Why Tony Abbott is right about welfare


When people talk about work-life balance it's easy to get the idea that work is a necessary evil — something we do to make money so we can spend the rest of our time doing the things that really matter. But that's not how Pope John Paul II thought about work. He insisted that work is how we find fulfillment. It isn't just about making money to live; it's one of the ways we live life to the full.

That's why I agree with Tony Abbott's argument that we need to reform the welfare system, even though I disagree with some of his suggestions on how to do it.

(Continues below)



In a recent interview on ABC radio, the leader of the opposition argued that work isn't just about the economy, it's also about individual welfare and the social fabric. What he didn't want to see 'is people who might be participants in the economy just parked forever on welfare when there is an alternative'.

One of the things worrying Abbott is the growing number of people on the Disability Support Pension. He suspects many people on this payment could benefit from work but aren't because of a welfare system that focuses too much on what they can't do and not enough on what they can. He's right.

Our welfare system is disabling. With unemployment payments at around $237 a week, there's no mystery about why a person who's struggling to find work would want to apply for the higher, but still inadequate Disability Support Pension (around $335 per week). But to claim the pension you need to keep showing how your disability makes it impossible for you to work. In other words, you need to focus on what you can't do rather than what you can. That's not the right approach.

The first step in fixing this problem is to eliminate the gap between unemployment payments and the pension. Unemployment payments are too low and need to be increased. The system is encouraging people to focus on their disabilities when it should be encouraging them to think about what they have to offer an employer.

The second step is to make sure that people who can work have real opportunities to work. One way of doing this is to follow Denmark's example and create 'flex jobs' that come with wage subsidies for employers. It may be that in the short term creating subsidised jobs costs more than what government saves on income support. But as Abbott argues, work has benefits for individuals and the social fabric that go beyond the benefits to the economy.

Part of the dignity of work comes from knowing you are making a contribution. This is why Abbott's proposal to expand work for the dole sends the wrong message. It reinforces the idea that people on income support have it too easy and that being forced to work will make being on welfare less attractive. It sends the message that work is a bad thing and that any person who values their own wellbeing will try to avoid it.

A better idea is to reinvigorate the idea of mutual obligation. If a job seeker has done everything they can to find work but keeps getting knocked back by employers, the community should accept an obligation to provide a subsidised job, help the person overcome their barriers to work or both. Employers also have obligations, and sometimes it is employers who put up barriers. The government needs to find ways of making it easier for employers to meet their obligations.

One place to start is with government itself: the Australian public service. Despite a strategy aimed at hiring and retaining staff with disabilities, the proportion of Commonwealth public servants with a disability has fallen. The public service should be setting an example for other employers and demonstrating that job opportunities exist for people with disabilities if they choose to pursue them.

Like other major employers, the Catholic Church could also lead the charge to ensure there are opportunities for those experiencing disabilities and other barriers.

For policy makers, it's a mistake to focus on the resentments of people who sit in focus groups or ring shock jocks complaining about 'dole bludgers' and demanding benefit cuts and more work for the dole. Too often people assume that if they can find a job easily, everyone else can as well. A failure of empathy is never a good basis for policy.

The key to good policy is to focus on the benefits of work and look at ways to offer those benefits to as many people as possible. When we start thinking about work as a punishment or burden we've lost sight of why moving people from welfare to work matters.

Frank QuinlanFrank Quinlan is the executive director of Catholic Social Services Australia. 


Topic tags: Frank Quinlan, Tony Abbott, welfare, disability support pension



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Existing comments

I am totally disagree about tony abott's intentions in the welfare reform, in fact 200 words are not enough to describe how inhuman or even criminal these reforms can be, instead of attacking to the vulnerable people in this society, why not to tax the mining company and the banks, why politicians are scared to tax the rich people, in short there is a hidden agenda and always against the poor or the most vulnerable.

Roberto Monterrosa | 04 April 2011  

One major factor preventing 'disabled' from employment is social perception. Those diagnosed with a mental disability are knocked back even though their disability is often cyclical and with correct medication is controled. They therefore only require occasional leave. Likewise those with a chronic illness. Their problem is often that their condition fluctuates so they cannot always attend work on a daily basis. Again, they are rejected time and time again by employers.

Michelle | 04 April 2011  

Until Abbott puts forward a proposal to limit massive corporate salaries, I'll find his position on the incomes of people at the bottom of the scale disgusting.

len puglisi | 04 April 2011  

Now please before any able bodied person comes up with academic and other solutions to getting the disabled into work please can they try and live as a disabled for a day or a week!
Than you may get some more empathy and true understanding of the trials that a genuine disabled person endures in thir daily life! Yes please get disabled involved back into the community via work or other schemes as sometimes its so very lonely being disabled!

But until politicians and others have lived with disabled on a daily basis they really cannot ascertain how hard it is to say go from being able bodied to being disabled. See disabled people often still have good minds and hence disabled reading this article may want to know that the motives for getting disabled people back working are genuine and not just to cut back the numbers! The disabled go through enough every day so they need well thought out initiatives to get them back and working if possible, and not just some politicians of either side who may just thinking that disabled are an easy target!

TRY IT. | 04 April 2011  

An unfortunate and misleading headline

James Kane | 04 April 2011  

Actions of a former time come back to bite!At a time when government wanted to reduce unemployment stats-under which government I can't remember-many longer term unemployed were actively transfered to disability pensions-some may well have benefited from active assistance with skills and employment.

Diana Batzias | 04 April 2011  

I'm an agnostic and wouldn't vote for Abbott in a fit but find Frank Quinlan's article eminently sensible.

Bill Hampel | 04 April 2011  

Author's note for James, my proposed heading was as follows;

Abbott is right: Work is better than welfare

Frank Quinlan | 04 April 2011  

An important reason for encouraging and enabling more people back to work,including those suffering from a disability, is that all too often unemployment becomes an hereditary condition and the children of the unemployed can come to regard it as the norm.

That said, the authorities need to address the problem in an humane way. Terms like "work for the dole" are very degrading.

David | 04 April 2011  

I agree with Frank Quinlan's article. I have retired from work for some years now, for health reasons. I haven't been on unemployment benefits (I have most of what I need). However, after a long, productive career, I would value some sort of flexi-work programme which wouldn't make the same demands on my health. This, at least, would give me the opportunity simply to know that I can help to make a contribution to our society. The return'journey' to a limiting life-style has been traumatic. Maybe some help in this area could be an added bonus, too.

And as for the chorus of cruel, criminal, no compassion, wrecker, whenever Abbot opens his mouth, that's just to be expected, not because of his politics, but, it seems, just because he has become the whipping boy for every malcontent who wants to have a go at something/someone, for whatever reason.

millie | 04 April 2011  

Frank Quinlan says "the Catholic Church could also lead the charge to ensure there are opportunities for those experiencing disabilities and other barriers." He conveniently forgets to mention that one of those barriers is not being a Catholic. The Catholic church are one of the most discriminatory organisations in existence, probably why they are becoming increasingly irrelevant these days.

FG | 04 April 2011  

It might help if there was really work out there. Some people are just not quallified to do anything we should be doing more at school. What is happening re apprenticeships not every one wants or can afford to go to university. And we need trades people. The ones we have are getting older who is going to take their place. More apprenticeships, please.

irena springfield | 04 April 2011  

This article has some valid points, but don't tar us all with the same brush. There is a spectrum of abilities for people on the DSP and some of us are on the lower end of it. Chronic illness and pain, means that having a shower and cooking a meal is a major achievement in my day. I lowered my expectations because I had to, not by choice.

For some of us this proposal would simply burden an already burdened existence, which is not humane in my mind.

Naomi | 04 April 2011  

When I first read the headline I thought the word "right" had been omitted as in "right wing".

We are all participants in the economy - not just those who work at earning a living.
And those who do work don't always get fairly remunerated. Some get too little. Some get so much they don't know what to do with it.

We need some clarity on the division of labor that makes the Australian economy work.

I am not going to try to do that in the few words left for my comments.
But I do think of the unpaid work done in families with a stay-at-home parent; of the the unpaid work done by full-time and part-time volunteers in a myriad of church, social, community and service organisations; the unpaid work performed by staff to help small businesses through difficulties with cash flow.

The key to good policy is to focus on the benefits of paid and unpaid work and to look at ways to offer those benefits to as many people as possible - even the work-shy. If we don't take into account unpaid work, employment policy will be flying with one wing - Mr Abbott's right wing.

Uncle Pat | 04 April 2011  

Author's note for FG

When you consider the whole of the social services ministry, the health ministry and the education ministry I have no doubt that the Catholic church employs many more non-Catholics than Catholics - and gladly so. Your criticism is not supported by the facts; though I do accept that for some positions, where it is important to the Church's mission, the church prefers to employ Catholics.

I do think the Church could do a much better job of employing people with disabilities, and that was the point of my comment.

Frank Quinlan | 04 April 2011  

There is a huge hole in the logic of Frank's article. He casts retired people onto some sort of scrap heap because they do not find fulfillment in work. I know a GP who advises his patients to take retirement seriously because it is the only retirement they will have and because they are valuable in themselves. It is not their work which makes them valuable human beings.

