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Paternalism in Australian welfare policy.


Welfare reform policies in Australia that aim to assist jobless people into employment exhibit paternalistic characteristics. In this article such policies are described as 'workfare'. Workfare policies have been substantially justified through appealing to the objective of advancing the interests of the people subject to the policies (workfare subjects), while simultaneously involving compulsion. Hence, to the extent workfare contains compulsive elements, the explicit objective to help workfare subjects becomes implicitly paternalistic.

Why the term 'workfare' has been adopted is explained in the background and context section. Historical and international context is also provided here, along with a discussion of paternalism. Subsequent to describing the research methods, the presence of a broadly benevolent justification will be identified, that is, the claim that the policies are intended to help people through advancing their interests. Following this, two specific sub-justifications are identified and analysed: reducing welfare dependency and promoting social inclusion. The Coalition Government has justified its policies more in terms of welfare dependency, whereas the Labor Government to a greater extent has used the discourse of social inclusion, but both are comparably paternalistic. What the governments mean by advancing people's interests will then be further investigated, after which the presence of compulsion in the policies is analysed, finding that both the Coalition and Labor Government substantially apply mechanisms of compulsion, although Labour places greater emphasis on education and training. Finally, the conjunction of benevolent justifications and compulsion in government discourse is examined. This paper argues that despite the absence of the term 'paternalism' in relevant government discourse, paternalism is nonetheless a substantial characteristic of workfare policy.

Background and context

Various terms have been used to describe the policy trend aimed at moving people currently receiving welfare payments into employment. The term 'welfare to work' has been used in Australia; however, this can be confused with specific legislation introduced in 2006. In Europe the term 'Active Labour Market Programs/Policies' is widely used. For the sake of brevity, 'workfare', which is the most common term in the United States, has been adopted in this article. In European social democracies, 'workfare' has pejorative connotations, as it is associated with a particular approach to welfare policy pioneered in the United States (Peck 2001: 84). The term is intended to be value-neutral in this article, but it is apposite to use the term because as will become apparent, the aforementioned US model heavily influenced Australian welfare policy.

In the 1980s various workfare programs were trialled in different states of America. The state program that attracted most attention was California's Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN). It is here that the 'work-first' or 'labour market attachment' model was developed, which came to epitomise US workfare (Peck 2001). The focus was on job searching in order to funnel people into any job as quickly as possible. Frequent meetings with stern welfare officers and tough sanctions were the key means by which to motivate participants, with little emphasis on training or other support services (Handler & Hasenfeld 1991). This model was taken nationwide by the 1988 Family Support Act (FSA), and was described as 'changing welfare into workfare' (Lawrence Mead, cited in Green 2002: 22).

Workfare was further intensified under the Clinton Administration, with the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Its goal was to reduce the number of people on welfare payments, primarily by enforcing work requirements. It replaced one welfare program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF payments were more restrictive and compelled greater work requirements.

The US model of workfare arose within a labour market context characterised by relatively high unemployment, including long-term unemployment, as well as a high expectation of labour market participation. The United States has had the least regulated employment protections among developed countries (OECD 2004). This is related to the deindustrialising globalised context and changes to the family structure. There has been a decline in manufacturing jobs in most developed countries, and an increased proportion of jobs in the service industry, as well as a decline in the nuclear family; this is accompanied by workforce casualisation, relatively high female labour force participation, and employers generally desiring labour market mobility (Adriaasens 1994; Bussemaker 1999; Pfau-Effinger 2005). These economic and social changes occurred first and foremost in the United States; therefore it is unsurprising that workfare originated there, and then diffused to other countries, especially the United Kingdom and Australia (Cebulla 2004; Piven 2002; Soss et al. 2009).

These conditions characterise developed nations to varying extents. Some European countries, such as the Netherlands for instance, have not deregulated their labour market to the same extent as in other nations of Europe (de Ruyter & Burgess 2003). A key element of the competitive strategy of European nations has been facilitating high-value production through investment in advanced skills. Hence, their welfare policies have reflected this, emphasising 'human capital development'. Conversely, Australia's labour market more closely resembles that of the United States. The Australia Labor government began modest labour market deregulation in the 1980s (Ramia & Wailes 2006). By the 1990s the labour market had changed enough to warrant a direct precursor to workfare, the 1994 Working Nation policy package. Working Nation involved a job compact that obliged subjects to accept employment offers, and 'can be traced back to the American workfare reforms' (Buckingham 2000: 73). The Australian labour market has been further deregulated since, and when the most radical workfare policies were being implemented, it was among the most deregulated of developed nations (Lee 2004). Hence, the US model of workfare proved apposite, with the Coalition Government's policies having been influenced by US policy (Buckingham 2000). However, although welfare policy reflects broader economic conditions and objectives, it would be simplistic to assume that welfare policy is merely thinly veiled labour policy. There are various objectives of welfare policy, with a benevolent objective being demonstrated in this article.

