Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Empower the poor or punish slackers? Mark Latham on the welfare state

By Philip Mendes - posted Friday, 2 April 2004

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.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

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).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Philip Mendes
Related Links
Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Services, Monash University
Mark Latham's home page
Photo of Philip Mendes
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy