This has been a black week for those on welfare in Britain. We can’t let the same thing happen in Australia.
The British Conservative government is demolishing the welfare state, brick by brick. A series of changes, scarcely reported here, make it even harder for people who are poor, unemployed or have a disability. They include a bedroom tax – I kid you not – that public housing tenants have to pay if they have a spare room. Many will be forced out of houses they have lived in for years. There’s an arbitrary cap on benefits, reduction of the Council tax benefit and a host of other cuts like no legal aid for civil cases – you can read more of the details here. And by the way, there’s a tax cut for the rich. As far as I know, none of these specific changes figured in the Conservative’s election campaign. The policies are accompanied by flagrant attacks in the mainstream media on people living on welfare; apparently welfare is to blame for the horrific death of six children at the hands of their father. Welfare is a ‘lifestyle choice’, according to the Daily Mail.
What we see here is the almost inevitable result of neo-liberal ideology at work. You can’t tax the rich – indeed they need tax cuts – because they are supposed to be creating the wealth which pays for the safety net for the poor whom the system (inevitably) disadvantages. Only they aren’t creating wealth – there’s a recession. So there’s a vicious circle, with less revenue to pay for the safety net, which is increasingly expensive, and less and less affordable … unless you tax the rich, which is ruled out by definition.
One of the saddest features of this debacle is that the British Labour Party doesn’t seem willing or able to oppose these cruel changes. Guardian journalist George Monbiot describes the Labour Party’s position as ‘low-alcohol conservatism’, a hangover from the ineffective ‘third way’ policies of Tony Blair, who also wanted to relieve the state of its duty to minimise inequality, and promoted ‘personal responsibility’. The economy is in recession, but it’s still your fault if you can’t find a job.
Monbiot suggests that too many people in Britain still suffer from feelings of deference. He says:
‘They lived in great and justified fear of authority, and the fear has persisted, passed down across the five or six generations that separate us and reinforced now by renewed insecurity, snowballing inequality, partisan policing.’
The only antidote he sees is hope, engendered by ‘the power of a transformative idea’ that can change the way people think about equality and inequality. He suggests a ‘basic income’, paid for by a ‘land value tax’.
These ideas may have merit. But here in Australia, we don’t need them. I don’t want to get into a debate about national character, but I don’t think Monbiot’s characterisation of the British as still somehow accepting the rightness of inequality or feeling powerless to oppose it, applies here. We have a strong belief that more equality of opportunity is better than less, though this belief shouldn’t be taken for granted. Certainly the anti-welfare messages all too frequently espoused by the mainstream media probably do have an effect – welfare cheats, lazy unemployed, and shirkers claiming disability are core business for programs like A Current Affair. But while trust in governments’ ability to improve people’s circumstances has declined, people still look to them for assistance when things go wrong. The conservative ‘big government is the problem’ mantra doesn’t work terribly well here.
And surely our Labor Party is not the spineless body that British Labour seems to have become. Yes, it did undertake a massive retreat from government ownership of public enterprises. Yes, there are – and should be – debates about how to avoid welfare traps. But it has never retreated from the associated need to provide a proper safety net. You can read a discussion of what the Prime Minister says and does about equality (admittedly not always the same thing) here.
So at least in theory, we have a culture that approves of a society with greater rather than less equality, and a party in government that still espouses more equal sharing of wealth. Polls continue to show the voters want the ALP to represent workers and traditional Labour values. Essential Polling concludes that
‘Labor’s woes aren’t due to pitting the classes against each other, but rather a failure to fulfil their mandate to represent working people’.
What better narrative does the ALP need? It’s time to be bold. No more nonsense about struggling on $250,000. You can look at the real situation here. Forget about the accusations of ‘class war’. The only class war in Australia is of the rich vested interests versus the poor and weak. Welfare is a right for those who need it. The measure of their need is the level of their inequality. This is the simple message the ALP needs to shout from the rooftops. (After all, the mainstream media won’t publish it.)
And I fear they are going to need to shout it. Should the LNP win the election in September, they will be faced with a version of what the Conservatives have in Britain – declining revenue and growing welfare costs as the population ages. And their solution will be the same. Australia may not be in recession, but the Liberal mantra of balancing the budget, alongside their many expensive commitments to middle class welfare will mean they will cut spending in other welfare areas, no doubt playing the dole bludger card as they have in the past. But don’t expect to see any of this before the election; this is what we can expect from the post budget audit commission. ‘Labor’s budget black hole’. It’s all so predictable.
Where Monbiot is certainly right is in calling on hope as a motive force to oppose such attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable. Labor in Australia must never be ‘Liberal Lite’. It must reassert its traditional left of centre values.
By Kay Rollison