Challenging the concept of participation income

Paper given at the NSW ASSID Conference at the University of Wollongong

The themes of the Howard Government: ‘social capital, social conservatism, social coalition, mutual obligation and participation income’ all undermine the concept of rights and more worryingly erode previously established social security entitlements.  McClure (2000[a], [b]) heralded the extension of the breaching of 300,000 plus Centrelink clients annually (ACOSS 2001). Initially those breached were mainly young unemployed people and, to a lesser extent, single parents. But the Howard Government has signaled its intention to extend its imposition of mutual obligation to single parents and those with a disability.

The unifying constant in ‘social capital, social conservatism, social coalition, mutual obligation and participation income’ as it relates to policy outcomes for people with a disability, refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, Indigenous people, unemployed individuals and single parents is the replacement of rights with a benefit /obligation compact.

This paper will consider ways in which people with disabilities and their allies can:

  • build alliances with potential counter hegemonic forces,
  • learn from similar struggles of other denigrated and marginalised groups,
  • confront those who are working to undermine universal human rights and existing entitlements,
  • confound efforts to ensnare them in an obligatory envelope which will impede their liberation, and hopefully
  • join the fight for the rights of others and for themselves as a part  of their struggle for full citizenship.

The background

The Howard Government’s themes of: ‘social capital, social conservatism, social coalition, mutual obligation and participation income’ increasingly impact upon people with a disability. These themes have also surfaced in relation to Indigenous Australians, migrants, temporary refugee visa holders and asylum seekers.

Indigenous Australians survived the invasion, dispossession, genocide, protection, exclusion, assimilation, integration, self-management, and the promise of self-determination which was held out by the Keating Government as part of its plans for reconciliation. They have recently found out that Indigenous self-determination, in the opinion of the Howard Government, undermines ‘National sovereignty’. They have instead been offered the Howard/ Herron/ Ruddock’s (2002) prescription of ‘practical reconciliation’ provided they are quiescent about Indigenous sovereignty / native title and land rights issues.

The Keating Labor Government, with Gerry Hand as Minister for Immigration, introduced a six month waiting period before migrants could claim social security benefits. The incoming Howard Government extended this waiting period to two years. Hand also installed the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers who arrived on our shores without valid visas. This policy, which has been ruthlessly enforced by the Liberal Government, is in breach of a number of international agreements which Australia has signed and ratified. The Howard Government has also adopted the practice of issuing three year temporary visas to asylum seekers once they have been found to be refugees. This policy increases refugees’ uncertainty, prevents family reunion and is frequently socially debilitating (Lock, Quenault and Tomlinson 2002).

When the Whitlam Government came to office it raised the rate of payment for16 year old unemployment beneficiaries to the adult rate. During the early 1970s, with increased use of automated machinery and an economic downturn, there was a significant loss of jobs usually done by young people. By the last year of the Whitlam Government there was a considerable rise in the level of youth unemployment. Clive Cameron and Bill Hayden responded to this by suggesting that the young were becoming “dole bludgers” and “work shy” (Windschuttle 1981, pp. 180-190).  This attack on young unemployed people paved the way for the Fraser Government’s denigration of all unemployed people and particularly the young without work who were again paid youth level unemployment benefits. This inexorably led, during the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments, to Brian Howe’s increased tightening of eligibility across a range of social security payments from 1986. This has now led us to Howard’s onslaught on social security payments to the young (Horin 1998, p.10) culminating in his “Oh so” Common Youth allowance. Until the mid 1980s 16 year old people with severe and permanent disabilities were paid full adult disability pensions. In 2002 such a young person living at home  receives only 60% of the adult rate.

Few people with disabilities have been active in wider income support and citizenship struggles. When ‘work for the dole’ and other impositions of the ‘mutual obligation’ policy were seen to apply only to young unemployed people, people with disabilities and their agencies did little to resist the Government’s imposition of obligations upon the young. Now people with disabilities, previously unmindful of John Donne’s caution, find that ‘The bell tolls for thee.’

Part of the problem – part of the solution

In 1977, two posters in the shop front window of the Darwin Unemployed workers Union read “Hitler had the Jews, Stalin had the Kulaks, Fraser has the Unemployed.” and “Drive carefully 3,000 Unemployed People walk Darwin streets.” The first poster drew attention to the then Government’s negative stereotyping, marginalisation and persecution of unemployed people – the second to the extent of unemployment and the presence of unemployed people as community members.

