Mutual Obligation and Contemporary Welfare Reform Debates. (Editorial)

Article excerpt

This special issue of the Australian Journal of Social Issues has its origins in a Workshop on Mutual Obligation and Welfare States in Transition co-sponsored by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the University of Sydney in February, 2001. The workshop convenors were Deborah Brennan, Bettina Cass and Moira Gatens, all of the University of Sydney. The papers in this issue of the Australian Journal of Social Issues are a selection of the papers presented at the Workshop, selected because they address various key aspects of the policy discourse on mutual obligation and the debates about and processes of contemporary welfare reform in Australia. In particular, the papers focus on reform of income support and employment policies as these affect the obligations and entitlements of people of workforce age, as they negotiate the contemporary risks of unemployment and joblessness under changing economic and labour market circumstances.

The first paper in this Special Issue looks not to the mutual obligations falling on individuals, but the responsibilities falling on government. Alison McClelland's paper ("Mutual Obligation and the Welfare Responsibilities of Government") considers the way in which `mutual obligation' has operated under the Coalition government, and how it might operate if the proposals put forward in the Report of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform (McClure Report) were to be implemented. Her paper identifies three `welfare responsibilities of government': to protect the vulnerable, to develop capacity to function in the contemporary risk-ridden environment, and to promote social cohesion. She argues that current applications of mutual obligation may actually reduce the likelihood of governments meeting their welfare responsibilities. The harsh administration of the breaching provisions associated with welfare recipiency is one indication of this. Her paper raises the possibility that the `capacity building' role of governments--the extent to which they assist individuals, families and communities to function effectively in a changing environment--could also be reduced by current arrangements. This could happen if people's choices are constrained rather than enlarged by welfare practices. Further, a policy focus giving priority to individual behaviour and motivation and moving away from building the capacity of institutions, especially education, training and employment programs, is likely to be ineffective in meeting the three welfare responsibilities of government outlined above.

Working across traditional disciplinary boundaries and reframing the debates accordingly, Valerie Braithwaite, Moira Gatens and Deborah Mitchell's paper ("If Mutual Obligation is the Answer, What is the Question?") has the objective of bringing clarity to the redesign of the Australian welfare system. Their paper gives prominence to the problem of contemporary risk as the pertinent question which lies behind the need for welfare reform. They offer a critical contrast between Lawrence Mead's approach to welfare reform through enforcement of mutual obligation and an approach more compatible with Marshallian social values, which links both citizenship entitlement and obligation. Finally, they propose equitable and effective ways of understanding mutual obligation and protecting against risk in line with values of harmony, not divisiveness.

Bettina Cass and Deborah Brennan's paper ("Communities of Support or Communities of Surveillance and Enforcement in Welfare Reform Debates") examines one of the key words in the contemporary Australian welfare reform debate--the contested uses of the concept of `community'. The idea of community is invoked in Commonwealth government strategies such as `Strengthening Families and Communities' and the `Community-Business' Initiative and has a central role in the Interim and Final reports of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform (McClure Report) and the Government's response to the Report. …

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