Welfare through the looking glass


Welfare through the looking glass

If anyone has travelled through time, then Lewis Carroll, best known for writing Alice in Wonderland, has. Conclusive evidence is provided by his modelling of the companion novel, Through the Looking Glass, on the Australian welfare system and the welfare policies of the mainstream parties. The latest example of their approach is a discussion paper, "The challenge of welfare dependency in the 21st century", by federal family and community services minister Jocelyn Newman.

Alice falls through a mirror into a chess-like land. She is a pawn. As she makes her way across the board, she encounters many obstacles. The Red Queen suggests Alice run faster, but Alice gets nowhere.

Liberal and Labor politicians alike decry the increasing proportion of work force age (16-64) people receiving income support payments — from less than 4% in the early 1970s to more than 18% today. They call this growing "welfare dependency". They set out to place more obstacles in the path of those on welfare.

Newman says, "People with the capacity to contribute to their own support" should not get welfare support "unconditionally for long periods ... They have both the right and the obligation to share in the benefits of economic and employment growth." To help achieve this, she says, "The system must do more to ... help welfare recipients improve their capacity for self-reliance so that they can move off welfare more quickly".

But Newman's paper shows that the increase in the proportion receiving income support is matched by the increase in unemployed. The problem is not people wanting to live on poverty-line social security income payments or their incapacity to work, but the difficulty of getting jobs.

And those already disadvantaged — because of lack of child-care, of public transport and of a supportive work environment, and employers' discrimination against young people, older people, women and people with disabilities — find job-hunting hardest of all.

The only way to ensure everyone who wants a job can get one is through measures such as, for example, cutting working hours — which would mean reorganising the economy to meet people's needs rather than for company profits. What the government wants, however, is for sole parents, people with disabilities and older workers to compete with other workers for the few jobs that are available.

Humpty Dumpty tells Alice his words mean what he wants them to mean. Newman tells us her approach is "modern conservative".

The approach isn't modern; it's more in the vein of the 19th century workhouse. Newman suggests, for example, that the criterion for assessing eligibility for the disability support pension should no longer be the inability to work full-time at award wages.

Neither is the approach peculiarly conservative. Newman states that "Third Way" social-democratic governments of the US (Bill Clinton) and Britain (Tony Blair) follow such a policy, too. In Australia, "maverick" Labor MP Mark Latham has called for similar Third Way measures, while ALP family and community services spokesperson Wayne Swan is pushing for the "alternative" of "reciprocal obligation" to be extended to sole parents.

Newman says "incentive", but means punishment. How else could you describe her plan to take away part or all of a payment, and give it back only if the government's order to take part in "mutual obligation" is obeyed?

Alice is crowned. The two queens invite her to a feast, but take away her food before she can eat.

The mainstream parties all claim commitment to "solving" unemployment. But the government's attacks on welfare will, if successful, hurt all working and poor people.

Denying people the right to welfare payments not only hurts them but also increases competition for both jobs and wages, and even gives employers a bigger pool of potential scabs for union-busting operations. Reduced government expenditure on social security and reduced wages will allow employers to cut costs and the government to cut company taxes. These plans are one of the ways in which the government is shifting wealth from us to rich people.

The government has started a massive propaganda campaign aimed at convincing workers that welfare rips them off. Social security "fraud" has not significantly increased, but government pronouncements about it have. The welfare budget of $50 billion is proclaimed a burden, when it supports not only people who can't get work but also many workers whose pay from employers is too low to support a reasonable standard of living.

A person who is working today can easily, through an accident or sacking, be a welfare recipient tomorrow. A comprehensive system of welfare payments providing a living income would underpin improved living standards of Australian workers. The unions, as the broad organisations defending workers' interests, must campaign for such a system through education and political action to counter the government.

Alice needed solidarity against the queens. Pawns can be powerful only if they stick together.