Mutual Obligation

A one act play in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht, written circa 2000,

John Howard
(Troubadour and Jester also play the 2 guards)

During the play the Jester and/or the Troubadour point to pertinent ‘jot points’ designed to reinforce the Inquisitor’s statements.  These points can be projected by a Power Point or Slide Projector or, if the play is being presented at a work site, they can be written on Butchers Paper. The text (of the jot points) appear in blue, as here. The jot point will appear immediately below the statement but the text should be highlighted during the statement.


The play opens with the guards pushing Howard into a room in which there is a table and two chairs The Inquisitor is seated. The guards force Howard to sit on the other chair and then depart. The Inquisitor is writing and does not look up.

JOHN HOWARD: Why am I here?

INQUISITOR:  You don’t know?

JOHN HOWARD: Of course I don’t know.

INQUISITOR:  You will find out.

JOHN HOWARD:  This is Kafkaesque.

INQUISITOR:  You remember reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial then. You no doubt remember how long it took the main character Joseph K. to find out why he was being investigated. Tempting though it is to replicate Joseph K’s. experience, we don’t have much time….. Have you heard of the Welfare Crimes Tribunal?


INQUISITOR: You will……..Why did you join the Liberal Party?

JOHN HOWARD: Because I believe in freedom, the rights of individuals and democracy.

INQUISITOR: They’re fine sounding words but what do they mean?

JOHN HOWARD: People should be free to get on with life without government interference.

INQUISITOR: But people who have to work for the dole have the government or their agents telling them what to do all the time. Your government insists that people who are unemployed have to apply for 10 jobs each week.

JOHN HOWARD: I’m talking about ordinary people.

INQUISITOR: Some unemployed people are pretty ordinary.

JOHN HOWARD: I’m talking about people who don’t get money from the government.

(JESTER comes into the room and stands some distance from the table.)

INQUISITOR: So your ordinary people don’t include parents who get family allowances, aged pensioners, students who get Austudy, farmers getting drought relief, those who get veterans payments, self funded retirees, business people with government contracts, members of the armed forces and public servants.

The Government gives Business $14 Billion each year

  • in  subsidies
  • in tax concessions
  • in research assistance.

JOHN HOWARD: Now you are being silly.

INQUISITOR: Are you saying that I should not take your words to mean what those words would ordinarily mean? Ordinary does not mean ordinary? Some people who get money from the government aren’t the same as other people who get money from the government?

JOHN HOWARD: There is a huge difference between self funded retirees and unemployed people. Self funded retirees have worked for their money! It’s their money – the unemployed are getting money from the government and if they get money from the community it is only fair they give something back.

INQUISITOR: Hang on a minute, some self funded retirees were born into big money, some got it in legal windfalls- some got it through tax avoidance or evasion schemes, some through criminal activity, some married their money and I’ll even accept some worked for it. Government provides more money by way of foregone tax concessions to many of your recently beatified self funded retirees than it gives to age pensioners.

JESTER: When are they going to canonize these beatified self funded retirees? When they do, are they going to be known as Saint Self Funded Retirees?

JOHN HOWARD: You don’t understand do you. Self funded retirees worked for their retirement. They made a contribution to the country – to the economy, unlike many of the unemployed who are just dole bludgers.

INQUISITOR: Are you saying that someone whose worked full time for thirty years in a low paying job and then gets retrenched has not made a contribution to the country  – to the economy?

JOHN HOWARD: No I’m not saying that, but if we don’t keep forcing them to look for work they’ll become welfare dependent. I’m particularly concerned about the young unemployed – they’d all rather be off surfing than working and unless we keep on their hammer the whole country will go to the dogs.

INQUISITOR: So it’s the fault of young unemployed people that youth unemployment is so high.

JOHN HOWARD: Well many of them aren’t job ready. Lots of them can’t spell. Some are illiterate. They don’t respect their elders. Of course it’s their fault! If they’d paid attention at school they’d be able to read and write. Their parents are probably on the dole as well – some people just have no respect – and they stay on the dole – they’re not interested in getting a job – they just want a handout for life.

INQUISITOR: John when you left school the average period on unemployment benefit was 3 weeks. Now it is over 18 months. Young people then were no more literate, no more job ready and were equally critical of their elders. It was just that back then there were more jobs around. It’s not only young people who can’t get jobs many people who are over 45 can’t find jobs either.

