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The rhetoric of welfare 'tough love'

By Rachel Siewert - posted Monday, 16 May 2011

I have to admit that the use of the phrase ‘tough love’ to describe the latest wave of mostly punitive welfare reforms makes me cringe.

I can see exactly why the Government have adopted the phrase as their mantra. It makes a direct appeal to middle Australia as part of a wider strategy of evoking and reinforcing commonly held stereotypes about welfare recipients.

I’m sure it has resonated well with her focus groups, having been so expertly evoked and reinforced previously by John Howard as part of his good cop/bad cop routine of harsh welfare to work measures for the ‘undeserving’ poor backed up by the kindler, gentler expansion of middle-class welfare.


To see a Labor Prime Minister intentionally trotting out statements which play to popular stereotypes of disadvantaged Australians is a disappointing state of affairs. It engenders a response similar to the one I had to Kevin Rudd’s advocacy of punitive measures established by the Howard Government as part of the Northern Territory intervention.

However, looking over the ‘mixed bag’ of labour market participation measures in the 2011 budget has reinforced for me what it really is about. It is the misuse of the phrase ‘tough love’ that really bothers me.

It’s not the fact that we expect the Prime Minister to know better and aspire to higher things. It is quite simply the way that reinforcing the negative stereotypes of those on income support – single parents, people with a disability, the older and long-term unemployed – only serves to make their efforts to secure work so much harder.

For a Government that I believe genuinely wants to see more people in the workforce, putting out such a negative message so strongly is incredibly counter-productive and self-defeating. I am concerned it could have a much stronger impact on the employment prospects of those affected than the positive labour market measures in the budget.

There are actually some good ideas and some promising programs in the budget to address some of the significant barriers to workforce participation faced by some of the most marginalised groups in our society.

It is unfortunate that the number of places for people who will be helped by these programs is woefully small, particularly when compared to the much larger number of people who will be punished by the new participation requirements. For example, there are only 10 000 employer wage subsidies to be shared among 350,000 long-term unemployed, and no detail on how the employer bidding process will work.


The big problem is that if our real target is to increase participation and productivity and to give marginalised individuals and families a real chance to ‘benefit from the dignity of work’, then our primary task has to be to address labour market factors.

This is where we urgently need a bit of sense in the welfare debate.

Obviously one of the biggest labour market challenges we face is the large and growing gap between the kinds of skilled workers demanded by our growth industries and the skills (or lack of them) of those on income support payments during a time of low unemployment. Skilling up our labour force is not something that can be fixed overnight, or in a six-week ‘work ready’ course. It will require a sustained effort in education and training over a number of years, and the budget goes some way towards making this investment.

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About the Author

Senator Rachel Siewert is the Australian Greens’ spokesperson on Community Services and the Environment: Natural Resource Management and Health.

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