Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

‘Mutual obligation’ policies do little to help the poor and underemployed

By John Tomlinson - posted Friday, 20 February 2004

The Howard government purports to be a pragmatic government interested in achieving practical outcomes. It claims the imposition of its “mutual obligation” regime upon social security recipients is designed to sort out the “needy from the greedy” and to prevent recipients becoming “welfare dependent”.

Many scholars argue that social security regimes like Australia’s fail to assist many poor people simply because of design faults in every targeted welfare system. Other writers declare the concept of “mutual obligation” in income support systems as ethically unsupportable. A leading ethicist, Catriona McKinnon, mounts a sustained argument that reciprocal obligations should not be attached to elementary income support programs but should govern the distribution of privileges. Professor Robert Goodin and other researchers have established that the problem of “welfare dependency” is of little consequence because, even if it is a real phenomenon then, it affects very few recipients. A much more widespread problem, which is exacerbated by the imposition of “mutual obligation”, is the fact that so many of the people who are eligible for targeted income support programs fail to be paid. Still others point out that design faults in tax/social security claw-back system create a far greater problem for people on lower incomes (pdf, 132Kb) than does any alleged recipients’ fecklessness induced by receiving social services. Even the Health Minister, Tony Abbott, acknowledges that the Australian tax/social security claw-back system creates substantial poverty traps.

Federal legislation and regulations create these poverty traps. It would be possible for any reasonably competent parliamentary legal counsel, working with economic advice, to remove such poverty traps within a matter of months. Such action or failure to act is entirely the prerogative of the Government.


The Howard government claims to believe in the economic rational person who is motivated by economic self-interest. Instead of removing any financial incentives to choose welfare over work, it has set out on a far more contentious course to discover the “unworthy” and assist the “worthy” to avoid the scourge of “welfare dependence”. This is a paternalistic imposition upon the entire community in an attempt to change the motivation of a few.

If economic pragmatism were the force driving the Howard Government, the most effective way to end the alleged propensity of social security recipients to remain in receipt of income support, as a result of poverty traps, would be to remove the poverty traps. Such an action is clearly within the competence of this Government.

Even the most ardent supporter of “mutual obligation” policies would admit that “weeding out the unworthy” and assisting people to escape from the clutches of debilitating “welfare dependence” is an inexact science. Despite his Department informing him they had no evidence as to why people had dropped out of “mutual obligation” programs the then Minister for Employment, Mal Brough, commented “Compliance is a strong motivator and it also flushes out dole cheats.” Such a statement implies an unwarranted certitude.

The importance of being worthy

The fact that the Howard Government has chosen to undertake an indirect rather than a direct route to ending “welfare dependence” raises the possibility that “weeding out the unworthy” has a greater attractiveness to this government than ending “welfare dependence”.

The paternalism implicit in the imposition of “mutual obligation” upon social security recipients would seem to derive from Howard’s social conservatism rather than his economic fundamentalist form of liberalism. Certainly none have suggested that the imposition of duties enhances the individual liberty of recipients of social security. Instead, Howard Government Ministers, echoing Lawrence Mead, one of the architects of “workfare”, speak of enforcing “tough love”.

It would be churlish to suggest that the entire Howard Coalition Government and their senior bureaucrats have chosen to ignore the substantial body of literature which points to the impossibility of ensuring that all the “worthy needy” and only the “worthy needy” are paid. Assuming they are aware of such literature, and that they are committed to identifying and paying “the needy” then it is important to test the proposition that “mutual obligation” is a pragmatic method of pursuing that goal.


Given that the “mutual obligation” regime has been in place, in one form or another, for six years, it raises the question as to either the competence of this Government or the bona fides of the Government’s pronouncements in this area of social concern.

The Howard government prefers a liberal utilitarian rather than a universal rights-based approach to welfare (pdf, 59Kb). It frequently speaks about a preference for pragmatism over theory in social policy. Such an abhorrence of planned social change, often expressed as “social engineering”, has been part and parcel of conservative regimes since at least the 18th century. Additionally the Howard government has assertively set out to win the “culture wars”. The sacking of Dawn Casey, the ex-director of the National Museum for not following the Government’s colonialist rewriting of Indigenous/white history and the recent attack on the state school system for failing to impart values of national identity are just two of many examples of Howard’s culture wars.

The practicality test of mutual obligation

In late 2003 St Vincent de Paul and the Brotherhood of St Laurence produced a report (pdf, 263Kb) listing many problems that some recipients encountered with the “mutual obligation” regime. The authors of this report concluded that obligations, which many social security recipients are forced to meet, result not in a “welfare to work system” but a “welfare as work system”.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

2 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by John Tomlinson
Related Links
Basic Income Guarantee Australia
Jon Tomlinson's home page
Queensland University of Technology
Photo of John Tomlinson
Article Tools
Comment 2 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend
Latest from QUT
 The science of reporting climate change
 Why schools need more than a business plan
 Suburban resilience
 Science unlimited
 Wake-up call for science

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy