Aboriginal welfare: a right, but not enough

October 11, 2000


In an article in Green Left Weekly #418, I criticised Aboriginal commentator Noel Pearson's attacks (expressed in his August 13 Chifley memorial lecture) on "progressive" ideas about welfare provision for Aboriginal people. A few weeks later, Pearson rang me and, while declining an offer to have his reply published in this newspaper, forcefully argued that "welfare dependency" is the major cause of the particular inequality and unemployment Aboriginal people face.

Pearson correctly highlights the racist discrimination Aboriginal people face. Aborigines suffer disproportionately high levels of unemployment and are concentrated in the lowest paying jobs. Their access to education and health services is far below that of other Australians, and extreme poverty and police victimisation have resulted in Aborigines having among the highest rates of incarceration in the world.

He is also right that this situation is intolerable and something needs to be done urgently to change it.

But Pearson is completely wrong on the solution: further restrictions on Aboriginal people's access to welfare provision will not help them because the existence of welfare is not the problem. Even advancing the notion of "welfare dependency" serves to absolve the government of any responsibility for providing an income and/or real jobs for Aboriginal people.

It is true that welfare provision will never, on its own, solve the problem of Aboriginal disadvantage. It can ameliorate some of the effects of oppression and discrimination, but it will not eradicate them.

Nevertheless, in so far as decent welfare provision ameliorates the worst consequences of that oppression on the day to day lives of Aboriginal people, thereby enabling them to not merely survive, but participate in all areas of social life, it must be uncompromisingly defended, and should be extended.

Furthermore, government attacks on basic rights such as access to welfare generally target more marginalised sections of the working class first, to pave the way for their more general implementation. This was the case with the work for the dole program, for example, which was introduced first in Aboriginal communities and has since been extended to non-Aboriginal unemployed people. We can be sure that the ideological and material attacks on welfare provision to Aboriginal people being carried out by this government and its supporters herald even greater attacks on all welfare provision.

Welfare is a right

In a society in which people's quality of life is determined by their ability to earn a wage, welfare benefits are a basic human right for all those excluded from or unable to work. This includes not only the unemployed, but also people who are sick, disabled, responsible for the care of children or other dependents and elderly.

It is not true, as right-wing commentators routinely insist, that welfare provision is the result of government benevolence. All welfare provisions — from sole parent payments to the aged pension — were won through political struggles by the working class. No capitalist government has ever voluntarily initiated measures to shift state resources away from subsidising big capital towards supporting the most marginalised sections of the population.

Furthermore, because Australia's taxation system is regressive (the rich pay proportionately less tax), almost all of the money paid to welfare recipients is raised through taxes on the working class. Thus, almost all working people who are unable to work and require welfare support have already, or will in the future, pay for that support through taxation. More generally, the fact that workers produce all of the wealth in society entitles them to economic support from the government when that society fails to provide them with the ability to earn a wage.

'Welfare dependency'

Governments and conservative commentators attempt to undermine the idea that welfare is a right by invoking the social evil of "welfare dependency". They argue or infer that the receipt of welfare causes or compounds the recipients' social problems by discouraging them from "taking initiative" and "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps". The implication (if not assertion) is that it is people's own fault if they are economically dependent on the state.

Mental disability, sickness, old age, unemployment and single parenthood are not individual's fault, yet the Howard government's offensive against "welfare dependency" has resulted in disabled people living without adequate support, for example, and retirees having to seek part-time employment to supplement their meagre pensions.

Inter-generational unemployment is severe among sections of the population that suffer systematic discrimination. Many Aboriginal communities, for example, condemned to dire poverty and deprived of access to higher education and quality health care, must struggle constantly with the social consequences — illiteracy, alienation, crime, and alcohol and drug dependency, for example — which feed back into high unemployment. The rhetoric about breaking "welfare dependency" ignores these very real barriers and withdrawing or reducing access to welfare compounds them.

The argument that welfare payments stifle people's incentive and promote passivity is patently untrue. Welfare benefits are largely non-existent throughout the Third World yet this has not led to the mass of people becoming highly motivated entrepreneurs. Rather, the absence of a welfare "safety net" means that Third World workers are forced to work under whatever conditions the employers demand: generally the lowest possible wages in dangerous conditions and without any job security.

