A decent Incomes policy

Published in ACTCoss News Vol. 8, Number 3, pp. 34-38 1993

At the Federal level the Australian Labor Party has monopolised the rhetoric about social justice in recent times. Over the last five years Brian Howe, in various ministerial guises, has flounced around the country mouthing social justice platitudes before returning to his Canberra bunker to betray social justice principles.

In the ACT the Labor Party has been serious about trying to operationalise social justice policies. With the one noticeable exception of its efforts to implement the inane ideas of the Priorities Review Board manifesto(1), the last Liberal Alliance Government, which preferred the term ‘social equity’, also took seriously social justice agendas.

The social justice debate in the ACT has been most heavily influenced by the work of Michael Salvaris who was employed by the ACT Administration on the request of ACTCOSS. His report Canberra: Planning a Fair Community(2) sets down four basic principles: access, equity, equality of rights and participation. Solidarity and freedom are also basic driving forces in social justice which Salvaris and others accept but which are insufficiently discussed.

We need to conceive of solidarity with rather than, as so often happens in the welfare industry, solidarity is thought about in terms of doing for. In the court and prisons industry it is too often a matter of doing to.

Solidarity with those less fortunate than ourselves is basic to any decent society. The degree of militancy we are prepared to accept in the pursuit of solidarity will determine the quality of social justice outcomes in this city and our nation.

Before I get down to looking in detail at income maintenance policies, I want to reflect on aspects of the wash-up of the federal election and some particular features of the ACT community.

1993 Election

Paul Keating rightly declared that the thrust of Labor’s electoral appeal was its social policies of inclusion (Medicare, awards, etc.). But the Federal ALP’s concept of inclusion has to be extended to mean more than its corporate government model of big business, big unions and a shrinking government. There is a large gap between triennial visits to the Blaxland Sports Centre and solidarity with the Australian people.

Solidarity is about sharing, caring and involvement in the struggle to improve life for all, particularly those worse off than yourselves. In Keating’s terms, ‘reaching back and pulling people up’. It is about rejecting Hewson’s idea that pulling people up only slows the rest of us.

The fact that there were several within the Liberal party who wanted Bronwyn “Sherman Tank” Bishop as leader and Wilson “Iron Bar” Tuckey as her deputy highlighted the level of despair the federal Liberal Party has reached. In their search for vision they found a one-eyed man and made him king.


In the ACT we can’t claim to have made an effective start on our social justice agenda until we:

(a) have a police force prepared to uphold the law. At the moment this police force has members who perjure themselves, bash people and generally see themselves above the law.
(b) Build a decent incarceration facility capable of ensuring a civilised corrections approach to those we currently transport to NSW’ s prisons.
(c) Provide emergency accommodation for homeless people irrespective of their gender.
(d) Revitalise our concessional system in a way which treats people equally in relation to their income and one which no longer discriminates against the young and the unemployed. Cutting out school clothing allowances and limiting school bus passes was not an auspicious start.

But as the ACT Government attempts to provide an equitable concessional or income support system for our poorest citizens, its job is made harder to the extent that the Federal Govemment fails to implement a national income support program which is fair, rational, adequate, understandable, implementable, and which at least treats people in equivalent financial situation equally. The ACT Government is further constrained in its social justice efforts by the failure of the Federal Government to ensure that those without work are found employment or another meaningful activity to fill their day.

Income Support / Employment

Because of the way we have constructed our overall income policies the options available to implement an equitable income support system is circumscribed. The intimate connection between employment and income is widely accepted, the reluctance to see education and training as integral to employment as well as income support, and the failure to acknowledge the real costs to this society of not ensuring meaningful participation for all permanent residents are central limitations which determine the political acceptability of different income support options.

The current system of federal social security in Australia began in 1908 with the introduction of the Age and Invalid Pension. It was subsequently extended during the 1940s to include payments for children, widows, the sick, and the unemployed. When in 1947 all these various pieces of social policy were pulled together in the one Act the Labor Government also introduced a Special Benefit which was capable of being paid to anyone without the support of a spouse who was not enmeshed in industrial disputation. Unfortunately the Special Benefit provisions were never interpreted in their widest sense.

