In an election year, policy
making is less about practical outcomes and more about symbolic gestures.
Leaders use policies to show that they share the values and priorities
of the electorate. And because nobody approves of people who laze around
on the dole, rip off Centrelink or drink their children’s welfare
money, no politician will openly oppose tougher mutual obligation requirements.
In the world of political symbols, to be against mutual obligation
is to be for bludging, rorting and child neglect.
During the 1996 election campaign,
Paul Keating’s advisers Don Watson and Don Russell urged him to tighten
mutual obligation requirements for unemployed people. According to journalist
Pamela Williams, Watson wanted to make an example of people on the dole
who were “gallivanting after possums up the east coast”. As he said
in his own memoir, this was a way for Keating to recognise the discontent
of ‘battlers’. And, he argued, “If their complaints derived more
from unlovely envy than actual hardship it was all the more urgent to
“Boob bait for the bubbas”
is what US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this strategy and
he noted that Bill Clinton resorted to it whenever he got into trouble.
The reason it’s “boob bait” is because it’s built around stereotypes
rather than real people. Nobody denies that there are some people who
take advantage of the welfare system, but no credible researcher will
claim ‘bludgers’ and ‘rorters’ make up even a significant minority
of claimants, let alone a majority.
For the unemployed, single
parents and people with disabilities, mutual obligation is about pushing
income support recipients into the labour market. It’s a combination
of help and hassle — but with the emphasis increasingly on hassle.
Mutual obligation sends a clear message — for those who can work,
life on benefits is no longer an option. But as well as the message,
there’s also a puzzle.
The current Minister for Employment
and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey, argues that “people of working
age are much better off financially and psychologically if they find
paid work.” If this is true then it’s hard to understand why income
support recipients need to be pushed. If work is so much better than
welfare, then why don’t people do the rational, self-interested thing
and find a job?
The combination of Hockey’s
claim with the increasing emphasis on hassle only makes sense if you
assume that welfare recipients can’t be trusted to act in their own
interests. This is the thrust of American academic Lawrence Mead’s
analysis of poverty. He argues that the non-working poor are incompetent
and need to have their lives managed by government officials. It is
an analysis that ministers like Tony Abbott have used to justify the
current, one-sided, approach to mutual obligation.
Politically, this is a convenient
analysis. By exempting income support recipients from the usual assumptions
about rational, self-interested behaviour, governments are able to satisfy
the sentiments of “unlovely envy” while at the same time claiming
that hassling income support recipients with increasingly burdensome
bureaucratic requirements is a form of compassion.
For people whose only contact
with poverty and income support reliance is television current affairs
programs, this justification might sound reasonable. But for those on
the front line — people like our member organisations at Catholic
Social Services Australia — it’s an oversimplified fiction.
People who depend on income
support face a diverse range of circumstances and challenges. Some have
family responsibilities that compete with work obligations. Others have
health, housing or personal problems that make it difficult to find
and keep work. Some would be far better placed to move into a job if
they could access mainstream education and training while others struggle
with negative employer attitudes towards older workers and people with
a disability. With the labour market strong and so many employers crying
out for work-ready staff, there’s never been a better time to help
people make the move from welfare to work. But the problem welfare agencies
face, is that government resources have been diverted to fund hassle
rather than help.
Non-government welfare agencies
are being drawn into an inflexible bureaucratic system which pushes
people — including mothers — into temporary, part-time and dead-end
jobs with little thought for their long-term aspirations or the needs
of their families. Schemes like Work for the Dole are being used to
deter people from claiming income support rather than prepare them from
work. As the flagship program of the current government’s mutual obligation
approach, Work for the Dole was intentionally designed without any vocational
training at all.
But on one issue, there’s
consensus. People who can work are almost always better off in a job
than they are on income support. So what’s missing from mutual obligation
is the mutual side of the equation. Instead of the usual election campaign
“boob bait”, Australian voters deserve a more creative, evidence-based
approach to helping people take care of their families and make the
move from welfare to work.
Frank Quinlan is Executive
Director of Catholic Social Services Australia. The discussion paper:
The Obligation is Mutual, was released on 29 October and is available