There is a ladder in my stocking of opportunity

Published in New Matilda January 19th 2005

The ALP Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, in his address in reply to the 2004 Budget announced that unemployed people, particularly those who are young and unemployed, would be either “earning or learning” (Jennett 2004). In the 2004 election campaign he tied such pronouncements to his “ladder of opportunity” rhetoric. Mark Latham made it clear that young people not at work and not in formal study would not receive Commonwealth assistance. At one level his “learn or earn” scheme is an unremarkable policy, well within the traditions of John Howard’s socially conservative youth policies. The targeting of young unemployed people was exactly what Howard did when he set out to introduce his “work for the dole” policy. He subsequently extended it to older unemployed people.

Latham’s policy is also well within the labourist traditions of a party still emotionally aligned with the industrial age. In addition, it is possible to see the links between such a “learn or earn” policy and those Hawke/Keating policies, such as the active employment strategy (Cass 1988). As at other times in the past, when Latham was devoid of original ideas, he turned to Tony Blair’s participation income and other third way policies for inspiration.

Whilst such similarities demonstrate apparent links with past social democratic thought, there are aspects of Latham’s approach that reveal a departure from previous Australian social welfare policy and a further move in the direction of neo-liberal exclusionist policies. Certainly, the “learn or earn” option is a considerable departure from the social policy directions of the Fraser and Whitlam Governments. From 1908 on in Australia, even conservative administrations had seen their social policy initiatives as providing a floor below which income or services would not fall – at least for those covered by the policy. Likewise, the 1907 Harvester Judgement introduced a system of minimum wages providing an income floor for those employed under award conditions.

In 1986, Australian social security policy began a retreat from its post Second World War aim to become a comprehensive and adequate means to provide social assistance to all in need. Latham’s “learn or earn” policy continues the regression from universalism. British Academic, Hazel Kemshall (2002, pp.129-130) asserts that universalism is no longer present in neo-liberal welfare policy, having been replaced by residualism, targeting and selectivity; private provision is applauded; demonstrated productivity is the basis of social inclusion and the self-providing individual is the model citizen. On top of this, there is increasing surveillance and virtue imposed by the State. (Kemshall 2002, pp.120-122).

Latham’s “learn or earn” scenario is not the policy of inclusion it purports to be, but rather a way of refusing income support to those who don’t exactly fit two narrowly defined moulds – worker or student. These days, more and more students are working before and after classes and many workers are studying and working. Workers are often learning/up-skilling on the job and some are in traineeships or apprenticeships.

There are people with severe disabilities who might never be employed and are unlikely to benefit from further education. There are many young people who, because of their homelessness, are not able to find employment or stay at school. There are other people who due to personality disorders, mental illness, addiction or chronic ill health are unable to cope with either learning or earning.

A report commissioned by the Brotherhood of St Laurence and St Vincent de Paul found that the Coalition Government’s increasingly stringent “mutual obligation” policy adversely impacts on people with multiple disabilities – further marginalising them. It concluded the “mutual obligation” regime “is failing the most disadvantaged job seekers. Overall the system operates…not as ‘welfare to work’ but ‘welfare as work’ (Ziguras, Dufty and Considine 2003 p.43).

Both Howard and Latham fail to come to terms with the reality faced by unemployed people struggling to cope on below poverty-line income. They fail to adequately acknowledge the diverse challenges faced by many trying to find employment. The disability debate is beyond their ken. In his “learn or earn policy” Latham just ignores the extra difficulties posed by social disadvantage, disability or the combination of both (Marino 2004).

Howard has been trying far more devastating tactics by extending his “mutual obligation” and “welfare reform” policies so as to enmesh people with disabilities. His plans have been held up in the Senate in recent years, but by the 1st July 2005 he will have control in the Upper House. Now nothing will stop him proceeding. Western Australian scholar, Rose Galvin, in August of 2004, warned against the substantial financial losses which would accrue to people with disabilities if Howard pushes through such changes in the Senate. She wrote: “welfare reform intends to remove only the protective classification of “disability” in an attempt to make disabled people, as a category, disappear without doing much, if anything, to remedy the actual conditions of exclusion that this term represents” (p.345 italics not in original).

Latham’s “learn or earn” income support policy forces unemployed people into one of two compartments. It erodes autonomy, denies the possibility that unemployed people, with support, might find more productive solutions outside the confines of such constrained choices and simultaneously decays dignity. It is a further example of increased targeting of income support. “Targeting is, of course, as much about who is excluded from welfare provision as it is about who is included (Kemshall 2002 p.27)”. Since 1986, such increased targeting has been a mechanism, increasingly employed by both Labor and Coalition governments to reduce the generosity and universality of the Australian system of income support.

But increased targeting is just one of many tools used by neo-liberal economic fundamentalists in their assault upon communal provision of income support and other features of the social wage. The neo-liberal economic fundamentalist mind-set gained some early traction in the dying days of the Whitlam Government. It has been in ascendency since the middle years of the Hawke/Keating Governments. During the Howard period, it has led Government ministers to respond as if they were Board members of Australia Inc. Alistair Mant (2004) reminds us that “The French have a wonderfully dismissive term for government ministers of limited capacity who conduct great offices of state as if they were suburban service stations. The term is ‘garagiste’.

There are alternatives

Australians do not have to proceed down the path that the neo-liberals want to lead us. We don’t have to become blind to the issues and possibilities that the 21st century presents. There are many creative and humane ways to construct social policy which might lead us to reinvigorate the more universal policies of the Australian welfare state (BIGA and BIEN websites). We cannot afford the massive economic and social losses which mass unemployment and precarious employment create. Above all, we need to look beyond the 20 second sound-bites which pass for social policy analysis nowadays and search for realistic explanations of and solutions to social difficulties.

If Mark Latham had sought a more elaborate understanding of the lives of those who work in industries where jobs, rather than the products, are being exported and had he been willing to look seriously at the complexity of situations facing unemployed people, then he might have gained a fuller appreciation of the fact that his “learn or earn” option would constrain rather than assist many people wanting secure, socially meaningful employment or appropriate training.

The game of life involves more than a relentless climbing some ladder of opportunity like a breathless aspirational voter from a suburban marginal seat. Such aspirational voters are, as Clive Hamilton (2004) reminds us, a close cousin to middle-class whingers. Whether in or out of work, most Australians find that in the real game of life they are playing includes both snakes and ladders.


BIEN (2004) Basic Income Earth Network (formally Basic Income European Network) web site
BIGA (2004) Basic Income Guarantee Australia web site
Cass, B. (1988) Income support for the Unemployed in Australia: Towards a more Active System. Social Security Review. Social Security, Canberra.
Galvin, R. (2004) “Can welfare reform make disability disappear?” Australian Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 39, No. 3, August.
Hamilton, C. (2004) “The Good Life That Politics Can’t Buy.” Sydney Morning Herald. 13th January
Jennett, G. (2004) “Latham delivers budget reply” Lateline, ABC. 13th May.
Kemshall, H. (2002) Risk, social policy and welfare. Open University, Buckinghamshire.
Mant, A. (2004) “Australia embraces an American way” The Age, 10th October.
Marino, M. (2004) “Not earning or learning.” The Age.15th May.
Ziguras, S., Dufty, G. & Considine, M. (2003) Much Obliged: Disadvantaged job seekers’ experiences of the mutual obligation regime. Brotherhood of St Laurence and St. Vincent de Paul