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What can we expect from a Coalition Government on social welfare?

By Philip Mendes - posted Thursday, 5 September 2013

Over the last three decades, Labor and Coalition governments have introduced far greater conditionality into the income security system. But the Liberals have been particularly harsh in their rhetoric towards welfare recipients.

This 'tough love' approach reflects two distinct ideological perspectives: a neo-liberal concern to cut government and reduce social expenditure, and a social conservatism that aims to punish the alleged bad behaviour of welfare reliant individuals who refuse to conform to mainstream values. There is a lot of stick, and very little carrot utilized in this approach. Most of those Australians who rely on income security payments are presumed by the Liberal Party to be guilty unless proven innocent.

During the Howard Government years from 1996-2007, this anti-welfare agenda was characterised by two core themes. One was the notion that government welfare programs encourage dependency and anti-social behaviour, and do little to encourage self-reliance and desirable behaviour. Dependence on welfare was interpreted as an addiction not dissimilar to that of helpless dependence on drugs and alcohol or gambling. Attention was drawn to the individual flaws of the poor person, rather than any structural context of their poverty. For example, leading government Ministers used terms such as 'cruisers', 'dole bludgers' and 'shirkers' to describe the alleged work shyness of the unemployed.


In order to eliminate this alleged incentive to welfare dependency, the government introduced far stricter eligibility criteria for most income security payments as typified by the 2005 Welfare to Work Bill which adversely affected new applicants for the Disability Support Pension and Parenting Payment.

An associated theme was that welfare programs provided assistance to many who did not genuinely need or deserve support. As a result, the government employed a number of measures under the banner of mutual obligation such as Work for the Dole whereby undeserving groups were disciplined via contractual obligations that require them to give something back to society in return for their payments. The most radical application of mutual obligation was the introduction of compulsory income management or welfare quarantining for selected Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

During their six years in opposition, the Liberals have further hardened their rhetoric on welfare. Some statements pay lip service to maintaining a welfare safety net for the vulnerable, but they have not been willing to support any positive measures such as an increase in the NewStart Allowance that would arguably enhance freedom of choice for those on income security. Rather, their proposals seem intended to blame, coerce or punish the poor whom they openly described as 'dysfunctional' in a March 2010 Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee report.

Although they claim philosophically to be liberals committed to minimum government interference with individual freedom of choice, their proposals will involve massive state intrusion into the lives of powerless individuals.

For example, they recommend an extension of compulsory income management from the relatively small number of existing sites and targeted groups to all Australians who are long-term recipients of income security. This proposal ignores research which not only suggests that income management has at best mixed results, but also that it is extremely costly.

Another proposal is to make Work for the Dole mandatory for all the long-term unemployed. Additionally, the Party have suggested either banning the NewStart Allowance for people under 30 where there are shortages of unskilled labor, or alternatively requiring all the unemployed to relocate to centres of high job growth to find work or lose their payments. These ideas seem to assume that all welfare recipients are autonomous individuals who could find work tomorrow if only they tried harder. They ignore the existence of a complex range of structural, personal and locational barriers to accessing employment including limited life opportunities and skills, disabilities, the impact of past trauma, shortages of relevant employment in particular postcodes, and the practical difficulties of relocation.


Not surprisingly, the Party has emphasized individualistic rather than structural explanations for social problems. Tony Abbott argues that poverty is caused in part by irresponsible behaviour such as laziness, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence and gambling. He has also refused to set targets for reducing rates of homelessness because he believes that many people make 'a choice' to be homeless, and there is little government can do to help this group of people. The policy solution they argue lies not with government action, but rather with greater personal responsibility, and the empowerment of local community welfare groups.

Now there is no doubt that negative individual behaviour and choices can undermine opportunities for participation and employment. But equally, the type of punitive measures proposed by the Liberal Party may only divert responsibility for the problem from one social welfare agency to another. For example, those welfare recipients who have their payments suspended or cancelled are rarely able to suddenly acquire full-time employment as the ideal neo-liberal model would suggest. Rather, the evidence suggests that they are most likely to turn up at non-government welfare agencies seeking emergency relief assistance. Unlike government, the NGOs don't feel able to just turn desperate people away in order to encourage their self-reliance. Of course, the introduction of community development measures that would utilize local knowledge and expertise regarding the causes of, and potential solutions to, social disadvantage would be welcome. But it is unlikely that the Liberals will support the genuine bottom-up devolution of power from the state to the local that would be required for this proposal to succeed.

The Coalition has promised to end the 'age of entitlement', by promoting greater self-reliance for those on welfare, and their just released employment policy promises on four occasions to prevent the long-term unemployed from falling into 'welfare dependence'.

This suggests a harsh landing for those on income security at a time when a predicted economic downturn may make it harder than ever for the long-term unemployed to find work.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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