JOHN HOWARD: That’s because they’re unskilled.

INQUISITOR: Yes….many of them have had little post school training even though they have been continuously employed for over 20 years often with the one employer. They were too tired when they came home to go to night school, often they did shift work and never knew when they’d be working which made it impossible for them to enter formal study programs and their bosses never provided on the job training. Many of the skills they had have been made redundant as a result of technological change.

JOHN HOWARD: There you go again expecting someone else to look after them – the same old nanny state with its cradle to the grave welfare. If they had any get up and go they would have made a success of their life, they would have pulled themselves up by their boot straps. They lack incentivation.

JESTER: Have you ever tried to pull yourself up by your boot straps? You’ll find that without help you’ll get one foot off the ground easily. Getting the other foot airborne is a lot more difficult. (Doing the action.)

JOHN HOWARD: I’ll tell you why they have become reliant on welfare – when they were working they blew their wages down the pub or on the horses. Now they expect hard working Australians to dip into their pockets and help them out.

INQUISITOR:   Some may have blown their pay packet on pokies and piss but most of them spent their wages keeping a roof over the heads of their families.

TROUBADOUR comes into the room and stands some distance from the table.

JOHN HOWARD:  If they weren’t afraid of hard work they’d made a success of their life. Saved their money for rainy days.

INQUISITOR:  I don’t suppose you’d regard road construction in the tropics, shearing, farm labouring, working down a mine, being nice to customers all day or working in an over crowded nursing home as hard work. I presume you’re thinking of hard work in terms of doing business deals, the travails of international banking, stock-broking and the like.

JESTER: When I hear someone tell me he became rich through hard work I want to know whose.

JOHN HOWARD: I don’t deny some people fall on hard times….

INQUISITOR:  Like some wheat falls on stoney ground….

JOHN HOWARD: Look I’m a compassionate man, if I thought it would help people just chucking money at them that’s what I’d do. But I know it doesn’t help they just become welfare dependent and that’s why we must insist they meet their mutual obligation. We’re being hard to be kind – the best form of welfare is a job….

INQUISITOR:  Hmmm …the family is the building block of the community, no pain no gain, it’s hurting me more than you, it’s better to give than receive, a fair days pay for a fair days work, the family that lays together stays together … Is that enough cliches for the moment?

JOHN HOWARD: What we’re trying to do is make people productive…to get on with it, to be successful. That’s why we encourage investment, which creates jobs and in the long run prosperity will trickle down to everyone….

JESTER:  Now they’re promising us trickle down welfare….wouldn’t you know it. Ask anyone with bladder problems and they’ll tell you “Your thighs are always wetter than your feet”.

“Globalisation is what makes the world go round”
this chap in a suit told me as I sat on the ground.
“Why then are billions starving?” I replied.
“Come now it’s not that bad” and then, in an aside
he suggested, “They are not starving, they’re waiting.
Waiting for wealth to slowly trickle down to them.
As the rich get richer they they’ll create jobs and then
and then we’ll all live happily ever after.”

  • 40,000 people starve to death each day.
  • Worldwide 450 billionaires have more wealth than the total annual production of 56% of the world’s poorest people.

JOHN HOWARD: Look we put a lot of effort into reforming the welfare system. My government reformed the waterfront, we reformed the tax system, we reformed the health system but above all we reformed welfare!

INQUISITOR:  You certainly slashed the number of people working on the wharves. The changes you made to the tax system redistributed the tax burden from the rich to the middle and working classes.

JESTER: I’ve heard it suggested that “Tax wouldn’t need reforming if it had had decent parents.”

INQUISITOR: You didn’t reform the health system you tried to privatise it. You cut out poor people’s access to dental services whilst providing a one third subsidy to the rich to help them pay their top of the range health insurance. This meant the rich received free membership of gyms, subsidised dental treatment and all the other perks. What you did was no more reform than Bronwyn Bishop’s presiding over kerosene baths in nursing homes was a giant leap forward in aged care. Above all you did not reform the welfare system – you just made the lives of  those relying on social security more uncertain.

JOHN HOWARD: We did reform welfare… we did …we did …

INQUISITOR:  There’s a difference between change and reform! Change means to alter. Reform means to improve or amend what is wrong, inadequate or corrupt. It can mean to restore to a former and better state. It might also mean to abandon evil ways or to put an end to abuse. You didn’t do any of these things. You changed the system you did not reform it. You just made it harder for poor people to get benefits.

JOHN HOWARD: We stopped the dole bludgers abusing the system.

INQUISITOR:  You certainly made it harder for people to feel secure once they had no alternative but to rely on social security.

JOHN HOWARD: It got out of hand under Labor. We had to crack down on welfare cheats!

INQUISITOR:  You made people fill in dole diaries, you required them to work for the dole, you breached them for missing an interview at the Centrelink office – you privatised the employment service. You increased the number of social security inspectors who go around checking up on single mums and unemployed people. Yes you increased the number of these bed sniffers. That is not reform. That is…

JOHN HOWARD: Well you can’t deny work for the dole was reform…

JESTER:  Chain Gang!!


Work for the dole
well “Bless my soul”
what an interesting idea.
You would have thought
that someone ought
to have thought
of that
before this year.

Didn’t they try to do it in1929?
Wasn’t it then the susso scheme?
When men had to leave their families
to go the great outback?

It was the stamp of feet
on the dusty street,
which ensured that they would eat.
The Susso was what it was called
and civilised folks were quite appalled
that men were forced from town to town,
with a swag upon their back
and an old corn sack,
as they headed for the great outback.

They have a scheme just like it
for those who are born black;
they work from home,
aren’t forced to roam,
’cause they live in the great outback.
Of course we only pay a pittance,
a charitable remittance,
but what do you expect in the country
when you live so far from town.

The one good thing I have to say
is the Government has promised  it will pay
three dollars an hour for a twenty hour week.
Now that’s the going rate.
Dole bludgers don’t be late!!!
It will only apply to the young,
and of course the rural poor,
and the run down areas of cities
where unemployment is a running sore.

JOHN HOWARD: I knew it: you support welfare cheats and dole bludgers.

INQUISITOR:  It is interesting that you need to denigrate and stereotype people who have little alternative but to rely on support from the government to get by.

JOHN HOWARD: Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for unemployment benefits to young people who won’t help themselves, who won’t get literate, who won’t look for work and who don’t turn up for job interviews.

INQUISITOR:  So you cut them off benefits – Your government breached 300,000 of the poorest Australians last year. Centrelink fined people $ 800 for administrative breaches – that’s double what some people get fined for drink driving. Some people you cut off benefit entirely for 8 weeks just because they did not attend a Centrelink interview. Some for not replying to a letter. It did not matter if they were homeless, had an addiction problem, were illiterate or mentally ill….

There are nearly twice as many penalties per year

  • imposed on social security recipients
  • as there were 3 years ago.

JOHN HOWARD:  …86% of the unemployed don’t get breached.

JESTER: That means 14 out of every 100 are breached by Centrelink.

INQUISITOR:  Do you have any idea what happens to unemployed people when they lose a third, or all, of their income?

JOHN HOWARD: They learn to buck-up their ideas!

INQUISITOR:  The lucky ones get help from their family or friends many of whom are just surviving on social security payments. You reduce the income of everyone around them. The unlucky ones finish up on the street. Some drift into hawking their fork or selling their arse. Others flog drugs. Some do burgs to survive. Either way everyone loses.

JOHN HOWARD: It’s not my fault that people won’t meet their mutual obligations.

JESTER:  I am mutually obligated in fact I am mutually beside myself; in fact I am of two minds about being mutually obligated so I suppose that makes me doubly mutually obligated. In fact I am so fucking obligated I don’t have time to be mutual with anyone other than myself; so the obligation is hardly mutual, except of course with myself.  Yet being obligated to myself helps me promote my mutual appreciation of myself but because I am the beneficiary of that self-congratulatory society it causes me to be mutually obligated to myself. I hope you get my drift.

Strike a light-it’s dark
Where ya living?

In the Park.
Going ok – so they say;
not like Ben, he sleeps on the railway roof
failed to meet his mutual obligation
now he’s living above his station.

JOHN HOWARD: What you buffoons refuse to accept is that mutual obligation gave people hope…ok, perhaps not everybody, but we cut out cheating and we gave people things to do to fill in their day … it may not have suited everyone but you can’t blame me for that…

INQUISITOR:  It is not a matter of apportioning blame but can’t you see that the increased compliance measures, the breaching regime and the constant harassment you introduced is not reform it just increases the problem.

