Symposium: Reform and Rhetoric in Australian Social Policy

What Tony Abbott talks about when he talks about ‘welfare’

Gabrielle Meagher, The University of Sydney
David P. Wilkins, Language and Linguistics Consulting

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s talk on social policy topics has included such easy-to-recall phrases such as ‘lifters, not leaners’, ‘workers, not shirkers’, and ‘earning or learning’. These phrases are not just slogans; like all politicians’ public talk, they express a take on the world. Such phrases have a commonsense appeal—it is hard to be for leaners or shirkers, or against lifters or workers. But what looks like a commonsense description is actually an exercise of power, through which Mr Abbott naturalises a politicised and partial account of social policy problems and their solutions.

We discuss some of our results from close analysis of Mr Abbott’s talk about welfare in 39 speeches, interviews and other public pronouncements made between September 2013, when he became prime minister, and late July 2014, when we searched for the word ‘welfare’ in the database on his official website. (Our methods are explained in an appendix.)

A first glance at some sentences in which Mr Abbott uses the term ‘welfare’ reveals some identifiable themes (see Figure 1). ‘Corporate’, ‘business’ and ‘middle class’ welfare are mentioned. Variants of ‘the best form of welfare is a job’ appear several times. There are many instances of getting/moving people ‘off welfare’ or stopping them going ‘on’ it. We return to these themes later in the article. We start with a core concept in Mr Abbott’s welfare talk—‘having a go’—and its relationship to a much older Australianism: ‘a fair go’. We examine these key forms of words, which Mr Abbott repeats more than the highly publicised slogans we note above. We show how they form part of a recurrent logic, a more structured chain of meaning that cannot, in fact, be encapsulated in a slogan. This chain leads from the national character to the desirable moral traits of individuals, with the logic that if all Australians demonstrated these moral qualities, the need for much welfare would be obviated.

‘Having a go’ to preserve the ‘fair go’

Tony Abbott uses variations on the expression ‘having a go’ frequently—no fewer than 26 times across nine of the 39 texts. ‘Fair go’ is used less frequently; ten times across six texts. The two expressions appear together six times in five different texts. The logic of the relationship between these two expressions—and that underpins Mr Abbott’s welfare discourse—is captured in these two excerpts from speeches, one before and one after the May budget:

This budget is about shifting our focus from entitlement to enterprise; from welfare to work; from hand-out to hand-up; from our own short-term anxieties to our nation’s long-term opportunities. Government’s job is to make it easier for people to make big decisions: to build a house, to begin to study, to start a business, to employ someone or to save for the future – and to make it more likely that people will decide to have a go – because we can’t be a generous society unless we are also a productive one (Speech, Sydney Institute, 29 April 2014, emphasis added).

To preserve generous social security benefits and good health and education services, we need relatively more tax payers. We have to find ways of increasing the proportion of workers in our economy. We need more people who are ‘having a go’ in order to preserve the ‘fair go’ that has always been such a crucial part of the Australian way of life and we need to start addressing these issues now, and changing policy now, rather than later when change will be even harder (Speech, Committee for the Economic Development of Australia, 24 June 2014, emphasis added).

In Mr Abbott’s welfare talk, the ‘fair go’ is dependent on everyone ‘having
a go’.

Note that the Prime Minister doesn’t actually use the expression ‘fair go’ in the first text; here, ‘a generous society’ plays the same semantic role. He gives several specific and general examples of what ‘having a go’ means—such as ‘to begin to study’ or ‘to employ someone’ in the first, and some more technocratic examples of the need for ‘more tax payers’ and ‘increasing the proportion of workers’ in the second. Mr Abbott also refers to ‘the Australian way of life’ in the second text; elsewhere in the data he talks about the ‘have-a-go mindset’ as ‘characteristic of our strengths as a nation’ or ‘one of the great Aussie characteristics’. Such jingoistic appeals to tradition and how ‘we’ are as a people are an important way that he legitimises his frames and claims.

The network of arguments built on ‘have a go’ and ‘a fair go’ are set out in Table 1. The first row shows the most general relationship established in the texts above: the ‘fair go’ is dependent on everyone ‘having a go’, and this is the organising frame for discussion of all social policies and social groups in Mr Abbott’s social policy talk around the word ‘welfare’. In the remaining rows, the big, foundational idea of ‘having a go’ becomes increasingly specified as it is connected with particular goals and particular social groups. In this way, Mr Abbott entrains a number of much more specific—and contestable—ideas by making them instances of ‘having a go’, which he has naturalised by reference to the national character, history, the way we’ve always been, what’s made us great and so on.

Table 1
A —— is necessary for ——> B
1 Have / having a go A fair go

2 Boost(ing) participation (boost / lift / drive up) productive / e / ity

3 Work(ing) / a job Maximise (people’s) potential

4 Economic contributor Best way to contribute to / be part of / be a fully functioning member of our community

In the second row, Mr Abbott’s talk moves towards participation in the labour market as the main form of ‘having a go’, and the productivity increase that is the imagined result. In the context of these expressions, he mentions many social groups, including women, young people, unemployed people, older workers, and people on a Disability Support Pension (DSP), and talks about a range of policies—including paid parental leave, work for the dole, activity testing for the DSP and various programs for unemployed older people, people who are long term unemployed. Interestingly, Mr Abbott’s talk about paid parental leave in the context of welfare is mostly to say that PPL is not a welfare benefit, but a workplace benefit (that is, those who are already ‘having a go’).

The third row shows that as ‘having a go’ becomes more concrete Mr Abbott’s focus shifts to work, working and having a job. Here the social groups he talks about become narrower—unemployed young people, older unemployed people, and younger people with a disability who are not totally incapacitated. In this context, working and having a job is what maximises people’s potential. At its very most specific (see the fourth row), having a go is defined as making an economic contribution—the best way of making a contribution and being part of ‘our community’. By now, the groups that Mr Abbott talks about in this way are only young unemployed people eighteen to 30 as well as people with disabilities under 35 with some capacity to work.

Not surprisingly, young people are a rhetorical target.

When Mr Abbott’s welfare discourse is cast at a more general level (rows one and two), the frame is economic—when it’s not jingoistic. Everyone needs to ‘have a go’ so we can afford to be generous and give a fair go, and participation always means in the labour market and is often connected to the concept of productivity. But when his discourse is about getting people into jobs, as in rows three and four, although the talk is economic, the frame is entirely moral: the benefits of work for the individual are moral—they maximise their potential; and the demands on individuals are moral—to contribute and be part of the community.

Table 1 provides the broader frame within which various social groups are positioned and their claims legitimised or delegitimised, and restricted or directed in different ways. In the following section, we examine Mr Abbott’s social policy talk about three different groups and policy areas, within the broader ‘have a go/a fair go’ frame outlined above.

Different social groups, different welfare frames

Figure 1 shows that ‘corporate’ and ‘business’ are words that tend to appear near the word ‘welfare’ in Mr Abbott’s discourse. Here, we are able to show how ‘corporate/business welfare’ is connected into the broader ‘have a go/a fair go’ frame. Figure 2 shows the logic. He begins by establishing the problem: the government will not ‘chase failing businesses waving blank cheques at them’. Rather, they have ‘repeatedly said “no;”’ to ‘businesses lobbying government’ for ‘handouts’, because the government is stopping ‘corporate welfare’, because ‘the age of entitlement is dead’. Instead, the government wants ‘to bring [the] same ‘have-a-go’ mindset’ that has ‘been characteristic of our strengths as a nation’ to the manufacturing sector. As Mr Abbott continues, ‘we do believe in giving people and entities a fair start in life. There’s a difference between a fair start in life and a life on welfare so to speak’.

The use of the term corporate welfare, whether on the right or the left of politics, is a strategic extension of a metaphor from social policy, and Mr Abbott makes use of this in a couple of ways. One is to move from ‘people’ to ‘entities’ (companies), which by an analogy that is signalled by ‘so to speak’, also deserve a ‘fair start in life’. The other is by characterising subsidies as ‘handouts’ and access to them as ‘entitlement’. Note that ‘government’ is the funding agent in welfare transactions with corporations.

When it comes to middle class welfare, the progression of the argument is shown in Figure 3. As Mr Abbott puts it, to maintain prosperity, the government has to reduce ‘what some people call middle class welfare’, because—although the government is ‘all in favour of choice’—‘there must be limits to what the taxpayer should be asked to pay for’, but ‘even after [the budget] changes, families will still get [some dollar value] from the taxpayer, so it follows that the budget encourages people to ‘have a go’, while also generously giving ‘a fair go’.

Here, a particularly interesting feature of Mr Abbott’s talk about middle class welfare is his hedging language (‘what’s been described as’, ‘what some people call’, etcetera). While he recruits welfare as a metaphor to talk about subsidies to manufacturing industries, he seeks to distance himself from the characterisation of services such as health and education as ‘welfare’. He is careful to offer support for the general principle of choice, and to point out that although some benefits to families may be reduced, they are still substantial. Also noteworthy is that, whereas ‘the government’ was subject to appeals for corporate welfare, the Prime Minister names ‘the taxpayer’ as the funding agent for ‘middle class welfare’.

Not surprisingly, young people are a rhetorical target. Mr Abbott’s ‘have-a-go’ discourse about younger people who are not in work falls into two overlapping frames. One we call the ‘parental’ frame, in which he talks about young people leaving school. Figure 4 shows its logic. It is ‘important to send a very strong message’ to ‘our young people’/‘youngsters who are leaving school’ that ‘it is simply unacceptable to’ ‘leave school’ and ‘go straight on the dole’. ‘We should be saying’ to these ‘kids’ either that it is ‘no way to start’ ‘your adult life’ or that ‘the best way’ ‘to start their adult lives’ is ‘a job’. In sum: ‘you should be’/‘we’ll expect them to be’ ‘earning or learning’. In this frame, Mr Abbott takes on the role of the nation’s parent. He speaks as someone sharing the role of parent, who is addressing other parents (‘our kids’, ‘our young people’). Sometimes he addresses young people directly—‘you should be’, ‘your adult life’ and so on. Other rhetorical strategies include expressions that delegitimise alternative perspectives—‘I mean really, who thinks it is a good idea …’ ‘the last thing we should be doing’, ‘it is simply unacceptable …’. A general atmosphere of uncompromising, imperative paternalism is clear: young people are to be protected from the ‘shocking’ fate of receiving income support.

Mr Abbott’s welfare talk is more politicised and partial than commonsense and neutral.

Tony Abbott also talks about young people within what we call a ‘welfare mindset’ frame. School leavers sometimes appear in this talk, but in general it is more focused on young people who are long-term unemployed, or young people who are on the disability pension (see Figure 5). In this frame, the government’s mission is to ‘break’ the ‘culture of unemployment’/‘cycle of welfare dependency’/‘the mindset and culture of our young people’. Under the Coalition government, ‘the days of doing nothing on the taxpayer are over’. Young long-term unemployed people who are supported by the taxpayer should give something back to the community. ‘Fit young people should be working, preferably for a wage but, if not, for the dole’. They should find a job, move off welfare and into the workforce.

There are some clear differences in Mr Abbott’s way of talking in this frame, compared to the parental frame. The problem is not one for watchful parents with an eye to their youngsters’ futures. Young people are not ‘on the dole’ or ‘social security’, as they are in the parental frame; rather, with their ‘welfare mindset’, they are living in ‘taxpayer funded idleness’. And unlike the parental frame, this is quite impersonal talk—Mr Abbott appears to be communicating to a broader public about what those people—fit young long-term unemployed, younger disabled people with temporary or partial incapacities—should be expected to do. The people themselves are not directly addressed, but talked about as objects that need to be ‘moved’. This much harsher talk blames people who are out of work for their situation, or at best, positioning them as caught in something—a cycle, a culture, a mindset—that must be broken. This ‘mindset’ or ‘culture’ is presented as a real phenomenon and the cause of the problem of unemployment. We can also see here a repetition of the figure used to discuss corporate welfare, but with different ‘fillers’—the ‘era of something for nothing is over’, like the ‘end of the age of entitlement’. And as for middle class welfare, the funding agent is ‘the taxpayer’, not the government.

Politicised and partial

On a closer look, we argue, Mr Abbott’s welfare talk appears more politicised and partial than commonsense and neutral. It is politicised in the sense that it consistently communicates ideologies aligned with those of the Coalition’s friendliest constituencies, and it is partial in the sense that it leaves out important, relevant facts and processes.

The most significant way that Mr Abbott’s talk expresses his politics is through the direction of the relationship between ‘having a go’ and ‘a fair go’. As we showed above, a fair go is dependent on having a go in Mr Abbott’s framing. The Prime Minister presents this as a causal argument: generous social support (‘welfare’) can come only after the economy produces the necessary resources. The point has a certain (trivial) force—it is desirable to fund social security from a surplus in total economic output in any particular period. However, the causal relationship between the extent of economic success and the level social support has been much debated (see, for example, Bergh & Henrekson 2011; Oto-Peralías & Romero-Ávila 2013). And there is at least some good evidence that the direction of causation goes the other way—from generous social supports to economic prosperity (Lindert 2004, Leonhardt & Quealy 2014). In day-to-day party politics, debate about the direction of causation is played out in an ideological conflict, in which Mr Abbott comes down on the side of economic growth before social support.