Gerry Costigan | 04 April 2011  

Tony Abbott, should try being profoundly deaf from birth and try to get a job ,like my grandson. Then perhaps he may appreciate how hard the life battle is for the disabled. He wouldn't have a clue just how soul destroying disablement is for those afflicted with lifetime disabling ailments. After some 400 job applications my grandson feels totally disenfranchised from life.

David | 04 April 2011  

If Tony Abbott had been left out of this article it would have been a non-controversial statement of something that everybody on all sides of politics agrees with.

An attempt to rehabilitate Abbott fails however because "By their deeds ye shall know them" and Abbott what a senior minister in a long serving government that pushed more and more people from the unemployment benefit onto to the disability pension, for the reason mentioned. He has no credibility on social welfare issues.

Russell | 04 April 2011  

The same subject matter though with the title of: 'Meeting the participation challenge' could be read on the ABC's in the National Interest program: http://www.abc.net.au/inthenationalinterest

Joyce | 04 April 2011  

A major flaw in Abbott's "reasoning" is that he conflates disability with unemployed, seemingly for his own advantage. The line that a previous government off-loaded unemployed onto the Disability Pension is really hard to believe as it isn't at all easy to get the Disability Support Pension in the first place. In fact it's very difficult.

When he and the Coalition and the Chamber of Commerce are prepared to give up at least some of their corporate welfare I'll believe that he has a gram of empathy.
There are thousands of diseases which afflict enough to make it impossible to work, and thousands of carers who have been taken for granted by governments of both persuasions, and that wasn't corrected until Kevin Rudd became the PM and raised the pensions including carers. If Tony Abbott ever becomes PM he will "adjust the amount down"; nothing could be more certain.

John Howard knew how to divide and separate the community and Abbott is using the same dog-whistles now.
Incidentally, Disability Support recipients can, if they are able to work fifteen hours a week, earn a little more money to cover their living expenses, but for the many who are not well enough it's a very tough road and is not the life stlye of choice.
A person's IQ can only increase by 2% from birth, but empathy can continue to grow throughout life, except, it seems in the case of Mr. Abbott.

Phil | 04 April 2011  

Bravo! Gerry Costigan you have hit the nail on the head. I expect commentary, especially by a leading Christian, on the economy to establish some basic human values - not to be sucked into a debate on dole bludgers/social security cheats/welfare addicts because of some mealy-mouthed utterances by Mr Abbott.

Uncle Pat | 04 April 2011  

As always, whether it is a Pope or an Abbott, it is easy to come up with a little dogma and find a reason to justify it. Unfortunately, it gets messy when we try to force messy, real life into the straightjacket of this dogma.

It would be wonderful if we could all have the same opportunities, but there are any number of reasons why some people would have great difficulty working, as has been attested to by some writers here already.

We are trying to find work experience for our autistic son, for instance. That means free labour for the "employer". But even at no price, we get asked questions: "Is he physically disabled? Is he intellectually disabled? Well, we might be able to fit him into the bakery (no customer contact), but first we have to overcome a little management problem..."

Perhaps 2% of autistic people are employed. Those who do get a job mostly can't keep it because they have no impulse control. As parents, we will forever need to be at the end of a phone, to deal with the problems his condition creates. Or will Mr Abbott employ support workers to do that for us?

Frank S | 04 April 2011  

I believe people on welfare don't get enough incentive. Just consider how much it costs to travel. And to put money aside from general expenditure can be a challenge. And there needs an approach for each individual differently - rather not bureaucratically assume everyone must be the same. Australia can salvage many people from welfare system if there is enough incentive for everyone depends on the needs. This can be costly in short term. I don't believe in rewardless work-for-the-dole. You go there and in the end, you get nothing that is recognized by the mainstream. Rather give people real opportunity at TAFE or alike and let them get real thing - this includes apprenticeship. Unless you can go with 'enough' small sum of money to spend on whatever you need to improve, even a little bit, the system fails and I hate politicians who ignore that reality and saying too much idealistically. There are real people at the very bottom of the society. Every country has these type(s) of people. And not every country helps these people like Australia does. It seems Australians are quite lucky - at least they don't have to see baggers on the street (too much). :)

AZURE | 04 April 2011  

I agree. It is the dignity of work that has been degraded for a number of reasons, including the sense that only a fool works if he can avoid it. This attitude is corrosive both to those who work and those who don't or won't. There are no winners in a world that sees work as a necessary evil. There are many other issues in this work/life balance but if we only value one pole of it we will become lazy and complacent.

graham patison | 05 April 2011  

Mungo Mc Callum, on www.abc.net.au/thedrum has also contributed to this debate, his article is entitled: 'Canberra, we have a problem'.

