Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

From Entitlement to Obligation in the Australian Welfare State

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

From Entitlement to Obligation in the Australian Welfare State

Article excerpt

This article examines recent debates relating to the provision of welfare in Australia. It starts with an assessment of the trend towards the acceptance of the philosophy of `mutual obligation' by governments, commentators and lobby groups, traces the process of the movement of welfare from `entitlement' to `obligation' and argues that this is being used to justify a reworking of the relationship between citizen and state. The paper argues that a `genuine' mutual obligation has always been part of the Australian welfare system and that, in contrast to the current rhetoric of individual responsibility, it should rather be seen as a community based obligation.

The emergence of `mutual obligation'

When John Howard delivered the first `Annual Federation Address' in Adelaide in January 1998 one of his key topics was a Work for the Dole scheme that had been introduced as part of a broad reform of the government's welfare program. The development of this scheme represented a clear shift in the underlying culture of Australian welfare away from rights based entitlements and towards a system based on a form of mutual obligation. At the heart of this new policy was an understanding that the provision of welfare should no longer be seen as a general economic safety net below which no member of the community should fall, but as `a two-way street' whereby recipients had `to give something back to the community' to qualify for assistance (Howard 1998).(1) Mutual obligation implied that just as those seeking assistance had a reasonable expectation of support, so the community had `a right to expect that they will make the best of the help offered and, as far as they can, ... give something back' (Howard 1998).

In his articulation of the principle of mutual, or reciprocal, obligation, John Howard was following an argument that has become dominant in debates over the future of welfare states throughout the industrialised world. Across Europe and in North America there has been a spirited attack on the notions of welfare entitlements together with a re-examination of the relationship between the citizen and the state that was one of the foundations of the post-war welfare states. It is now taken as axiomatic that welfare structures that are based mainly on cash transfers and that are universal (or near universal) in their application can no longer be sustained. A combination of increased demand and rising costs caused by changes in demographic patterns, consistently higher rates of unemployment, and the introduction of expensive health technology have meant that systems have expanded to the point where the tax-payer is either unable or unwilling to underwrite them. Accordingly, governments have moved to shift the focus of welfare from entitlement to mutual obligation.

In Britain, the new Blair government released a Green Paper proposing substantial reform to welfare within a year of taking office (Department of Social Security, UK 1988). The need for this reform was justified by underscoring the extent to which the community has been transformed in the years since the introduction of the post-war welfare state that had been largely based on the recommendations of the Beveridge Report of 1942. Three key indicators of this transformation were identified in a 1997 Social Security Paper. Firstly, there had been major changes in social structures so that life expectancy was greater, and family patterns were more diverse with a relative decline in two parent families and a parallel increase in cohabitation and single supporting parents. Secondly, there had been changes in the labour market so that average unemployment rates were higher, more women had entered the work-force and a greater proportion of jobs were part-time and casual. Lastly, there were changed expectations about the very role of social security so that the growth of non-means tested benefits providing compensation for a range of circumstances meant that the focus had moved away from the simple provision of support during periods of unemployment and illness (Department of Social Security, UK, 1997). …

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