The politics of Mr Abbott’s talk is also evident in the cline of toughness in the way he represents problems and groups, with an eye on Coalition constituencies. He is gentlest on middle class welfare; he uses hedges to distance public spending in this category from the problematic characterisation of ‘welfare’, and seeks to minimise the impact of budgetary changes on the ‘families’ who benefit from it. He is moderately tough on corporate welfare, but the potential undeserving beneficiaries are narrowly defined as manufacturers receiving subsidies. Other pro-business policies are left entirely outside the ‘welfare’ frame. These include lowering tax, cutting regulation that protects workers and the environment and concluding free trade agreements, all of which significantly benefit corporations, which the Prime Minister discusses as alternatives to corporate welfare. Mr Abbott is also moderately tough on school leavers in the parental frame; his message is unequivocally and strongly anti-welfare, but the parental framing has a softening effect; young people are to be firmly directed into education or work, and protected from the shocking fate of going on the dole.

Mr Abbott’s toughest welfare talk is reserved for unemployed people and people with disabilities under 35 who may have some capacity to work, in the stereotyping ‘welfare mindset’ frame. Talking to Sydney talkback radio host Ray Hadley on 29 January 2014, he said something that reveals much about the politics of this frame (emphasis added):

[T]he great thing about work for the dole is that it sends a signal to the whole community that the era of something for nothing is at an end and that you know, people are expected to be contributing members of our community to the best of their ability and I don’t think that is unreasonable.

Here, the Prime Minister treats work for the dole, which is a labour market program, as a propaganda instrument for a moral, not an economic position.

The political tone of Mr Abbott’s welfare talk is sometimes deafening, but he is also silent on some critical questions. These silences reveal the partiality of his discourse. When the Prime Minister represents unemployed young people as morally responsible for their own disadvantage, he seems to assume that there is work available that they are avoiding. This representation obscures the structural and policy-related causes of young people’s declining opportunities for well-supported training and decent jobs (see, for example, Brotherhood of St Laurence 2014). Related, he does not specify a mechanism for job creation, other than to say that everyone—businesses, job seekers—should ‘have a go’. And, despite much rather grand talk about work as the means of self-realisation, Mr Abbott says nothing about the quality of jobs; for him, any job is better than ‘welfare’, even though work is expected to be the way people ‘fulfil their potential’. Further, by blaming young people themselves, Mr Abbott also obscures—and intensifies—the difficulties, not to mention the shame, disempowerment and frustration, that young people experience when their search for work is fruitless (Murphy et al. 2011).

Another problem is that Mr Abbott’s conception of ‘a fair go’ and his claims that Australia is a generous society are contradicted by evidence. Australian income support is not ‘generous’ in comparative perspective, and unemployment benefits and labour market programs are particularly ungenerous. Indeed, the OECD wrote in 2010 that the low level of the Newstart Allowance ‘raises issues about its effectiveness in providing sufficient support for those experiencing job loss, or enabling someone to look for a suitable job’ (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2010, p. 128). That the OECD in particular makes this evaluation demonstrates how low these benefits in Australia are. As Peter Whiteford put it: ‘I can’t recall the OECD ever before saying that a country’s unemployment benefits weren’t generous enough – and I worked there for eight years’ (2010).

Finally, Mr Abbott frames ‘corporate welfare’ narrowly as cash ‘handouts’ to prevent business closures in manufacturing, or to save the former national carrier, Qantas; he does not characterise the multi-billion dollar superannuation tax concessions as either middle class or corporate welfare, although their benefits flow to those in the top half of the income distribution, and to the finance industry. These concessions and other measures (such as the fuel tax rebates available to the mining industry) that, on a broader definition, might be included, are simply not discussed within a welfare frame.

The Prime Minister’s claims that Australia is a generous society are contradicted by evidence.

What Mr Abbott does not say gives persuasive power to what he does say. Analysis of subtle, perhaps unconscious, features of his discourse shows how some politically-inflected positions are naturalised and others problematised. At its most fundamental, the Prime Minister’s social policy discourse naturalises a frame that defines living up to the national character as having a job, and not having a job to moral failing. His talk clearly differentiates between social groups by framing their relationships to welfare and the kinds of supports that count as welfare differently.

We have argued that Mr Abbott’s welfare discourse is politicised—but on some key policy questions, his talk does not appear to be particularly partisan in a party political sense. For example, Labor’s Julia Gillard spoke in eerily similar terms on the topic of youth unemployment in 2011, when she was prime minister:

[P]articularly for young people the obligations to engage in order to qualify for income support payments are very clear. We refer to this as the ‘learn or earn policy’, that there’s no third way, there’s no ability to just stay at home receiving benefits, people either have to be engaged in training, or they need to be engaged in the workforce. Being out on the sidelines, the economic margins, not earning at all and not learning is not an option open to people (Gillard 2011).

