Symposium: Reform and Rhetoric in Australian Social Policy

Welfare for some, illfare for others: The social policy agenda of the Abbott Government

Greg Marston, Queensland University of Technology

The title for this paper borrows from an essay on the meaning of social policy written by the pioneering UK social scientist, Richard Titmuss, in the 1970s. Titmuss followed in the footsteps of social reformers Charles Booth and the Webbs, using empirical evidence to promote a ‘good society’. For Titmuss, the good society meant solidarity, unconditional and universal welfare benefits, equality and social justice. Titmuss was also very committed to translating research into practice. He contributed to various committees on health policy and helped established the National Health Service in Britain. In his writings, Titmuss encourages those with an interest in social issues to think critically about social policy by asking some simple but revealing questions, such as: social policy for whom, when and how? An aspect of his analytical framework focuses on the ‘social division of welfare’, through which policy makers are encouraged to think about the moral, political and technical distinctions between welfare provided to different categories of citizenship through different means and the implications for solidarity and social citizenship.

If we take a somewhat different policy path we might arrive at the same destination.

Titmuss makes the political and analytical point that different social groups benefit, depending on whether the tax system, the cash transfers system, social services or occupational welfare are used for purposes of redistribution. The tax system, for example, often privileges those able to take advantage of tax breaks on owner-occupied housing or private health insurance, while many low-income households are primary recipients of the cash transfers system. Accordingly, welfare redistribution can go up or down the income scale, or from one ethnic group or one gender to another depending on how it is institutionally designed, as he explains:

When we use the term social policy we must, therefore, not automatically react by investing it with a halo of altruism, concern for others, concern about equality and so on. Nor must we unthinkingly conclude that because Britain – or any other country – has a social policy or has developed social services that they actually operate in practice to further the ends of progressive redistribution, equality and social altruism. What is “welfare” for some groups may be “illfare” for others (1974, p. 27).

I apply this critical line of thinking to the interim report on A New System for Better Employment and Social Outcomes (Department of Social Services 2014) in the broader context of Australian social policy and politics. The interim report, released on 29 June 2014, was prepared by the government’s Reference Group on Welfare Reform, chaired by Patrick McClure, who is the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Mission Australia. After outlining the socio-political context and describing key ideas and messages in the interim report, I present a different starting point for achieving similar ends. I aim to show that if we take a somewhat different policy path we might arrive at the same destination—a simple and sustainable income support system that strengthens individual, family and community capacity, and we might be able to do so in such a way that promotes more welfare and less illfare.


The recent interim report on welfare reform represents another chapter in a long history of proposals to the Australian social security system, a history for the most part of incremental policy change since the system’s inception more than 100 years ago. There have been some periods of major reform, as in the post war period expansion, a second wave of expansion and then contraction in the 1970s and, since the late 1980s, there has been a close alignment of employment policy and income support goals. The social security system has been transformed from one being principally concerned with poverty alleviation to one that promotes labour force participation (Ziguras 2010). With the benefit of history, we can see how incremental changes add up to a radical realignment of policy goals and objectives.

The social politics of state-funded income support has changed less radically. Regardless of which government has been in power at the national level in Australia there has always been a deep suspicion of the able-bodied unemployed, the ‘undeserving poor’. What has changed, however, is that the category of undeserving has been expanding and claimants on the state are now treated as the ‘never-deserving poor’, with the political assumption being that those ‘genuinely not able to work’ are always a smaller group than those receiving income support at any given time (McDonald & Marston 2008). The framing of social problems that underpin claims for state support have been further individualised, with the problem of unemployment largely understood in behavioural terms, while the goal of education is limited to an instrumental question of curriculum that provides sufficient levels of ‘human capital’ that are needed for a demanding and discriminating labour market. The value of the arts and humanities in education for promoting a capacity for empathy and living the Socratic tradition of ‘an examined life’ are marginalised in this utilitarian vision of a good society (Nussbaum 2010).

The social politics of state-funded income support has changed less radically.

