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Compassionate conservatism for welfare 'bludgers'

By Sarah Burnside - posted Friday, 12 March 2010

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott drew media attention recently for proposing a “welfare crackdown”, to include compulsory work-for-the-dole schemes and higher threshold for eligibility for disability pensions. With respect to the latter, Abbott proposed a review by the National Audit Office to determine more stringent eligibility rules for the disability pension and suggested that recipients with “less serious medical conditions” be required to undergo annual medical reassessments and sit two interviews each year to “encourage them into employment”.

Currently, 700,000 Australians receive the disability pension. Abbott estimates that around one-third of these people have conditions he would class as “less serious”.

The Centrelink website explains that eligibility for the Disability Support Pension is determined by reference to a set of criteria and usually requires a report from a person’s doctor or specialist, and a job capacity assessment. People may be eligible if they are unable to work for 15 hours or more per week at or above the relevant minimum wage or be reskilled for such work for the next two years because of illness, injury or disability, or if they are permanently blind.


Unlike previous Coalition rhetoric on welfare recipients, which has tended to damn them as “bludgers”, Abbott’s language is more sophisticated, being couched in terms of care. In his 2009 book Battlelines, Abbott posited that “allowing people who could readily work to stay out of the workforce for long periods is cruelty and not compassion”. This is a classic example of “compassionate conservatism”, a trope employed by UK Tories and US Republicans to varying success in the past decade to counter perceptions of the Right’s heartlessness.

The implication is that progressives are ideologically wedded to the welfare state but have little empathy for those who are dependant on it; conservatives alone manifest genuine concern for these members of the community. David Penberthy of The Punch supports Abbott, writing:

Apparently it's better to maintain a welfare program that would consign people to a dispiriting life of indolence, exposing them to the mental health anguish that comes with non-participation, rather than ask them some slightly tougher questions about what they could actually do.

The arguments are persuasive - surely no one wants to condemn their fellow citizens to a life with no prospect of employment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most welfare recipients wish to find employment and that, lacking the social hub of a workplace, they feel isolated and lonely. Several issues are glossed over, though, in the invocation of compassion to justify limiting access to the disability pension.

First, welfare recipients and their families would no doubt challenge the assertion that it is “easy” to qualify for the disability pension or retain access to it. Interactions with government bureaucracy, involving vast amounts of paperwork, are often frustrating at best and mystifying at worst.

Former welfare rights advocate Susie Byers discerns a “culture of punishment within Centrelink and its parent departments”, born of a “suspicious pessimism about the motivations and goals of those who are unemployed, raising children, or living with disabilities”. Byers suggests that the process of accessing government benefits is dehumanising and humiliating, noting that those who claim payments “expose themselves to invasions of privacy that would make the humblest aged pensioner feel like a criminal”.


Abbott’s suggestion that an audit of the eligibility rules is needed “to ensure that only those who genuinely deserve this benefit receive it” subtly invokes the stereotype of the bludger without providing any evidence of such exploitation. Generally speaking, it seems likely that any benefit system will attract the self-interested as well as the needy. So be it: this is a price we pay for living in a civilised community that cares for its citizens. To make a whole class of people suffer for the sins of the few - even under the mantle of “compassion” - would be, in this context as in others, profoundly unethical.

Second, Abbott’s classification of muscular-skeletal and psychological/psychiatric disabilities as the categories within which “less serious” conditions might be found seems opportunistic. Muscular-skeletal conditions may involve chronic pain which is inherently difficult for external parties to perceive. Similarly, psychological or psychiatric illness is not readily identifiable by bureaucrats seeking to limit entitlements to government benefits.

The nomination of these categories suggests a certain lack of sophistication - if someone’s not in a wheelchair or holding a cane, they must be capable of work. These are people already vulnerable to accusations of malingering, particularly given the increasing scepticism about diagnoses of mental illness. It is thus important to note that one cannot qualify for the disability pension merely by feeling a bit blue. The criteria regarding psychiatric impairment in the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth) specify that “mild but regular symptoms which tend to cause subjective distress” and give rise to “minimal interference with function in everyday situations” will not of themselves render one eligible for the pension.

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First published in Challenging the Market on March 7, 2010.

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About the Author

Sarah Burnside is a freelance writer with experience in law and policy. She tweets cautiously at @SarahEBurnside.

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