Small government for people with small minds

Paper given at the Third National Unemployment Conference,  QUT, Brisbane 13-15/6/96.


The advent of a new right government in Canberra signals a massive challenge for unemployed people throughout Australia.  This is particularly so given the size of the majority of the Howard Coalition Government because it means the possibility of returning to a revisionist social democratic government is at least 5 years away.

New Zealand experienced an economic rationalist Labour Government before they elected a new right government and they now have rampant individualised work contract employment and a social welfare system which is incapable of ensuring the poor are provided with an adequate income or decent health services.

Australia seems destined to duplicate the New Zealand social disaster.   Howard heralds economic nirvana through lowering taxes on the rich, revitalising small business, making sure the unemployed meet stricter activity tests, that migrants are not entitled to social security for two years, reducing the size of government, smashing the power of unions, individualising work contracts and watering down unfair dismissal legislation.

These features provide the back drop to the coming attack on the unemployed.  It is always easier to blame the victims of government ineptitude than to develop truly liberating social policies and practices (Ryan 1971).  This paper will attempt to provide a policy analysis and a practice paradigm which might confront government and enhance the options for unemployed people.

The 1996 election and its aftermath

Racism was the defining feature of the 1996 election in Australia. Many back benchers will act as storm troopers for the coming fascism.   It will take form in the denigration of political correctness which is code for ensuring the right of Bob Katter to slag off at “femo-Nazis and slanty eyed ideologues”, for freeing Pauline Hanson to trot out her ignorant views about Aborigines, for Graeme Campbell to denigrate migrants and Australia’s indigenous people.

There are sections of the media, such as A Current Affair owned by Australia’s richest resident, who will play a vital part in drumming up bash a dole bludger campaigns ( A Current Affair 19/2/96, 20/2/96, 4/3/96, 15/3/96, contra Littlemore 18/3/96).   The automatons of commercial current affairs will do this to disguise their owners’ tax bludging .  A Current Affair attacked “the Paxton Kids” because they would not move a couple of thousand kilometres leaving their friends and family behind.  As Brian Toohey pointed out it would seem the minimum requirement of the job that the Prime Minister be prepared to live in the Lodge but Howard has insisted he live at Kirrabilly in order to be with his family(Toohey 1996).

The Howard Government claims it will not increase taxes yet is contemplating increasing Higher Education Charges, introducing  death charges for the elderly in nursing homes, and reintroducing Medicare co-charging whilst refusing to raise the Medicare levy.   All these increased charges are taxes whether our not they are so recognised by the general public.  The difference between such taxes and generalised taxes like income tax is that such taxes are predicated upon a user pays notion.    Interestingly enough in these cases such taxes will fall predominantly on poorer Australians because they are flat rate taxes, even if they were to apply across  the board they would still disproportionately impact on the poor (Smith  1993).

Of course if the Howard Government was interested in rational economic solutions to ensure universal availability of affordable health services, rather than economic rationalist dogma, it would abolish any tax advantage to private medical insurance and promote Medicare (McAuley 1993).   It would do this because Medicare now administers its fund three times more efficiently than do any of the private funds and having one health insurer in Australia would result in even greater efficiency gains.   The real reason why such a scenario is unattractive to the Coalition Government is that it would erode the privileged access of the rich to health services and promote a more equitable distribution of health provision based on concepts such as need compared with the present private health system which is based on the capacity to pay.

Rapping with Johnny Howard

Hand on my shoulder and called me son
I’d been working in his factory since eighty – one.
Stay out of the union, escape the award
and an employment contract is assured.

I work all day and half the night
trying to ensure I do things right.
Work harder, work smarter, work faster
if you want to avoid economic disaster.

The whole game now is efficiency
he wants me to do the work of three.
By the drive for profit he is haunted
I asked him what he really wanted
he said that what he wanted most
was for me to become father, son and ghost.

Drink the wine and eat the host
and you might become father, son and ghost.
A million people without work today,
we’ve lost our path, we’ve lost the way.

They want me to do the work of three
how can they call that efficiency?
So I’ll drink the wine and eat the host
father son and holy ghost.

Conscripting the reserve army of labour

Marxists have long pointed to widespread unemployment as a weapon capitalists use to tame their captive workforce and hold down wages (Marx 1970  Vol 1, chs. 10,17, 22, Bottomore, T.,  Harris, L., Kiernan,V. & Miliband, R. (1983) pp.422- 423).    In 1991 when the Liberal Party under the leadership of John Hewson set out the present Liberals’ real agenda in Fightback they attacked what they called “the army of the jobless” for being a drain on “Australians in work” (Liberal and National Parties 1991, p. 18).

This style of attack on those which government and industry have excluded from the labour force is a replication of the “bash a dole bludger campaigns” waged by Labor in 1974 and the Liberals under Fraser (Windschuttle 1981).   Such campaigns aim to politically marginalise those without paid work by creating a division between those segments of the working class alienated from their labour and those alienated from the labour force.

Labor in Government from 1983-92 was more subtle when it attacked the unemployed.    They mainly concentrated their attempt to delegitimate those who were excluded from the workforce through excessively targeting labour force programs and income support schemes.    Though Ministers of Social Security, like Brian Howe, were not averse to using the dependency rhetoric.    The real pity is that there was at the time insufficient solidarity amongst those without paid work to convert Hewson’s “army of the jobless” into an unemployed workers army (Tomlinson 1994).    The fear that if soldiers were to return from World War Two to unemployment caused Chifley to find ways of abolishing unemployment.

There is another possible scenario and that is for the entire working class to recognise its essential unity and build a real workers welfare state which would ensure sharing of work, work for all who wanted it and a guaranteed minimum income (Tomlinson 1995).    Given the 1996 election result and the fact that our citizens are atomised – seeking rewards and receiving punishments as individuals – this would not appear to be likely in the near future.


There is no structural difference between privatising a profitable company which we all own in common and allowing some rich land owners to fence off parts of the town common in 16 century England.  It might be useful to remember a poem written at the time of the enclosures.

The law locks up the men and women
who steal the goose from off the common.
But leaves the larger villain loose
who steals the common from the goose.

Small government

The entire anarchist tradition is based on the premise that government, particularly big government, can intrude upon the lives of citizens.   Aborigines and other low income earners  know only too well the excesses of which government is capable (Tomlinson 1996).   The Deaths in Custody Report established that Aborigines died in large numbers in custody precisely because so many of them had been incarcerated (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991).   Unemployed people and supporting parents regularly have their privacy invaded by agents of the State.

Why then shouldn’t we applaud the Howard Government’s decision to cut the Commonwealth Public Service by up to 30,000?   The simple reason is that people and particularly poor people are served by these officers.   Aborigines have no reason to trust State Governments and would prefer to be assisted by Commonwealth Agencies.    Where functions are passed from the Commonwealth to one of the states or territories, if a similar service is to be provided, then that state or Territory Government will have to employ as many public servants as the Commonwealth has sacked in order to provide the same quality of service.   This will not result in a decrease in the size of government overall.    However what is more likely to happen is that services to the powerless will be cut.

Howard: the irrational agenda

There have been blueprints suggested which could substantially lessen the rate of unemployment whilst maintaining the existing social democratic framework and utilising economic practices prevalent within the OECD (Langmore and Quiggan 1994).   Yet the Howard Government seems set upon adopting an economic rationalist agenda not dissimilar to that set out in Fightback (Liberal and National Parties 1991).    The privatisation of Telstra,  attacks on unions and the implementation of individualised work contracts have been the main planks of the first months of Howard’s Government.    Privatisation, attacks on unions and individualising work contracts were laid out in Fightback and roundly criticised (Vintila, Phillimore & Newman 1992, Rees, Rodley & Stilwell 1993, Rees & Rodley 1995).    Howard’s ideas for the transformation of the Australian workplace have been imported from Thatcher’s Conservatives, New Zealand’s Rodgernomics and American Reganonomics.     These ideas don’t result in greater equity nor more employment, they can’t be implemented without massive social costs and they are based on increasing competitiveness and often don’t result even in increased production ( Lateline 1996, Omerod1994, Carlin 1996.).