It is this kind of disconnected politics that allows governments of a socially conservative and pro-market orientation to gain support for a platform of banishing and reforming ‘the other’—the ‘illegal refugee’, the ‘welfare dependent’—while at the same time more or less accepting the inequities that are thrown up by a market economy as a form of ‘just deserts’ for those who have made poor choices. Religious beliefs can also be marshalled to justify action or inaction on social problems; it is all a matter of interpretation. When Tony Abbott, who began training as a Catholic priest, was federal opposition leader in 2010 he was asked at a meeting of Catholic Social Services whether he would support the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s commitment to halve the number of homeless people in Australia by 2020. He responded by simply stating ‘the poor will always be among us’, which as theologians have since remarked is a proverb that is not intended to relativise a commitment to the poor, but rather to make absolute a commitment to the practical needs of the poor person in front of us (Hamilton 2010). If anyone at the event had any doubts as to what Tony Abbott meant when he used the saying they would have to wait until he was elected Prime Minister three years later to find out his intentions.

The Coalition government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, was elected in September 2013 on the basis of a number of election promises, which included stopping asylum seeker boats from arriving on Australian shores, repealing the carbon and mining taxes and restoring the budget to surplus. There were not many pronouncements or pledges about social welfare or income support directly, except a commitment to not reverse major education or disability reforms set in train by the previous Labor government. It fell to the Federal Treasurer to set the tone for health, welfare and education direct expenditures. In the months after the election the Treasurer reiterated a message contained in an address he had delivered to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London in April 2012, which sounded deceptively simple and fiscally responsible. The phrase he used and has continued to use since was ‘ending the age of entitlement’, defined as:

Government spending on a range of social programs including education, health, housing, subsidised transport, social safety nets and retirement benefits has reached extraordinary levels as a percentage of GDP. However, an inadequate level of revenue has forced nations into levels of indebtedness that, in an age of slowing growth and ageing population, are simply unsustainable (Hockey 2012, p. 2).

It all sounded very dramatic; the rhetorical flourish was crisis-orientated, a breaking point that demanded drastic action. The reality was and is quite different. Joe Hockey failed to point out that, in a comparative sense, Australian expenditure is not extraordinary. In fact, Australia is in the bottom third of Organisation for Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries when it comes to expenditure on health, education and income support, and this situation has not changed much in the last fifteen to twenty years (Marston, McDonald & Bryson 2013). This observation has led social policy scholar Frank Castles to declare that Australia has a ‘steady, steady, welfare state’ (2004). In his speech, Joe Hockey also fails to acknowledge that the ‘inadequate level of revenue’ is a problem of governments’ own making, given that the Howard Government (1996–2007) and the Rudd and Gillard Governments (2007–13) delivered around $169 billion worth of income tax cuts, of which 40 per cent have gone to the top ten per cent of income earners (Grudnoff 2013). In many respects, the Abbott Government had inherited a revenue problem, rather than an expenditure problem.

Instead of addressing this issue by broadening the tax base, the Abbott Government’s first federal budget into Parliament in May 2014 focused on cutting social expenditure. Treasurer Hockey emphasised that everyone had to do some ‘heavy lifting’ and share the pain to get the budget back into surplus, though as it turned out some groups in society were going to feel the pain more than others. Treasury analysis, released some months after the budget was handed down, supported other modelling by groups such as the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) to reveal the proposed spending cuts would cost an average of $842 a year for lower income households, while the average high income family lost just $71; middle income families were down $477 (Allard & Martin 2014). While much of the public reaction to the proposed budget cuts focused on reduced health and education spending, less attention was given to the way the government chose to leave relatively untouched a host of tax expenditures, such as generous superannuation tax concessions that advantage high income earners, negative gearing for property investors and occupational fringe benefits—all of which were flagged as in need of reform in the Tax Review chaired by Ken Henry in 2009–10 (Australian Government 2009).

The Howard Government treated NGOs with deep suspicion.

Maintaining levels of support through tax expenditures, while cutting social welfare and cash transfers amounts to a form of redistribution by stealth, or what Suzanne Mettler (2011) refers to as the ‘submerged state’, where the talk is of small government and winding back the welfare state, whereas the reality is in fact a different story. The welfare state in Australia is becoming more disciplinary and tightly targeted for those who depend on social welfare and cash transfers, while those who receive subsidies for private health, private housing and private education experience little change in their household budget or obligations to the government (Marston, McDonald & Bryson 2014).