Joyce | 05 April 2011  

Frank slips over the thoughts that work that dignifies the individual and contributes to the community is not necessarily paid work and not all paid work lifts the dignity of the individual nor contributes to the community. Work can be demeaning e.g. prostitution to take an extreme. Not all work contributes to the community e.g. fast food outlets or dodgy financial advisers. Surely nice debating points if nothing more. Much more important is my experience that an overdue emphasis on people with a disability finding work aggravates the condition of some people. I am close to several people who want paid work, who are made to feel bad because they are not in paid work and who, time after time, attempt work in paid employment only to find that the stress of the workplace aggravates their condition so badly that they end up in hospital or too ill to leave the house. Policies are often dreamed up by bureaucrats or by people with a disability who are highly functioning. The effect on people who are more vulnerable is ignored. In the area of people who find it difficult to find or to hold a job, simplistic generalities do not help. We are talking about human beings and each human being is unique with a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Any program or attempt at solution must start with the individual human being.

Sheelah Egan | 05 April 2011  

I think it would be a great idea if they spent some money on helping people get into into some work they want. My son has been on a pension for mental health reasons and there is no program for work experience - if someone just gave him a bit a PRACTICAL assistance it would save alot of mnney in the long run. i think people would be shocked to find out how complex even applying for a job in a supermarket is - it's all online for a start, and takes about an hour to fill out. there isnt any HUMAN connection in the whole process which makes it very daunting for young people without any confidence.

Valery Valentine | 05 April 2011  

Regarding the suggestion by FG that one must be a Catholic to work in a Catholic Organisation; as both an administrator of one such organization and director of several others, may I confirm the total fallacy of this assumption. There is a rich diversity of individuals, chosen for their talents, not religion, the latter not even coming into question. There is even a non-Catholic employed at my local Parish office, and she was supported through several major health episodes which have long since rendered her eligible for a government benefit.

MP | 06 April 2011  

Tony Abbott's proposed welfare reforms show just how completely out of touch he is. So many vulnerable people already fall through the cracks of our already flawed system and struggle to survive on the pittance they receive... just look at the homeless population we have in Melbourne. To target the disabled and long term unemployed in this way is cruel, and to lump all of these people into the same category is simplistic and ignorant.

Laura | 06 April 2011  

Authors note: Just to acknowledge some very thoughtful feedback and comment, thanks. I agree with a number of comments that identify one of the major problems with the whole "welfare to work debate"; ie that it tends to downplay the value of non-paid labour (carers, are one important example of this) and also the dignity and value of other forms of "social participation", volunteering for example. Dignified and well deserved retirement is another form of such social participation. This article dealt specifically with workforce policies and was certainly not intended to de-value other forms of social contribution that are just as important as paid work. Perhaps this demonstrates a sad and increasing tendency for us to discuss social policy more from the perspective of "building an economy", rather than "building a society".

Frank Quinlan | 08 April 2011  

Frank Quinlan doesn't know much about the work place and what goes on. It might be a good idea if he actually put himself in the position of the less socially mobile. Tony Abbot needs a lesson is "real" life as well.

Harry G | 08 April 2011  

I recently asked a professional painter who suffers from an mental illness to do some work for me, he is on an disability pension. He was self employed once and now works occasionally, as he feels it is his duty to contribute to society,and I noticed.. at great expense to his health. He set his own hours and worked according how he felt on the day.I left the task/hours totally up to him, his work was excellent.It took much longer than usual,since I am a pensioner and not working it did not worry me. A disabled person needs to be able to say "I can not do anymore work today,I am too tired,feel unwell etc. Is the workforce ready for that kind of flexibility?

Mr Abbott ask the question to some of your disabled constituents:"How are you Feeling today"!No one knows how a disabled person feels on any particular day! We all need to learn to go with the flow,.. so tear up your old,old policy and come up with something original, try a little "Humanity" Mr Abbott, you get paid a generous salary to come up with innovating ideas.

elisabeth | 09 April 2011  

Tony abbott has the fight values to put together the best policy for australia. as seen in his views expresses above. he is better placed to tackle the difficult changes necessary at this time snd has more knowledge than any other person on either side of politics. it is time to stop the faction fighting and give him the support he deserves to get on with the job.

anne whitson | 19 July 2011  

Sounds like the classic "suffering brings them closer to God" ideology that Catholics are known and hated for.

Thomas Morison | 12 August 2014  

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