Early in December, 2004, the ABC reported that a leaked memo to managers at Centrelink, the government’s welfare agency, claimed that Australia would “simply not have the welfare dollars to support people in the very near future” and, consequently, Centrelink bureaucrats had to do what they could to get disability support pensioners and parent payment “customers” with children under 13 years old, back to work.
The truth, as the memo acknowledges, is that neither of these client groups is legally required to be actively looking for work in order to get their money. If questioned directly on this matter, it tells staff they must “answer correctly”. However, they should avoid having this inconvenient fact being included as part of their “spiel”.
Critics from the welfare sector have slammed the directive as “devious”. At issue seems to be the dubious moral distinction the agency has drawn between a direct and indirect lie. If my eldest child steals $5 from my wallet and then denies it when I start asking questions, that’s a lie, pure and simple. But if my little one saw the crime, but only says “I didn’t do it, Mum” when asked, I’d dock both their allowances. This is because, like most parents, I want children who don’t see truth-telling as a technicality, but as an approach to life in which the essential relationships between trust and functioning relationships, as well as autonomy and human dignity, are well understood.
It’s well nigh impossible for someone to make a voluntary and informed decision - the sort that enables a person to direct their life in a way suited to their circumstances and consistent with their values - if they lack all the information they deem relevant about their options, rights and obligations. It’s pretty simple really. In the same way that I can’t be said to have given informed consent to open heart surgery if I didn’t know that a less risky procedure with the same odds of success was available; disability and parent pensioners can’t “choose” to work if their decision is based on absent or misleading information from Centrelink staff that searching for work is a requirement of their being paid.
The directive is also a sneaky attempt by government to achieve outcomes through the backdoor of bureaucratic pressure rather than openly arguing for legal change. In 2002, the government was forced to back down after it became clear that its proposal to shift disability pensioners to the unemployment rolls would cause hardship to many disabled people.
Forcing mothers with young children back to work is another politically incendiary issue. Having backed the view that young children need their mothers at home full-time, and that mothers (but not fathers) are entitled to choice about if and when they work, the government will find it hard to make the case that married middle-class women with husbands to support them are good mothers when they stay at home with young children, but single mothers dependent on the state are dole bludgers when they do the same.
Elsewhere, too, the double-standard lurks. The Liberal government of John Howard has long prided itself on being the party of individual freedom and choice, consistently dismantling and deriding what it calls the “nanny” state. Yet the Centrelink memo suggests that while it sees individual choice as central to the freedom and dignity of the economically independent, paternalistically manipulating the “choices” of the economically dependent to get them to do what the government believes is best is all in a day’s work.
The Minister for Workforce Participation, Peter Dutton, made this clear when he justified the means by which Centrelink sought to reduce the benefit rolls by the anticipated ends: the achievement of government policy. “The Government's very much about trying to provide people with a work first philosophy…and if people have a capacity to work then we think it's a great outcome, not just for them but their families and the community in general.”
Some may see a paternalistic approach to those dependent on welfare as more than justified. Economic independence buys individual liberty, the argument might run, and those on the dole can’t expect taxpayers to fund their choices. But this argument stands or falls on how we think about welfare. If it is understood as the largess of taxpayers, then compelling pensioners to jump through employment hoops to prove them deserving of our generosity may seem fair enough.
But if workers understand their taxes to be funding insurance to cover them in case of unemployment, disability or parenting obligations, then pension money is the payout to which citizens making legitimate claims are entitled.
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