Finding themselves flummoxed by the former Government's Northern Territory intervention, parts of Australia's progressive movements were unsure how to respond. In the rush to take a large step sideways from positions in which one might risk being labelled as indifferent to child abuse, an opportunity was lost to debate the methodologies and philosophies mobilised to achieve the former Government's stated aim to protect Aboriginal children.
The NT intervention legislation invited questions around what circumstances, if any, a government can claim moral legitimacy in stripping Aboriginal communities of rights that others take for granted.
By 'quarantining' Aborigines' welfare payments to ensure they could spend their money only on certain items, the Howard Government played at social engineering to an extraordinary degree, attempting to control even which shop people choose to buy their groceries from.
Aborigines in communities covered by the intervention lost the right to appeal Centrelink decisions regarding quarantining and 'income management' — although the connection between exercising your right to review government decisions and child abuse remains unclear.
In effect, the Howard Government saw welfare payments as contingent on recipients conforming to notions of 'acceptable citizenship' — those who abrogated their family and community responsibilities were denied basic living support.
The methodology of the intervention was made possible in part by an evolving conception of recipients of Centrelink payments as, at best, in need of the firm guiding hand of the bureaucracy and, at worst, as would-be (or actual) criminals taking the government and its ever-suffering taxpayers for a ride.
This attitude is manifested in a culture of punishment within Centrelink and its parent departments — particularly the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. An obvious example of this punitive approach appeared in the Welfare-to-Work legislation, according to which job-seekers can be left with no benefits for up to eight weeks for missing appointments or turning down jobs.
The manner in which this legislation is being implemented was exposed in a series of newspaper stories. One man reportedly had his payment cancelled for missing an appointment with Centrelink. Apparently, he didn't have a 'reasonable excuse' for missing the appointment despite Centrelink being advised by paramedics that he had collapsed in the Centrelink queue and was being taken to hospital.
More recently, the Sydney Morning Herald exposed what welfare rights advocates had long been observing — that the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has been spending big running a legal campaign to recoup sometimes tiny amounts of money from unrepresented Centrelink clients.
The Howard Government's election promise to refuse welfare payments to people convicted of certain drug offences demonstrated the extent of the Government's agenda to reform recipients of social security payments into 'worthwhile' members of the community. The myth that government can so easily manipulate lifestyles is one which will need to be confronted by the Rudd Government if it aims to reform Australia's groaning social security system. It is based on unproven assumptions about the nature of job-seekers and pensioners.
Recent emphasis on penalties and payment suspensions for people who 'fail to participate' adequately in the labour market is indicative of a suspicious pessimism about the motivations and goals of those who are unemployed, raising children, or living with disabilities. Those who claim Centrelink payments expose themselves to invasions of privacy that would make the humblest aged pensioner feel like a criminal. In the name of thwarting 'welfare cheats' and 'Centrelink frauds', Australian citizens are exposed to large-scale bureaucratic busy-bodying.
Equally, recent welfare reforms assume governments have the capacity to change people's behaviour — to take unmotivated individuals and convert them into productive members of society — by forcing them to leap bureaucratic hurdles of appointments, interviews, job diaries, statements, forms and job capacity assessments.
There is no point in using the social security system in this way. It doesn't work. Participation obligations, far from making you feel the government's love and concern, can give the eerie sensation of having your local MP in bed with you. It can give the impression that the government assumes you will behave badly and, in so doing, possibly encourage the proverbial one-fingered salute through resistance to participation.
The underlying assumptions of the social security system need to change, with the focus shifted to assistance and empowerment rather than coercion and punishment. Reforms should be proposed with an eye to compassion, to providing real skills and training and to dealing with the underlying issues — racism, mental health, poverty, education — which have a far greater impact on workforce participation than bone laziness. In this way, better outcomes for individuals might be achieved.
• Welfare to Work Reforms
Susie Byers has worked as a welfare rights advocate and tenants advocate at a community legal centre in Perth. She is currently researching a PhD in History at the University of Western Australia and is co-authoring a chapter of the forthcoming history of UWA.