Federal Employment Services Minister Tony Abbott has declared war on the culture of dole dependency, and declares his cruel-to-be-kind policy is as important to Australia's future as the GST is.
THE jobless figures are at a nine-year low, the economy is surging ahead, the tax package is to become a reality. So why is Tony Abbott fighting so ferociously to place dole dependency on Australia's political, cultural and social agenda?
If the Federal Opposition is to be believed, it is precisely because the goods and services tax has gone through the Senate that Abbott, the Minister for Employment Services, has declared war on the unemployed.
The theory, as outlined by Labor's shadow minister for family and community services, Wayne Swan, is that the Coalition has become a policy-free zone now that it no longer has the tax package to shout about, and Abbott has been trundled into the front line to fill the policy vacuum.
If that is true, the plan appears to have a cunning time-delay mechanism built in. The full-frontal Abbott attack, which began with a stirring June 30 speech to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia — a speech which ended with the words "We can't stop people from needing the dole but we can make it impossible to be idle for long at taxpayer expense" — initially went largely unnoticed.
Certainly Abbott anticipated that his speech — which he ran past every relevant minister's office, the Prime Minister's included, before he delivered it — would have triggered a more impassioned response.
"To be honest, I think there was a lot less knee-jerk reaction than one might have expected," he said.
A full week went by, for Instance, before The Sydney Morning Herald seized upon one of the carefully planted initiatives in the speech and "splashed" on its front page with the story that the Work-for-the-Dole net had been widened dramatically, its reach stretched from the core 18-24 age group to catch all job-seekers from school-leavers up to 34-year-olds.
About 300,000 unemployed now would be required to fulfil their part of the social contract with the Australian community.
Once himself a member of the media pack, a columnist for The Australian newspaper, Abbott has no qualms about ticking off his former profession.
"As a former journalist, I think I can safely say we are often very slow on the uptake," he said. "This is quite revolutionary . . . that's probably not quite the right word.. . this substantial shift in approach to issues of work and welfare has taken place and almost no one has woken up to it,"
Instead, he claimed, the media was entirely distracted by the GST.
"The press gallery were obsessed with the politics of the tax package and, I think, missed what in the long run is an issue of similar magnitude — that is to say, this attempt to shift the culture of welfare and turn it into a culture of work, this attempt to move away from the politics of entitlement into the politics of responsibility."
As both a journalist and a politician, it is safe to assume Abbott cannot resist the occasional hyperbole. Yet, even with that caveat, he has just made an extraordinary statement.
This is as big as the GST, as important to the future of Australia.
Asked to name historical equivalents of similar attempts to engineer fundamental shifts in the nation's mindset, at least in part through government policy, he nominated the spread of tertiary education and the movement of women into the workforce.
What the government is proposing, with Abbott its willing spokesman, is the economic equivalent of "tough love" —the idea that it is better to be tough on the welfare-habituated in the short term to be fair, both to them and to the broader community, in the long term.
"To leave people on welfare is cruelty," he said. "It's cruelty masquerading as compassion. What has happened far too much over the last two decades is that people have gone on welfare and disappeared into the system, only to emerge years later as part of the problem of inter-generational welfare dependency."
He has little time for the argument that unemployment is the result of market failures. Or that he is blaming the victims. Or that what is needed is a more compassionate government.
Yet It cannot be denied that what is conspicuously missing from the Coalition's approach — except in the vaguest sense of having to be cruel to be kind — is any sense of compassion for those who have been forced on to welfare by a inequitable taxation system which creates poverty traps, or for those who have been backed into a situation where it makes better economic sense to take the dole than take work.
And compassion most definitely does not extend to more money to treat the malaise.
"We're not making heroes of ourselves by saying: 'Look, here's hundreds of millions of dollars more to invest in the problem. ' I think the experience over the last couple of decades suggests it's very easy for governments to spend money in ways which make the problem worse rather than better," he said. "You only have to listen to Noel Pearson talking about how welfare has damaged Aboriginal communities. Human nature is no different whether we're talking about black or white people ...'sit-down money' is just as destructive for white people as for black people."
Easy for him to say. The longest Abbott was ever out of work was for six weeks after the 1993 federal election. He has never been on the dole and, if he manages to extend his present five years in the House of Representatives to the requisite nine to qualify for the parliamentary pension, will never be eligible for it, regardless. Ask him, moreover, how much time he has spent with the long-term unemployed and, just for a moment, the confidence and self-assurance drops from his face.
"Well, like all politicians, I haven't spent enough time with them.
I appreciate that for some people who have been on benefits for a long time, a politician talking critically about the culture of welfare is an appalling insult and there is a sense in which, as a highly paid person in what is perceived as a reasonably secure job, you're trespassing on the forbearance of the community."
That, however, hasn't deterred him from reminding the unemployed that, just as the Government has an obligation to help them, so too they have an obligation to help themselves and the community. He is not finding fault with them, nor is he mollycoddling them. The first step in the process, he argues, is to try to break them free of the "unemployed as victims" paradigm.
Specifically targeted are those who want to work but only on their terms — Abbott's so-called "job snobs".
"If you're on the dole, you're not entitled to be fussy," he said. "If you're on the dole and you're offered a job which is neither illegal nor immoral, you're not entitled to say 'no'."
Nor will he tolerate the argument that making people work for the dole is punishing them for being unemployed. Rather, he says, it is empowering them by raising their self-esteem and making them feel they are once again functioning members of the community.
Statistics suggest that it is not with a spirit of empowerment that the unemployed are responding to the joint Coalition Initiatives of Mutual Obligation and Work for the Dole.
THE Government's MO policy, launched in July last year, is designed to ensure that long-term Newstart beneficiaries undertake structured activity as a condition of staying on benefits.
Initially, it was expected that 130,000 beneficiaries would be involved in the MO programme but this soon was scaled down to 80,000 when fewer young people than anticipated registered as unemployed. Then, of the 50,000 who went through a MO interview up to April this year, 8000 were exempted.
That still left 42,000 who signed a MO agreement. Of that number, fewer than 28,000 actually undertook an activity —mostly of part-time or volunteer work they arranged themselves. Fewer than 10,000 of those interviewed chose to fulfil their "mutual obligation" by undertaking a government-funded programme such as Work for the Dole.
"The vanishing unemployed," is how Abbott describes the missing thousands.
Those who welched on their MO obligations or who did not perform satisfactorily on Work for the Dole projects already are being breached. First offenders are having their benefits reduced by 18% for 26 weeks.
Abbott hinted, too, of a possible tightening of the Social Security Act which could make it easier for benefits to be cut off immediately in cases of flagrant MO violations.
"Frankly, people who deserve to have a fire lit under them will have a fire lit under them," he said.
But even those who have performed Work for the Dole are doing their sums as well. If they are required to work two days a week for six months of the year in order to keep receiving their weekly $410 welfare cheque, that's more than 10 weeks solid work they are turning in. How much more attractive, then, does even an entry-level job appear, when it brings in $497 a week?
All the while, the system is flushing out those who found it simply too much of a hassle to get a job, those who had been having two bob each way supplementing their welfare payments by working in the black economy. It's the carrot-and-stick approach . . . and it's gathering support.
"Can-do conservatism," Abbott calls it — yet it is not just the conservatives who are embracing it. Britain's Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is going down precisely the same line, refusing single mothers' queue-jumping right for council homes in the hope that it will undercut both Britain's soaring numbers of teenage births and its welfare dependency culture.
So, too, NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr, who claimed recently that "strict pragmatism" was the rule to be followed and that ideological obstinacy needed to be laid aside to break that same culture here in Australia.
If Abbott was taken aback at receiving support from this quarter, he wasted no time in encouraging it, describing Carr as being "a far more sophisticated policy theorist than just about anyone on the federal Labor front bench".
"Sensible Labor people realise that we've got to go down this path," he said.
There is little doubt this ever-toughening, ever-tightening approach will strike a responsive chord with Middle Australia — particularly with those PAYE taxpayers who flirted with Hansonism a year ago and railed against "the dole bludgers".
The journalist in Abbott cannot be suppressed. He has to finish with a catchy punchline.
"Mutual Obligation — Work for the Dole is a blend of two great Australian values," he said. "'Fair go!"' and 'Have a go!'