Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Welfare to Work; or Work-Discipline Visited?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Welfare to Work; or Work-Discipline Visited?

Article excerpt

A. Introduction

The 2005 Federal Budget heralded a major Government investment in 'welfare-to-work' reforms first canvassed in the 'McClure Report' of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform (McClure, 2000).

Among other things, the reforms impose 'participation' requirements on new applicants (after 1 July 2006) for sole parent payments (once the youngest child turns 6), and switches them to the lower unemployment ('Newstart') rate structure (and less generous treatment of earnings), once that child turns 8. People with a disability (formerly placed on Disability support pension) who are able to work between 15 and 30 hours a week, and the long-term unemployed will also be placed on Newstart and face participation requirements. The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations estimates that by 2008, 171,000 people may be governed under the lower Newstart allowance payment structures (Senate, 2005a: 72), partially offset by 'enhancements' such as access to pharmaceutical benefits, health cards or mobility allowances such as those offered to people with disabilities, or child care or special programs of support within the Job Network designed to help people enter the workforce.

These reforms close the divide between welfare and work, aiming to create new 'worlds of work' better attuned to contemporary patterns of labourforce participation in an increasingly interdependent or globalised world. (3) In this it is both a worked example of the pertinence of the worlds of work and unemployment to the configuration of the contemporary welfare state (Wood, 2001), and--in its latest form - is a stark example of the capacity to transform welfare into an instrument for insisting that people accept any job, on any minimally acceptable terms and conditions, including irregular or 'non-standard' employment.

Just as the December 2005 and earlier changes to Australian labour law dissolve the original 'protective-social' paradigm in favour of 'economic' models of individual contracts and stripped-back awards (Arup, Howe, Mitchell, O'Donnell and Tham, 2000), the re-positioning of welfare reform as an 'adjunct' of labourmarket deregulation is strongly contested (Sarfati, 2003). Unlike European social insurance schemes (where employer contributions are a 'cost' of labour competitiveness), the economic link between labour law and social security is much weaker in Australia (Carney, 2005b). Despite this, in 1997 Australia fully privatised its job-matching ('labour exchange') services with a view to boosting performance (Carney, 2005a), based on 'new public management' (NPM) theories of governance (Considine, 2001; Carney and Ramia, 2002a).

The advantages of this in Australia included starting an administration with a 'clean slate', free of the strong tendency to repeat the past which was revealed in qualitative research into Britain's 'New Deal' reforms. That research found that Jobcentre employment placement staff retained old routines and old work patterns; staff remained focused on processes and forms rather than outcomes, and were driven by performance targets. The explanation for policy continuity in Britain is said to be that new policy was 'placed on top of old practices, which in turn are re-created forms of old policies' (Wright, 2001: 244). Such that:

Another benefit was in ensuring that there was a real focus on

finding work for people, whereas the British models were found

to have reverted to older policies of concentrating more on benefit

administration, and on keeping good relations with employers by

referring only 'good' employees (ibid, 241, 245) However in terms of the relationship to social security administration (now called Centrelink in Australia), the main operational outcome of this neoliberal reform was that considerable communications and administrative friction arose between the Job Network members and Centrelink. Network agencies adopted 'entrepreneurial' or flexible operating principles when dealing with the unemployed, while Centrelink officers responsible for deciding to accept agency recommendations to 'breach' clients remained bound by the traditional bureaucratic principles of fair process and strict application of social security eligibility rules (Carney and Ramia, 2002a; Ramia and Carney, 2003). …

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