Green left Weekly 11/2/1998 p.12
Prime Ministers Howard in Australia, Shipley in New Zealand and Blair in Britain all utilise the dependency rhetoric when it falls to them to describe the behaviour of lone parents and the unemployed. They claim the central issue in relation to welfare policies is the need to move people away from welfare ‘dependency’ to independence from welfare. The latest example of this was Howard’s 28 January decision to force all young people unemployed for more than 6 months to join his work for the dole scheme.
Prime Minister Howard is being disingenuous in attempting to suggest that he is really addressing the issue of ‘dependence’ on welfare or independence from welfare. Howard is trying to immerse himself in a false debate because he is not prepared to engage in the real welfare debate – the income security /insecurity debate.
The attempt by political leaders in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand to deflect attention from core welfare issues has not escaped the attention of poverty activists. In 1997 at Massey University, the Auckland Peoples’ Centre sponsored an alternative conference to the New Zealand Government’s Beyond Dependency Conference. The Peoples’ Centre Conference was entitled Beyond Poverty. In October 1997, the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services published a discussion paper on work for the dole schemes in which they exposed many of the flaws in the ‘dependency’ arguments and went on to strongly reject the need to compel welfare recipients to work.
Clearly politicians in Australia and New Zealand have been impotent in their attempts to solve unemployment. They have not had the wit to create sufficient jobs for all who want them, nor are they willing to shorten the working week so that the available work might be shared by the entire workforce.The Howard Government, following the New Zealand example diminished the welfare state. Coupled with the attack on the workless has been a reduction in the employment conditions of workers.
Under the accord Labor traded off wage increases for an expanded social wage but the incoming Howard Government opted for a more direct attack on working conditions favoured by the conservatives in New Zealand, implemented through employment contract legislation. Governments in Britain, New Zealand and Australia have recognised that unless the reserve army of labour is mobilised as a threat to those in work then a solidarity between workers and workless might develop. The solution proposed by the Howard Governments has been to reinstigate the 1930s”susso” schemes which are compulsory work for the dole programs.
The ideological attractiveness of introducing compulsory work for the dole schemes derives from the economic fundamentalist desire to reward the rich and compel the poor. According to right wing political scientist David Green, the payment of unemployment benefits provides those without work with “dutiless rights” in the jargon of the Australian Prime Minister Howard such social security payments amount to “not being allowed the opportunity to demonstrate they are meeting their mutual obligations to the community”. What they really mean to say is “dole bludgers are getting something for nothing”.
The political attraction of work for the dole to governments is similar to that of the United States where ‘workfare’ schemes have been in place for a few years. Ill informed voters object to their tax dollars being wasted on welfare recipients and the unemployed. Karen Adams researcher with the New Zealand Council of Christain Social Services says “Ordinary citizens either don’t know or refuse to acknowledge that creating workfare jobs lessens the demand for paid labour. This process is called displacement. Many supporters of compulsary work for the dole schemes have little understanding that it might be their job which is displaced.”
Voters don’t have the time to devote to an understanding of many of the subtleties of this complex issue: they are looking for a simple solution and some simply accept what their political masters tell them. There is also the attractiveness in these schemes for the mean who feel that they are getting a return on their taxes by forcing the unemployed to work for a pittance, in one sense they are getting ‘something for nothing’ or next to nothing – well at least they are not paying directly for it.
The average Australian voter is unaware that already in the United States major industry contracts are being let to companies which use ‘workfare’ employees along side prison labour. There is nothing to prevent the present government introducing similar operations here. Australian industry utilises prison labour. If such compelled labour does not take their job it might undercut their next contract to supply goods or services. It is perplexing that voters who fear that welfare recipients and unemployed people might be ‘getting something for nothing’ support programs where the voters hope to ‘get something for nothing’ at the expense of the unemployed.
Copyright © 2021 John Tomlinson