For whom mutual obligation tolls

Published by QCOSS CIRCA 2000

Senator Jocelyn Newman released the interim report of the “Reference Group on Welfare Reform” entitled Participation Support for a More Equitable Society on the 28th. March this year. It duly received considerable hype from right wing media pundits describing it as the way forward for a modern caring and efficient Australia in which everyone would pull their weight. The language of the title like so many recent Howard Government papers barely disguises a confused moral / economy contradiction. Anyone wanting to tease out the implicit conundrum should read Judith Bessant’s (2000) analysis of work for the dole.

The morning after the release of the interim report of Senator Jocelyn Newman’s Reference Group on Welfare Reform Prime Minister Howard said “People want the needy looked after but they don’t want an explosion in welfare spending.” Patrick McClure, CEO of Mission Australia and the head of the Newman’s Reference Group, in an interview on Life Matters a few minutes later was asked about sanctions that might apply to income support applicants if they did not “participate” in the Government’s plans to extend mutual obligations provisions applying to unemployed people to single parents and disability pensioners claimed that there was only one reference to sanctions in the 75 page report. This comment was presumably made in an attempt to assure a frightened recipient population they were not about to lose their benefits. Those Life Matters listeners who had watched the 7.30 Report two days previously would have put McClure comments along side the fact that in the previous 12 months Centrelink had issued 200,000 notices of breach to social security recipients in the previous year. Anyone who bothered to read the Reference Group’s report would have found scattered throughout pages 51-61 references to “compelled participation”, “requirements to participate”, “sanctions…to ensure compliance”, “explicit direction”, ruling out “open choice” in relation to how people participated and to “mutual obligation”.

McClure claimed the idea of extending mutual obligation through participation arose from the Reform Group’s review of New Zealand’s income support system and of Tony Blair’s labour market initiatives. This ignores the fact that:

  • in New Zealand the Clarke Labour Alliance Government, supported by the Greens, announced shortly after gaining office its intention to revisit in 2000 the entire National Party Government ‘compelled activity’ programs for income support recipients,
  • on the 9 March the relevant NZ Minister, Steve Maharey ended “work-testing for people on invalids benefits. He says the evaluation of the trial held last year showed the policy was ‘completely useless’. He says that people with disabilities want to work and he prefers to put money into positive programmes that remove barriers to their employment. (The Jobs Letter 27 March, 2000, p.3),
  • the Blair Government acknowledged its indebtedness to the Keating Government’s Working Nation document (1994),
  • in relation to unemployed beneficiaries there has, since the 1947 Social Security legislation, been a work testing eligibility requirement, and
  • work relief programs (the Susso) during the 1930’s demanded actual work for sustenance prior to the supply of unemployment relief.

The recent history of ‘compelled activity’ in relation to income support in Australia reveals that the preoccupation with ‘activity / participation’ was very much a part of the previous Labor Government’s approach to unemployed people. Professor Bettina Cass in the mid to late 1980s headed the Review of Social Security recommended in a number of reports that the Department should insist the applicant for unemployment benefits engage in some form of ‘approved activity’. Cass claimed in a number of consultations she undertook that such ‘activity testing’ was designed to assist those most marginal to the labour market retain their benefit. Cass argued that in times of high unemployment the most marginal were likely to fail a strict application of the ‘work test’. Some present at these consultations in Melbourne and Perth argued that, in the absence of universal income guarantees, compelling activity could be potentially detrimental to the interests of the most vulnerable.

In Cass’ defence it should be noted that she was privy to much of the thinking that went on inside Brian Howe’s, the then Minister of Social Security, Office. At the time he was in the process of articulating Labor’s social justice principles of:

Equality of rights

These social justice principles came to be issued as part of the Budget Papers and as a consequence came to be widely interpreted as:

  • the right to participate,
  • right to have equitable access, and
  • to enjoy equality of rights.

