The political party setting the agenda for welfare reform – Monash Lens

In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was common for social policy theorists to refer to Labor as the party of the expansion and innovation of the welfare state, and in contrast, to brand the Liberal-National Party Coalition as a source of resistance and welfare state reaction. .

This binary framing reflected the key role that Labor governments had played in establishing major social security payments and programs – initially the main unemployment and sickness benefits introduced from 1941 to 1949, and later mother support and the Whitlam government’s Australian relief plan from 1972 to 1975.

However, since the election of the Labor Hawke government in 1983, there has arguably been a convergence of Labor and coalition perspectives on social welfare.

Generally, both major parties agree that the needs of the economy must take precedence over those of social protection, that paid work is always preferable to dependence on income support payments, that social spending should preferably be limited and targeted, and that taxes should be reduced.

Admittedly, the Labor Party remains more interventionist in certain areas of social policy than the Coalition, but the differences of ideas and political action within the government are undoubtedly much smaller than in the past.

By contrast, the Australian Greens have acted as great champions of the welfare state over the past two decades. It is the party most informed by progressive values ​​that highlight the larger structural and systemic causes of poverty and hardship, and explicitly reject policy solutions that attribute disadvantage primarily to faulty individual choices and behaviors.

Political and economic objections

Some analysts might object to the above description for two reasons: political and economic.

The political reluctance would be that the Greens are a small minor party (based mainly in the upper house of the federal parliament) that has no chance of getting the government and can irresponsibly make grandiose promises to extend welfare which have no chance of being implemented.

The second objection could be that its promises are not economically affordable and would lead to huge budget deficits which would be detrimental to economic growth and welfare.

In my opinion, these criticisms have their own limitations.

For example, the Greens have been responsible formal or informal partners in former federal governments (the Labor government from 2010 to 2013) and state governments (Tasmania from 2010 to 2014), and could have the opportunity to play again that role in the near future if Saturday’s federal election results in a hung parliament.

Additionally, the Greens provide detailed economic statements as to the means (such as higher taxation of billionaires and big business) by which they would fund their welfare state proposals. Most importantly, the Greens have proactively brought clear reform proposals to the public policy agenda on a number of issues that have arguably informed Labor Party policy initiatives and reviews.

Opposing welfare conditionality

An example is their constant opposition to welfare conditionality measures such as Work for the Dole, Parents Next, drug testing proposals for new applicants for Social Security benefits, and most notably the Cashless Debit Card (CDC).

The CDC was introduced by the Liberal-National Party coalition government in 2014 and quarantines 80% of Social Security payments in certain prohibited sites to discourage spending on socially harmful products such as drugs, alcohol or drugs. games of chance. The Greens reject the CDC and earlier forms of mandatory revenue management (CIM) such as the Basics Card introduced by the coalition government in 2007 on the following grounds:

  • These are punitive and paternalistic policies that unfairly control the lives of citizens
  • They were introduced without adequate consultation with local communities or potential CIM participants
  • They are not effective in reducing social harm
  • They are racially discriminatory in that they disproportionately target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • They are extremely expensive to administer, wasting money that could be better allocated to holistic health and social services.

In contrast, the Labor Party supported all forms of revenue management from 2007 until around 2018. However, more recently he has taken positions increasingly similar to those of the Greens and declared his intention to abolish the CDC if it wins the government.

There has been speculation about the motives for Labor’s U-turn. A possible explanation is that he identified electoral advantage to taking a position that could strengthen one’s primary vote against leftist protests from the Greens and other CDC critics. Be that as it may, his political program seems to have been strongly influenced by the initiative of the Greens.

Support for JobSeeker stipend increase

Another example is the continued advocacy of the Greens for a significant increase in the JobSeeker payment the unemployed at $88 a day so that they receive an income above the poverty line.

The Greens argue that a raise is needed to reduce poverty, enable beneficiaries to cover basic needs such as housing, utilities, transport and food, and improve life opportunities for unemployed Australians.

