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Mutual obligation and Catholic values

By Minh Nguyen - posted Thursday, 20 April 2006

If you think “mutual obligation” is only found in domestic welfare policy, think again. Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer is due to table his White Paper on the future direction of Australia’s overseas aid program to parliament. The paper is the most significant review of the program in nearly a decade. If the interim report released in December is a sign of things to come, the paper should again prompt questions about the ethics and relevance of mutual obligation in public policy.

The interim report on aid, commissioned by the Australian aid agency AusAID, suggests that aid conditions and penalties can be used more effectively to hasten economic and governance reform in recipient countries. The report, available on AusAID’s website, recommends that the government make “operational the idea of ‘mutual obligation’” for major aid recipients such as Papua New Guinea.

However, this is not the first time mutual obligation has ventured into unknown policy frontiers. In late 2004, the government credited it as the underlying philosophy for a regime of agreements between the government and remote Indigenous communities. Under the plan, known as Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs), Indigenous families and communities agree to certain behavioural adjustments, like ensuring their children were washed and attending school, in return for government funding and services.


Mutual obligation is a principle that taps into the idea of reciprocity and the social contract under which rights have corresponding responsibilities or obligations. Former Workplace Minister Tony Abbott has claimed that the principle is consistent with Catholic social teaching, particularly the principle of subsidiarity, which emphasises the importance of individual autonomy and grassroots initiatives. But does this interpretation measure up to reality?

Prime Minister John Howard has defined mutual obligation as a principle that insists “not only that individuals ought to do something in return for the support they receive from society, but also that in order for society and the government to help people in need, they need to be willing to do something to help themselves.” In public announcements, the mutuality in mutual obligation is usually given prominence. But in policy and in practice, there is greater emphasis on the obligations of poor people, rather than to poor people.

After nine years of operation, there is now ample research on the Welfare to Work program to suggest that, as Jeremy Ross claimed in 2001, “rather than being a means of encouraging participation or mutuality, the scheme is essentially punitive”. Tim Martyn from Jesuit Social Services argues that mutual obligation is about shifting responsibility upon low-skill job seekers to solve their unemployment situation through US-inspired “workfare”. This system focuses on attitudes to work rather than the skills required to work.

Although it is still too early to assess the ethics of SRAs, preliminary research by the Jumbunna Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, indicates that the government is failing to meet key commitments in the time frames it made to Indigenous communities. “Evidence that is publicly available suggests that the government is more concerned with furthering its ‘mutual obligation’ policy agenda than genuinely addressing Indigenous disadvantage,” the report concludes.

Similarly, Australia’s demands through its aid program for accountability and reform in developing countries can be contrasted with the almost complete lack of transparency and slow pace of reform on the part of Australia. Such is the continued practice of giving over 90 per cent of Australia’s aid contracts exclusively to Australian companies: a practice proved to reduce the value of aid by 25 per cent or more. This is before any formal adoptions of mutual obligation in the aid program.

Not only does there appear to be a punitive aspect to mutual obligation, there is also a clear lack of mutuality. This takes the interpretation of John Ozolins closer to the true ethics of mutual obligation than the views of Tony Abbott. Ozolins, who is the head of the school of philosophy at the Australian Catholic University, believes mutual obligation “is a policy which is singularly at odds with the very powerfully worded message of Church documents and encyclicals since at least the time of Aquinas which assert that everyone has a right to share in the common good.”


Ozolins argues that responsibility to society does not flow from being compelled by a notion of mutual obligation but because each one of us has something worthwhile to contribute to society. Accepting our civic responsibilities must be a voluntary contribution to the common good in order to uphold our own human dignity, he argues.

As John XXIII puts it in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, we must fulfil our obligations to society chiefly on our “own responsibility and initiative. This is to be done in such a way that each one acts on his own decision, of set purpose and from a consciousness of his obligation, without being moved by force or pressure brought to bear on him externally.” But this does not absolve governments of their responsibilities to the common good.

The responsibility of the state, John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, is “indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity [to create] favourable conditions” for individuals to contribute to social and economic life. But at the same time, states must intervene “directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the [powerful]”.

Although John Paul II was writing specifically about the plight of individual workers, the church has universally applied these principles to other areas, including international development. Paul VI makes this point clear when he quoted Gaudium et Spes: “The same duty of solidarity that rests on individuals exists also for nations: ‘Advanced nations have a very heavy obligation to help the developing peoples’.” Such a statement provides a marked contrast to the emerging policy approach in government that lavishes attention on policy weaknesses of poor countries while neglecting its own failings.

A more ethical framework that is consistent with Catholic social teaching would imply at least a need for better conditions and greater public investment in training and education for disadvantaged job seekers. It would, at a minimum, require the government to deliver on its key promises to Indigenous communities under the new SRA arrangement. It would emphasise Australia’s obligations to provide more and better aid and to limit to its own strategic and economic imperatives for the sake of development in the region. It is only by creating an enabling environment, domestically and internationally, and one in which the rights and dignity of humanity’s weakest people are respected can mutual obligation be truly compatible with Catholic social teaching.

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First published on the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre website in April 2006.

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About the Author

Minh Nguyen is a researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre and has authored several reports on the human rights situation in the Asia Pacific region.

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