Too Much Stick, Not Enough Carrot in Abbott's Welfare Changes


Tony Abbott has long been interested in welfare policy and in particular what income support recipients are required to do to earn their dole money.

Fourteen years ago, as employment minister in the Howard Government, he gave the Bert Kelly Lecture at the Centre for Independent Studies. His topic was mutual obligation and Work for the Dole. It was a typically ideologically unselfconscious discourse, invoking ‘Marxian aphorisms’, De Tocqueville, David Hume and the Second Vatican Council.

Most of all he referenced the ‘new paternalist’ Lawrence Mead, whose views on using directive measures to ‘activate’ income support recipients informed US welfare system reform in the 1990s.

Mr Abbott’s version of new paternalism had the welfare system (like parents) making demands of unemployed people ‘for their own good’, to avoid ‘an entrenched entitlement mentality’. He quoted Mead: “‘The labour market is no longer the main constraint on moving people into work. Rather, it’s the need to organise people’s own lives so that they are ready and able to work.”

This is one window into the motivations for the government’s recently announced employment services model for 2015-2020. The model suggests that the government believes that many jobseekers are unmotivated and incapable of helping themselves, and that their behaviours need to be reformed through harsh measures, almost regardless of their fairness or efficacy.

Several aspects of the new model are worthy of public scrutiny. Some of them have been raised in the media in recent days, including the requirement on certain jobseekers to apply for 40 jobs per month.

Contributors have also pointed to research concerning Work for the Dole’s relatively poor employment outcomes and described the possibility that Work for the Dole participants might work alongside people meeting community services orders.

The six-month ‘waiting period’ for income support has also received attention, although it is not widely known that for most job seekers under 30 the waiting period will come into effect for six months of every year, not just the first year.

These are important concerns, but criticism of the new model has so far been piecemeal. The full range of issues should be properly considered, including the following. 

Most income support recipients under 30 will be required to participate in one or more activities for 25 hours per week for six months of every year, compared with 15 hours per week for some older beneficiaries.

It may be that the government believes it is necessary to teach young people work-like routines, but there is no evidence that more intensive Work for the Dole or other participation activities help people return to work.

On the contrary, this measure will make it more difficult for young people to undertake 40 obligatory job searches per month.

Why is it that Work for the Dole is the sole default activity when there may be better alternatives?

My research has shown that Work for the Dole, particularly group activities as distinct from individual placements within host organisations, were frequently disempowering for participants.

Many complained about poorly designed and managed programs, disinterested supervisors, and inconsequential projects such as renovating out of date computers.

Conversely, volunteering was frequently associated with beneficial outcomes, including social and psychological benefits, enhanced employability, and increased pro-social intentions.

Certain job seekers will be able to volunteer to fully or partly meet their participation requirements under the new model, but in my research many job seekers were unaware of this option. It is buried in the detail of the new employment services arrangements.

And while there will be incentives for providers to organise Work for the Dole placements there are none for organising volunteering opportunities.

Providers will be responsible for reporting incidents of non-compliance. Income support recipients’ payments can be suspended and docked if participants don’t have a ‘reasonable excuse’ for failing to attend meetings and for non-participation in an activity.

Is this a fair burden to place on providers, including private organisations? How well equipped are they to make judgments about unemployed people’s reasons for non-participation?

As many as 150,000 Work for the Dole placements will be created from next July if the new arrangements survive the Senate, raising further concerns about quality control, along with serious questions about scalability.

There are more issues with the new model. For example, incentives to offer intensive assistance to disadvantaged jobseekers appear inadequate and specialist providers with deep knowledge of cohorts of jobseekers with specific needs appear to be de-emphasised under the new system.

There is a scholarly literature on the moral problems of mutual obligation, provoked in part by public comments in the late 1990s from Tony Abbott and other Howard Government ministers.

My research found that participation requirements are not unambiguously problematic. Under certain circumstances – for example, where there is choice between activities, thoughtful program design and management and appropriate rewards – programs may promote self-esteem and self-efficacy and enhance employability.

But these new arrangements seem punitive, particularly for young people, set too much store by Work for the Dole, and do not appear to address the problems of the past.

Dr Marc Levy works as a consultant in Melbourne; his PhD thesis concerned the role of volunteering in the government’s participation policy framework.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.