The Prime Minister and the Federal Treasurer have tried to talk up the merits of the savings measures and downplay the unequal impact of its budget. Lacking a coherent narrative and over-stepping the mark in the perceived harshness of its health and social security measures, the government looks likely to have to make compromises in the Senate in order to pass its key budget reforms. The populist leader of the Palmer United Party, Clive Palmer, has vowed to block the introduction of a $7 Medicare co-payment and changes to higher education that would see an increase in student fees and cuts to federal funding for universities. Clive Palmer has also publicly stated that he is opposed to another budget measure directed at income support recipients, which involves making the young unemployed (aged under 30) wait six months before being eligible to receive unemployment benefits (Newstart Allowance). The budget also contained a proposal to extend the Work for the Dole program, first introduced by the Howard Government in 1997, while indexing pension payments (such as the Disability Pension) to the lower rate of the consumer price index, rather than moving in line with average weekly earnings.

The extension of the Work for the Dole program and the punitive attitude towards the young unemployed on income support represents a continuity of the policy regime first put in place by the Howard Government. Funding cuts to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), combined with criticism of the national broadcaster’s reporting of policy and politics, also represents continuity with the ‘culture wars’ of the Howard Government. Sensitive about further criticism of its reform agenda the Abbott Government has also been making moves to limit the voices of advocacy organisations in the public sphere. During the Howard Government non-government organisations (NGOs) were treated with deep suspicion, as self-interested ‘rent seeking’ agents. NGOs were told to get back to doing what they do best, that is providing ‘soup kitchens and poor relief’ (Maddox 2005).

The Howard Government backed up this rhetoric by introducing ‘gag clauses’ in funding contracts to restrict NGOs roles to service provision, and limiting or banning them from systemic social advocacy. These clauses, seen as an attack on deliberative democracy and robust policy debate, were later revoked when the Australian Labor Party came to power in 2007. Fast forward to 2014, and federally funded NGOs have new concerns that ‘gag clauses’ will be reinstated when their funding contracts expire in December 2014 (Martin 2014). The Abbott Government appears to believe in freedom from state interference for some, but certainly not for the poor or those who choose to speak for their interests. This is the model of state power that George Lakoff’s (2003) terms the ‘strict parent’, under which people are made good through self-discipline and paid work, rather than the ‘nurturing parent’, under which people are made good by helping each other and being involved in democratic decision making.

Fears about restraints on political freedom have been further fuelled by the actions of the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, who withdrew funding for the Refugee Council of Australia two weeks after the Federal Budget, stating that his government did not believe that ‘taxpayer funding should be there to support what is effectively an advocacy group’ (Martin 2014). The Australian Youth Affairs Council, the Alcohol and Drug Council of Australia, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services were also defunded (Martin 2014). These decisions have concerned libertarians, such as David Marr. In his recent essay about the Prime Minister, Marr argues that there were some who thought the Prime Minister would be a supporter of freedom of speech and robust public debate, however, the decisions have not matched the rhetoric. Instead, Tony Abbott’s actions reflect that of a conventional conservative leader, which involves defending the status quo, while fueling a politics of fear and uncertainty (Marr 2014).

The directions for reform proposed in the interim report are largely incremental.

Perhaps it is also a case of ‘tribal politics’, as John Quiggin (2014) has suggested in his reflections of the first year of the Abbott Government. Tribal politicians promote free speech, significant ministerial access and corporate welfare for those considered to be in their tribe, and restrict the political freedoms and independence of those that are perceived to belong to an opposing tribe, particularly those that support public transport infrastructure, public social services and collective bargaining. Unions and publicly funded community services, particularly those that support universal welfare are members of the opposing tribe. Those that also criticise budget proposals and a lack of openness and accountability in highly charged areas of social policy, such as immigration and refugee policy, are also vulnerable to being judged as members of the opposing tribe.

Evidence that the community welfare sector is being marginalised in policy discussions across a number of policy domains is indicated by the fact that the community welfare sector peak bodies were not represented on the Commission of Audit established by the incoming government to identify budget savings measures. Nor were they invited to make an initial submission to the welfare review being chaired by former CEO of Mission Australia, Patrick McClure. The fact that the government asked Patrick McClure to chair the welfare reform group indicates the extent to which it was looking for a trusted figure to lead the review—a strategy employed in a range of other policy reviews (Seccombe 2014). Patrick McClure chaired the 1999 welfare reform under the direction of the then Minister for Social Security, Jocelyn Newman. That process recommended simplifying the income support payment system and activation measures under the guise of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’ as the government vowed to end ‘welfare dependency’ (Marston 2007). Similar themes framed the terms of reference for the 2014 review. To get a better sense of what the 2014 interim report proposes, I now turn to an overview of its key messages, particularly the recommendation that received considerable attention in the media when the interim report was released, that is to extend compulsory income management.