The aim of employers in advanced capitalist countries like Australia is exactly the same: to reduce workers' wages and conditions as much as possible. The reduction or abolition of unemployment and sickness benefits would serve that end by reducing workers' bargaining power.

This is clear in the fact that new migrants and refugees, who have no access to welfare payments, are among the most exploited of Australia's workers. But the impact is not just on those who cannot obtain welfare payments: any reduction in welfare provision will exert a downward pressure on the wages of all workers because the growing pool of desperate, super-exploitable labour will increase the competition for jobs, enabling employers to play off those who will work for longer, for less against all other workers.

Welfare is not enough

While it is essential that adequate state support for all who need it be uncompromisingly defended, it is impossible to win the welfare debate with the right wing without also asserting that the welfare system, even at its strongest, is ultimately inadequate in addressing inequality and disadvantage in this society.

The decades following the second world war, during which a raft of welfare provisions were won and entrenched, did not produce an egalitarian paradise. Class differences did not vanish. Indeed, throughout the 1950s and '60s, wealth and economic power became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a shrinking proportion of the population.

The post-war economic boom, with its attendant low unemployment rate and relatively high wages, did produce a higher standard of living for the majority of people in Australia. However, the fact that class differences had not been in any sense ameliorated became patently clear as soon as the boom ended in the mid-'70s. As profit rates declined, the employers and their agents in government became less willing to allow a comfortable and rising standard of living for working people and neo-liberal restructuring began. Today, Australian capitalism provides very comfortable circumstances to some, but the wages and welfare payments of the majority are under attack.

Radical reforms

In the face of governments' current austerity drive, just defending welfare will not be enough to reverse the decline in living standards. A range of other measures are required to ensure social and economic rights are guaranteed for everyone.

A reduction in working hours, (with no reduction in wages and no increase in the speed of production), will be necessary to significantly reduce unemployment. Unemployment exists, not because there is not plenty of work to be done, but because it is more profitable for capitalists to work their existing work force harder and longer for less pay.

Large scale job creation projects could be launched by the government to provide extra jobs. This would principally comprise a comprehensive program of socially useful public works, including to provide low-rent housing, an efficient and accessible public transport system, a large network of child-care centres and child support services, and new, universally accessible public hospitals and community health care centres.

A radical reform of the tax system would be required. Indirect taxes that hit working people hardest, such as the GST and petrol excise, should be abolished. A progressive direct tax on total earnings and capital should be introduced which applies only to incomes above the average wage and the expansion of public services should be paid for by increased taxes and special levies on the big corporations and banks.

In the meantime, and for so long as unemployment exists, the labour movement must pay attention to organising the unemployed and campaigning for their rights. The lack of organisation of unemployed workers weakens the bargaining power of unions. The unions must therefore force the government to provide unemployed people with free public transport, credit for food and housing, unemployment benefits equal to the recipient's previous wage, equal compensation at the minimum union wage for those seeking their first job, and voluntary training or retraining with full pay.

Affirmative action

Even when the above demands are won, they will not fully address the specific problems facing Aboriginal people who face racial discrimination in all areas of social and economic life: employment, housing, education, employment, health and so on. Aboriginal people therefore have special needs and special demands to raise.

Overcoming the effects of past and present discrimination will require affirmative action for Aboriginal people; that is, preferential treatment in education, health services, public housing, employment and job training in order to overcome past discrimination.

As well, Aboriginal communities must be granted control over their own affairs. This means that elected Aboriginal community councils must have full control over government funds allocated to organisations and services to combat poverty, disease, unemployment and legal abuses.

Further important measures will be the establishment of strictly enforced national land rights and Aboriginal heritage protection acts, the strengthening and strict enforcement of legislation outlawing racial discrimination in any field, a vigorous national education campaign against racism, a comprehensive Aboriginal studies programs throughout the education system to begin to present a truthful account of Aboriginal history, and special courses to teach Aboriginal languages and culture.

Alongside these measures, the solution to so-called welfare dependency would include the provision of adequate government funds to allow Aboriginal communities to fully use their land for their own economic and social well-being.

Ultimately, because all reforms won under capitalism can be taken away again, the only guarantee of equality and freedom lies in the radical transformation of society: the abolition of the profits-first capitalist system. For this reason, all of the democratic measures noted above must be viewed as transitional to and inseparable from the struggle for a working people's government and a democratically organised economy.