At first sight, this apparent convergence is not surprising. Social policy researchers have documented the paradigm shift from the ‘welfare state’ to the ‘workfare state’, and the role of labour parties in driving change in policy and in public opinion (on the British case see, for example, Deeming 2014).

However, our aim has been to go beyond specific arguments and policy justifications to identify the network of associations and arguments that provide the frame within which specific points are made. We have not analysed Ms Gillard’s personal social policy discourse, but we suspect that its underlying structure, the equivalent of Mr Abbott’s have-a-go/a fair go frame, would differ in some key respects. One form of evidence in support of our hypothesis is that key policies of the most recent Australian Labor Party governments arguably reverse the direction of causation to make ‘having a go’ at least somewhat dependent on getting ‘a fair go’ first; the school funding reforms stand out here, as does the National Disability Insurance Scheme. We have analysed Mr Abbott’s personal social policy discourse, and our findings help us to understand why these Labor reforms are vulnerable under a Coalition government.


Bergh, A. & Henrekson, M. 2011, ‘Government size and growth: A survey and interpretation of the evidence’, Journal of Economic Surveys, vol. 25, no. 5, pp. 872–897.

Brotherhood of St Laurence 2014, Investing in our future: Opportunities for the Australian government to boost youth employment, June [Online], Available: [2014, Oct 4].

Deeming, C. 2014, ‘Foundations of the workfare state: Reflections on the political transformations of the welfare state in Britain’, Social Policy and Administration, early view, DOI: 10.1111/spol.12096.

Gillard, J. 2011, Remarks to the Business 20 Roundtable, Cannes, 2 November [Online], Available: [2014, Oct 4].

Leonhardt, D. & Quealy, K. 2014, ‘The American middle class is no longer the world’s richest’, New York Times, 22 April [Online], Available: [2014, Oct 10],

Lindert, P.H. 2004, Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, J., Murray, S., Chalmers, J., Martin, S. & Marston, G. 2011, Half a Citizen: Life on Welfare in Australia, Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2010, OECD Economic Surveys: Australia 2010, OECD, Paris [Online], Available: [2014, Oct 5].

Oto-Peralías, D. & Romero-Ávila, D. 2013, ‘Tracing the link between government size and growth: The role of public sector quality’, Kyklos, vol. 66, no. 2, pp. 229–255.

Whiteford, P. 2010, ‘Why unemployment benefits need to be increased’, Inside Story, 7 December [Online], Available: [2014, Oct 4].


We give a brief account of our data and method here. We searched the Prime Minister’s website for all speeches, interviews, press conferences and media releases in which the word ‘welfare’ appeared (N=59) on 25 July 2014. Of these results, 39 used welfare in sense of public programs/social benefits, and these texts formed our data. Of the 39 texts, ten were dated before and 29 after the budget on 13 May. A full list of the texts is available here. Our findings are based on a critical discourse analysis, with quantitative and qualitative elements. Quantitative analysis using WordSmith helped us discover frequently used words and constructions (two to eight word phrases) and we explored their relationships (collocation and mutual information). We coupled this quantitative analysis with close reading of the broader co-texts around high frequency phrases and statistically significant collocates. While we were inspecting the texts themselves, we also found semantic equivalents of frequently used phrases identified in the quantitative analysis. In other words, in addition to using the same language to make a point in various situations, which we picked up through the quantitative methods, Mr Abbott also used alternative words and phrases with the same meaning, but less repetitively, and these we captured through close reading of the texts around certain important words and phrases or clusters of words and phrases. Through this process of moving between the quantitative analysis in WordSmith and the qualitative, critical reading of the texts, we developed logic tables that we used to build up a picture of the frames and arguments through which Mr Abbott articulates his personal social policy discourse, and which are shown in Table 1 and Figures 2–5 in the article. Note that we were interested in identifying the features of Mr Abbott’s discourse on welfare and social policy, and used the word ‘welfare’ as a way into identifying suitable texts for analysis. Accordingly, since Mr Abbott (or his interlocutors, in the case of interviews) may have talked about social policy without using the word welfare, the collection of texts may not be comprehensive. Further, our analysis is not comprehensive—we do not address all the themes in the texts in this article.

Gabrielle Meagher is Professor of Social Policy at The University of Sydney and Editor of the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

David P. Wilkins is a linguist, and is principal researcher with Language and Linguistics Consulting.

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