In 2001, I was a member of a Brisbane Disability Scholars email network. I regularly circulated material on income security, community work and politics. A couple of days before the election I sent the group the following email:

I have just had a security update from The Office of National Assessment.  It would appear that John Howard has taken Janet and the kids up on to the roof at Kirribilli and is threatening to throw them off the roof unless the Australian people vote Liberal tomorrow.  Clearly Howard is presuming on Australian people’s humanity and compassion. Such offensive illegal queue jumping is to be resisted. There have been people waiting for years in third world countries for the chance to throw themselves off the roof at Kirribilli House. The Navy has been instructed to get him down and take him on a Pacific holiday to Manus or Nauru.

Several satire impaired scholars took umbrage demanding that the network concentrate on “disability issues”. Others in the group wanted a broader discussion of social issues  suggesting that you never know when the words of the prophet will be written on the subway wall – so please keep your eyes wide, open or shut is your choice.

It is important for all of us who want to inhabit a socially caring world to try to understand the interconnectedness between the specific issue with which we are dealing and other social forces. To misquote John Donne “no issue is entire of itself”.

Human rights versus utilitarian rights

Before investigating Howard’s contractual social insecurity system, this paper will provide a brief outline of what a social security system based on universal human rights might look like. I have elsewhere argued that only the provision of a universal Basic Income can prevent Australian Governments undermining unemployed people’s economic security and foisting socially destructive obligations upon them (Tomlinson 2002, 2001[a],[b]).

Whenever payment of income support is conditional upon the recipient fulfilling a particular social action then a government or its agents can use their discretion to determine whether the obligation to comply has been met. If the provider of the income support payment decides the recipient has failed to meet the imposed obligation it can withhold the payment. A universal system recognizes that targeted welfare benefits can never deliver benefits equitably even to those who meet all the eligibility requirements (Boston & St. John 1998). An Australian universal welfare system would, at a minimum aim to abolish Beveridge’s five giants of ‘squalor, want, ignorance, disease and idleness’ (Timmins 1995).

A fully universal Basic Income system would be a flat rate paid to each individual permanent resident of Australia irrespective of whether they lived alone or with others, irrespective of other income or assets and irrespective of their employment or other social status.

Stuart Rees (2000) comments that when a government “emphasises that rights have to be earned, that people can only insist on their rights if they have carried out their social responsibilities…It softens a general public for the idea that rights are conditional, not universal (pp.296-297).”

By contrast, the tradition of human rights which contributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) advocates a universal standard to protect against the tyranny of the state….In the Rights of Man (1791) Thomas Paine identified a universalist tradition with reference to conditions which gave security to citizens and thereby facilitated a civil society….Advocates of universal rights do not reject the ethicists’ (Utilitarians’) regard  for duties and obligations but they do emphasise that duties and obligations serve to enhance rights; they are not a precondition for them. The universalist argument relies on the assumption that rights are accorded to people because they are human beings. In 1948 the universal declaration was designed to represent the highest aspirations of a common people (Rees pp.297-298).

Arguments which go to solidarity and inclusion are based on a universalist conception of rights and are centred around ideas of mutuality and reciprocity rather than reciprocal or mutual obligation. Universalists base their views on a far more optimistic understanding of humankind than that which informs those addicted to the idea that even the right to sustainable income support is conditional. Much of the motivation which underpins the Utilitarian view of rights revolves around the way risk is assessed (Sztompka 1999, Kemshall 2002). Conservatives have a belief in the inherent imperfection of human beings. This preoccupation with the alleged ‘propensity’ of social security recipients to ‘disappoint’ finds voice in the current ‘dependency’ debates.

The Howard Government’s addiction to an ethical or Utilitarian view of rights which is conditional upon first meeting obligations is a far cry from the form of rights expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the associated Covenants. For instance, Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises “ the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living”.  Article 8(3)(a) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour”. Even allowing the qualification in section C(4) of this Article which excludes from the category of forced labour “work or service which forms part of normal civil obligations” much of the Howard Government’s ‘mutual obligation’ agenda is in breach of these international agreements which Australia has signed and ratified.

