Re-Establishing Our Right to Welfare

Most people seem to be taking it for granted that the Australian Labor Party will win power in the next federal election. With the current sitting government in turmoil after facing heavy losses throughout the country in 2018, it seems as though Australia is finally standing up to the wave of toxic neoliberal reforms set in motion by the Coalition with the election of Tony Abbott in 2013. For the left, this should be cause for celebration. But the Labor Party is delivering mixed messages with regards to what it values and how much it would like to change, refusing to take a strong position on vital issues such as increasing the rate of Newstart, abolishing the cashless welfare card, or defending the inherent value of the unemployed as part of the working class by fully dismantling the failed program of “mutual obligation”. While a charitable interpretation of these policies might suggest that Shorten is simply being cautious in the face of right-wing anti-welfare propaganda, it’s difficult to trust the Labor Party while many of us still remember things like Julia Gillard’s welfare cuts to single mothers, or Bill Shorten’s support of self-serving Orwellian policies like last year’s data retention bill.

To those of us on the left, Shorten’s rhetoric suggests a lack of appetite for criticizing neoliberalism in general, making it appear as though a Labor government will slow down Australia’s embrace of neoliberal ideology without doing any of the difficult work necessary to reverse or stop it. An important step towards attacking neoliberalism is to challenge a pervasive fiction regarding our country’s welfare system: the idea that access is a privilege, rather than a fundamental human right. Welfare in Australia is promoted like a charity, with programs such as “work for the dole” and “mutual obligation” built around the expectation that the unwaged should be thankful for the money that the state provides them. I’ve written about these expectations before, explaining both the benefits of welfare and how our punitive approach to welfare policy is damaging the wider working class.

But it hasn’t always been this way. As Selma James wrote on the British welfare system in her essay collection Sex, Race, and Class (1975):

“The welfare state was a legacy of the Second World War. After the misery of the great depression and the slaughter that followed, people demanded change: the welfare of people, including working-class people, was to be central. Millions demanded socialism – and the welfare state was what we got.”

Welfare was originally established as the right of every citizen, and even Tories cautiously acknowledged the right of “every human being not to starve”. The welfare system in Australia developed under similar conditions, with the modern system of support, including unemployment benefits, established by a Labor government in 1945. Since then, the system has been undermined according to the principles of economic rationalism. The notion of supporting “lifters” over “leaners” obscures the uncounted work that the unwaged already do to expand the economy (for example, as Selma James would note, the unpaid work of reproduction), and it denies the inherent value of every human being, regardless of their participation in waged labour under capitalism.

Neoliberalism is an inhumane approach to policy, and while it’s often justified with rhetoric about the government’s responsibility to taxpayers (which is ludicrous, not least because the unwaged are also taxpayers through the GST,) or the inability to afford a working safety net, the figures simply don’t add up. A recent study showed that a boost in the current rate of Newstart could actually improve Australia’s economy, while punitive and inefficient measures like the Indue “healthy welfare” card cost a fortune in administration while offering little benefit to society or the people who are forced to use them.

Considering the damage caused by neoliberal thinking, not only in Australia but throughout the world, Labor has an opportunity and an obligation to present another way. A kinder, gentler drive towards increasing inequality is not enough: we need to stop the problem at its source. Re-establishing our right to welfare as a social wage, allowing independence without prejudice or obligation is a start.

Maddison Stoff is a non-binary autistic writer and musician from Melbourne, whose essays have appeared in Overland and New Matilda. Her debut book, For We Are Young and Free, a compilation of interlinking meta-fictional Australian cyberpunk, is out now on UK indie publisher Dostoyevsky Wannabe. You can follow her on Twitter, @thedescenters

Photograph: Anti-Poverty Network Queensland