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  • Beyond deserving and undeserving: Shifting perspectives on welfare

Beyond deserving and undeserving: Shifting perspectives on welfare

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Since its election in May 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his team have done well in navigating the challenges of a new government. As with all governments the pressure of incumbency will begin to mount with expectations that the Prime Minister will take the necessary actions to address issues currently impacting Australians. The ever-increasing price of food, services, rents, and mortgages as well as the Voice to Parliament, ongoing issues with health care funding and responding to the various natural disasters affecting thousands of people across the country are no doubt front of mind for the Albanese government.

Good governments are able to focus on both short-term issues and longer-term reforms — they can walk and chew gum at the same time. If there was one longer-term reform which the Albanese government should turn its mind to it is that of reform to our tax and transfer system, and in particular our social security system. For too long, governments from both sides have regarded our social security system as a cost to be managed, promoting it as the most targeted welfare system in the OECD. For some, this view of the social security system is worn as a badge of honour but in truth it reflects a system which needs a complete overhaul from foundational principles to implementation.

A welcome development in this longer-term reform agenda is the Albanese government’s newly established Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, chaired by former Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin. The Committee’s primary function is to provide advice on economic inclusion including policy settings, systems and structures, as well as the adequacy, effectiveness and sustainability of income support payments. Its remit also includes examining options to reduce barriers and disincentives to work. At a time of labour shortages and some 760,000 people on jobseeker, addressing both the adequacy of jobseeker payments and how to reduce the number of people needing the payment is an important first step.

For there to be any semblance of sustainable reform in this space, the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee will need to grapple with several issues, most importantly that of the principle of employment mutuality. Employment mutuality in this case refers to an obligation placed upon governments and our economic system to provide everyone who can and wants to work a job at the minimum wage — a job guarantee, if you like. This is in stark contrast to the current idea of mutual obligation which is placed on recipients of jobseeker payments to apply for a minimum number of jobs or participate in ‘work for the dole’ schemes.

Too often workers have been treated as the economy’s shock absorber in times of economic downturn. The consequences for those workers who are retrenched can be significant, especially for those who remain detached from the labour market for any significant period of time. It is well established that the longer someone is detached from the workforce the harder it is for them to get back into paid work.

Policies which promote attachment and limit the period of detachment from the labour market must be a priority of the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee.


'The Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee would do well to consider a job guarantee and some fundamental reforms to how we engage and deal with those without work.' 


While the principle of a job guarantee is essential to any meaningful reform of the social security system, so too is the attitude we hold towards those who access welfare payments. For too long we have allowed a public discourse on welfare to include the idea of the deserving and undeserving. We seem comfortable with the 2.5 million older Australians on the age pension, costing the federal budget $55 billion annually, as being deserving of welfare. Yet the 760,000 unemployed on jobseeker payments, who cost the federal budget around $14 billion, somehow don’t deserve support.

One might think that the rhetoric of deserved and undeserved is limited to the radio shock jocks and tabloids. Unfortunately, it’s not.

The very design of our social security system further ingrains our society’s attitude toward the unemployed. Take for example the Liquid Assets Waiting Period Test. Applicants for jobseeker will have access to payments delayed for up to 13 weeks if they have more than a certain amount of cash or other ‘liquid assets’ to draw upon whilst they are without work.

The intention of this test is to provide jobseeker payments to only those without sufficient means to support themselves whilst unemployed. The problem is that it requires people who become unemployed to draw down on their personal savings to meet the costs of their housing and living needs and the increased cost associated with finding a new job. In essence the system design places more financial pressure on the unemployed person at the very time they are looking to secure a new job.

There is inherent dignity in work. Work drives our market-based economy and delivers us prosperity. The Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee would do well to consider a job guarantee and some fundamental reforms to how we engage and deal with those without work. Who knows? The question of what is an adequate amount of jobseeker payment may become moot, if everyone who wants a job has one.





Joe Zabar is the Chair of Mercy Works Ltd and an Advisor on Strategy and Policy.

Main image:  A waitress at work. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Joe Zabar, AusPol, Jobs, Social Security, Welfare, Reform



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Existing comments

There has always been a stigma attached to those receiving the unemployment benefit. Until one becomes retrenched and unemployed, those critical of the process will never understand that the allowance is below that described as the poverty line and life is not easy on this payment. Most people want to work but prior to covid, jobs were in short supply and work experience, qualifications and seniority didn't seem to matter as the corporate and government worlds crashed and burned thousands of positions thus cutting costs and maximizing profits. What one person did in a job description a decade ago, now one person is expected to do the work of two or more people for the same pay. Not everybody can multi-skill and it doesn't often result in improved workplace efficiency but employee stress and burn out.
Adding to the problem of the unemployed has been the "job network" of privatised agencies that have participants jumping through their hoops which they count and report to government as outcomes meanwhile wasting a job seekers time, adding to their travelling expense and having the capacity (removed from government) to punish those they deem as non compliant. This could just be late or missing a meeting. A job seeker needs a functioning mobile phone/computer/tablet and e-mail address to engage and this cost is not subsidised by government. The Social Security Act says that nobody should be further financially disadvantaged through any government program. It's time to reinstate the "non for profit" Commonwealth Employment service.

Cam RUSSELL | 03 February 2023  

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