Moral dilemmas on tax and welfare

I read with interest today that the Rudd Government’s Human Services Minister, Joe Ludwig, is planning to heighten federal government efforts to crack down on welfare fraud. With global economic conditions as tumultuous as they are and the national level of inflation seemingly on an unstoppable upward spiral, the government is afforded the opportunity of cloaking this latest step in a veil of fiscal prudence. I suspect such an approach will be viewed in a favourable light by most people (particularly those not receiving welfare), given that it serves as something of an attack on one of tabloid Australia’s most despised constituencies, throwing in for good measure a dash of aggressive penny-pinching.

In terms of message framing, I daresay that the Prime Minister could not really hope for a better headline than the one provided by the story linked to above: Welfare fraud on Rudd’s hit list. The “economic conservatism” message is one that was repeated ad nauseam throughout the latter stages of 2007, to the point where even the most sceptical of folk probably started believing it towards the end. So far, the government has been careful to continue pushing the message, and to their credit, they have actually bolstered their rhetoric through their actions so far. “Dog-whistling” has probably become something of a misused term, but I don’t really think there is any doubting that stories like the one above are music to the ears of the sorts of conservative, middle-class folk that we once described as “Howard’s battlers”.

Although his message probably tanks with “Howard’s battlers”, I think Michael Raper raises a very good point when it comes to the question of where the government should be looking for savings:

National Welfare Rights Network president Michael Raper said tax fraud was a bigger problem than welfare fraud.

“If they want to chase tax fraud, that’s where the dollars are,” he said. “There’s some in social security but it’s pretty tight and hard already. Less than half of 1 per cent of social security debt is fraud.”

I find it interesting that it is deemed morally wrong to receive welfare money you are not entitled to, but it is apparently morally acceptable to pay as little tax as possible through tax evasion schemes and clever accounting. One wonders how many of those who are strongly in favour of cracking down on people receiving welfare illegitimately bend every letter of the law around the corner when it comes time to completing their own tax returns. Part of the problem, of course, is the vicious nexus between welfare payments and actual job income. Folks on welfare either can’t find work, or can’t find enough work, and so received welfare payments. Then a job comes along, they get something of a break, and they earn a bit more money. Because they are busy, ignorant, or figure it’s going to be two hours in a Centrelink queue that could be better spent doing just about anything else, they don’t bother reporting it. Are people in this situation really “criminals”? According to the letter of the law, yes, but in my view, people facing this scenario are more accurately just suffering the symptoms of a welfare system that is desperately in need of a boot into the twenty-first century.

With reference to the Rudd Government’s increased vigilance when it comes to welfare fraud, I can only agree that if done properly, it will be good for the country. In ensuring that welfare recipients are not abusing their allowances, however, the government must make certain it does not lose sight of the bigger picture. Millions of dollars of taxpayers money each year is wasted in the tax evasion and return cycle, with those earning the most and with access to the best and most unscrupulous accountants stand to gain the most. A progressive stance on this issue demands that the government considers both those rorting the system at the top end of the income scale, as well as those who may be not playing entirely within the rules at the bottom end.