In 1942, one of Robert Menzies’ radio speeches was dedicated to ‘freedom from want’. In it, Menzies revealed the complexity he saw in welfare policy:
The country has great and imperative obligations to the weak, the sick, the unfortunate. It must give to them all the sustenance and support it can. We look forward to social and unemployment insurances, to improved health services, to a wiser control of our economy to avert if possible all booms and slumps which tend to convert labour into a commodity, to a better distribution of wealth, to a keener sense of social justice and social responsibility. We not only look forward to these things, we shall demand and obtain them.
To every good citizen the State owes not only a chance in life but a self-respecting life. But this does not obscure the fact that the State cannot and must not put a premium on idleness or incompetence. It must still offer rewards to the enterprising. It must at all times show that security is to be earned, to be merited, and is not to fall, like manna, from heaven.
I know that it is or was fashionable to speak of the new order which is to follow the war as if it will represent a sort of golden age of long life, reduced effort, high incomes and great comfort. It is a pleasing picture, but truth requires us to admit that it is probably false. Long years of the ruin and waste of war must be paid for. We shall work harder than before the war, not less. Most of us shall carry burdens greater than those we were accustomed to bear before the war. Materially we may well – as a nation and as a race – be poorer.
But all this will be more than compensated for by the facts that our sufferings and victory will have preserved our spiritual freedom, that our goods will be more justly shared, and that a better recognition of human values will have quickened our sense of human responsibility.
In 1945, he delivered a speech at the Inaugural Federal Council again expressing his views on social security:
Social Security, which is of itself a great stabiliser of business and therefore of employment. The purpose of all measures of social security is not only to provide citizens with some reasonable protection against misfortune but also to reconcile that provision with their proud independence and dignity as democratic citizens. The time has gone when social justice should even appear to take the form of social charity.
The past few years have seen an increased assault by the State on Australians who receive welfare. There is a long history of common law principle that affirms the view that the State’s ability to subject you to penalty is tightly constrained. If there’s no justification for the State to interfere with you, the law will generally afford you the right to ignore its demands. And yet — as people who’ve received ‘robodebt’ notices have discovered — we are finding that the State thinks that it can raise baseless debts against people just because they have accepted or are accepting welfare. Regardless of what might be a policy justification for the robodebt programme, it is an unabashed attack on the dignitity of people of welfare recipients.
But the rhetoric is getting worse. Where conservative governments have historically been interested in the development of family and community, the prevailing attitude from the Government is that family and community connexions are only for those who can afford them. If you are accepting welfare, you should be expected to move to regional Australia to take up work. No matter what duties and obligations you have to your family and community, you are branded a ‘job snob’ if you refuse to go work in agriculture.
And now we’re reaching a point in the debate where even basic participation in democratic processes is a luxury for those who aren’t currently on welfare:
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has suggested those taking part in protests which disrupt traffic should have their welfare payments cancelled.
He said mandatory sentences should also be imposed to crack down on law-breaking climate change demonstrators who have held regular protests across Brisbane recently.
Mr Dutton said he agreed with suggestions from 2GB broadcaster Ray Hadley on Thursday that protesters go “ask Mummy and Daddy for cash” following reports some demonstrators received welfare.
“You’re sitting on your backsides and you won’t be getting paid (by) us,” Mr Hadley said.
Mr Dutton’s response was “I agree”.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash followed up his comments threatening to suspend the activists’ welfare payments.
“Taxpayers should not be expected to subsidise the protests of others. Protesting is not, and never will be, an exemption from a welfare recipient’s mutual obligation to look for a job,” Senator Cash told The Australian.
“Those who refuse to look for a job because they are too busy protesting may find they have their payments suspended.”
It’s such a gob-smackingly horrible thing to say. Far from Menzies’ view that social security is to ‘reconcile that provision with their proud independence and dignity as democratic citizens’, we now have politicians saying that welfare recipients shouldn’t even take part in political action.
I’ve argued before that we need a Charter of Rights for welfare recipients. But this goes beyond that: this goes to something really ugly in contemporary politics. The resentment that politicians are stirring up towards the least fortunate people in society should be condemned by everybody, regardless of what ‘side’ of politics you’re on. There is space for constructive disagreements about how welfare policy should work, even down to fundamental beliefs about the purpose of welfare policy. There should not, however, be any space in our public debate for politicians or journalists to vilify members of our community or incite hatred against them.