The Australian Labor Party has long been divided between the competing claims of social justice and economic rationalism. However, the election of Mark Latham as party leader seems to have tipped the scale firmly in favor of private and community-based, rather than statist, solutions to poverty and disadvantage.
This does not mean that Latham is an unbending economic rationalist. He recognises that structural inequalities play a role in creating increased welfare reliance, and supports the “civilizing role” of government services. But he attributes social problems primarily to individual agency and behaviour, rather than to patterns of social disadvantage. This is epitomised by his reference to the “ladder of opportunity”. A ladder is something you climb individually, rather than in solidarity with a group or class.
Latham has often spoken of his own childhood years growing up in the struggling working-class Sydney suburb of Green Valley. But the message he has adopted from these experiences is about individual self-help and responsibility rather than collective rights, and about the importance of giving the working class access to opportunities, rather than dependence on government intervention and redistribution. It is about “rewarding effort” - and punishing the “slackers” and “no-hopers”.
In his most recent book, From the Suburbs, Latham argues that the welfare state has disabled recipients, and led to their exclusion from social and economic norms. For example, he claims that his outer-suburban Sydney electorate has welfare dependency rates of 80 per cent, although nowhere does he specifically define what he means by welfare dependency. He believes that what he calls intergenerational poverty reflects both structural inequities, and the impact of social isolation and destructive anti-social behaviour.
The proposed solution to this problem is to promote social responsibilities rather than social rights. In particular, there is a need to promote safe and secure neighborhoods based on mutual trust. Latham advocates a new approach called the enabling state based on active welfare to promote social capability. Endorsing the notion of mutual obligation, Latham argues that there should be an end to unconditional entitlements. Instead welfare payments should be conditional on people making an effort to learn new skills, improve their health, educate their children, and, whenever possible, accept new work opportunities. Sanctions would be applied if necessary.
Latham also urges greater community rather than state ownership of welfare services. For example, while government should continue to provide central funding, Latham favors handing over control and provision of most welfare services from the state to local communities. He suggests the notion of place management whereby funding is targeted at social problems identified and prioritised by local experts.
Some of the concerns and agendas raised by Latham have considerable merit. There is little doubt that many poor and disadvantaged people are disempowered by current services, and his concern to renew social and community relationships and empower poor neighbourhoods is welcome.
However, Latham’s proposals also have significant limitations. First, the welfare state continues to play an important role in reducing poverty among particularly vulnerable groups such as the aged, the sick, sole parents, and the unemployed. There is little or no evidence at this stage to suggest that alternate institutions would be willing or able to replace the state’s welfare role. Second, it is simplistic to blame the welfare state for wider social and economic changes that have contributed to increased reliance on welfare.
Third, while local-community delivery of welfare services may be beneficial, we need to remember that local communities are not united and homogeneous groups. Rather, they are divided by class, ethnicity, race, and other significant social, economic and attitudinal barriers. Recent policy debates in Victoria suggest that some local communities and community groups are just as likely, for example, to exclude, rather than include, marginalised groups such as welfare recipients, drug users, and street prostitutes. Finally, Latham’s call for the reintroduction of moral judgements into welfare programs has the potential to blame the victim, and to lead to overly intrusive measures of social control.
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