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Class and moral obligations

By Helen Dehn - posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A linguistic definition implies the term deserving to mean “of service”. The criteria stipulated for the receipt of an old age pension in Victoria at the beginning of the twentieth century confirms this interpretation. In order to receive a pension one had to be able to demonstrate that one had been of service to prevailing principles of prudence, goodness, self-help, foresight and respectability, all viewed by the producers of the old-age pensions report to the Royal Commission on old-age pensions in 1897, as having contributed to the future wealth of the state and the cost of government. In other words, to have served the state in exchange for what was then seen as state funded charity. 

The payment of an old-age pension by the Australian Commonwealth government in 1909 removed service to specific notions of morality from the criteria. However, the association between morality, particularly in relation to sexual activity, and deservingness of assistance persisted, although in diminishing strength, through the twentieth century. Perceptions of monogamy and fidelity, however difficult to verify, were still used by some as measures of moral worth in Victoria’s nineteenth-century society. 

Among the have-nots in nineteenth-century Victoria, a willingness to work and a lack of responsibility for one's own destitution were typical criteria of eligibility for welfare assistance. In the aftermath of the 1890s depression, however, it was realised that charity, even with increased government subsidy, was “hopelessly inadequate” as a way of alleviating widespread poverty which was suffered by deserving and undeserving alike.


Moreover, the greater extent and severity of world poverty which, during the twentieth century, was regularly shown on Australian television screens, tended to make a mockery of local relief programs predicated on nineteenth-century notions of goodness, morality and associated deservingness. Welfare programs in Australia came to be more closely linked to affordability as determined by investing bodies such as governments and employers, and when this was shown to be almost as difficult to define as deservingness, emphasis came to be laid by governments on an older, less arguable, concept of mutual obligation. 

Because survival in Australia was so closely and commonly tied to paid work, the Christian concept of eligibility for salvation, which had governed the delivery of poor relief by nineteenth-century moral reformists, came to encompass eligibility among the improved for paid work. Paid work was viewed by both the eligible and the less eligible as necessary to immediate salvation. But employment was determined by the needs of employers rather than the concerns of moral reformists.

Assessments for and against applicants for work and/or poor relief continued to be the province of those in relatively secure positions however. This imbalance of decision-making power in matters of individual and/or family survival became the focus of much resentment among semi-skilled workers and their families. It also constituted the fundamental division between nineteenth-century haves and have-nots in Victoria's pluralist society. 

Where work opportunities were not available in nineteenth-century Ballarat, the miners and labourers, who viewed themselves as more deserving of consideration than those engaged in less hazardous work, initially communicated charters of social and industrial reform to governments by way of land and labour movements. The popular concept of equality in terms of opportunity, freedom from servitude and an evenly spread distribution of wealth had its basis in the teaching that all men were equal before God. This teaching was based on the Roman Church's interpretation of universal law and its translation to social equality among men, but the Church’s interpretation was not fully transferable to nineteenth-century Victoria's secular social and political systems, much less to the domestic arena, although it was used as the basis of law and medical practice.

In the industrial arena the equation of universality with equal opportunity and freedom from servitude was translated, primarily by the industrial classes, into a socialist political platform that included immigration controls to prevent employers from importing cheap labour, the protection of industry, and the payment of a "fair and reasonable wage" determined by a Conciliation and Arbitration Court. Such political reform was viewed by many as creeping socialism. Socialism was viewed by the governing class, as well as most employers, as a system incompatible with the operation of a free-enterprise economy.

The notion of basic equality, therefore, came to be overlaid among all groups with varying criteria of deservingness in order to justify the expectation of special treatment in favor of those less able to compete. The labouring classes built on this expectation, gradually asserted their own criteria of social value through their new political party and acted to influence deliberations in the industrial court through union representation. 


Successful individuals in nineteenth-century Australia, therefore, came to be loosely classified along lines of inherited wealth, which signified security and freedom from servitude, or commercial success, which signified business acumen and relative freedom from servitude, and/or sporting prowess that signified manliness. In nineteenth-century Ballarat, these distinctions were blurred by widely fluctuating fortunes on and off the goldfields, and by the many philanthropic gestures from the fortunate toward those who had fallen ill or become incapacitated in the process of seeking gold.

Such gestures, however, implied a greater concern for the less fortunate, along with widows and orphans, than for the poor as a class, and this distinction was to be reflected in the passage of laws affecting the welfare of all dependent groups, in particular, laws governing eligibility for Victoria's old age pension. 

Supporters of an old age pension in Victoria argued that it would enable considerable savings by government because there would be no need of costly charitable institutions for the aged. Politicians sympathetic to the working classes took it further than this arguing that pensions were a "right" gained by people who had contributed to the general well being throughout their working lives. Both arguments, therefore, held the prudent management of money to be the primary consideration in determining whether a pension ought to be introduced and, if so, then only as a measure of support for those who had already demonstrated their ability to live frugally. 

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About the Author

Helen W. Dehn is a member of the Liberal Party and a historian with a long term interest in public affairs.

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