By Loz Lawrey
There is no issue that better highlights the polarisation of opinion in Australian society than welfare.
Even though the rich benefit from “hidden welfare” in the form of tax breaks, negative gearing, tax minimisation schemes, paid parental leave etc, the demonisation of welfare recipients always lands squarely on the shoulders of those most in need of real support and assistance.
The unemployed, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, indigenous Australians, war veteransthe list of society’s wounded is a long one. Sadly, those who dwell at the more vulnerable end of our social spectrum tend to be the very ones under constant attack from both government and media.
Who hasn’t noticed the dismissive, judgmental rhetoric coming from government ministers using labels such as “leaners” or “welfare cheats” to marginalise and condemn those who need help? Every statement we hear from the federal government implies that welfare recipients are lazy dole-bludgers playing the system and stealing taxpayer dollars. With media collusion over time, this patently false perception has taken hold in the minds of many working Australians.
When the March Australia movement was approached by welfare recipient Keith Davis to help organise a National Welfare March, the idea struck a chord with many of our volunteers.
Here was something positive we could do to help to focus attention on the need for positive change in attitudes to and treatment of welfare recipients. The National Welfare March aims to raise public awareness of the punitive nature of our welfare system and demand a fairer welfare response from government.
Over the past few weeks we’ve come to understand more about attitudes to welfare in our community. One thing we’ve learned is that those who hold negative perceptions of welfare and its recipients are often ignorant of the facts on the ground.
It’s very easy to dismiss people as bludgers if you yourself are working and can pay your own way. Why waste time learning about “losers on welfare” when you’re financially successful and a “winner” in your own mind?
Since it came to office the Abbott government has been hard at work fragmenting Australian society as it singles out minority groups for demonisation. Welfare recipients are portrayed as “cheats” and Muslims as likely “terrorists”. Other groups such as victims of domestic violence aren’t overtly attacked, rather simply ignored. Refugee asylum seekers are hidden from view.
A blatant “divide and conquer” strategy is being implemented. Abbott uses fear of “otherness” to garner support, telling a nervous electorate he will keep us safe from the dangers he has conjured up and told us we should fear.
Sadly, not everyone in our social democracy favours inclusion and social support based on the concept of “collective provision”. I have been stunned at comments such as these appearing on our National Welfare March Facebook page:
“So let’s get this correct. The least productive in society are marching to demand “more” at the expense of the most productive in society? Don’t bite the hand that literally feeds you.”
“I simply prefer a world where I keep the wealth that I generate. If and when I’m feeling generous, that is why we have a little thing called charity.”
This person goes on to say that those who require welfare payments are “fiscally incompetent or irresponsible”, that they have an “entitlement attitude” and that “people are poor because they make poor financial decisions, it really is this simple.“
There it is. This person could be one of Abbott’s cabinet ministers. Call it fascist, sociopathic, neoliberal, arch-conservative, hard-rightwing, whatever, it’s a mindset that must change.
It must change because it is based on lies and false assumptions. It is an arrogant, unfair and elitist worldview which dismisses as irrelevant the poorer, more disadvantaged sectors of our society.
In Australia it’s a struggle to survive on the minimum wage. On current levels of Newstart allowance it’s impossible to survive without extra charity from family or social support agencies. There is no “security” in our social security system. Being on welfare means being sentenced to a stress-filled life of struggle lived under constant threat of the possible termination of benefits.
By raising welfare entitlements to a level closer to the minimum wage the punitive aspect of our safety net would be removed. The resulting improvement in wellbeing would have positive flow-on effects for all of us. Crime rates would lessen. More money would circulate through our economy.
Casting welfare recipients as “other” or “lesser” belies the fact that we are all, now and then, welfare recipients of one kind or another. Even rich mining magnates benefit from tax concessions and industry incentives.
Welfare issues affect every sector and age group in our society; if not you, then someone you know. Most people have dealings with Centrelink and often Job Services Australia (Job Network) at some time in their lives.
Many of us are only one pay-packet ahead of financial insolvency. Lose your job, have an accident or perhaps a health issue and within weeks you may lose your home. Sometimes relationship or family breakdown, even homelessness, can follow.
In Australia the word welfare has come to be associated with laziness and social and financial failure. While in the odd case this may be true, it is clearly an unfair and false generalisation spruiked by those who can’t be bothered to inform themselves of the real facts around welfare on the ground.
After all, if you’ve never spent a thankless year unsuccessfully chasing work while your savings and asset base dwindles, how are you entitled to even comment on welfare issues? You’ve never been there, on the wrong end of the stick. If you have an opinion, what is it based on?
I myself have been on the wrong side of the welfare counter. It was not a pleasant place to be. Years ago I worked full-time for six months on a work-for-the-dole program in my local shire council offices alongside others on full pay.
Under this carrot-and-stick program I was promised possible work in the future (carrot) and threatened with loss of welfare payments (stick) if I didn’t comply. I made the same commitment to my employer, the same effort as other employees, but couldn’t pay my way or support my family. We struggled to pay the bills as our debts increased and my self-esteem diminished.
The memory of those times is very vivid for me and fans a flame of empathy for all welfare recipients, because I myself have been there. I know the soul-destroying experience of being stuck in that Centrelink queue.
It’s always easy to dismiss others with a few harsh words of judgment and elevate ourselves in our own minds, but attitudes to welfare provision which are rooted in ignorance and lack of human empathy can only be changed by educating and informing.
Perhaps the only way concerned Australians can arrest the Abbott-driven stampede towards the social abyss is to publicise the true facts behind every government policy, every action this government takes. How else can we cut through the spin and show the world that the emperor has no clothes?
Let’s pierce the membrane of lies and and misrepresentation behind which the government hides its true agenda. Peoples’ attitudes are very much informed and shaped by the mass media they’re exposed to. If we’re being fed a diet of obfuscation and misinformation then we’re being misled, some might even say brainwashed.
The March Australia National Welfare March rallies aim to change the public’s negative perceptions and end the demonisation of people who simply need help. It’s time to restore a sense of balance and social justice to the welfare paradigm. Our nation must embrace all its citizens equally. We must refuse to allow this federal government to divide and conquer us.
We know that some Australians don’t care. The Abbott government is doing its best to ensure that many more will stop caring. This is our challenge. How do we change the mindset of a nation? We work to inform the nation.
If you have questions or wish to volunteer or know more about the National Welfare March to be held in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth/Fremantle, Wodonga (Vic) and Hobart on the weekend of 11 -12 July, please contact March Australia at: