Welfare policy- blame the victims

The early months of the Rudd government have shown that it is just as committed to the neo-liberal “welfare reform” agenda as John Howard.

When Rudd’s government floated the idea of abolishing one-off payments to carers and age pensioners in the coming budget, the public was outraged and forced him to back down. But the idea left two million people stressed-out for a week. On a recent SBS Insight program, community services minister Jenny Macklin and the shadow minister Tony Abbott agreed that the “quarantining” of welfare payments, first seen as part of the NT intervention, should be rolled out nationally.

Legislation passed before the election, and supported by the ALP, means that from July, all parents receiving a Centrelink payment will be required to report their children’s school attendance. If they don’t, they will have their payment stopped.

If a child has skipped too many classes, a charity will “manage” their payments. What this has to do with child sexual abuse, and why only the 10 per cent of Australian young families who receive these payments are being targeted, is unexplained. Moral panic is enough of an explanation, it seems.

These are just the latest instalments in the three-decade campaign to blame unemployed people for not having a job, and to make welfare as punitive and humiliating as possible.

The social democratic idea of welfare-that governments had an obligation to guarantee either a decent job or a social payment if they failed-was torn up in the 1980s. Rather than treat everyone as a valuable member of society, the system divides us into “winners” and “losers”; while neo-liberalism blames failure on individual qualities.

Poverty or low wages are the result of poor choices, attitudes, behaviours or ability, not the failure of the market, or the break-up of a relationship, or the refusal of employers to hire stigmatised people, or attacks by business and governments struggling to restructure Australian capitalism to boost profit rates.

In social policy unemployment benefits were rebadged and restructured as Newstart Allowances. Voluntary programs to help single parents, those with a disability and others get work, became compulsory “obligations”.

An ideological battle was waged on the welfare front to shift “wrong” attitudes. The report on welfare in 2000 by Mission Australia CEO, Patrick McClure, is a good example.

McClure claimed that the Single Parent Pension (won by the women’s movement in the early 1970s) was now stigmatised by the mark of “welfare dependency”.


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