Lifting the lid on how ‘social security’ offers no security at all

It’s timely that Who Cares? has landed in our bookshops just as public hearings by the Robodebt Royal Commission wind up this month.

Two voices were heard. In diametrically opposite ways, each opened a small window on how the social security system actually works.

Liberal Party politicians and departmental mandarins had the louder voice. Of course, in all the endless talk about whether the scheme was lawful, not one mentioned that Robodebt was designed to ramp-up the attack on the right to a liveable income when times are tough. That was its baked-in purpose.

Scott Morrison justified the scheme for the “savings” it brought to the budget’s bottom line. Rarely aired political reasons for Robodebt were outlined by Rachel Miller, the key spin doctor for then Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge.

Miller testified the scheme “was playing well in the western suburbs of Sydney”. Robodebt boosted the government’s ugly media strategy to stigmatise income support recipients as “welfare cheats”.

Tudge admitted that among the countless reports that never reached the light of day he had received a briefing report that a minuscule 0.1 per cent of people caught up in the scheme made a fraudulent claim. This didn’t stop him fronting A Current Affair to threaten, “We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison.”

We also quietly heard about the devastating impact of Robodebt from a handful of the 600,000 people who copped this attack. In the first two years of scheme, 2030 died after receiving a debt notice. Kath Madgwick testified that her son Jarrad tragically took his life when Centrelink wrongly told him he owed $2000.

In Who Cares?, Eve Vincent amplifies these less-heard voices to further crack open the welfare system window. Vincent, a Chair of Anthropology at Macquarie University, focuses on the experiences of people involved in two other social security programs: the cashless debit card (mainly targeting Aboriginal communities) and ParentsNext (mainly targeting single parents).

Vincent’s ethnographic approach “braids” stories of people she interviewed with the political context of each program and locates the cashless debit card within a brief historical account of Aboriginal colonial oppression.

Who Cares? details how the compulsory cashless debit card, introduced in 2016, quarantined 80 per cent of income support payments in targeted (mainly Aboriginal) communities. Money on the card could not be used in gambling outlets or to buy alcohol.

In 2022, the Labor government allowed recipients in some locations to opt out from using the card but kept it compulsory for the many communities in the Northern Territory and Cape York who remain subject to the racist income management regime.

While various opinions about the card (mainly negative) are recounted by recipients, care is the centrepiece of the book. Vincent paints small pictures of what care looks like:

Valerie stubs her cigarette butts and saves them, leaving them on the front veranda in a tin for a cousin to collect and smoke.

Natasha volunteers in a not-for-profit mortuary. Relatives come to bathe, tend and clothe their loved one’s cool body. Sometimes these family members arrive “very nervous”. Natasha watches family members slowly relax, reaching to tuck their deceased kin’s hair behind ears. Eventually laughter wafts from the morgue.

ParentsNext started in the same year as the cashless debit card. Vincent locates the program as a recent draconian extension to both Labor and Liberal government workfare policies in the last three decades to reduce payments and increase compulsory obligations.

Once a child turns six months (changed to nine months by the Albanese government), a parent is required to undertake activities that will make them “work ready”. In 2021, 83,000 parents were participating in ParentsNext.

Between 2018 and 2021, 55,000 parents received 159,000 welfare payment suspensions lasting an average of five days on each occasion. Like Robodebt, 85 per cent of those suspended were later found not to have been at fault.

The stories Vincent relates here also detail how the basics of care were rarely practised by this program: receiving calls “out of the blue”; getting texted about a compulsory appointment date and time, then waiting for the call from the ParentsNext advisor that never came and being suspended for not attending; doing a “rubbish” course; being “treated like a child”; and so on.

For a book aimed at the general reader, Vincent leaves out two important political arguments.

Them and us?

In her introduction, Vincent mentions how Morrison’s COVID-19 Supplement effectively abolished poverty for a brief few months and argues that there’s “nothing inevitable about returning Jobseeker to a miserly level, where it remains”.

However, her impassioned call “to find a better way to care for others” implies there is a “them” who receive welfare payments and an “us” who do not. This is politically damaging to her argument as it reinforces a liberal concept of care motivated by compassion and understanding of the circumstances other people face.

Such an approach puts the onus on individual responses and on supporting NGOs such as Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC) and the Australian Council of Social Service. Compassion, understanding and lobbying by NGOs are all important but not sufficient to force governments to permanently raise the rate of JobSeeker, abolish income management and break the regime of workfare.

A far more politically powerful motivation is available—that it is in our immediate and collective self-interest. The “them and us” idea that social security payments such as JobSeeker are confined to a group of unfortunate individuals and families living at the margins of society is factually incorrect.

A Melbourne Institute study found that more than 70 per cent of Australian families with a working-age member received an income support payment between 2001 and 2015 (excluding family payments, child care payments and the age pension).

In other words, a majority of working-class people over a relatively short space of time are intimately affected by the social security system’s dwindling support and increasing coercion.  

Turning working class people in western Sydney and other places away from blaming each other when they are receiving income support is objectively possible. These top-down ideas have shallow roots that can be severed by hard-hitting campaigns, including strike action, for better care provision in welfare, health and education.

Breaking unjust strike laws, like the NSW nurses and teachers did recently, won massive support. This is the central challenge to build effective campaigns, from secure decent care provision to winning environmental and Aboriginal justice.

Explaining or mobilising?

Vincent is no socialist but I did expect her to at least raise in her historical discussions the significant impacts that struggles have had on welfare provision. There is only one mention of protests: a 2015 street march in Ceduna with Aboriginal people holding banners “We need rehab here” and “Human rights, Lost cause”.  

A legal campaign by Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation over country affected by Andrew Forrest’s Solomon Mine is also discussed to situate his rotten association with Abbott’s Healthy Welfare Card.

It’s disappointing that the unemployed struggles in the 1930s were not mentioned, especially since many Aboriginal workers were involved and arrested at militant protests such as the occupation of Darwin government offices in January 1931.

Aboriginal activists like Joe McGiness politically broadened many of the unemployed campaigns to include demands for land rights and citizenship, which strengthened the movement, winning large increases in unemployment payments doled out by states at the time.

The struggles by single parents for pension rights are not mentioned either. It was primarily through campaigns led by activists in the CSMC that single mothers won their pension rights in 1973 (and single fathers six years later). At the height of their campaign, the organisation had more than 1700 members in Victoria and affiliates in most other states.

Innovative tactics included “picnics” with their children inside ministerial electoral offices and a media campaign promoting the decision by Pam Rosenhain, “a former Miss Australia”, to “keep my baby” despite the financial problems she would face.

I suspect readers of Vincent’s book would have been interested to know this campaign to secure single mothers a livable income was a watershed moment within the women’s movement of the time.

In the early 1970s, oppressive social expectations and financial pressures had forced nine out of ten “unwed mothers” to give up their new born child for adoption. By the end of the decade this outrage had been radically challenged and upended—with nine out of ten single mothers keeping their babies.

Despite these reservations, Who Cares? is an important book worth reading for the experiences of people and communities living with these two programs.   

By Marcus Banks

Who Cares? Life on Welfare in Australia by Eve Vincent. Melbourne University Publishing, $33


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