JOHN HOWARD: You can’t have people getting money they aren’t entitled to. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay women with kids who have boyfriends.

INQUISITOR:  You may believe that, but that is not the law. The Legislation actually goes to the question of whether people are living in a marriage type relationship and whether one party is supporting the other.

JOHN HOWARD: So you’re quite happy for single mothers to shack up with some bloke and have the taxpayers support her, her children and her immorality; are you?

TROUBADOUR: The picket fence and the FJ are showing now.

INQUISITOR: What you don’t seem to appreciate is that not everyone is in a stable relationship. Nowadays many people try before they buy. It takes a while before any mother concerned about the welfare of her children is prepared to run the risk that the bloke she’s been spending a few nights with might be a someone on whom she and her children can rely for support.

JOHN HOWARD: I still say that we did make life better for the poor. Mutual obligation gives them something to do with their day – a focus in life.

JESTER: You elitist shit.

INQUISITOR: Do you have any idea of what ordinary people experience when they have no option but to rely on social security? They willingly take on responsibilities in relation to their family, their friends and their community. They assist at the school tuck shop, they help out their neighbours and volunteer at local charities. The last thing they need is a government threatening to remove their social security until they meet some undefined obligation.

JOHN HOWARD: At least we were prepared to try innovative ideas.

JESTER:  Like users paying for government provided health, education and welfare services – that makes about as much sense as a lynch mob demanding the hangee pay for the hire of the rope. It sounds more like the Loser Pays Principle to me.

INQUISITOR: You say you are socially conservative and an economic liberal. Do you have any idea just how long most of your ideas on welfare have been around?

JOHN HOWARD: My intellectual mentor was of course Adam Smith with his Wealth of Nations written in 1776. Of course his ideas have constantly been built upon since then and as, my minister, Jocelyn Newman said “Good economic policy is good welfare policy”.

INQUISITOR: I asked about your ideas on welfare not economics…..

JOHN HOWARD: I suppose you might be able to trace some of the antecedents of our welfare thinking back to the 1834 Poor Law.

INQUISITOR: Well before that John. The central parts of your thinking about mutual obligation under gird much of the 1601 Poor Law. So they must have been doing the rounds of the intellectual whorehouses before then.

JOHN HOWARD: Just because they are old does not mean they’re not good….

INQUISITOR: …the point I’m trying to make is that the developed world has moved on since the plague and starvation of the early 17th Century.  There has been a massive expansion in social science knowledge. Yet the ideology which underpins your social policies does not appear to have progressed one jolt since the days of Elizabeth the First.

JOHN HOWARD: Tried and true will get you through.

JESTER: I think he’d prefer a surgeon whose idea of a technological breakthrough was leeches and a hand saw than one who sterilized his scalpel, used a cat scan, and anesthetic.

TROUBADOUR: I know a doctor who still uses leaches…

JESTER:…yes but he is a Doctor of Marine Biology.

INQUISITOR: Let’s see how mutual – your mutual obligation really is. Say in relation to asylum seekers and refugees.

JOHN HOWARD: Those boat people are just holding us to ransom, they are presuming on our innate compassion and humanity. We will determine who comes to our shore and the manner in which they arrive. We are the second most generous developed nation in the world after Canada.  We accept a large number of refugees as a proportion of the number of people in this country.

INQUISITOR: You keep using this figure but why not compare our acceptance of refugees in terms of the number of hectares in Australia, income per resident or some other measure? Pakistan has accepted 2 million refugees. Your handling of the Tampa incident made Australia an international pariah.

  • World wide there are 22 million displaced refugees.
  • Australia accepts fewer than 12,000 people per year in a combined refugee and humanitarian  category

JOHN HOWARD: We are not going to support people smugglers and queue jumpers. Have you no regard for the refugees waiting patiently, often for years, in squalid refugee camps throughout the world?

  • Fewer than 5,000 asylum seekers arrive without visas each year mainly from Asia and the Middle East.
  • There are 50,000 illegal over stayers in Australia mainly from Britain and the US .

