From the Poor Laws to welfare wars

Following his 1996 election victory, Prime Minister Howard set out to sculpture the social landscape of Australia.  In 1999 in his Roundtable Speech Howard clearly laid out his prescription of economic fundamentalism and social conservatism. To many on the left, this speech evoked memories of FJ Holdens and white picket fences. Few had any idea of how far back this Prime Minister would go for a model of his ‘social welfare safety net’.

In 1996 Hugh Stretton gave the Fifteenth Sambell Memorial Oration entitled ‘Poor laws of 1834 and 1996’.  He opened his address by saying ‘Both meanings of the title are intended: laws to deal with British and Australian poor at different dates, and also laws of poor quality.’

In the early 1960s I undertook a social work degree and was told by the lecturers that the Australian social security system eschewed the British system of poor law relief and in particular the division which the poor law system made between the deserving and undeserving poor. My lecturers suggested that, in place of such a stigmatising categorisation, the Australian social security system attempted to discern those who were eligible for legislated benefits and those who weren’t. That, whilst our system had some continuities with Britain, the Australian social security system had been influenced by Bismarck’s social insurance reforms in Germany, the labour movement’s ideas about egalitarianism and universal rights. Certainly such relatively progressive ideas were part of the intellectual underpinnings of the system of social security at the time. These ideas were to become a central component of the Whitlam Government’s efforts to reinvigorate the welfare state between 1972-75.

In 1965 I went to work for the Department of Social Services as it was then called. It was not long before I was to encounter homeless men being refused ‘Invalid Pensions’. Their letters of rejection read, ‘You are not deemed worthy to receive a pension on account of your alcoholism’. The Act and associated regulations specified that applicants for pensions had to be ‘of good character’ to receive a pension. This wording remained unchanged until Bill Hayden became Minister for Social Security in the Whitlam Government. The system of emergency assistance and eligibility for most of the ancillary welfare services accessed by my clients distinguished between the deserving and undeserving at every turn.

In 1975 the Australian Journal of Social Issues published an article of mine entitled ‘The Importance of Being Worthy’. This article pointed to the frequent use in Australian social welfare of the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving applicant. Clearly whilst some social security payments, for example Child Endowment, were universal and without asset or means tests, most were available only to limited groups of people. Indigenous Australians living on missions and settlements were excluded from many social security payments.

1975 was the year that the first main report of the Henderson Poverty Inquiry recommended that Australia adopt a guaranteed minimum income. It was also the year of the Whitlam Government’s dismissal.

The politics of division

The political party system of government, by its nature, creates schisms in the body politic. The parties set out to establish their differences from each other. Sometimes the differences between the parties are a matter of style (tweedledee and tweedledum Labour and Liberal policies on asylum seekers in 2002) and sometimes there are ideological chasms dividing the various parties (Communist and Liberal Parties in the 1960s). Political parties consciously attempt to attract supporters for their policies and to denigrate those who are attracted to the other party’s platforms.

In recent years John Howard and his colleagues have intentionally set out to divide sections of the population from other parts of the society. His first really successful campaign was to change the Native Title Act in 1998 in the wake of the Wik Judgement.  In that campaign he drove a wedge between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians and succeeded in pushing through the Parliament legislation which took the ownership of land which the High Court had found to reside with the traditional owners and transferred elements of that ownership to pastoralists, miners and farmers (who the High court had found did not have title). His most successful campaign, that which undermined the rights of asylum seekers, occurred in the run up to and aftermath of the 2002 election.

In addition to both these campaigns there have been two less racist, but equally relentless struggles being waged  to divide the population. The first is the constant assault upon the trade union movement and the second is the denigration of welfare recipients.  It is to the later of these two struggle to which I will return shortly.

The essence of the politics of division is to alert people to aspects of difference, to suggest that presence of difference equates to the existence of a threat, and finally to create in the minds of both sections of the recently divided that in relation to this particular issue there can only be one winner, that someone has to lose, and that the struggle is important – if not crucial. It is always easier to drive in the wedge if there are distinguishing features in the two groups; race and gender work a treat. It can be helpful if there are historical residues present, say in relation to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people or bosses and workers. But any potential divide will do. One component usually present in such division is envy. Clearly every worker can conceive of being envious of his or her over-paid CEO. Howard’s greatest success is that he has managed to get the better off to become envious of any benefit poorer Australians obtain.

Downward envy

The Howard Government, in 1996, started its attack on welfare recipients by targeting young unemployed people. It began by suggesting that young unemployed people were not interested in finding employment and lacked job skills. Howard’s solution was to impose a ‘work for the dole’ scheme upon them. In many ways this scheme was a reimposition of a 1930s Depression program that had forced unemployed men to do civic works in return for providing them with sustenance. During the Depression the scheme was given the nickname of ‘the susso’. There was a similar scheme the Community Employment Development Program (CDEP) that had been instigated on Indigenous communities in 1977 as a way of avoiding paying unemployment benefits.

