don’t currently exist, or are poorly supported and funded. Projects requiring more labour than materials or expertise. Thousands of jobs would be created, provided nobody’s job is taken by the new employees. If you make more jobs than available labour, then you can eliminate unemployment. Simplistic, but stay with me here.

What if Jobseeker, the current unemployment benefit of about $550 per week (double the dole pre COVIP) was upgraded to the minimum wage, of $750 per week. Which just happens to be the current Jobkeeper payment. Let's stop calling them unemployed, rather jobless or workless. Scrap unemployment altogether and institute a universal wage, at the minimum wage, or more.

Everyone is entitled to a job, and there is a job for everyone, except those with health issues or incapacitated (who are paid the universal wage with some disability top-ups), or those who don’t want to work (who don’t get paid). It’s not the risible ‘work-for-the-dole’, as there is no dole, it’s work-for-a-wage. It will give people meaningful work, learning and a pathway to improving their skill base, education and earning capacity.

And it’s not socialism: it’s less than 15 percent of the total workforce, even if you count everyone on a different sort of ‘piece-work’. Yes, it increases the ‘government employed’, but no, that’s not a bad thing - it’s the way developed countries, the socially democratic, will keep developing in the ‘new normal’.

Post-COVIP, can we address the twin problems of a damaged country and unemployment, by using one to fix the other? A universal wage could pay for the labour in high demand for the piece by piece projects. They become the Piece Corps.

But can this be digested by the economy? Can we swallow the piece meal if you will. Of course, we can afford it.

For a start we can use the $60bn loose change the Treasury found down the back of their sofa. Their first guess of $130bn was never a big figure anyway – the LNP had already grown the debt from the $257bn they inherited from Labor in 2013 (a so-called ‘debt and deficit disaster’) to $542bn at the end of 2019. They added $285bn in 6 years and still couldn’t produce a surplus.

Debt is cheap right now, and we can pay it back. Governments just need to collect more income, they just haven’t collected enough in the past. Our tax to GDP ratio, at 24 percent, is one of the lowest in the OECD, and well below the average of 35 percent and way below the 40 percent of prosperous European and Scandinavian countries. For years we have chased lower taxes, creating excess profits that never trickle down, and driving Australia towards the American economy of philanthropy. Except we don’t have the generous rich they do.

It will require a rethinking of tax, which is already the case with our national debt heading towards a trillion. The current government refuses to discuss the options they consider ideological poison - a GST that matches the rest of the developed world, ending tax breaks like dividend imputation and negative gearing, or taxes on national wealth such as mining. We plough on regardless.

We could raise funds by scrapping the follies: stop paying for private schools and their hideous practices, stop following the US into unwinnable wars, de-fund the defence force, and in particular scrap the submarines, now costing $225bn, up from $50bn four years ago. Most of which will go to the French, they being the OECD’s biggest socialists by measure of the state-employed. Far too much for a truly useless trinket in the 21st century and totally useless in a bushfire or an economic attack by China.

So, we have the money and the labour, now what are these projects? The Piece Corps program would be established by a directorate of finance public servants, labour academics and environmental designers. No room for ‘business leaders’ or the ‘big 4’ consultancies here. They’ve had their turn on the public teat.

Nevertheless, I’ll venture a few ideas as a discussion starter right now, each requiring an intensive, but not sophisticated, labour team that could be readily trained for that work. Some of these proposals will be elaborated in coming weeks.

Repairing public open space.

Every town and suburb have public spaces that need attention: local parks and playing fields, the civic space, the war memorial and the cemetery. Everyone could use some love from the Piece corps, to clean, maintain and replant. Nothing says love like fresh flowers.

Road 2 street.

A road is for cars, a street is for people. The difference being the footpath and trees, both of which could be improved in every suburb by a Piece Corps team. The footpaths become more accessible, and the trees sequester carbon. Win-win.

Bushfire shelters

Top of mind with the Royal Commission. There is a huge amount of labour in rebuilding bushfire affected houses, which can place Piece Corps groups in the regions. And every community needs a bushfire shelter or dual-purpose building as discussed in an earlier column here.

Planting out the highways

A river of cars, and litter. One of the key foci for ‘Clean Up Australia’. Ian Kiernan’s legacy could be a dedicated Piece Corps to take his great idea from one day to 356. Plant more trees, or shrubs that slow and stop errant cars. Safety and sequestering carbon.

Community gardens

One of the early lessons in COVIP was the rush to plant home vegetable and fruit gardens, discussed as Low Costa gardens here. Many of those gardens may not last past one season, but the idea is strong, and would be more viable if every suburb had a community garden for local fresh produce, fully maintained by a Piece Corps.

Health Habitat

This is an existing program in indigenous communities to improve their health by fixing the basic necessities: safe drinking water, preventing sewage pollution, making electrical circuits safe. Maligned under Labor, it has languished under the LNP, despite being adopted in many other countries. An indigenous Piece Corps could help ramp it back up for all indigenous communities.

Alpha and Omega

The Piece Corps could supply additional workers to the areas of child and aged care, the beginning and end of life. Increasingly these are areas that need more support. For instance, COVIP has increased demand in ‘meals on wheels’ that may well continue, an ideal venture for specially designed low kilometre electric vehicles.

Going underground

One of the main causes of bushfires was electrical wires on poles failing and sparking in high winds. The Piece Corps’ job would be to help put the wires underground in vulnerable areas: to excavate for the laying of pipes and wires, preparing the way for connections to be made by professional electricians (and as in all the projects leaving the way open for Corps participants to upskill).

Repairing public infrastructure.

And on the subject improving infrastructure, have you seen the dreadful mess the NBN rollout has left? With a licence to rip tear and bust with impunity, they have done just that: a whole world of work on footpaths and parks that needs repair by a Piece Corps.

Fencing on farms

We have ‘Farm Aid’ helping out on this work, and I’m sure they could use some income for their sacrifice and could become supervisors for a Piece Corps learning on the farm; and circulating money in regional communities.

And so, on and on. One hundred projects.

The Piece Corps will provide work in areas which do not currently exist, or where a larger labour force is needed. It is nation building writ small. We can learn from Rob Sitch’s TV show on the ABC, the ‘Nation Building Authority’, where large projects are destined to fail because they are just too big, too contentious and too difficult; just like real life. Where they dissemble, we go to pieces.

We aim small, which is beautiful as Schumacher told us. The Piece Corps, predicated on the basis of abolishing unemployment and creating and a job on a universal wage for every person who wants one, can improve every part of our country, small piece by small piece.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be addressed to [email protected].