The implementation of the social security system was riddled with racism, ageism, and sexism. Menzies’ 20-year rule hardly influenced the system of income support, except that racism directed towards Asians decreased significantly and towards Aborigines a little.

Whitlam’s arrival on the scene with Bill Hayden as Minister for Social Services saw the erosion of worthiness and race as the prime determinants of eligibility for income support. Young unemployed were paid benefit at the adult rate. Female sole parents, who had not had the foresight to get a man to the altar or the registry office, were provided with an income. In 1973 Hayden also promised to introduce a guaranteed minimum income.

Fraser’s coup put pay to that. Fraser’s rise to power on the back of a ‘bash a’ dole bludger today’ campaign began a reign of terror against the unemployed, particularly the young unemployed which is continuing to this day. Perhaps it will take the creation of an unemployed peoples army before the bulk of employed Australians will realise that there is a class war going on around them.

Margaret Guilfoyle extended the lone mothers payment so as to include men with children. The Fraser Government also introduced the Family Income Supplement which was a limited income guarantee for families with children.

The Hawke Government substantially increased the value of this payment renaming it the Family Allowance Supplement. This Government rationalised some income support payments integrating levels of assistance across education and social security.

When Brian Howe crawled out from under the Ministry of Defence Support to take over the Social Security portfolio this sounded the death knell of social improvement in income maintenance policies. Policies became more targeted (read: fewer people got them); more efficiently administered (read: cost less); more selective (read: worthiness returns); more integrated (read: wherever two or more schemes were being brought together the rates and conditions were set at the lower level).

Just one example in one of Howe’s budget: he ‘saved’ $100,000 by insisting that school leavers who applied for Sickness Benefit waited 13 weeks. This was supposed to be equitable because unemployed school leavers had a 13-week waiting period. The group who were most affected by this change were young pregnant women who had to leave school. This exemplifies Howe’ s social justice record.

Jobsearch, Newstart, and the various Mickey Mouse training options were all done with the main aim of creating the illusion of caring about those searching for work and stomping on dole bludgers. In fact, Labor in office has spent very little money on training and job creation when compared with the Fraser Government.

Federal Labor has failed to introduce a decent income support system. Instead it has created the nightmare of a privatised superannuation scheme which can only advantage the rich and corporate criminals(3).

The only way to create a socially just income maintenance policy is to introduce a guaranteed minimum income set at or above the poverty line. Whilst Labor continues to pander to the better-off through excessively generous tax concessions on superannuation, it rules out the possibility of a truly universal income guarantee which could in the words of the Liberal Lady Rhys Williams provide a floor below which no one can fall without creating a ceiling above which no-one can rise.

A guaranteed minimum income would provide security for all, it would be paid in inverse proportion to a persons other income. It would ignore concepts of worthiness, gender, age, class, race/ethnicity, locality, ability, disability, marital status, living arrangements, etc. It would not impose restrictions on where people lived, what they studied, where they worked, how long they worked, how they dressed, what they thought, and so forth.

Governments would be forced to provide training and educational courses which people wanted to attend. It would involve governments putting their trust in Australian people’s creativity. We may see a far greater sharing of work than at present. At the moment we have a very large percentage of our full-time work force spending more than 50 hours a week on the job, 11% of citizens with no work, at least a further 5% so discouraged that they have given up the search for employment, and many in the part-time work force who are desperate for more hours of paid work.

The Federal Labor Party really has to decide if it is serious about being a party of inclusion and social justice or whether the Keating victory is just the last hurrah of the Party which brought us West Australia Inc., the State Bank fiascos in Victoria and South Australia, deregulation, a floating dollar, the ‘level’ playing field, privatised superannuation, a shrinking government sector, 11% unemployment, the deepest recession since the 1930s depression, and a mean minded social security system.

(1)  Priorities Review Board, Priorities for Improved Public Sector Management. Priorities Review Board, Canberra 1990.
(2)  Salvaris, M., Canberra: Planning a Fair Community. ACT Administration, Canberra 1988.
(3) ACTCOSS, The Super Tax Rort. ACTCOSS, Canberra 1992.