INQUISITOR: If you had regard for the refugees waiting patiently in squalid refugee camps throughout the world you would not have reduced our foreign aid to the lowest levels in Australia’s history. In two months you spent ten times more money placing asylum seekers on islands all over the Pacific as an election stunt than Australia gave to the United Nations refugee agency for an entire year. Under your agenda you want the free movement of capital but to restrict the free movement of people – particularly to restrict the free movement of poor people.

  • Australia’s core funding to the UN Refugee Agency is $ 14 million for 22 million people.
  • We spent  $ 148 million, in two months, setting up refugee processing camps on Pacific Islands.
  • This not include the cost of using the Navy to transport them there.

JOHN HOWARD: You’re just a Chardonnay sipping bleeding heart.

INQUISITOR: Ok let’s move on. Have you met your obligations to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders? Did you say “Sorry” to the Stolen Generations?

JOHN HOWARD: I expressed regret.

INQUISITOR: When the High Court in the Wik case recognised that Native Title survived on pastoral lands to the extent it was compatible with lease holders’ rights, did you accept that judgement and legislate to maintain those rights which the High Court found Indigenous people had retained? Or did you seek to expand the lease holder’s rights in your ten point plan?

Working folk are on their arse
treated as if second class
it’s not for the likes of you or me
that he promised certainty.
It’s the movers and the shakers
not the Salvos or the Quakers
looking after rich and famous men
who would steal our common wealth
with their lawyers and their stealth.
It worked before,
They tried it on again,
looking after rich and famous men.

The racist scum are on the bum
they have a ten point scam.
That coward Howard asks,
what is the moral question?
Who do you think I am?

It’s the Sultans of Brunei
not the likes of you or I
for whom they stride.
It’s that wacker Kerry Packer
MacLachlans and McBride,
each of them has wealth on their side.
They need certainty
for all eternity –
secure land title is all that they desire
and no drought,
or flood,
or fire;
and perhaps, should it transpire
that the markets have a down turn
governments should do a u-turn
and provide a subsidy:
just a bit more certainty.
It is what you would expect when
You’re looking after rich and famous men.

INQUISITOR: Let’s just look at your economic policy to see whether you met your mutual obligations to Australian workers.

JOHN HOWARD: We reformed the wharves, we expanded individual contracts and enterprise bargaining, we removed unfair dismissal legislation on small business and we smashed the power of the unions.

Hand on my shoulder and called me son
I’d been working in his factory since eighty – one.
Stay out of the union, escape the award
and an employment contract is assured.
I work all day and half the night
trying to ensure I do things right.
Work harder, work smarter, work faster
if you want to avoid economic disaster.
The whole game now is efficiency
he wants me to do the work of three.
By the drive for profit he is haunted
I asked him what he really wanted
he said that what he wanted most
was for me to become father, son and ghost.
Drink the wine and eat the host
and you might become father, son and ghost.

JOHN HOWARD: We reduced interest rates, we made businesses more efficient, we slashed the public service, promoted competition policy and deregulation. We introduced the GST and we promoted the global agenda.

There’s a rouble in the rubble
But the trouble with the bubble
is it’s burst.

The global problematic
I’m sure is axiomatic
all you need is axe and mattock
and you can sort them out.

INQUISITOR:  I think we have enough evidence to indict you before the Welfare Crimes Tribunal. You will be pleased to know that the Judges of this Tribunal are fiercely independent. Only people who have had their social security payment unjustly cancelled can occupy the bench.

JESTER:  It’s more a series of benches at the Cricket Ground – you did after all breach 300,000 Australians in the last 12 months.

JOHN HOWARD: What is the maximum penalty I’m likely to face?

INQUISITOR:  If you are found guilty you could lose your entire superannuation.

…but that’s not how it used to be
when the jester sang for the king and queen
in a coat he borrowed from James Dean
in a voice that came from you and me.
Oh and while the king was looking down,
the jester stole his thorny crown.
The courtroom was adjourned.
No verdict was returned.
And while Lenin read a book on Marx,
the quartet practiced in the park
and we sang dirges in the dark the day the music died.
We were singing bye bye Superannuation Pie.
Took my super to the levy, but the levy was high.
Them politicians drinking whiskey and rye
singing, “This will be the day that I die.
This will be the day that I die.” (to the tune of American Pie)

(While the Troubadour is singing the Jester changes his hat for a guard’s hat and at the end of the song the Jester and the Inquisitor drag John Howard out.)