This article analyses a particular characteristic of workfare in Australia, namely paternalism. Contrary to past research (Deacon 1994; White 2000), paternalism is not a policy rationale, that is, it is not merely the reason for a particular policy. Paternalism is neither a justification used by government, nor a mere objective, as it also encompasses the instruments by which a particular objective is advanced. It is a description of a kind of policy approach that contains particular characteristics: the conjunction of the objective to promote people's interests with the policy mechanism of compulsion. When a paternalistic approach is applied to workfare, the resultant policy could be called paternalistic workfare.

There are various forms of paternalism: an important distinction is between weak and strong. Weak paternalism involves interfering 'with the means that agents choose to achieve their ends, if those means are likely to defeat those ends' (Dworkin 2005). The agent's end desires are not in question, but if the agent is acting in a way inconsistent with those end desires, then a weak paternalist would be willing to intervene. The strong paternalist is willing to disregard an agent's end desires where they are inconsistent with the intentions of the paternalist. Both weak and strong paternalism pertain to Australian workfare, as will be shown.

Paternalistic workfare is best understood through the work of its most eminent academic advocate, Lawrence Mead. Mead argues that people who have become 'dependent' of welfare payments are best served by employment. In addition to material deprivation, the 'welfare dependent' are stuck in a malaise, having become accustomed to passivity, suffering from low motivation, self-esteem and self-efficacy. In this sense they lack competence (Mead 1997b). He believes that paternalistic workfare 'most likely reduces overall suffering by improving lifestyles' (1997a: 25, 26). More specifically, by compelling agents to seek employment actively, and upon gaining employment, people's vitality for shaping their life will be enhanced. They will be able to improve their living conditions, and accordingly their psychological health and general wellbeing will be improved.

He explicitly distinguishes his approach from other social policies that have similar objectives: 'paternalism emphasizes the obligations of clients rather than their rights or needs' (1997b: 21). Mead rejects the use of entitlements in what he calls traditional social policy, whereby people have a right for their needs to be met by the government with minimal conditions attached. To the extent that traditional social policy attempts to address behaviour, it does so through changing environmental circumstances to provide incentives, giving people choices--such as by creating employment opportunities. Mead argues that the best way to help disadvantaged people is to focus on individuals and directly 'alter ... [their] patterns of life' (1997b: 23) through 'directive and supervisory means' (1997b: 2). He essentially advocates using compulsion to change people's behaviour for their own benefit.

Mead articulated most of his ideas about welfare paternalism in 1997, but 15 years later his writing could he mistaken for a descriptive account of much welfare policy that has transpired in Australia, as will be shown. Mead's influence clearly stretched to Australia, having visited the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which is tasked with communicating research to policy makers. Mead delivered a keynote address and wrote articles for the institute's publications, where he taught 'lessons from America' (1999; 2000).


The research for this article treats workfare policy in Australia is as a case study, commencing in 1996 with the election of the Coalition government, through the change of government in 2007 under the Australian Labour Party up until 2011. This time span enables comparison between the governments in respect to the extent and form of paternalistic workfare. The case study commences in 1996 because this is when the most intensive period of implementing workfare policies began, with election of the conservative Liberal/National Coalition government. The period also includes the election of the Australian Labor government in 2007, which enables comparison.

The aim of the case study is not to gain a comprehensive understanding of workfare, but to focus on a particular element that relates to paternalistic characteristics. Thus, as Peck observes in regard to his own research, this gives 'license to a more roving and theory-driven methodology' (2001: 7). That is, in ascertaining the objectives and means of workfare and assessing whether the paternalistic characteristics are significant, general exploration of the policy field was conducted, with special attention given to data that might reveal the presence of paternalism.

Qualitative methodology is applied, which is well suited to revealing the justifications of a policy, as the justifications themselves are made in qualitative terms. Explicit accounts were sought from official government sources. The principal source of data is government documents, which were supplemented by interviews with policy makers. As for identifying compulsion as a means of achieving certain objectives, the policies themselves could he analysed via policy documents.

Government documents that were analysed included: reports, legislation, notes on clauses, hill digests, media releases, speeches, policy statements, briefing papers, submissions to reviews, websites and research papers. The research aimed to uncover all government documents that were likely to be relevant to workfare policy and could shed light on the reasons behind its development. Almost 30 Australian Government documents were analysed.

Five interviews were conducted in 2010 with policy makers who either worked at the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) or the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). The roles of current public servants were identified through government websites, and the department was then contacted to request interviews. Former public servants were identified and contacted through 'snowballing' methods from current public servants. The interviews aimed at obtaining personal opinions about why the interviewees think workfare policies were developed. People who were likely to have the most insight into the reasons behind the development of workfare were approached, although not all potential interview subjects were able or willing to participate. All interviews were semi-structured, with about eleven guiding questions. Some questions were tailored to the specific circumstances of the interviewee; for example, they would concentrate on a specific program if they were likely to be knowledgeable about that program.

The interviews were supplementary to the documentary research: five interviews were sufficient to enrich understanding of the policy characteristics. The interviews are not being used to generalise about policy, or to represent all the relevant policy makers, although in the small number of interviews conducted there was considerable repetition. Rather, data from interviews provides evidence that supports and illustrates deductions made from documents about the justifications of workfare.

Interview transcripts and documents were analysed similarly. First and foremost, the data was analysed by applying an agenda, that is, rather than attempting to be neutral in what meaning could be derived from the data, it was examined for the presence of specified potential meanings. Evidence of paternalistic characteristics were searched for and highlighted. This search was first conducted by reducing the data by relevance, thus much that did not relate to objectives or means of workfare was disregarded.

No attempt was made to enumerate systematically the instances of particular items. The high level of interpretation that was required entailed a less formalistic account of significance. Although the frequency of a justification was considered, so too were explicit claims about the relative importance of objectives; for example, it might be claimed that a particular objective is the most important one. Such claims were then assessed for their consistency and for the presence of contradictory claims.

Lastly, generalisations were drawn based on identified themes, with quotations selected as illustrations.

Helping workfare subjects is an important justification

There are many instances where the Australian Government claimed to be helping workfare subjects, in the broad sense. That is, it was not always narrowly specified exactly which interests of workfare subjects were being promoted, yet it was affirmed that their interests would generally be promoted through policies aimed at compelling them to secure employment. This was a consistent theme since at least 1996, evident in both the Coalition and Labor governments. For example, Kevin Andrews (Coalition Government Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, 2003-07) made numerous comments justifying workfare primarily on the basis of it helping workfare subjects, for example: 'Moving from welfare to work helps people achieve ... a better standard of living' (Andrews 2005a: 2).

Official government reports explain the connection between employment and people's wellbeing. For example, the seminal 'McClure Report', which was commissioned by the Coalition Government to provide the blueprint for future welfare reforms, states:
   Participation in paid employment is a major source of self-esteem.
   Without it, people can fail to develop, or become disengaged from,
   employment, family and community networks. This can lead to
   physical and psychological ill health and reduced life
   opportunities (2000: 3).

This suggests that employment is the fulcrum that can foster an important psychological quality--self-esteem--to facilitate participating in a wider array of social spheres, thereby fostering good health.

In regard to justifying workfare, the succeeding Labor government's policy statements resemble its predecessor, for example:

Workforce participation is among the most important steps in assisting the disadvantaged into mainstream society by enabling them to contribute to the economy and community and connect with others (DEEWR 2010b: 43).

Here again it is being argued that ensuring people are employed is good because it has wider benefits for individuals.

In interviews, policy makers stressed the primacy of helping workfare subjects. For example, one said:

There's no doubt that the emphasis has always been about helping the individual (Policy Analyst DEEWR).

This was reiterated in another interview:

Welfare reforms are about trying to improve people's life outcomes (Senior Policy Maker FaHCSIA).

These remarks suggest that there was consistency across government departments in chiefly justifying workfare through the objective of helping workfare subjects. However, it will become evident there is some distinction between the Coalition and Labor Government in their conception of helping people.

Reducing welfare dependency

The aim of helping workfare subjects only makes sense if they are assumed to be in need of help, that is, an undesirable state of affairs pertains for people, which workfare is designed to amend. This undesirable state of affairs could include people's own behaviour as well as their material conditions. It has commonly been characterised by the Australian Government as 'welfare dependency', although more so by the Coalition than Labor.

Welfare dependency is not a value-neutral description, but a normative term. It encompasses both reference to a phenomenon as well as an evaluative judgement. The use of labels such as 'welfare dependency' isolate certain features and thereby 'magnify a specific aspect of reality' (Engels 2006: 5). Welfare dependency refers to and condemns the condition by which certain people's income is derived from the government. The notion encompasses an assumption concerning the categories of individuals deemed worthy of receiving income from the government Although there is debate regarding who ought to be defined as the welfare dependent, civil servants, age pensioners, war veterans and businesses receiving subsidies, for example, are not usually considered welfare dependent. The state of affairs of people receiving these kinds of government benefits is not commonly characterised as a social problem.

The characterisation of welfare dependency as a problem is constructed; what is 'defined as a problem worthy of the interest of the state or of becoming the object of state policy' is the result of political contest (Marston & Watts 2003: 43). What distinguishes people described as welfare dependent from others receiving government support is that they are not employed and it is deemed that they ought to be. Rather than workfare being an obvious solution to welfare dependency, the meaning of both notions are intertwined. Workfare is only possible if some recipients of government payments are judged as failing to be employed, while the characterisation of welfare dependency assumes that one should be moved into employment. It is presupposed that the so-called 'welfare dependent' suffer from preventable psychosocial problems, in particular low self-esteem, motivation, autonomy and morale, as well as a high degree of alienation (Mead 1997b).

The Coalition Government principally characterised social issues relating to notions such as unemployment, poverty and social security in terms of welfare dependency, although the government did not clearly define what it meant by welfare dependency (Engels 2006). Its agenda was revealed in the terms of reference for its major welfare review, the McClure Report: 'the Government is concerned that there is an increasing reliance by Australians on welfare' (2000: 62).

This message was repeated by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who stated that the Welfare to Work legislation would 'respond to our twin challenges: the imperatives to increase participation for these groups and reduce their level and incidence of welfare dependence' (Andrews 2005a: 3). The conceptual interrelatedness of employment participation and welfare dependence is clearly evident.

The characterisation and focus on welfare dependency was also substantiated by interviews. One interviewee said that employment

activation policy is a response to some of the problems, such as people being dependent on welfare (Senior Policy Maker FaHCSIA).

The link between reducing welfare dependency and helping workfare subjects was explicitly made in a submission to the 2005 Senate inquiry into Welfare to Work by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations: 'Reducing welfare dependency will help drive up employment rates [and] improve the well-being of income support recipients' (Senate Community Affairs Committee 2005: 4). Although it can be disputed to what extent the attention on welfare dependency is due to genuine concern for the wellbeing of workfare subjects, it is unquestionable that welfare dependency is closely linked to the justification of helping workfare subjects.

The welfare dependency theme continued to reverberate in the Tabor government--elected in 2007--with Prime Minister Rudd defending a particular welfare policy by asserting that it 'fight[s] passive welfare. By helping people move from welfare dependence and into work' (Rudd 2010). In a short speech he repetitively referred to welfare dependency, leaving no doubt about the central role of the concept in how the government conceived of social issues relating to welfare.

Although the concept of 'welfare dependency' might not be helpful in improving people's wellbeing, its rhetorical force is based on the notion that policy aims to help people through curing them of welfare dependency. Thus, the prominence of reference to reducing welfare dependency, especially by the Coalition Government, reaffirms the importance of helping workfare subjects as a justification for workfare.

Promoting social inclusion

There was some allusion to social inclusion during the Coalition Government; for example, in the McClure Review it was expressed that the overall objective of changing the welfare system--primarily on the basis of workfare--was to 'minimize social and economic exclusion' (2000: 4). Getting people into employment is justified by the concern to increase the inclusivity of society. However, this did not translate into policy, and there was little mention of social inclusion by ministers.

When the Labor Government came to power, however, as one policy maker observed, the 'social inclusion agenda ... got more prominence' (Policy Developer for DEEWR). This was manifested in the establishment of an advisory Social Inclusion Board and the Social Inclusion Unit within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, shortly after the Labor government came to office. The function of the unit is to provide research and advice across government on developing policies to promote social inclusion.

The term social exclusion arose in France in the 1960s and has since spread across much of Europe and other OECD countries, especially in the late 1980s and more so in the 1990s (Hayes et al. 2008: 1; Silver 2010). One reason for the increasing use of the term 'social exclusion' is its broad, flexible and multifunctional nature (Hulse et al. 2011: 12; Saunders 2011: 185). It has been used in various ways, although the literature shares some common elements. Three core elements are: an awareness of the multi-dimensional causes of disadvantage; attention to the processes through which disadvantage is perpetuated; and an appreciation of people's discontinuity with social relations and practices (Millar 2007; Room 1995; Silver 2010; Tsakloglou & Papadopoulos 2002).

