The false bottom of the magician's hat


Magician pulls rabbit out of hat

After reading reports commissioned by Government, my response is often like that of a small boy watching a magician. Everything is presented so reasonably, so logically. You know that an unwanted rabbit will be produced out of the hat, but you can’t quite work out how it will be done.

The McClure Review of Australia’s Welfare System reads reasonably and pleasantly, commends a variety of initiatives, good and bad,  states solid principles, and proceeds logically from a diagnosis to suggested cures. Yet you sense that things may turn out badly for the objects of the report: people who rely on income support. As is usual in magic the secret will lie in the false bottom of the magician’s hat. It will have a financial bottom line, but no human bottom line. 

The report criticises the present welfare system for being expensive, too complex, not well fitted to a modern economy, and for discouraging people from seeking work.  Its suggested remedies are designed to make the provision of welfare sustainable, to encourage people to move from welfare to work, to encourage employers to enable people to work, and to enable the community sector to smooth the path to work.

The dominant concern and strategy of the Report are to move people from dependence to be self-supporting through work. That will both benefit those relying on welfare and reduce the welfare budget. So the Report proposes limiting disability payments to those with a permanent disability, demanding that young people either study or apply for work, ensuring that it will be more advantageous to work than to live off welfare, enlarging the scope of mutual obligation and income management and encouraging social enterprises to facilitate employment. 

The Report recognises the need for programs to help disadvantaged people find work. It considers early childhood intervention to ensure that children have access to education, the improvement of service delivery to those with many needs and the adaptation of requirements for participation in study and work to individual need.

This report has many attractive features and others that raise concern. That people should be encouraged to learn and work, that welfare payments should regularly be simplified and targeted to the most needy, that the services provided to people should be delivered in a way from which they can benefit, that business and the community should be involved in enhancing the lives and opportunities of people: these are all worthy ideals. 

Some of these proposals may save government expenditure. Others will demand further expenditure if they are to be effective.  If young people are to find work, for example, work must be available. If participation is to be adapted to individuals, people must be employed to monitor their condition. If community groups are to be involved they must be resourced and preferred as tenderers to large corporations that promise economy of scale.

At the same time, large savings may not be easy to find. The Report fails to

 mention that the percentage of people receiving income support from the Government has dropped by about a third since 1997.  This reflects tighter targeting of support to the most needy. It is likely that a high proportion of those receiving support will need intensive support if they are to find work.

So the Government may be forced to name what matters most deeply in the revision of welfare: the flourishing of the people involved – of which education and employment are a part but not the only part - or the cutting of the welfare budget.  Its response will show whether it defines people by the economic contribution they can make through working, or by the broader claim they make on society by their naked humanity. 

The shape of the Report may encourage a narrow focus on economic considerations.  It certainly presupposes a thin account of human flourishing when it urges measures like income management and mutual obligation. Looked at from a broader human perspective they make vulnerable people, whom a poor sense of their own worth already makes dependent and apathetic, even less self-reliant and capable of taking initiative. The savings that increased demands for compliance produce will come from vulnerable people’s despair at meeting them.  

The Report also encourages a narrow economic focus by attending in some detail to measures that will cut costs, but leaving vague the ways in which disadvantaged people may be helped to connect with society through education and work. The examples given of programs that might be expanded, too, are often deal with relatively advantaged people, not with the most disadvantaged.  

For a Government set on cutting costs this Report will be easy to cherry pick by further depriving the already deprived. The risk is that it will not pull a white rabbit out of the hat, but a ferret.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Rabbit out of hat image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, welfare, McClure interim report, education, employment



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Existing comments

Patrick McClure, once a humble Franciscan friar, made it to CEO of Mission Australia - a rather 19th Century-thinking organisation IMHO - and corporate-think and corporate-speak. It is very hard to work within the bureaucracy or as a contractor to it in the Job Network without succumbing to this. As someone who worked both for the Job Network and its predecessor, I know. However, if you are at the coal face, as I was, including a six and a half year stint in Mt Druitt, NSW - a place where everything bad about alienation and poverty comes true - you realise your clients need a lot more than the standard panaceas you have to offer. As someone who has cousins in both the UK and USA, I fear the direction our country seems to be going in. Some places, like Mt Druitt, are not that far removed, as far as alienation and lack of opportunity to get up in the world go, from places like Black Hill (Glasgow) or inner Detroit. Neither I, nor my family, ever lived in places like that. We were fortunate. I pity the poor people who do. We appear to be doing nothing substantial to change their fate. Nothing. "Poor fellow my country"? You bet.

Edward Fido | 16 July 2014  

Do ferrets bite? (OH & S question).
Thinking seriously, though, about this article it seems the government does encourage a narrow focus on economic considerations. Perhaps disadvantaged people find courage, and usefulness, in small acts of day to day living. They need a living 'wage' though and that would take a government which prefers small theatre to large theatrics.

Pam | 17 July 2014  

This is for Andrew's information. The magician's hat does not have a false bottom. It has several wire-frame rabbits with white-rabbit skins on them, so designed that when you hold them across their shoulders they hang the same as flesh rabbits do. The magician removes them and places them in a box in which there are already several real rabbits, which are then removed and allowed to move round on the table.

Michael Grounds | 17 July 2014  

In the end, though, it's all a matter of sleight of hand, intended to deceive. Kath

Name | 17 July 2014  

An excellent analysis. I explained most of these issues to wide audiences after the previous McClure report obviously to no avail. Unfortunately the less marginalised have the loudest voices

Sheelah Egan | 17 July 2014  

In answer to Pam's question "Do ferrets bite?', the answer is yes, and they are more most likely to bite someone who is already injured. It seems that if they smell blood the attack instinct kicks in, so they bite. It seems that Andrew's reference to ferrets from the hat is most appropriate, as it is the already wounded who the current government seem most likely to bite.

Vin Victory | 17 July 2014  

I have worked in an area where such reports are produced. There is a very special skill, something akin to a magician's in writing them. There are no new ideas here. My experience with employers being offered bonuses to take on young employees is that many jump at the bonus, then become resentful when they realise that they must spend time (money) teaching the young person how to do the job. They also resent supporting their trainee to attend any required formal classes. Sounds good in theory, but the practice needs to be well understood for it to work.

Margaret McDonald | 17 July 2014  

I thank Michael Grounds for his contribution - even if he wrote that it was for Andrew's information. The trick exposed by Mr Grounds is an description of the trick played by the Government whereby it holds up fake rabbits before the election (e.g. the crisis in the economy) and afterwards holds up real rabbits (take your pick of their proposed warren of solutions to the confected crisis), which irresponsibly run off in all directions. It's a circus. Ta Ra! enter Clive Palmer the populist ringmaster....

Name | 17 July 2014  

Palmer having a revelation.

Game Theory | 17 July 2014  

...Everything is presented so reasonably, so logically. You know that an unwanted rabbit will be produced out of the hat, but you can’t quite work out how it will be done. Precisely, Andrew, and yes it is not simply, only a simulation:... Shall we play a game? you want to play?

Game Theory | 17 July 2014  

Thank you Michael Grounds for your lucid explanation. I've been pulling the "rabbit out of the hat" trick with my children over many years and now I have finally found out how it works!

john frawley | 17 July 2014  

This analysis highlights some of the massive challenges which will face our governments in looking ahead.Overall we are a country where people at all levels expect our needs/wants will be satisfied.Times are about to change for Australia--it will be tough for any government to fulfil expectations with fairness while demanding increased productivity

Brian | 17 July 2014  

A government that is bent on measuring everything from asylum seekers to welfare in dollar terms, is bent on propaganda rather than transparency. I can't help thinking of good old Goebbels.

Alex Njoo | 19 July 2014  

The problem with pulling a ferret out of the hat is that it will bite the rabbit, and either maim it or kill it outright. So either way, the poor and disadvantaged miss out, and we are left with a sense of disillusionment with this Government.

Kath | 26 July 2014  

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