How this budget put welfare to work

The government’s targeting of welfare marks a significant policy shift. AAP

Apart from the reassuring signals to financial markets about the deficit reduction, the longer term significance of this year’s budget is about restructuring the relationship between welfare and work, both in official policy and in the public’s mind.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “Dignity of Work” speeches in the lead up to the budget marked a new bi-partisan attack on welfare “dependency” and brought an international movement to restructure welfare to full bloom in Australia.

There is now a lot of rhetorical heat between government and opposition. But on welfare, barely a cigarette paper divides them. Their moralistic rhetoric and plans for surveillance and discipline of the poor are almost indistinguishable.

Both sides have made it clear that they believe that the moral failure of having a baby out of wedlock, or in your teens, can only be redeemed by paid work. You will earn or learn, the hard way.

In his speech last night, Wayne Swan noted the paradox of a booming economy with people struggling to make ends meet. I was almost expecting a line about poverty amidst plenty, but of course, no one dare speak the words “poverty” or “inequality”.

The answer to all questions about prosperity for the working class – dare I use the term “class” in polite circles – is … more paid work.

“We believe in the Australian promise that if you work hard, you won’t be left behind. We believe our economy can’t afford to waste a single pair of capable hands,” Swan said.

“The economy cries out for workers, yet too many are left behind, unwilling or unskilled — and untouched by the dignity of work.”

It seems that according to Swan, work does not include caring labour or volunteer labour – only paid labour.

Anybody who knows anything about the modern world of paid work would be acutely aware that pay and conditions already require most households to have two incomes to get by.

There is also less security at work, and many conditions have been cashed out to fund cost of living rises.

Quite simply, as more and more workers are employed on precarious labour contracts, they are bearing an increasing amount of labour-market risk.

But there was not a word in the budget about improving pay and conditions at work – even that possibility is effectively being pre-empted by attempts to increase labour supply and threats of interest rate rises.

Despite the successful union campaign against the Howard government’s WorkChoices policy, Labor’s approach has only really succeeded in taking industrial relations off the front pages.

The government’s policies have only been marginally different in practice in from WorkChoices. Many industrial relations experts have dubbed the Labor Government’s Fair Work Act “WorkChoices-lite”.

A quick look at national statistics shows that the wage share of national income is at record lows and the profit share at record highs. Consequently, we see a widening gap between rich and poor. Widening inequality and persistent poverty are major features of our recent history.

Instead of a discussion about a fairer society, or of he role of the welfare state in redressing imbalances that come from class, gender and racial inequality, the Gillard Government now has a systematic and consistent approach.

First up, it avoids entirely questions of social and collective processes that produce inequality and poverty.

By focusing on the individuals who “depend” on welfare, the government identifies attributes that cause reliance on welfare – attributes it sees as moral failure.

What this shows is that policies around welfare and retirement are increasingly about widening and deepening the boundaries of the labour market. They are not programs to protect the poor, but are about ways to enforce the discipline of work on all people without adequate means.

In stressing work as the vehicle for participating in prosperity, the government is reinforcing what is now becoming a generation-long restructuring of the terms on which we as citizens share in the wealth this society creates.

Citizenship is becoming flattened to the right and obligation to engage in paid work. If in so doing, Prime Minster Gillard sounds more and more like Margaret Thatcher (who said there’s no such thing as society), Tony Blair (who was “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”), or George Bush (who proclaimed the “ownership society”) that should not come as a surprise.

Gillard and Swan are quite literally the heirs of this policy momentum. They are articulating a vision of society that is now unfolding in many other countries as well.

It is a vision that would like to be understood as about the dignity of work. But the true project is to redraw the social contract and inscribe paid labour as the condition for social citizenship.

Within this vision, the moral failure of the poor who fail to meet this test justifies their stigmatisation, their subordination to onerous supervision, and harsh conditionality.

But in so doing they are separated from moral, working citizens. We are asked to fear and even despise these poor creatures, and see the large gulf that divides us. But the policies are actually tying us all ever more tightly into the labour market.

The significance of last year’s budget was the announcement to extend retirement age to 67, with clear signals that won’t be the last such extension.

The significance of this budget is its attempt to redraw the map of the labour market into the sick, to teenage mothers and the long-term unemployed. So Wayne Swan’s phrase, “not a pair of capable hands to waste”, can now be remained as a war against those without paid work.

Defeating this pernicious restructuring of social citizenship will not come from exposing the clear links between Gillard and Abbott, or her international mentors.

It will come in part from showing how the state that disciplines labour rewards the rich. There may be dignity in labour, but the sanctity of property and profits is established as beyond question or even comment.

Challenging this momentum will also come from articulating how welfare and retirement policy is now having effects just as significant but far more divisive than the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation. It’s a challenge to overturn the institutions of power rather than just ‘empowering’ individuals.

Welcome to the new contours of work and welfare.