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The Greens and social welfare

By Philip Mendes - posted Monday, 8 October 2012

In recent years, the Australian Greens have emerged as the foremost Parliamentary supporters of the welfare state. They have vigorously defended existing income security entitlements, and aligned themselves with the social justice campaigns of welfare policy advocates.They have been particularly vocal in critiquing government processes and structures that undermine the individual choice and agency of income security recipients. They have strongly rejected the neo-liberal emphasis on promoting the responsibility of the disadvantaged to society, rather than the responsibility of society to the disadvantaged.

As early as 1996, Greens leader Bob Brown argued the case for a Guaranteed Adequate Income Scheme that would provide a basic income for all Australians. This scheme would also assist those unable to access paid employment to participate in socially useful activities such as volunteer work with the sick or elderly, or repairing the environment.

A policy statement issued in March 2007 (and still listed as current policy on the Greens website) similarly endorses the establishment of a universal minimum income, and the funding of high quality welfare services in order to eliminate poverty and promote social equity and justice.


Parliamentary representatives of the Greens including most notably the Senator for Western Australia, Rachel Siewert, have been consistently active in opposing Coalition and subsequently Labor Government policies that they regard as unfair to poor and disadvantaged Australians. In short, they support an approach that recognizes the structural and systemic causes of disadvantage, and reject policies which narrowly target the allegedly bad behaviour of individual income security recipients.

For example, the Greens were highly critical of the Welfare to Work Bill introduced in the 2005 Budget which imposed tighter eligibility rules for the Disability Support Pension and the Parenting Payment. They argued that these policies were punitive and uncaring, would significantly reduce the incomes of new applicants for these payments, and would not address structural barriers such as disability, recent experience of family violence, lack of accessible child care, and limited education that prevented these groups from entering the workforce. They also expressed concern about the level of surveillance and control exercised over the lives of low-income Australians.

The Greens opposed the Northern Territory Emergency Response, and particularly the associated compulsory income management (CIM) scheme, the quarantining of a set percentage of income security payments – usually somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent – into a special account for the exclusive purchase of essential household items such as food, rent, clothing and energy bills. They expressed concern that CIM was coercive and paternalistic, indiscriminately targeted all Indigenous people in a specific community irrespective of individual capacity, was not based on empirical evidence, and highly costly. They urged instead that funding be directed to badly needed family support and child protection, housing and health services that would address the underlying causes of disadvantage. They also critiqued the top-down approach imposed by the government, and recommended an alternative community development model of service provision involving collaborative partnerships with local communities.

The Greens have consistently argued for a $50 per week increase in the rate of Newstart allowance paid to the unemployed which is currently only $35 a day or $246 a week which is $140 a week below the pension rate. They argue that the low level of payment is entrenching poverty and disadvantage including homelessness, and is disproportionately affecting the long-term unemployed who face serious barriers to accessing employment.

In April 2012, Senator Rachel Siewert spent a week living on the NewStart Allowance to expose the challenges involved with coping on such a low income. Senator Siewert reported that once she had paid her rent and utilities bills and public transport costs, she was left with only $10 a day to cover food and toiletries and cosmetics. This left no money for emergencies such as ill-health or a car breakdown, clothing or any form of social or sporting activity. Siewert's action was praised by ACOSS which applauded her willingness to 'try and get a feel for the true plight of people living in poverty'.

To date, the Greens have been vocal in exposing the more repressive aspects of the Australian welfare state. However, the Greens have arguably neglected to present a detailed plan for an alternative progressive income security system that would integrate environmental and social equity concerns, recognize the value of social as well as economic participation, enhance the individual choice and agency of service users, and facilitate effective local responses to the social costs of climate change.


Such a system could arguably take the form of democratic partnerships between community providers and consumer groups at the local level based on consumer rather than provider needs and control. This would mean recognizing the diverse individual experiences and capacities of the unemployed, and accepting that a certain proportion of the working age population would remain outside the paid workforce. All people reliant on income security could then be offered a participation income which incorporated a range of social, cultural, educational, environmental, community and caring activities and expectationsranging from the more conventional such as caring for young children, the disabled, and people who are frail aged or chronically ill, to manning the kiosk or clothes shop at school and/or coordinating the local sports team to the less conventional, for example, participating in local exchange and trading schemes.

In addition, the bureaucratic uniformity of the income security system could be addressed by transferring control to local communities with extensive consumer participation. The focus of services would then be on meeting the aspirations of participants, rather than those of government or providers. Community control of welfare programs would also ensure that the specific needs of those groups adversely affected by climate change in each locality were reflected in service planning and delivery.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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