Even if these ideas had worked in the 1970s and 80s they have passed their use by date if the aim is to develop a modern economy which is abreast of world events and capable of increased production without huge social costs (Rifkin 1994, Omerod 1994).

The real agenda involved in doing it “Howard’s Way” is to reinforce the segmentation of those lucky enough to have paid employment  and further divide them from those excluded from the labour market.    The decision to delay welfare payments to migrants, the suggestion that because the underfunded programs over which indigenous Australians have some control have not solved all the difficulties which Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are facing proves they can’t be trusted to handle money, that young homeless kids are getting money too easily, that the old are getting a free ride in nursing homes and that people would find work if they weren’t encouraged to stay on benefits are but sub-themes.   This political static has an important part to play in further alienating the voters from their inherent humanity.     The main game is to attack the vulnerable – the young, unemployed people, the frail aged, recently arrived migrants and indigenous Australians.   After the Government has succeeded is convincing middle Australia that each of these groups of people aren’t worth worrying about then it will have increased the power it has available in attacks on its real target – decreasing the wages of all working people.   Australians need to remember Pastor Niemoller’s poem:

When they came for the Communists
we were not Communists
– so we did nothing.
When they came for the Jews
we were not Jews
– so we did nothing.

 When they came for the Social Democrats
we were not Social Democrats
– so we did nothing.
When they came for the Trade unionists
we were not Trade Unionists
-so we did nothing.

When they came for the liberals and intellectuals
we were scared
– so we did nothing.
When they came for the Churchmen
we were frightened
– so we did nothing.

When they came for us
we looked for help
– but we were alone.

We must ensure that we don’t get sucked into becoming recreationists as Australia returns to the social repression of the 1950s and 60s.   We must not recreate “boongs”, “wogs”, “cripples”, “youths” and “dole bludgers”.     The language we use when referring to people whom the government, racists and economic rationalists want to marginalise must reflect the respect the intended targets are due.

What  can we do?

The first step towards ensuring that we aren’t returned to the callousness of the 1960s is to reject the Howard Government’s attacks on the powerless and vulnerable in our society.   We must refuse to be bought off with some short term individual gain or even individualised survival plan.    We have to struggle collectively to maintain unions’ collective bargaining power, we have to fight to maintain all the institutions which protect the vulnerable.    When Jocelyn Newman boasts that she dobs in “dole cheats” and that she is going to set up a hot line to expose anyone who gets welfare payments for which they don’t meet all the requirements we might counter by dobbing in tax cheats, people engaged in business fraud, politicians who are fiddling their expense accounts or engaging in other corrupt activities.   If they took tax fraud and corruption seriously they could more than wipe out any budget deficit in 1996-97.  There are enough examples from the Fitzgerald Inquiry, West Australia Inc, the Wanaroo Council and the Crown Casino to lead to the sustainable assumption that politicians are more likely than not to be engaged in some form of corrupt activity.

We should establish a dob in a polly hot line, I hope all those tax officers who have been sacked had the sense to keep copies of as many government members’ tax returns as they could before they left.     Perhaps the 2,800 ex-employees of the Department of Employment, Education and Training kept a record of the various government members connections with employers who were fiddling money from labour market programs.   And I wonder what the ex-employees of Health and Family Services will be able to bring out with them.

We must work to expose the the destructive effects of competition policy; join with others to increase cooperation and build  mutually supportive networks on the way to building a caring and fair society.   That is: we must find work for all or share all the work.


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