The Liberal Party’s new war on welfare

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posted | in Opinion

Kevin Andrews

Recent comments by Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews that Australia’s welfare system is “unsustainable” and needs to be overhauled should be treated with scepticism. The Liberal Party, and Andrews in particular, have form in this area, with a familiar pattern already beginning to emerge. With the Howard restoration in full swing already – attacks on Medicare, bringing back the ABCC, sacking senior public servants, bullying the ABC and destroying regional relationships – Australia’s welfare state appears to be next in the firing line from the Abbott Government. This follows in the Liberal tradition of sticking the boot into some of the most vulnerable people in society while showering largesse on others, all the while claiming to be fiscally responsible.

During their last period in office, the Liberal Party oversaw three major welfare reform packages: the introduction of the pejoratively-titled ‘work for the dole’ program in 1997, a larger reform package announced in 2000, and a further extension and expansion of these programs with the significant ‘welfare to work’ changes passed in late 2005. The results of the government’s approach were mixed. Despite great fanfare upon its launch, ‘work for the dole’ program failed to increase the employment or earning prospects of most of its participants, and despite being later expanded was eventually wound down before being abandoned completely. The other two packages had longer lasting effects.

No one argues that people should not work if they are able. However, to pretend that everyone is equally capable of working, and that employment alone will end poverty, is simply not true.

In 1999, the Government held a major review into Australia’s welfare system headed by Kevin McClure – the same Kevin McClure currently conducting a review into the Disability Support Pension for Kevin Andrews.  The McClure report acknowledged that there were a number of factors that had contributed to the growth in social security payments. It did not mention things like ‘welfare dependency’ or the reluctance of welfare recipients to enter the workforce as being factors in the increased number of people receiving benefits; it in fact emphasised the lack of opportunities that often lead to people receiving welfare payments.

While this analysis focused primarily on the structural and social problems that contribute to disadvantage and inequality in Australian society, the solutions that were proposed by the report were mostly individualistic in nature, reflecting the philosophy of the government of the day. The problem of social exclusion was to be dealt with by promoting the economic and social participation of all workforce age people; the emphasis being on transforming poor people from supposedly passive recipients of social security into independent, self-reliant individuals. The report resulted in an expansion of the ‘work for the dole’ program and further entrenchment of the concept of ‘mutual obligation’ throughout the welfare system.

The biggest reforms to welfare in the life of the Howard Government came after they gained a majority in both houses of Parliament, with the introduction of the Employment and Workplace Relations (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Act 2005 and its cognate bill, the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work) Act 2005. These two bills implemented significant changes to the Australian welfare system, greatly extending the principle of mutual obligation to include single mothers and people on the disabled pension. The Employment Minister at the time, none other than Kevin Andrews, stated:

           “The bill meets with community standards about the need for a balance of assistance, incentives and obligation to increase participation and reduce welfare dependence amongst working age Australians.”

The overall aim of all of these reforms has been to reduce government expenditure on welfare by getting people off welfare and into paid employment, based on the government’s belief that, as Andrews put it recently, “work is the best form of welfare.” For conservatives to simply repeat this slogan over and over ignores the many factors that contribute to unemployment, inequality and poverty in this country. Even with low unemployment or even full employment during the post-war years, poverty existed in Australia – the landmark Henderson report into poverty in the late 1960s proved this.

No one argues that people should not work if they are able. However, to pretend that everyone is equally capable of working, and that employment alone will end poverty, is simply not true. A buoyant economy undoubtedly contributes to higher standards of living for many people, however even the most conservative estimates still put at least one million Australians in poverty, with most figures substantially higher than this.

Kevin Andrews is repeating the failed approach of the Howard Government – his motives are all about ideology and not about what will benefit the community.

The growth in the number of Australians receiving unemployment benefits is a direct result of the global financial crisis, not laziness or people’s unwillingness to work. Australia does not need a plagiarism of America’s social failures in our approach to welfare reform. Kevin Andrews is repeating the failed approach of the Howard Government – his motives are all about ideology and not about what will benefit the community. This is especially apparent when we consider the Liberal Party’s spending priorities – welfare payments are “unsustainable”, however subsidising people’s private health cover (the fastest growing part of the health budget) is sacrosanct, an absurdly generous paid parental leave scheme is the Prime Minister’s pet policy, and money will be taken from schools, but only the public ones.

We have seen this before – the Howard Government cut taxes for the top end of town while pushing some of the most vulnerable onto lower welfare benefits and making it even harder to get those benefits. Now a Howard-era Minister exhumed by Abbott, Kevin Andrews, is bringing it all back – the same Minister appointing the same person to review the system in order to reach, no doubt, the same conclusions. The Abbott Government has only been around for a few months and is already out of ideas so they are just using old Ministers to bring back the old ones, regardless of whether the policy (or the Minister) worked in the first place. Getting people off welfare and into work requires serious policy work, not Kevin Andrews and the Liberal Party’s stale and failed ideology and vilification of the unemployed.