I graduated in Social Work in 1964 and back then, in Australia, we were three quarters of the way through the 23 years of unbroken conservative rule. The prevailing welfare ideology of the time was heavily influenced by the combination of providing assistance to those ‘in need’ whilst sifting out ‘malingers’ and others who could but wouldn’t work. There was a sense of noblesse oblige [nobility obliges one to assist others less fortunate than oneself]. Yet such ‘generosity’ was hedged around by a prevailing view that some people were ‘bludging’ on the system and this meant that social security officials were wary of being taken for a mug. Fortunately, the Labor Party had consolidated the social security legislation in 1947 in one Act and set out eligibility entitlements in clearly defined categories. The ideological biases of social security administrators only came into play at the edges. In church run and other not-for-profit organisations, which supplied many of the ancillary welfare services, such conservative ideologies were very much to the fore.
Competing welfare ideological circles
In tropical Australia on full and new moons [which create huge tidal flows] currents flow very strongly. Whenever such flows are constricted, for example, by the narrowing of passages between islands, ocean eddies are formed that are so powerful they can force boats off course. Such eddies form patterns which are as unpredictable as the turbulence created in a jug of boiling water. Whenever I listen to neo-conservative economic fundamentalists pontificating about the propensity of social security recipients to sink into the “mire of welfare dependency” I have a sense of deja vu. As I try to untangle the twisted amalgams of ideological thought, I am reminded of the turbulence of these ocean eddies. At the same time in my mind’s eye, I see a gatekeeper of an 18th century Poorhouse berating those who enter with warnings about impending ‘sloth and licentiousness’.
Some of the competing descriptions exhibiting such ideological constructions are:
socially approved/ deserving/ good moral character- including previously adequately supporting ‘his’ family. Married/ widowed/ unmarried mother/ separated/ divorced/ living in sin. Citizen/ permanent resident/ migrant/ refugee/ over stayers / asylum seekers/ boat people/ illegal arrivals. Worthy/ entitled/unworthy. Universalism/ individual/ targeted/ categorical. Able bodied/ disability /sick/ malingerer/ blind/ old/ worker/ unemployed/ skilled/ unskilled/ contributing/ productive/ unproductive/ dependent/ self-reliant/ adequate/ inadequate/ helpless / hopeless/ taxpayer/ dole bludger.
Many of these ideological conundrums and often several other arcane protestations pop up when neo-conservatives discuss welfare issues and they have been doing much the same for many centuries. Joel Handler (2002 p. 56, footnote No. 217) pointed to 1348 Statute of Labourers admonishing the provision of assistance to ‘sturdy beggars’. Guy Standing (2002, pp. 173-174) makes the point that: “the principles of workfare were enshrined in the English Poor Law of 1536 dealing with ‘sturdy vagabonds’, and in the French Ordonnance de Moulins of 1556. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act in Great Britain, was designed to reach only the ‘deserving’ and desperate poor (italics in original)”. Jennifer Mays (forthcoming) notes that similar ideological constructions prevailed in Australia throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. There is little doubt that those who wish to limit the scope or generosity of income support provisions find the frequent repetition of dependency rhetoric useful. However, it should be noted that the veracity of an idea is not established by its longevity nor by how frequently it is asserted.
The distinctions which neo-conservatives attempt to make in these dependency/ self reliance debates are based on distortions of reality. They are, as Joshua Holland (2006) notes, “a ‘zombie lie’ – no matter how many times you shoot it in the face, it keeps coming back to haunt you.”
Currently, in Australia, the favourite prevailing welfare myths are:
- Australians pay high levels of taxation compared with the rest of the world,
- asylum seekers without visas arriving by boat are entering Australia illegally,
- Aborigines get exceedingly generous welfare payments compared with other citizens, and
- there is such a thing as a ‘self-funded retiree’.
The reality is that:
- “Australia has a low tax burden, both currently and historically. In 2003, Australia had the eighth lowest tax burden of the OECD-30 countries and has typically ranked in the bottom third of countries for the period since 1965” (Treasury 2003).
- Because Australia has signed and ratified the 1951 Convention on Refugees asylum seekers have every right to enter this country to seek protection.
- As a group, Aboriginal citizens are the least wealthy section of the society, who face the greatest health difficulties and they get less generous assistance than other Australians. This is sometimes because of the rural and remote regions in which they live. But mainly it is often due to Indigenous people’s lack of bureaucratic sophistication coupled with non-Aboriginal racism and governments’ determination to foist their ‘best intentions’ upon Indigenous citizens rather than to listen to Aboriginal peoples’ suggestions.
- The statement that, unlike age pensioners, ‘self-funded retirees’ don’t draw on the public purse’ is a nonsense – they get exceedingly generous tax waivers on their superannuation and, provided their income is below $50,000 annually, get government subsidised medicines. Some of the recently beatified ‘self-funded retirees’ get more assistance from the government (by way of tax concessions) than age pensioners get from the pension.
The left is left behind
The absence of logic, in many of the arguments propounded by rightwing ideologues about the need to force recipients of social security to meet onerous obligations in return for payment of benefits, should make it easy to destroy their arguments. But in Australia, as elsewhere, this is not the case. As George Monbiot points out:
rightwing movements thrive on their contradictions, the leftwing movements drown in them. Tea Party members who proclaim their rugged individualism will follow a bucket on a broomstick if it has the right label … Instead of coming together to fight common causes, leftwing meetings today consist of dozens of people promoting their own ideas, and proposing that everyone else should adopt them.
