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Moral judgements have no place in Australian social policy.

By Philip Mendes - posted Tuesday, 11 May 2004

The Labor Party leader Mark Latham has called for welfare payments to be conditional on people making an effort to learn new skills, improve their health, educate their children, and, whenever possible, accept new work opportunities. These conditions or contracts would be supervised by case managers. Potential sanctions for anti-social behaviour could include fining parents of truant children, and requiring parents of teenage delinquents to sign parental responsibility contracts. Latham’s comments suggest a re-moralising of Australian social policy.

The Australian welfare state has never been entirely free from moral judgements about the behaviour of the poor. The Commonwealth old age pension introduced in 1909 was limited to those defined as being “of good character”. Aborigines, ex-prisoners, Asians, drunks, and men who had deserted their families were specifically excluded. A more inclusive age pension was not introduced till 1947. In addition, unmarried mothers were deemed to be irresponsible and immoral, and were granted Commonwealth support only for a short period prior to and immediately following the birth. Many were forced to place their children in adoption prior to the introduction of the Supporting Mothers Benefit in 1973.

Australian charities continued to investigate the character of individual applicants, and to demand evidence of temperance, industriousness, frugality, and moral restraint as a condition of receiving assistance. The Monash University historian Mark Peel has documented in stark detail the methods used by Victoria’s Charity Organisation Society in the 1930s to separate the genuinely needy from those judged to be liars and cheats. The latter were identified by their gestures, expressions, dress and physical surroundings. Evasive eyes and a smirking manner were a dead give away. Another academic, Michael Wearing, argues that religious welfare agencies continue these practices today in making moral judgements about those seeking emergency relief.


There appears to be a concerted campaign to reintroduce moral judgements into the provision of mainstream income-security payments. One key source of pressure is the neoliberal think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies. In 2000 they published a book-length pamphlet titled Behavioural Poverty which attributed poverty to the “anti-social and self-destructive behaviour” of those afflicted. According to the author Lucy Sullivan, poverty was caused not by low incomes but rather by irresponsible spending on alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and gambling. More recently Peter Saunders from the CIS has damned the Senate Poverty Report (pdf, 493KB), A hand up not a hand out, arguing that it fails to acknowledge that "irresponsible behaviour" (defined as “excessive expenditure on smoking, drinking and gambling as well as incurring high levels of debt”) is a key cause of poverty.

The influence of the CIS can be seen in the views expressed by their ally, the Federal Minister for Employment Tony Abbott, regarding the impact of drinking and gambling on poverty, and in the oft-stated preference of Prime Minister Howard for greater involvement of charities in welfare provision.

In contrast, Mark Latham and the ALP appear to take their lead from the UK Labour Government which has introduced both parental responsibility orders, and an anti-social Behaviour Act designed to deter families from involvement in crime and drug and alcohol abuse. A prominent backbench Labor MP, Frank Field, has written a book titled Neighbours from Hell which urges the government to go even further, and withhold housing benefits from anti-social tenants.

Such proposals seek to reverse the historical emphasis of the welfare state on structural rather than individualistic explanations of poverty. They seem to assume without any hard evidence that welfare recipients are more likely than others to engage in irresponsible and imprudent behaviour. And they imply that those making the judgements are free of such imperfections.

The unemployed and, more recently, sole parents are already exposed to considerable policing and surveillance under the existing mutual obligation framework. Plans for further intrusions into their private lives would arguably involve a discriminatory and coercive restriction of their civil rights.

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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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