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Vulnerable people must be at the heart of welfare reforms

  • 28 September 2016


There is much to like in Social Service Minister Christian Porter's presentation of proposed reforms to the welfare system. But it remains unclear what their primary goal is.

Porter and his ground troops in The Australian argue that, if unaddressed, the costs of welfare will be unsustainable. The proposed reforms will solicit programs aimed at weaning people from welfare. Their effectiveness will be rigorously evaluated. The principle of mutual obligation will require those who receive payments to apply regularly for work, participate in educational programs etc. This will provide them with an incentive to find work. Supporters of the reform herald a change of perspective that will see welfare through the prism of values, not of fairness.

There is much to welcome in these ideals. Who could fail to be delighted if people are helped to support themselves, if the claimed success of programs is supported by evidence, people take responsibility for their lives, and the welfare bill is reduced as people no longer need support?

The question left hanging, however, is what drives these changes. Is the human welfare of our fellow Australians the goal towards which the budgetary changes are a means? Or are budgetary savings the goal to which the treatment of our fellow Australians will be a means? The shape of change and its effects on people will depend on the answer to this question.

The advocacy for the changes suggests that saving money, not people, is their main object. The urgency for change derives from the massive welfare bill projected into the future. By far the largest item in it is pensions. Yet in arguing for change its supporters speak only of young people and carers. And even there the projections do not take notice of the changes of benefit categories.

This dissimulation has invited the familiar denigration of vulnerable groups. Independently, Porter has announced that Newstart will not be increased, and the new Treasury plan has declared that it will focus only on fiscal repair and not on wellbeing. All this suggests that the planned welfare changes may be the old neo-liberal wolf abed in a frilly ethical bonnet.

But let us suppose that the reform is guided by the human welfare of vulnerable people. What are the conditions necessary for it to work?

First, the government must accept its responsibility to ensure that the most vulnerable in society can live decently. That is both the index of a decent society