As people with disability have discovered – post McClure 2000[b] – the imposition of forced labour on one section of the Australian people undermines the citizenship of all citizens because it is uncertain when and to whom such compulsion will be extended. It downgrades the social and economic rights previously available to all citizens.  By ignoring the citizenship rights of those who receive income support it separates them from other citizens.

The requirement that people engage in certain specified activities before they will be paid income support ignores the contribution that many non-employed people already make to their neighbourhood, their families and their society. The Government devalues social security recipients’ voluntary contribution through the suggestion that only approved forms of participation constitute a contribution. It brands social security recipients as less valued whilst simultaneously forcing them to ‘perform compulsory labour’ thus undermining solidarity and civil society. Such compelled activity is the polar opposite of social capital.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the Australian Government’s imposition of ‘mutual obligation’ is that, as Rees (2000 p.297) points out, it reinforces the view that all rights are conditional and that universality has no place in the modern world.  This has the effect of delegitimising universal income support policies such as Basic Income. An unconditional universal Basic Income could prevent a government imposing ‘mutual obligation’ policies on the least affluent. A universal Basic Income is a policy which has the capacity to enhance the liberty and productivity of all citizens. This feature of Basic Income has been recognised for 80 years (Milner 1920 ch.1).

An indecent obsession

John Howard most clearly spelt out his economic liberal and social conservative agendas in his “Roundtable speech” in 1999 and his preoccupation with his form of conservative social coalition in a brief article in the Australian on 12 January, 2000.  Essentially the argument he put forward in May 1999 is that:

Economic policy liberalisation and modern conservatism in social policy share important common values and objectives. …Both recognise the role of markets and of government….Both promote opportunity, incentive and responsibility over dependence and welfarism. And both support the full realisation of individual potential as well as the reality of social obligation. (pp.3-4).

When he writes about his social coalition he employs a classically liberal vision of ‘a social contract’ in which those who receive a payment from the state are required to return something to the ‘society’. The Liberal Prime Minister’s determination to foist onto Australian people his social conservative agenda was an underlying theme in the Reference Group on Welfare Reform Interim Report (McClure 2000[a]). From page 47 to 51 the Report deals with Howard’s social coalition in terms similar to those Howard used. Howard in his 2000 article in The Australian says:

Put simply, it describes a partnership of individuals families, business, government, welfare and charitable organisations each contributing their unique resources and expertise to tackle disadvantage at its source ….  Most of all, the social coalition is firmly rooted in notions of mutual obligation (p.11).

Howard makes no bones about the Government’s attempt to promote conservative social policy administered by the churches operating in close association with business.  Howard’s obsession with ‘mutual obligation’ and ‘dependency’ has been extensively criticised  (Hammer 2002, Goodin 2001,Tomlinson 2001[b], Castles 2001).

The more things change the more they stay the same

Jocelyn Newman (1999), the Howard Government welfare Minister, who instigated the McClure Report set down the track on which the Committee’s train (of thought) was to run and on time. She outlined the Government’s position in her paper “The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st. Century”. The present Government would have citizens believe that the only way ‘the scourge of welfare dependence’ can be removed is by compelling recipients of social security to meet specified obligations to the State.

The McClure Committee dutifully reported to the Government in line with their riding instructions. “Participation income support” became the latest buzz phrase. Of course anyone who had studied income support policy in this country immediately recognised it as a simple restatement of the Brian Howe / Bettina Cass active society strategy with the addition of extra compulsion and more ruthless breaching. The Howe / Cass line, in turn, was a reworking of the 1947 unemployment benefit activity test.

At a more general level the thrust of ‘mutual obligation’ is a restatement of the 1908 social security requirement to be of “good moral character.” This was not new either but part and parcel of the less eligibility policy – designed to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy poor – explicit in the 1834 Poor Law. This Law was an updated version of the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law, which was an attempt to codify the established charity practices of the parishes. As Goodin 2001, Stretton 1996 , Castles 2001 and Tomlinson 2001[a] point out there is a direct line between at least the 16th. Century English welfare policy and the current Howard Government’s welfare preoccupations. Joel Handler (2002) traces the legislative concern about the undeserving back to the 1348 Labourer’s Act with its express preoccupation with “the sturdy beggar”.