Australia in the 21st century
After the economic fundamentalist and thirdwayism of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments in the 1980s and 90s. John Howard came to power, in 1996, promising even more economic fundamentalism coupled with conservative social policies. He set out, with alacrity, to fight the ‘Culture Wars’ it didn’t matter whether it was winding back the Native Title legislation ‘to give pastoralists more certainty’, removing industrial award protection, enforcing individual work contracts, setting up Star Chambers which compelled building workers to give evidence, tightening disability support pension eligibility, enforcing ‘work for the dole’ provisions on ‘job snobs’ (by which he meant people who were unemployed), expanding mandatory detention of asylum seekers, introducing temporary protection visas for refugees (which did not allow family reunion), excising offshore islands from our migration zone, sending those who did not reach the Mainland to be processed on Nauru or Manus Island and launching the Northern Territory Intervention in 73 Aboriginal communities. This Intervention involved suspending the Racial Discrimination Act, compulsorily acquiring leases of town areas, quarantining half of people’s social security pensions and benefits on a Basics Card that could only be used for government approved purchases (Altman and Hinkson 2007).
Monbiot (2010, p.59) quotes with approval Thomas Franks 2004 book What’s the matter with Kansas? whose thesis is that the new conservatism systematically erases economic explanations by blaming the trouble of the poor not on corporate or class power, wage cuts and so forth but on cultural factors. In 2001, Brendon O’Connor argued that George Gilder and Charles Murray’s “central claim (was) that welfare causes dependency and thus unemployment and poverty – and that welfare reform therefore needs to focus on changing the behaviour of welfare recipients rather than providing employment opportunities (p.221).
In 2007, Kevin Rudd led Labor to victory – promising to wind-back the worst excesses of Howard’s Work Choices legislation and ending offshore processing of asylum seekers but maintaining the Intervention and other conservative social policies such as continuing the suspension of the racial discrimination legislation whilst leaving in place the prohibition of same sex marriage and euthanasia. In 2008-9, almost all developed countries experienced recession. Largely through counter-cyclical spending, Labor managed to avoid it. Rudd tried to introduce substantially increased mining taxes. The billionaire miners launched a massive anti-mining tax campaign that somehow convinced average Australians that the increased mining taxes, which Rudd was proposing, were not in their best interests. Just prior to the 2010 election, his Deputy, Julia Gillard, rolled Rudd. She immediately decreased the amount the mining taxes would add to Federal revenue and limited the types of mining that would attract a tax.
The subsequent election resulted in a hung parliament. Gillard’s minority government rules with the assistance of the Greens and three independents. Opinion polls put support for Labor in the high 20s. Gillard promised 2011 would be the ‘year of delivery’ when what we needed was a year of deliverance. Gone are the days when it could truly be said “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” (such as in the run up to Gough Whitlam’s 1972 electoral victory) when it seemed that grand improvements in social welfare were imminent: or in early 1975, when it appeared that the government was about to introduce a guaranteed minimum income. But, that was before the Dismissal of the Whitlam government by the Governor General on the 11th of November 1975; when progressive Australians realised that “Man always is but never To be blessed” (Pope 1733).
What is on the Gillard government’s agenda is revealed when she speaks about: wanting everyone to have a job ‘for the simple dignity that work brings’, or wanting to process asylum seekers, arriving in Australian waters, in Malaysia, or increasing the hurdles which those with disabilities have to jump-over before they will be considered eligible for a disability support pension, or maintaining many aspects of the Northern Territory Intervention, or moving to be able to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act by extending the quarantining of half people’s social security from just Northern Territory Aborigines to other disadvantaged groups in other parts of Australia (Tomlinson 2011) and at the same time increasing the compulsory superannuation levy from 9 to 12 per cent.
John Howard won the ‘Culture Wars’ and there is no-one in a leadership position within the Australian Labor Party with the ticker to take on the continuing conservative dominance of the of the ideological debate. The Parliament has literally become a coward’s castle. The words: equity, justice, equality, freedom, least restrictive, honour, decency, solidarity and ensuring everyone has an above the poverty line Basic Income have disappeared from the Australian lexicon.
Altman, Jon & Hinkson, Melinda (eds.)  Coercive reconciliation, Arena, North Carlton.
Handler, J. (2002) “Social Citizenship and Workfare in the United States and Western Europe.” BIEN 9th International Conference, Geneva, Sept.12-14.
Holland, Joshua (2006) “Myth of the Liberal Nanny State.” AlterNet, June 8.
Mays, Jennifer (forthcoming) Australia’s disabling income support system: Tracing the history of the Australian disability income support system 1908 to 2007 – disablism, citizenship and the Basic Income proposal. PhD thesis Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.
Monbiot, George (2010) “Bogus, Misdirected and Effective.” The Guardian, June 14.
O’Connor, Brendon (2001) “The Intellectual Origins of ‘Welfare Dependency’”. Australian Journal of Social Issues. Vol.36, No. 3, August pp.221-235.
Pope, Alexander (1733) “An Essay on Man, Epistle I”, Princeton.
Standing, Guy (2002) Beyond the New Paternalism: Basic Security as Equality. Verso, London.
Tomlinson, John (2011) “Needs must when the devil drives.” On Line Opinion
Treasury (2003) “International Comparisons of Australia’s Taxes.” Australian Government