Making obligation mutual

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 recognise them.”

“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 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 at:



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