In December 2013, the Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, commissioned a review of the welfare system. As noted above, the interim report was released for public consultation in June 2014, and a final report was due in September 2014, but remains unfinished at the time of writing (mid-October). Submissions were invited to respond to the issues and recommendations raised in the interim report, along with a series of stakeholder consultations held in Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra and Sydney during July 2014. Submissions closed in August 2014, and more than 225 submissions were received from a range of individuals, community, industry and government bodies.

The interim report outlines future directions for income support and employment services and it has four pillars: (1) simpler and sustainable income support system; (2) strengthening individual and family capability; (3) engaging with employers; and (4) building community capacity (Department of Social Services 2014). These pillars, as ends of social policy, are defensible. However, some of the proposed means for achieving these ends are questionable, particularly the broadening of compulsory income management, given the limited evidence of its efficacy. Not surprisingly, despite having laudable pillars for reform, the directions for reform proposed in the interim report are largely incremental and reflect the socio-political context discussed earlier. The interim report is an example of political pragmatism. There is support for the political mantra that the best form of welfare is work, in the form of proposals that the Disability Support Pension (DSP) should be further tightened to those with no capacity to work, that the activities covered by mutual obligation should be extended and that the needs of employers should be given greater consideration. This is all fairly typical of the narrative that income support expenditure is unsustainable and that income support recipients require more discipline in order to ‘activate’ them. Though there are many issues that could be discussed, the two I want to focus on are the case for reform and the justification for extending compulsory income management.

The case for reform: The spending crisis

In making its case for welfare reform the federal government suggested there is a crisis promoting the merits of the need for the review, stating, ‘Over the past decade Australia’s welfare system has grown relentlessly and become unsustainable’. Kevin Andrews has consistently used the example of the numbers of people applying for and receiving the Disability Support Pension as an indication of this thesis. The statement hides the complexity of movements between income support payments and policy changes made by governments that have seen people remaining on the Disability Support Pension for longer because of delayed eligibility for the aged pension, particularly for women aged 60 to 65 and of the phasing out of other payments for widows. Moreover, demographic ageing translates into more people being eligible for the DSP than in the past, which means the numbers of people on the payment are largely unrelated to changes in the labour market, the incidence of disability or individual behaviour (Whiteford 2014).

The report emphasises managerial and technical solutions to social and political problems.

Moreover, a longer-term perspective shows that the proportion of people of workforce age on some type of income support payment is still quite low, at around sixteen per cent in 2010, which is the equal second lowest level in the past twenty-five years (Whiteford 2014). Nonetheless, the terms of reference for the review were mostly geared towards examining incentives and disincentives in the welfare system, rather than structural changes in the labour market or demographic changes in the population. Indeed, the preface to the interim report states ‘that the purpose of the review was to identify improvements to ensure it is sustainable, effective and coherent and encourages people to work’ (Department of Social Services 2014, p. 19). The guiding principles for the review were to provide incentives for work for those who are able to do so, adequately support those who are genuinely not able to work, support social and economic participation, be affordable and sustainable, be easy to access and understand and be able to be delivered efficiently and effectively.

‘Relentless, unsustainable growth’ sends a strong indication that whatever recommendations are finally proposed, cost containment will be a prominent feature. As such, proposals and campaigns by groups such as the Australian Council of Social Service about the need to increase the base payment rate for the unemployment benefit (Newstart) are unlikely to feature strongly in the recommendations, despite the fact that even groups such as the Business Council of Australia have recognised that the low rate at which Newstart is paid is an obstacle, rather than a facilitator, of moving into paid work. To its credit, the interim report does acknowledge that the growing and anomalous gap between allowances and pensions is a problem that should be addressed. It is disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, to see that in practice the government’s preferred solution to this problem appears to favour changing indexation arrangements for pensions from average weekly earnings to the Consumer Price Index.

In making the case for reform, the risks to health and wellbeing associated with growing income inequality, insecure labour market conditions and employer discrimination towards mature aged workers and people with a disability fail to get a serious mention. A comparative perspective would reveal that Australia is not a big spender when it comes to individual payment rates or overall social expenditure, indeed Australia spends less on cash benefits to households than the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and New Zealand (Organisation for Co-operation and Development 2012). In a comparative context, Australia’s cash benefits are therefore modest and arguably affordable. International comparisons are made in the report but the reference point is policy reform not inputs and outputs.

