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The disappearing distinction between Labor and Coalition welfare policy

Is there a point of difference in Labor's welfare policy?The Labor Party has historically been a party committed to government intervention in the free market to promote a fairer distribution of income, and social protection for the poor and disadvantaged. However, the Hawke/Keating years arguably saw an abandonment of traditional laborist concerns around equity and fairness in favour of free market agendas. Social welfare policies were relegated to the mere alleviation of poverty, rather than being concerned with attacking structural inequities.

Since the federal election defeat of 1996, the federal ALP has struggled to define its core political values and beliefs. However, the ALP has adopted key Third Way concepts such as finding a balance between rights and responsibilities, promoting equality of opportunity, and greater social investment to promote the social inclusion of disadvantaged groups.

There is no doubt that economically the ALP continues to adhere to free market philosophy. The ALP endorses wealth creation, an "economic climate of enterprise and innovation", and active participation in a competitive global economy. Labor recognises the positive role that lower personal and company tax rates play in promoting economic growth, and has promised not to raise the overall level of taxation revenue as a proportion of GDP. Labor has committed to "keeping taxes as low as possible consistent with maintaining a sound revenue base to fund quality public services".

At the same time, the ALP remains devoted to core social justice concepts such as "fairness, equality, and a fair go for all". The ALP argues that government has a “unique and positive role” to play in supporting and complementing the contributions of individuals, families, communities and open markets. Government intervention ensures the universal provision of quality health care, education and a social safety net.

Specifically, the ALP believes in a "society that protects and supports those who face difficulties and disadvantage whether because of disability, illness, old age, misfortune or other factors that make it hard for a person to cope. Labor holds to its tradition of reaching out, embracing, protecting and supporting those in need — as well as supporting those who help people in need". However, this support for income security payments is qualified. Whilst the ALP claims to be the party of compassion, it clarifies that it "is not or should not be the party of welfarism".

The ALP recognises that Australians are "born with unequal chances in life", and has consistently supported a national plan to tackle poverty and disadvantage. They have created a Shadow Minister for Social Inclusion, and argue for greater social investment in social infrastructure and human capital to promote the social inclusion of those who are excluded from mainstream society.

Is there a point of difference in Labor's welfare policy?ALP policy acknowledges the research of Tony Vinson which identifies the relationship between specific suburbs or postcodes and chronic disadvantage. Structural barriers to employment are recognised such as lack of relevant skills, child care, inadequate social and physical infrastructure, and negative employer attitudes. Proposed solutions include greater investment in early childhood development, health care including a national dental program, access to computers and the internet, and lifelong education and training to develop relevant skills.

The ALP is highly critical of current Coalition policies. The current leader Kevin Rudd claims that John Howard is a market fundamentalist and disciple of the famous hardline neo-liberal theorist, Friedrich Hayek. In contrast to Hayek and Howard, Rudd argues that social democrats reject a purely market-driven allocation of resources, and instead seek to balance the competing claims of liberty and equity.

Nevertheless, the ALP and the Coalition still share some significant commonalities. For example, the ALP supports the principle of mutual obligation including the expectations that individuals return "support from the community by finding employment as soon as is practicable". But they add that mutual obligation should be a two way street, and include positive incentives such as the government taking responsibility for providing training and employment opportunities.

The ALP supports the work for the dole scheme, but argues that it should include a formal training component that targets attaining real employment rather than merely meeting activity obligations. Similarly, the ALP does not oppose benefit sanctions per se, but argues that they should be fair and balanced. It also broadly supports proposals to move sole parents and the disabled from welfare to work, but argues that current Coalition policies simply reduce payments and increase hardships whilst failing to provide necessary supports such as transport, child care and skills training.

In addition, the ALP supports the existing Job Network, but argues that greater resources should be devoted to early intervention and support, to developing the capacities and skills of the unemployed, and to promoting long-term jobs rather than insecure, short-term positions.

In summary, there is some convergence between Labor and Coalition social policies. Both believe the poor will benefit most from successfully integrating into the free market system, although the ALP acknowledges that market failure exists, and that economic growth alone will not ensure social fairness. Both parties also disapprove of long-term passive reliance on welfare payments, and neither seek to enhance the availability of social rights outside the labour market.

But there is also some significant divergence both in terms of their definition of the causes of social problems, and potential solutions. In particular, the ALP gives a greater emphasis to structural rather than individual causes of disadvantage, and generally does not use the tough anti-dole bludger language favoured by the Coalition. It also views poverty and inequality as unacceptable outcomes that need to be addressed by government intervention, whilst the Coalition seems more content to leave these problems to be resolved by the free market. In addition, the ALP places a more positive focus on incentives and opportunities, rather than a negative emphasis on blaming the victim. The ALP also seems committed to more generous spending on social investment.

The ALP could arguably more effectively distinguish itself philosophically from the Coalition by taking the following steps:

  1. Changing the name of Work for the Dole to something more neutral or apolitical such as the Work First or Preparation for Work program. This name change would signal to the community that the program was about preparing the unemployed for the workforce, rather than stigmatising or punishing them for being unemployed.
  2. The ALP could review and reduce the penalties for failing to meet mutual obligation requirements. In particular, the ALP could work closely with welfare NGOs to ensure that policies focused on identifying and addressing barriers to seeking employment, rather than punishment.
  3. The ALP could insist that all Job Network providers invite at least one local unemployed person to join their Board, and also consult with representative groups of unemployed people in developing their policies and procedures. This policy would demonstrate that the ALP was willing to use a community development approach including listening to and utilising the experiences and expertise of unemployed people in developing locally-based solutions to unemployment.



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