On the vicious white-anting of the social contract

The installation of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader seems to have coincided with a fully-fledged embrace of mean-spirited, Thatcher-era conservatism by the Federal Coalition. There is something about Abbott’s mien that makes him come across as being even more pungent and even more belligerent than John Howard ever was during his years as Prime Minister. Undoubtedly there are many cold-hearted bastards and life-worn misanthropes out there who find this aspect of Abbott attractive, but he is running the risk of pushing his patrician barrow roughshod over one or two too many needy people.

There were rumblings in the media today about the Coalition’s (of course, unfinalised, “non-core”) plans to enhance restrictions on access to welfare; most specifically to force welfare recipients to take a job if it is up to two hours away from their home, up from ninety minutes. Apart from the fact that this “announcement” adds another couple of “will he, won’t he” proposals to the basket of such proposals that the Abbott Opposition has floated into the public arena in recent months, it is an idiotic dog whistle of an idea. It would only serve to increase the stress on Australia’s dilapidated social contract with the disadvantaged, whilst saving little, and disenfranchising many.

The reality of welfare is that there will always be cheats; there will always be people who try to rort the system, and there will always be some who get away with it. Although we can certainly work at discouraging and minimising such behaviour, to a certain extent, there will always be a price that society collectively must bear – if indeed we are to have a fair, reasonable, and well-ordered welfare system for people who really do need the services and support of government in times of need.

In the not too distant past, when I was unemployed for some time, the bureaucratic inanities associated with receiving welfare payments on an ongoing basis made the whole prospect too daunting and too laborious to pursue. If I as a qualified professional find the prospect too painful, lord only knows how many Australians who can’t find work feel about Centrelink and the process for obtaining welfare. For all the so-called nameless, faceless “bludgers” out there that the Coalition so loves to charge after, there are thousands of other fair-minded people left high and dry by a system that discourages engagement, discourages people from seeking meaningful work germane to their talents, and encourages isolation, despair and frustration.

Is forcing people to travel two hours each way for a job one may not even be suited for sensible, particularly given that the costs of such travel would reduce the wages on offer below the minimum wage in many instances? Tony Abbott spent a few days in the outback a few months back; maybe its time he spent a few days on the mean streets of Sydney or Melbourne or amongst the back blocks of the outer suburbs, to understand how complicated and deep set the personal and social problems some people have are.

Sometimes screwing people over and around is not the best way to get them to do the right thing.

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.