In making the case for reform it would have been preferable to start with a clear articulation of the goals of the income support system. While there are no universally accepted criteria for designing an income support system, there is some agreement that a good system does not leave people living below an agreed poverty level; should leave work incentives intact and be well-targeted and administratively efficient (Nolan 2014). In practice, it would be difficult to find a system that met all four criteria anywhere in the world. However, we should never forget the importance of the first principle, of not leaving people living in poverty. Current arrangements in Australia, particularly the declining real value of the unemployment benefit, mean that this goal is not being met. The OECD defines the poverty line as people living below 50 per cent of the median wage. Using this measure, Australian Council of Social Service 2013 analysis found that more than two million Australians were living below the poverty line, which includes more than 50 per cent of people on Newstart Allowance (the unemployment benefit) and more than 40 per cent of people living on either Parenting Payment or the Disability Support Pension. Clearly the Australian system is failing this important test of a decent income support system. Poverty is not an enabling force in moving people from ‘welfare to work’, as so often discussed in the neat and linear equations that policy makers like to use. Poverty at these sorts of levels is disabling and humiliating (Murphy et al. 2011).

Returning to a point made earlier about the shifting goals of social security, the interim report emphases economic participation over poverty relief as the main goal of the income support system. The emphasis in the report is on managerial and technical solutions to social and political problems, including poverty and the seemingly entrenched problem of labour market discrimination on the basis of age, disability, gender and race. According to the Human Rights Commission (2013), for example, 37 per cent of discrimination complaints in Australia in 2013 related to disability. Yet, there is no discussion in the interim report of the need for employers to change their behaviour. The problematisation of behaviour is decidedly one-sided in the case for reform. Employers are constructed in the interim report as needing to have their requirements met by the supply of suitably qualified workers. Behavioural economics and paternalism lie behind many of the problems and potential solutions raised in the interim report. Behavioural economics seeks to incentivise some actions over others in a rationalistic and somewhat clinical model of human behavior, abstracted from the everyday context of complex decision making in the lives of people that face limited opportunities, but who, by and large, share similar motivations and values as other ordinary Australians (Murphy et al. 2011). Despite the talk of building individual and community capability in the interim report, the deficit model informs the framing of the problem, particularly in the emphasis given to extending compulsory income management, which is the issue that I now discuss.

Compulsory income management

Greater conditionality in income support systems is not a new trend in Anglophone welfare states.

Greater conditionality in income support systems is not a new trend in Anglophone welfare states. In Australia, greater conditionality associated with the receipt of income support has been expanding since the ‘work test’ was replaced by the ‘activity test’ in 1989 by a Hawke Labor government. The ‘mutual obligation’ regime of the Howard Government introduced in the late 1990s accelerated this trend. In the mid-2000s, the introduction of compulsory income management in the Northern Territory and later the Centrelink BasicsCard trials in other parts of Australia has signalled a new phase in conditionality, which involves quarantining a proportion of people’s income support for essential items such as food. The quarantined proportion is generally 50 per cent, but may be up to 70 per cent. Income managed funds must not be spent on prohibited items, including alcohol, tobacco, gambling and pornography. Recipients must negotiate arrangements with Centrelink to pay bills using the quarantined amounts. The moral justification for compulsory income management is that it promotes responsible behaviour.

The interim report (2014, p. 15) states that ‘income management is being rolled out to more communities across Australia’. The report claims that:

Overall … the evidence to date suggests income management has assisted individuals and families to stabilise their financial circumstances, helped them meet priority needs, particularly the needs of children, and can protect vulnerable people from financial harassment and exploitation (Department of Social Services 2014, p. 84).

This wording echoes the government’s purpose for introducing income management, as stated in the Parliamentary Debates and the Explanatory Memorandum accompanying the income management legislation. However, repeating the government’s political assertions contained within these sources does not amount to evidence (Cowling, Bielefeld & Marston 2014). Such a position glosses over the problems with income management and can only be maintained by ignoring the evidence of those problems that is apparent in numerous other reports.

