Social Services Minister Christian Porter recently copped flak for his “unfeeling” response to increasing welfare payments. But is he right?
As the Social Services Minister, Christian Porter occupies one of the most simultaneously awkward and important positions in government. The latter because frequent reform is, at least by expectation, concomitant to his portfolio. And the former because of the difficulty of striking the welfare balance, of which every government is aware but many find so difficult to get right.
The fundamental purpose of welfare is to provide a social safety net, helping the poor and unemployed to survive for as long as it takes them to regain financial self-sufficiency. Ideally, then, it is a permanent resource only in circumstances that are more or less irreparable. The balance must be between the humane and the fiscally responsible. One must deliver the service in such a way that people are actually getting the help they need while ensuring that incentives for work are not removed and that it can be adequately funded. If done correctly, the number of people below the poverty threshold should be reduced. How it is done, or whether these priorities are to be balanced equally at all, is a burning question for the Turnbull Government. Porter has called his answer a New Zealand-style recognition of “consistent mutual obligations”.
In that context, Porter has his own personal balance to measure. Depending on how it is done, welfare reform is always unpalatable to some, so there are many critics – a good thing, to be sure, for keeping the government of the day at a good pace. As such, he will invariably try to save face while creating a legacy in which his office is seen to have done productive work of agreeable quality.
One critic wrote that Porter has been condescending and unethical in his sketching of the system’s purpose and need for reform, going as far as to describe the phrase “welfare dependent” – which denotes elongated reliance on welfare – as being “Orwellian” in its usage. How this is so, I have no idea. (Add that critic to the long list of writers who employ Orwell in an authoritative and cliché manner, but have probably not read much, if any, of his work. If they had, they would not do it.) That cuts and restraints are to be done with great caution is, however, a point to be properly considered.
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We certainly know what ought not to be done. With the signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, United States President Bill Clinton gave us one of the single most frustrating examples of what happens when you try to do too much about the bottom line without sufficient weight being given to the human aspect of the balance to which I referred above. Clinton’s betrayal of America’s poor, a substantial number of whom were kicked off welfare with no job training and no assurances of obtaining a living wage, was characteristic of his superficial toughness and repeated strategy of purloining Republican policies for electoral gain. That was 20 years ago – plenty of time for reflection and change, I should think.
As proposed in the present case, effective changes can be made with little in the way of cuts, and perhaps (in view of that golden line) without a great deal of additional funding. If there is an increase in the number of people transitioning from a seat in the safety net to employment with a liveable wage, then the system’s costs will logically decrease. It is here in particular that Clinton-esque cynicism must be avoided. That is, the idea that dole recipients are able but not willing to gain employment. Undoubtedly such cases do exist, but they are few and it is a mistake to think that there is some kind of widespread contentedness with living in effectively impoverished conditions. The key is the availability of jobs. As many graduates (for example) are aware, these can be few and far between. Of course, I should note that there are many other variables to consider, including health and skilling issues, and as far as students in particular are concerned, the sheer number of graduates versus the number of roles that can be reasonably be expected to be available. That is why the Try, Test and Learn Fund has such a broad target audience for suggestions. There is no simple answer.
Importantly, there is a related, self-made problem that the government must fix much sooner. Generating a social policy success is being made difficult by some competing priorities on the narrative. Social security spending is important electorally, but so is that elusive surplus. The government wants to be seen as achieving the highest standard of both; as being the most humane of representatives and the most fiscally responsible. Thus, by an ironic situation of their own creation (with some help from the press), any perceived failure to meet each of these expectations at the same time is of their own doing. For the government to succeed, it will have to rethink the order of its priorities and the way in which they are sold to the electorate.