Conversely, he argues that the existing low rate of job seekers not only leads to social disadvantage such as housing insecurity, poor physical and mental health and limited access to education, but actively creates barriers to gainful employment.

In contrast, the Labor Party continued to favor paid work over welfare, and took an ambivalent approach towards increasing the JobSeeker rate.


Read more: Why isn’t poverty a priority for Australia’s main political parties?


Since 2018, Labor has alternately promised a rate review if it wins the government, withdrew its commitment to a review, indicated support for an increase without identifying a specific amount, then finally, in April 2022, confirmed that he would. neither review nor increase the rate during a first term in government.

Labour’s about-face appears to have been influenced, at least in part, by the Greens’ firm resolve to increase JobSeeker, and a concern not to be politically outflanked by the Greens.

The Greens have worked extensively with the Australian Council for Social Services (ACOSS), the leading non-governmental advocacy group campaigning for policies to reduce poverty and inequality. In effect, ACOSS pays tribute to the Greens senator (and longtime Community Services spokesperson) Rachel Siewert on her retirement in August 2021, saying:

“Senator Siewert has been a strong supporter of the lowest income people in Australia, and has done so much to ensure their issues are raised and voices are heard, within our Federal Parliament and beyond… We express our profound gratitude for all she has done to protect and promote the rights of the less powerful in society.

More recently, during the election campaign, ACOSS hailed Greens’ commitment to lift income assistance payments above the poverty line.

‘We are delighted the Greens are taking their policy of scrapping JobSeeker and other income support payments to the negotiating table if they hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament.’

Illegal drugs and harm reduction policy

Another example of progressive social policies being placed by the Greens on the political agenda includes illicit drugs and transitions from out-of-home care.

The Greens have long adopted a harm reduction policy on illicit drugs which emphasizes policies and services aimed at reducing drug-related harm to either the user, their family or the wider community, rather than attempting to eradicate drug use dope.

Unsurprisingly, it is actively supported the introduction of a supervised injection site in Victoria – where illicit drug users can safely inject substances such as heroin or methamphetamine under the supervision of trained medical staff – for many years.

By contrast, the Victorian Labor Party in government and opposition cut and changed its position. He unsuccessfully tried to introduce five SIFS in 2000, actively opposed SIFs from 2001, then abruptly changed his mind and announced the introduction of Victoria’s first trial SIF in North Richmond in October 2017 .

The reversal of Labor policy appears to have been heavily influenced by a concern to head off a challenge from the pro-SIF Greens in a by-election in the Northcote state seat, and more specifically to secure the preferences of the small party Reason in the same per-election, who was actively campaigning for a SIF.

Once again, the Labor Party’s political agenda seems to have been informed, at least in part, by the policy proposals of the Greens.

The Greens have also led the way by offering an extension of home care up to age 21.


Read more: Happier on the 21st? Victoria’s out-of-home care comes of age


the first national policy document to propose extended care was a 2015 parliamentary inquiry report into out-of-home care (OOHC) chaired by Green Senator Rachel Siewert. This report urged all states and territories to raise the age at which young people leave out-of-home care (whether from foster, parent or family ) from 18 to 21 years old. The report’s recommendation has since informed the highly successful Home Stretch Campaign extend the OOHC to age 21 in all jurisdictions.

In Victoria, the state Greens issued a policy statement in September 2018 recommending a universal extension of the OOHC to 21, backed by amended legislation. At this stage, the Victoria Labor government had only introduced a trial of extended care for a small group of people leaving care, but finally announced in November 2020 a universal extension of care.

The Greens continued to be proactively involved in Victorian parliamentary debatesemphasizing that extended care would result in better outcomes for people leaving care in the areas of health, education and housing.

In short, the Greens are the leading parliamentary voice for a generous welfare state that targets the societal causes of poverty and disadvantage.

Although it remains a minor party, its campaigns for social justice and equity have clearly swayed the Labor Party, both at federal and state level, in a more progressive direction.

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