The interim report also makes no mention of the grass roots resistance to compulsory income management in Australia. It is also important to consider the street-level bureaucrats and contracted non-profit agencies that implement the policy, and so inevitably determine whether it will be successful or not. For example, at a grassroots level, the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (2014) and the Rollback the Intervention group (2014) have been actively resisting a range of interventionist government policies that affect Aboriginal peoples, including income management. The income management scheme has also been resisted in South Australia by Stop Income Management in Playford (SIMPla) (2014). There has been front-line worker opposition in the BasicsCard trial sites in Western Sydney in 2013, where community workers refused to refer clients to Centrelink for income management:

[C]ommunity sector workers in Bankstown have been refusing to refer people as part of a boycott … Child Protection workers in the Public Sector Association (PSA NSW) have voted for an industrial ban on referrals. Figures released … show Bankstown has the lowest numbers of people on Income Management in the country.

Researchers have also criticised income management (see, for example, Cox 2011; Bielefeld 2012; Altman 2013). There are several themes in the literature, including that income management unjustly stigmatises those who experience poverty, characterising them as lacking capacity to budget or as anti-social and requiring attitudinal change. Many welfare recipients subject to income management have felt angered and shamed by removal of their budgetary autonomy; welfare conditionality imposed through income management replaces the concept of a right to welfare based upon need with behavioural constraints based upon negative stereotypes. The philosophical underpinnings of income management suggest that individual welfare recipients are to blame for poverty rather than the structural factors over which they have no control. Further, administrative errors can occur, which leave welfare recipients unjustly impoverished (Cowling, Bielefeld & Marston 2014).

The interim focuses on the moral message of ‘a hand up, not a handout’.

In addition, the administrative cost of income management is significant, at an estimated $1 billion between 2005–06 to 2014–15 (Buckmaster, Ey & Klapdor 2012). This suggests that income management fails to meet one criterion of a good income support system defined earlier; that is, keeping administrative costs low. The interim report claims that the role of government includes ensuring that ‘taxpayer funds are well targeted’ (Department of Social Services 2014, p. 15). However, this remains questionable in the case of compulsory income management, given the lack of convincing evidence to justify the continuation and extension of the scheme and the high administrative costs. The report does not refer to the evidence base, and it blithely discusses the potential for incorporating compulsory income management as part of a package of support services without reference to the low take-up rates of financial counselling and budgeting services aligned to current compulsory income management models (Cowling, Bielefeld & Marston 2014). It is difficult to see how these substantial implementation problems will be overcome, even if this strong form of paternalism could be sufficiently justified on moral grounds or in an economic cost-benefit analysis.

A new starting point: Same ends, different means?

The interim report picks up on similar themes to the McClure report of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as it focuses on the moral message of ‘a hand up, not a handout’ and it promotes administrative simplification of the complex social security system. Many submissions on the interim report stay within this frame and respond by suggesting incremental changes, such as an increase in the unemployment benefit.

Perhaps what is missing most from the report and responses to the report is a greater sense of the important ethical questions about government responsibility and the contextual challenges and changes that are shaping household and individual decisions in the 21st century. There is little attempt to place the income support system within the broader context of the new welfare risks, such as the intersection of climate change and poverty, the housing affordability crisis in capital cities associated with increasing urbanisation and a shortage of supply, or the lack of discretionary time that particularly affects single parent households squeezed by paid work, unpaid care work and demanding and sometimes deeply misguided activation requirements (Grahame & Marston 2012; Cook 2012).

If we are to have an income support system that responds to rapidly changing economic and social conditions, it may be time for a more radical rethink. One idea that is undergoing somewhat of a revival of interest in academic and activist circles is that of a universal basic income. The general principle of a universal basic income is to provide every citizen with an amount that covers the necessities of subsistence (or whatever higher basic standard a society is able to afford), irrespective of employment status or any other condition. A basic income could replace many or all existing benefits and pensions, depending on the level of the basic income payment. A basic income could meet the principle of simplicity as stipulated in the first pillar of the interim report, at least in technical terms. In political terms it may be a more difficult proposition (Arthur 2014). Changing this direction would require a social movement that is prepared to agitate for a basic income, alongside generating some sound social and economic evidence that it would provide a better platform of economic security than what we have now. Several new presentations of the ideas have been appearing in diverse national and regional contexts, including India and Africa (Standing 2011). It is worth noting that the idea of a universal basic income has, in the past, had the support of libertarians on both the political left and the political right, as it is a model that promotes greater autonomy and less state bureaucracy. Moving in the direction of a universal basic income would require funding some social research experiments to demonstrate its value and identify the best design, similar to proposals and basic income trials that were promoted in Australia in the wake of the Henderson Poverty Inquiry in the 1970s.

A basic income would likely facilitate greater autonomy, material wellbeing and respectful recognition of citizens, irrespective of their attachment to the labour market. Unemployment would disappear as a category created by the receipt of benefits, a category that adds cultural insult to economic injury. Someone might be looking for a job, but they ‘would not be on the dole’—because everyone would be receiving the same basic, tax-free and inalienable benefit. Similarly, the many trespasses upon personal freedom, such as the humiliating intrusions which so many now have to submit to would more or less come to an end (Marston, McDonald & Bryson 2013, p. 136). A universal basic income would clearly not solve all social problems, but it could address growing poverty, reduce the income equality gap and generate a more equal relationship between employers and employees. In short, it could provide more welfare and less illfare than the present Australian system of income support. It could also reduce the distinction between occupational welfare, fiscal welfare and social welfare, as many tax expenditures could be cashed out in a thorough reform of the tax and transfers system, which would be required to fund a universal basic income. It would also promote Richard Titmuss’s idea of solidarity through a broader conception of welfare and economic security, one that is not divided by a multitude of administrative and technical welfare categories.


A decent society is not simply about fair redistribution of wealth and other resources.

Income support systems are social institutions that need to be designed to be fit for purpose. The social security system in Australia needs to be refurbished so that it can meet a different set of economic conditions in the 21st century, under which economic insecurity and income inequality are posing real threats to the social order (Standing 2011). The welfare state established after the Second World War was the closest that countries like Australia and the United Kingdom came to achieving both security and freedom. We must now ask how we should achieve that combination today. A universal basic income is one idea that may help achieve a post-productivist settlement within the ecological limits of a finite planet (Jackson 2011).

Whatever social security reforms are adopted, the justification for income support needs to be reframed in terms of security and genuine sustainability. I agree with Greve (2015) that the strength of the narrative about sustainable welfare development is that it functions as a master signifier for smaller stories about justification of basic income as developing social citizenship, greater autonomy in relation to the state and markets, the abolition of poverty traps and the creation of meaningful employment. The fact that there is very little attention being given to examining the feasibility of implementing big policy ideas, such as a universal basic income is a concern, because it is clear that some bold policy initiatives are needed to minimise the risks associated with climate change and rising income inequality and economic insecurity.

Through this discussion I have highlighted some of the ways in which the framing of the problem and proposed solutions in the interim report on welfare reform remain trapped in outmoded conceptions of work, welfare and wellbeing. The interim report does challenge some common welfare myths, such as the idea that there is an unsustainable blow out in the numbers of people requiring income support. The problem is that the Abbott Government refuses to heed the message and continues to whip up a moral panic about out of control expenditure and growing numbers of people on income support. This is nothing more than mischievous talk that plays directly into a politics of division between so-called ‘taxpayers’ and ‘welfare dependants’. When it comes to income support, I would like to see a government that talks about ending the age of disentitlement and disrespect, a government that seeks to enshrine poverty alleviation as the main goal of income support policy, rather than extending a ‘work-first’ activation agenda and compulsory income management on the basis of questionable evidence.

The maldistribution of burdens and benefits among groups in society raises a significant social justice challenge. A decent society is not simply about fair redistribution of wealth and other resources. It is also about treating people with mutual respect and avoiding the ritualised humiliation that can be an unwelcome feature of poorly designed and poorly implemented income support systems. And as Richard Titmuss has argued, we need to pay more attention to the how, as the mechanism of redistribution can distort our understanding of welfare. We need to include in this discussion the distribution of a wide range of resources in society that are essential to living a good life, many of which are non-monetary in nature, but which are nonetheless shaped by levels of access to material resources, including access to discretionary time and free and open public spaces.

Addressing social inequality in the 21st century also means realising that civil rights and political freedoms are intimately connected to advancing social and economic rights. Limiting the voice of individuals and community welfare agencies is a backward step for a country that prides itself on being a modern and democratic society. Many of the gains of the welfare state made in the second half of the twentieth century occurred because people had a right to protest, to make their voice heard, to demonstrate how they were being discriminated against by the state or by the market. Maintaining robust procedural rights in the income support system and respecting the importance of individual and systemic advocacy will remain critically central to ensuring that the income support system meets the needs of claimants, rather than privileging the needs of the labour market or politicians looking to score points through poor bashing.


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