Way down upon the Swany sliver

Written in Oct 2001

On the 19th August Wayne Swan, Shadow Minister for forcing responsibilities from the State back on to low income earners shoulders, announced that an incoming Labor Government might have to cut family payments to those families who refused to cooperate with his family visitor programs. He said this would be particularly so if the children in the family were “at risk”. Jocelyn Newman, the relevant Government Minister, correctly pointed out that withholding funds from families in crises would do nothing for the children. It is a pity she did not consider this when she started her operation dole dairies and other enforcement regimes which she has mercilessly inflicted on unemployed people.

The Labor and Liberal Parties are suffering a surfeit of spokespersons concerned that anyone relying on government payments should be subjected to the full force of what they endearingly call “reciprocal obligations” or “mutual responsibility”. Such enforcement procedures have grown out of the 1947 work test provisions of the unemployment benefit program and Brian Howe’s obligations imposed on lone parents in the early 1990s. In recent times the various requirements imposed on recipients of social security have become increasingly defined and extended. They are part and parcel of globalised economic system which demands each State cutback its social wage by restrictive targeting, stigmatising delivery, reduced benefit levels, contracting out, compulsion of beneficiaries and simple denial of benefits though reduced hours of service. Whether it is Tony Blair’s “third way”, Bill Clinton’s “workfare”, New Zealand’s “social responsibility” or Australia’s own “mutual responsibility” they are remarkably consistent.

Swan’s adventure into cutting the family support payments is interesting because Labor, unlike the Liberals, has always waited to get into office before announcing that it intends to cut the social wage. Secondly, it is unusual because state governments not the Commonwealth have responsibility for “children at risk”.

Swan’s interest in families being visited has grown out of an American study which found that if mothers were visited by a trained health employee shortly after birth and in some cases for extended periods following the initial visit, the children did better at school and had less delinquency than the children of families not visited. Of course, this is exactly what used to happen in most places in Australia from the 1950s until the late 1980s. The visits were usually carried out by maternal and child health nurses. It was done because it was felt to be a good thing to do and new mothers, particularly those who were isolated, appreciated it. The cost of the service was not inconsiderable and latterly has been significantly reduced in many places.

Swan, in his Shadow Minister role had, in an address to the Evatt Foundation, on the 4th May, signaled an incoming Labor Government would  introduce a family visitor program. Back then, it was a voluntary program designed to assist families and children. The interesting question is what has occurred between the beginning of May and the middle of August to change the program into one which sets out to reduce the family allowance benefits to families who some visitor considers have “children at risk”.