Throughout the nineties social welfare advocates relied on such principles to assert clients’ right to participate in a range of decisions which affected their lives. The release of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform interim report heralds the metamorphosis of participation as a social right into participation as obligation.

The reality is that the Reference Group has not produced a document which has anything to do with reforming the welfare system, nor was it meant too. The Reference Group’s document is about changing the way the welfare state is constructed.

If you consult your Macquarie Dictionary you’ll find that Change means “to alter” whereas reform used as a noun means:

1. the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, etc: social reform.
4. to restore to a former and better state; improve by alteration, substitution, abolition, etc. to cause (a person) to abandon wrong or evil ways of life or conduct.
6. to put an end to (abuses, disorders, etc.).
7. to abandon evil conduct.

If the Government was attempting to usher in a major, significant, radical change which would, if implemented, substantially improve the conditions for members of the community then, and only then, should it talk about reforming the welfare system.

The reference Group’s report does none of those things it is a simple rendition of the of the Howard Government’s ideological position on social constraint as exemplified in Howard’s Australia Roundtable Speech in late 1999 and his 12th.January 2000 “social coalition” article in the Australian.

For those human service workers who have watched in horror as Abbot’s statements about “job snobs”, Howard’s schemes of Working for the Dole and compulsory literacy training, and Newman’s ruthless intrigues of Dole Diaries, Dob in Dole Cheats phone lines, and the cutting of thousands off benefits with the oh so Common Youth Allowance (Horin 1998) or through breaching (ACOSS 2000, 7.30 Report 27th. March 2000) proliferated the thrust of the Reference Group’s document would have come as no surprise. McClure’s Group replicated much of Jocelyn Newman 9th. November paper, “The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st.Century.” which she described as designed to inform submissions to her announced review of Australian social security.

My 14 November submission to this Reference Group noted:

The intention is to cut welfare outlays. The Minister claims the government will not cut the level of specific benefits. If the welfare bill is to be cut then the number of people receiving benefits or the length of time people will receive benefit must decrease. In fact this is a foreshadowed option in relation to lone parents payments and disability support pensions.

When this denigration of the workless started in the mid 1970s official unemployment was less than 4% it now stands at over 7% and a greater percentage of the Australian people than ever before are labour market participants. However we are still asked to believe that the ranks of the unemployed are swelled by those unwilling to work.

Conservatives have an overwhelming need to compel the poor, unemployed, the sick, those with severe disabilities, and lone parents to work or make some other contribution to society if they are to avoid moral jeopardy. Belief in the moral inferiority of the poor is a fine old conservative tradition, such beliefs inspired the 1834 poor laws and were prevalent in 16th century parish relief efforts in England.

The fact that such arguments (about lesser eligibility, the poor’s fecklessness, the associated need for coercion and the importance of increasing the huge differentials in income between the owning and labouring classes) are a nonsense, does not make them any less valued by Minister Newman. John Kenneth Galbraith ridiculed such arguments by pointing out that “It always boils down to the highly improbable case that the rich are not working because they have too little income and the poor because they have too much.” [Cited in Boreman, Dow & Leet (1999) p.104]

So attached to the view that the poor need to be compelled, this Minister feels herself constrained to suggest that “mutual obligation” needs to be extended to those who the Commonwealth Medical Officer believes cannot be got “back into work or successfully retrained within 2 years”. The same team of incompetents, who dredged up the 1930s susso style “work for the dole scheme” have now turned their sights on those with severe disabilities. The same sanctimonious certainty which allows this Minister to assert that people in receipt of income support need to be compelled before they will make a contribution to their community prevents her witnessing the contribution which many now make without her “mutual obligation” police.

On the first page of the text of Newman’s November “discussion” paper appears the unsubstantiated claim:

“On many indicators, Australia’s welfare system compares well with those of other countries. It combines comprehensive coverage with efficient targeting and effective poverty alleviation.”