At the time of the introduction of the ‘work for the dole’ program I wrote:

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 in 1929?
Wasn’t it then the susso scheme?
When men had to leave their families
to go the great out back?

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 on their back
and an old corn sack,
as they headed for the great out back.

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 out back.
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.

I expected Liberal Party stalwarts and other bourgeois elements to applaud this imposition upon young people who were unable to find work but was amazed by the widespread working class support that such policies evoked. Even some pensioners and older unemployment beneficiaries joined the chorus of approval for the song sheet which read ‘make all the young dole bludgers work, don’t let the young dole bludgers shirk’. Some of us tried to remind them of Angela Davis’ call for solidarity

‘If they come for me in the morning, they’ll come for you at night’. We pointed to experience of Pastor Martin Neimoller, who suffered Nazi persecution, and who had written:

First they came for the Communists,
but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews,
but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out for me.

Solidarity eluded us. It was not long before the Howard Government succeeded in abolishing unemployment payments to the 16-18 year old Australians not at work and not in training. It also extended the ‘work for the dole’ program to older unemployed people. It is now in the process of extending, to lone parents and disability support pensioners, their very own forms of mutual compulsion.

And all the while the denigration of those reliant upon social security payments grows shriller. The Howard Government claims it is assisting social security recipients to avoid the scourge of ‘welfare dependency’. Part of such ‘assistance’ included the imposition of 386,946 breaches on social security recipients in the financial year 2001-2. This left many without any form of government income support for periods of up to 6 months (2).

The Government claims that it is generating public support for the ‘genuinely needy’ in our community by expressing such ‘tough love’ towards those who might commit such heinous crimes as being late for a Centrelink appointment or not filling in their dole diary properly.

The opposite is now true. Those lucky enough to have paid employment are increasingly questioning the desirability of paying unemployed people a benefit because by doing so it means their taxes go to pay for it. Many people are now applauding Howard’s suggestion that if disability support pensioners, lone parents and people who can’t find employment are to be provided with poverty line income support that ‘it is only fair that they give something back in return’. This is downward envy. This is socially divisive. More importantly, those working class ‘battlers’ who complain the loudest are acting against their own long-term best interests. They are the workers most likely to be displaced from employment by the increasingly globalised and casualised industrial arrangements that are sweeping Australia. They are the very people who stand to gain the most from a secure, universal and generous income support system, such as an unconditional Basic Income (3).

Those opposed to living in such a socially divided society or who abhor the extent of downward envy in their neighbourhoods need to act. They must examine the genealogy of such values so as to be in a position to explain them in order to combat them.

From where does support for the imposition of obligations upon welfare recipients derive?

Given the link to the poor laws division between the deserving and undeserving poor which was present in many aspects of income support in the Australian system I went back to Karl Polanyi’s classic 1945 text The Great Transformation.  There are certainly similarities between the Polanyi’s description of the 1834 and 1601 Poor Laws and the system of welfare administration under the Howard Government. Polanyi’s elaboration upon the 1795 Speenhamland system of outdoor relief also echoes through the current debates (4). In Before the Welfare State, Ursula Henriques describing the 1601 Poor Law discusses secular Puritanism concluding that:

The association of words which implied that the destitute, especially those who could be called “able bodied”, were destitute by their own fault quietened the conscience of those who suffered from or feared the growing cost of poor relief…the whole moral justification of the deterrent workhouse was that it would drive those able to work into finding employment (p. 23).

Henriques suggests that in the run up to the introduction of the 1834 Poor Law ‘harsh attitudes were commonest amongst the lesser ratepayers…This “petty bourgeoisie”  had the strongest temptation to repudiate those whom the cost of helping was high (p. 24)’.

Cambridge historian Anne Digby in her book Pauper Palaces investigated the 18th and 19th centuries poor law administration in Norfolk. She concluded that there was considerable variation over time and from parish to parish: from the gentry’s benevolent paternalism to ‘local farmers (who) administered poor relief to further there own ends as employers (p.229)’. Digby argues that the poor and the landholders generally favoured out door relief to indoor workhouse (some times called the ‘house of industry’). The reason being that, though the food was often of a high standard in the workhouses, the authoritarian regimes imposed in such places demolished the freedom and dignity of the inmates. Digby does acknowledge the widespread and prolonged unrest in many parts of Norfolk, and in many workhouses, and the general resistance of people to become pauper inmates of such places, yet the thrust of much of her analysis is aimed at demolishing the picture of such workhouses painted by East Anglian poet George Crabbe in the late 18th century:

Your plan I love not, with a number you
Have placed your poor, your pitiable few:
There, in one house, throughout their lives to be,
The pauper palace which they hate to see:
That giant-building, that high-bounding wall,
Those bare worn walks, that lofty thund’ring hall!
That large loud clock, which tolls each dreaded hour,
It is a prison with a milder name,
Which few inhabit without dread or shame. (5)


Australia may not have reached the stage in its welfare wars that present practices rival the stigma of the workhouse. But the terror inflicted on asylum seekers and their children by locking them up for indefinite years behind razor wire in the desert or on some pacific atoll, where they are addressed by numbers not their names, subdued with guns and teargas and where many guards show indifference to their plight has strong residues with the workhouses of 17th –20th Century in England.

The current treatment of Australian citizens who have committed the dastardly act of failing to remain employed may not have sunk to levels of depravity inflicted upon out of work labourers in 18th and 19th century England but the Howard Government refuses to provide income support for many who fail to meet every letter of the raft of obligations imposed upon them.

Many employed citizens gleefully envy the poverty line income support provided those struggling to survive unemployment, precarious or part-time employment in an increasingly uncaring world. They happily dob in their neighbours to Centrelink enforcers as several Howard Government Ministers have encouraged them to do.

Indigenous Australians die on average 20 years younger than other Australians (6). About 80 percent of Indigenous Australians living in rural and remote Australia have few opportunities to obtain any award-waged work. They can at best hope to get a CDEP job paid at welfare benefits rates (7).

Stigma is again a frequently used tool to ration access to welfare benefits. The solidarity between worker and workless, city and country people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens, refugees or asylum seekers and other Australians that remains exists in spite of the Howard Government.

It’s the armless and the harmless
the senseless and the lame
who always pay the social cost
who always get the blame.

It’s the snivellers and the chisellers
The swindlers and the vain
ripping off the profits
and it’s always been the same.

When I speak of social justice
you ask ‘What will it cost us?’
Advance Australia fairly,
Advance Australia squarely,
and let us reach the further shore
in the best way that we can .(8)

In 2003, Liberal and Labor politicians proclaim the virtues, in an increasingly competitive world, of the ‘social coalition’, ‘social capital’ and ‘third way entrepreneurial’ adventures as a way to expand ‘human capital’. Such jargon distracts attention from the failure of Australian governments to provide health, social security and educational policies of a sufficiently comprehensive nature to create a caring, socially just society which would allow all the opportunity to achieve their full potential. The rhetoric of ‘reciprocal obligation’, ‘mutual obligation’ and ‘participation income’ deflects Australians from the need to provide an unconditional Basic Income which has the capacity to revitalise our social citizenship by ensuring that no permanent resident in this country is forced to live on a below poverty line income.


(1) The use of the term ‘welfare wars’ derives in part from the title of a recent social welfare text: Mendes, Philip. ‘Australia’s Welfare Wars.’ Sydney, University of New South Wales, 2003.
(2) ACOSS. Jobless fines hold up welfare reform, Australian Council of Social Services. 15th July, 2002.
(3) Information on the campaign to introduce an unconditional Basic Income in Australia can be found at Basic Income Guarantee Australia

This site also provides links to many International Basic Income sites.
(4) Marshall, John Duncan. The Old Poor Law 1795-1834. London and Basingstoke, Macmillian, 1968 concurs with Polanyi’s analysis.
(5) Crabbe, George. Cited in Digby, p.1.
(6)Australian Bureau of Statistics & Australian Institute of Health and Welfare ‘The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples.’ Canberra, ABS Cat. 4704.0, 2003.
(7) Abbott, Tony. “Bridging the Incentive Gap.” Australia Unlimited Conference, May 4, 1999.
(8)  Tomlinson, John.

Works Cited

Davis, Angela. If they come in the morning… London, Orbach and Chambers and Angela Davis Defence Committee, 1971.
Digby, Anne. London, Pauper Palaces. Henley and Boston,Routledge,1978.
Henderson, Ronald. Poverty in Australia: First Main Report. Vols. I & II Canberra, Australian Government, 1975.
Henriques, Ursula. Before the Welfare State: New York, Longman, 1979.
Howard, John. ‘Building a Stronger and Fairer Australia: Liberalisation in Economic Policy and Modern Conservatism in Social Policy.’ Address to ‘Australia Unlimited Roundtable.’ 4th. May, 1999.
Niemoller, Martin. Poem 1939
Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation. London, Victor Gollancz, 1945.
Stretton, Hugh. Poor Laws of 1834 and 1996. Melbourne, Brotherhood of St Laurence, 1996
Tomlinson, John  ‘The Importance of Being Worthy’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 10, No. 3, August 1975.