There is a ladder in my stocking of opportunity


Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, in his address in reply to the 2004
Budget announced that unemployed people, particularly those who are young
and unemployed, would be either ‘earning or learning’ (Jennett 2004).
In the 2004 election campaign he tied such pronouncements to his
‘ladder of opportunity’ rhetoric. Mark Latham made it clear that young
people not at work and not in formal study would not receive
Commonwealth assistance. At one level his ‘learn or earn’ scheme is an
unremarkable policy, well within the traditions of John Howard’s
socially conservative youth policies. The targeting of young unemployed
people was exactly what Howard did when he set out to introduce his
‘work for the dole’ policy. He subsequently extended it to older
unemployed people.

Latham’s policy is also well within the
labourist traditions of a party still emotionally aligned with the
industrial age. In addition, it is possible to see the links between
such a ‘learn or earn’ policy and those Hawke/Keating policies, such as
the active employment strategy (Cass 1988). As at other times in the
past, when Latham was devoid of original ideas, he turned to Tony
Blair’s participation income and other third way policies for

Whilst such similarities demonstrate apparent
links with past social democratic thought, there are aspects of
Latham’s approach that reveal a departure from previous Australian
social welfare policy and a further move in the direction of
neo-liberal exclusionist policies. Certainly, the ‘learn or earn’
option is a considerable departure from the social policy directions of
the Fraser and Whitlam Governments. From 1908 on in Australia, even
conservative administrations had seen their social policy initiatives
as providing a floor below which income or services would not fall – at
least for those covered by the policy. Likewise, the 1907 Harvester
Judgement introduced a system of minimum wages providing an income
floor for those employed under award conditions.

In 1986,
Australian social security policy began a retreat from its post Second
World War aim to become a comprehensive and adequate means to provide
social assistance to all in need. Latham’s ‘learn or earn’ policy
continues the regression from universalism. British Academic, Hazel
Kemshall (2002, pp.129-130) asserts that universalism is no longer
present in neo-liberal welfare policy, having been replaced by
residualism, targeting and selectivity; private provision is applauded;
demonstrated productivity is the basis of social inclusion and the
self-providing individual is the model citizen. On top of this, there
is increasing surveillance and virtue imposed by the State. (Kemshall
2002, pp.120-122).

Latham’s ‘learn or earn’ scenario is not
the policy of inclusion it purports to be, but rather a way of refusing
income support to those who don’t exactly fit two narrowly defined
moulds – worker or student. These days, more and more students are
working before and after classes and many workers are studying and working. Workers are often learning/up-skilling on the job and some are in traineeships or apprenticeships.

are people with severe disabilities who might never be employed and are
unlikely to benefit from further education. There are many young people
who, because of their homelessness, are not able to find employment or
stay at school. There are other people who, due to personality
disorders, mental illness, addiction or chronic ill health. are unable
to cope with either learning or earning.

A report commissioned
by the Brotherhood of St Laurence and St Vincent de Paul found that the
Coalition Government’s increasingly stringent ‘mutual obligation’
policy adversely impacts on people with multiple disabilities – further
marginalising them. It concluded the ‘mutual obligation’ regime ‘is
failing the most disadvantaged job seekers. Overall the system
operates…not as "welfare to work" but "welfare as work"’ (Ziguras,
Dufty and Considine 2003 p.43).

Both Howard and Latham fail to
come to terms with the reality faced by unemployed people struggling to
cope on below poverty-line income. They fail to adequately acknowledge
the diverse challenges faced by many trying to find employment. The
disability debate is beyond their ken. In his ‘learn or earn policy’
Latham just ignores the extra difficulties posed by social
disadvantage, disability or the combination of both (Marino 2004).

has been trying far more devastating tactics by extending his ‘mutual
obligation’ and ‘welfare reform’ policies so as to enmesh people with
disabilities. His plans have been held up in the Senate in recent
years, but by the 1 July 2005 he will have control in the Upper House.
Now nothing will stop him proceeding. Western Australian scholar, Rose
Galvin, in August of 2004, warned against the substantial financial
losses which would accrue to people with disabilities if Howard pushes
through such changes in the Senate. She wrote: ‘welfare reform intends
to remove only the protective classification of "disability" in an
attempt to make disabled people, as a category, disappear without doing much, if anything, to remedy the actual conditions of exclusion that this term represents’ (p.345 italics not in original).

‘learn or earn’ income support policy forces unemployed people into one
of two compartments. It erodes autonomy, denies the possibility that
unemployed people, with support, might find more productive solutions
outside the confines of such constrained choices and simultaneously
decays dignity. It is a further example of increased targeting of
income support. ‘Targeting is, of course, as much about who is excluded
from welfare provision as it is about who is included’ (Kemshall 2002
p.27). Since 1986, such increased targeting has been a mechanism,
increasingly employed by both Labor and Coalition governments to reduce
the generosity and universality of the Australian system of income

But increased targeting is just one of many tools
used by neo-liberal economic fundamentalists in their assault upon
communal provision of income support and other features of the social
wage. The neo-liberal economic fundamentalist mind-set gained some
early traction in the dying days of the Whitlam Government. It has been
in ascendency since the middle years of the Hawke/Keating Governments.
During the Howard period, it has led Government ministers to respond as
if they were Board members of Australia Inc. Alistair Mant (2004)
reminds us that ‘The French have a wonderfully dismissive term for
government ministers of limited capacity who conduct great offices of
state as if they were suburban service stations. The term is

There are alternatives
Australians do
not have to proceed down the path that the neo-liberals want to lead
us. We don’t have to become blind to the issues and possibilities that
the twenty first century presents. There are many creative and humane
ways to construct social policy which might lead us to reinvigorate the
more universal policies of the Australian welfare state (BIGA and BIEN
websites). We cannot afford the massive economic and social losses
which mass unemployment and precarious employment create. Above all, we
need to look beyond the twenty second sound-bites which pass for social
policy analysis nowadays and search for realistic explanations of and
solutions to social difficulties.

If Mark Latham had sought a
more elaborate understanding of the lives of those who work in
industries where jobs, rather than the products, are being exported and
had he been willing to look seriously at the complexity of situations
facing unemployed people, then he might have gained a fuller
appreciation of the fact that his ‘learn or earn’ option would
constrain rather than assist many people wanting secure, socially
meaningful employment or appropriate training.

The game
of life involves more than a relentless climbing of some ladder of
opportunity like a breathless aspirational voter from a suburban
marginal seat. Such aspirational voters are, as Clive Hamilton (2004)
reminds us, a close cousin to middle-class whingers. Whether in or out
of work, most Australians find that the real game of life they are playing includes both snakes and ladders.

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