It is uncertain as to which countries Minister Newman has chosen to compare us but certainly we don’t compare well with the bulk of OECD countries. Boreman, Dow & Leet (1999) base their comparative study on 16 OECD countries and conclude:

Australia’s spending on social security transfers involving pensions, unemployment benefits and other disability allowances is lower than any of the other countries in our study. A comparative view of total expenditure on the ‘welfare state’ – social security, health education and housing – also locates Australia among the countries least supportive of the welfare needs of their citizens. If the burden of the welfare state is a factor in unemployment, it is a very limited burden indeed in the Australian context (pp.52-53)

At p.7 Newman’s “discussion” paper asserts the objectives of “the modern conservative approach to welfare” is to “assist people appropriately when they are in genuine need, to provide an adequate safety net…(and) to stop people becoming dependent”. No one has ever been able to successfully explain how anyone, without other means of support, is not in “genuine need” of income support.

At p.9 of the “discussion” paper Newman claims that “maintaining equity, simplicity, transparency and sustainability” are her key principles. Yet two paragraphs later she asserts “Simply providing payments to everyone who fits into a particular category fails to recognise the different capacities and potential people have to contribute to their own future.” This is from the woman who at page one of her text praised the efficiency of Australia’s categorical targeting system. The real reason behind such contradictory statements is revealed on the next page when she writes “In short, good economic policy is good welfare policy.”

This Minister’s suggestion that public servants discriminate between different applicants who meet the set eligibility requirements overthrows the entire ‘rights’ basis of Australian social security law since the introduction of the Age pension in 1908. It also confounds the principles of bureaucracy as set down by Max Weber and upheld on a daily basis by the Commonwealth’s own Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Instead of creatively thinking about innovative solutions, the paper sets out with the untested assertion that there is widespread “welfare dependency” and that it is a problem which can only be solved by a combination of “mutual obligation”, making the obtaining of income support more difficult and where people can be found relying in income support removing it by placing time or age limits on receipt or shifting them to less secure forms of income support.

Dependency and “mutual responsibility”

The words ‘welfare dependency’ have taken on connotations of abuse, of failing to meet legitimate responsibilities, and something just short of cheating or defrauding the State. There is nothing mutual or responsible about the Howard government’s concept of “mutual responsibility”. Like dependency it has become jargon, it is political shorthand for saying to those who are seen as politically expendable ‘you wont get the income support to which you were entitled unless you give us something in return’. We all did too little when governments started attacking working conditions and awards of the more vulnerable workers. Now the majority of workers feel insecure in their employment. Too many aged, lone parent and disability pensioners did nothing when “work for the dole” only applied to young unemployed – now that system is being extended to every social security recipient, except the aged but even they should not get too relaxed and comfortable. Yes, mutual responsibility tolls for you.

If living in a compelled, constrained, mutually obligatory society is not your idea of nirvana check out some of the alternatives in the many papers on Basic Income and other forms of income guarantees listed at the New Zealand Basic Income Web Site.

Selected Bibliography

ACOSS (2000) Social Security Breaches: Penalising the most disadvantaged. INFO 204, ACOSS, Sydney.
Bessant, J. (2000) “Civil Conscription or Mutual Obligation: The Ethics of ‘Work for the Dole.'” Australian Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 35, No.1, Feb.
Boreman, P., Dow, G. & Leet, M. (1999) Room to Manoeuvre: Political Aspects of Full Employment. Melbourne University, Carlton.
Horin, A. (1998) “Dole cut for thousands of young jobless.” Sydney Morning Herald. June,29th.. p.10
Howard, J. (1999) “Building a Stronger and Fairer Australia: Liberalisation in Economic Policy and Modern Conservatism in Social Policy.” Address to ‘Australia Unlimited Roundtable.’ 4 May
Howard, J. (2000) “Quest for a decent society” The Australian 12 Jan, p.11.
New Zealand Basic Income Web Site