Ray Cassin, senior writer for the Melbourne Age Newspaper, responded to the McClure Report in an article neatly entitled “Let’s just call them leeches and be done with it” in which he makes the point that:

You can be ‘on’ social security in the literal sense of receiving benefits, but this usage does not carry the pejorative flavour of being ‘on’ welfare. The reason is not mysterious: we do not talk about social-security dependency, or social-services dependency because ‘social security’ and ‘social services’ are bound up with an older notion of entitlement, and an understanding of mutual obligation that goes beyond tit-for-tat reciprocity…..

The ideal of mutual obligation underpinning a system of social security is not one of reciprocity, but of obligation borne by all of us to contribute to the support of  people who would otherwise be destitute (The Sunday Age 27/8/2000 page 22).

This quotation from Cassin alerts us to the fact that there has been a significant change to the  legimitating mechanism which underpinned the Australian system of income support in the 1960s when compared to the present day. We have moved from Noblesse Oblige to ruthless compulsion.

The contradiction – a crisis

What the Howard Government fails to understand, primarily because their reading of Althusser (1977), Gramsci (1978), Poulantzas (1978) and Marx (1970) is deficient, is that the ideological apparatus of social control is far more powerful than compulsion  – even compulsion based on fear of starvation. They have sown the seeds of their own destruction and this is the basis that all those who wish to live in a non-censorious world will use to bring down this Government.

The Howard Government may presently have popular support for their slogans of ‘mutual obligation’, ‘work for the dole’, ‘social coalition’ and ‘participation income’ but that popularity is based on a mystification. These terms like ‘welfare reform’ and ‘social capital’ are marketed by the capitalist press to the public as warm, fuzzy and socially stabilizing concepts. This part of the ideological control mechanism is well oiled.

It is the job of the counter hegemonic forces to unpack this language. We need to demonstrate again and again the socially destructive nature of breaching hundreds of thousands of the poorest Australians. We need to point to the homelessness and poverty inducing features of these policies. We need to explain the actual impact on families when their only income is removed because one member did not meet every dictate of some Centrelink operative. We need to demonstrate the socially destructive aspects, the dislocation and the counter productive nature of such policies. Above all, we need to elaborate upon the sheer ruthlessness of policies which drive many to despair, exacerbate mental health difficulties and lead some people to suicide.

Marginalising the marginalised

Those disability scholars, agencies and activists who think that they can just work on disability issues without making links with the Indigenous, peace, union, unemployed, refugees, and other social struggles, succeed only in further marginalising the very issues which are most central to their developing the critical mass likely to force real change in the way people with disabilities are treated (Tomlinson 2001[a], Chapter 7).

Earlier in this paper I made the point that few people with disabilities have been active in the “other societal struggles for a better world” but some people with considerable disabilities have been very active. I will never forget the inspiration a young blind woman provided, as she strummed her guitar and sang, whist marching with other Aotearoan unemployment activists into police lines outside the Auckland Hilton in the  North Island of New Zealand. I was comforted by the fact that she could not see the fear in my eyes, though disconcerted by the realisation she sensed the dread in my heart. Friends in wheelchairs, colleagues with mental health difficulties, and people with limited intellectual capacities are involved in broader social struggles. They provide a model for us to follow.

Building a counter hegemony

Gaining acceptance for the breadth of change which many disability activists would like to accomplish will require that they contribute to the building of a counter hegemony. This will require they make links with progressive unions, political parties, and activist groups. That they become partisans in the struggle for a fairer world.

It was noted earlier that ruthless compulsion not Noblesse Oblige underpins the current system of income support. Whatever reformist gains might once have fallen, like crumbs from the rich man’s table, to humble petitioners will not be, if they ever were, sufficient to result in significant positive changes to the way in which this society responds to people with disabilities.

If disability activists are serious about getting their agenda incorporated into societal structures they will need to help build those new societal structures. It strikes me as a nonsense to suggest that people who say they are working to counter ableist interpretations can ignore racism, sexism, ageism, classism and urbanism. It was Lenin who said “The struggle for one is the struggle for all” but if Marxist Leninism is not quite your cup of tea; remember, that it was the American civil rights campaigner Eugene V. Debs who wrote “I am not free while any man is in chains”.


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