The following statement captures the meaning of social inclusion in the Australian policy context: 'The Australian Government's social inclusion agenda aims to make sure every Australian has the capability, opportunity and resources to participate in the economy and their community taking responsibility for shaping their own lives' (Australian Government 2010). This statement essentially equates social inclusion with participation. However, the emphasis on economic participation and 'responsibility' suggests that workfare is part of the social inclusion agenda. This is made clear by use of the euphemism 'economic participation' in place of 'employment'; if the issue was that people were not consuming enough goods and services, it could easily be solved by higher welfare payments, whereas the concern is that they are not producing enough goods and services. This is stated explicitly elsewhere: 'Employment ... is ... the first and most important plank towards economic participation and social inclusion' (DEEWR 2010b: 46). One can be employed, but socially excluded in other ways, such as by exclusion of some migrant groups from civic, political, or private spaces, with this exclusion given less emphasis than employment participation.

Additional policies that are not focused on employment have also been implemented under the social inclusion rubric. For example, there has been additional investment to reduce homelessness, supporting disadvantaged children and help refugees integrate into society (Australian Government 2011a). This suggests that social inclusion has been a genuine government objective, of which workfare is one means among others of promoting this end.

There has also been criticism of the social exclusion agenda. Most prominently, Ruth Levitas said of UK policy that the Moral Underclass and Social Integrationist Discourses (MUD and SID) dominated over Redistributionist Discourse (RED). MUD focuses on the 'delinquent' behaviour of disadvantaged groups and obliges behavioural change; SID centres on unemployment and mandates paid work; and these are opposed to RED, which concentrates on poverty and addressing it through promoting equality (Levitas 2005). Such an analysis is applicable to the Australian context, arguing that the Australian social inclusion agenda places an emphasis on employment (Long 2010; Perkins 2010).

It is precisely the focus on employment by the social inclusion agenda that reveals the centrality of promoting people's wellbeing as a justification for workfare.

Clarifying the interests of workfare subjects

The two specific justifications relating to helping workfare subjects through advancing their wellbeing--welfare dependency and social inclusion--rely on the notion of participation. It is implied that through social inclusion people's participation in society--principally through employment--is part of the good life; that participating is simply something people should do as an important ingredient of living well. 'Welfare dependency' implies that rather than welfare support facilitating participation, it undermines it by producing various psychosocial problems, and thereby diminishes people's wellbeing (Mead 1997b).

The focus on participation stems from T.H. Marshall's work, which highlighted the importance of participation for full social citizenship (Marshall 1950). For Marshall, however, one's ability to participate fully should be based on the mere fact of citizenship, and the state should enable one's participation. Conversely, if one's ability to participate is made contingent on certain factors, such as being employed, then one's citizenship has been undermined. It was this approach that persisted during the 1834 English Poor Law era, with welfare provision based on the principle of 'less eligibility', whereby people's social participation would be inhibited if they required welfare support (Bryson 1992). The heightened conditionality of welfare payments in Australia arguably echoes some aspects of the Poor Laws, as social participation is to be ensured not through welfare support, but through employment.

The Australian Government was quite vague as to what else, besides employment participation, constituted wellbeing. However, some clarification accompanied Labor's social inclusion agenda. It stated that one objective is to provide 'the best opportunities for all Australians to live a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life' (Australian Government 2010: 8). Prosperity refers to access to consumer products, and the connection of social inclusion with health is consistent with the World Health Organisation's agenda to address the social determinants of health (Popay et al. 2008). It was further elucidated that people should be able to 'develop their own potential' (Australian Government 2010: 2). The government is drawing on the capabilities discourse (Long 2010) whereby people's interests are not merely promoted through the provision of resources, but by the extent and variety of roles and actions people are able to undertake.

Workfare was widely justified through the broad objective of helping workfare subjects. Under the Coalition Government, this mostly took the specific form of reducing welfare dependency, whereas the succeeding Labor Government shifted the emphasis to promoting social inclusion. In both cases, helping people concentrated on securing employment, but in the case of social inclusion, broader concerns were also invoked.

Other researchers have identified the importance in Australia of the reciprocity justification for workfare (Bessant 2000; Carney & Ramia 2002; Kinnear 2000; Yeatman 2000). Reciprocity was particularly prominent under the Coalition Government, with its policy framework of Mutual Obligation explicitly referring to reciprocity. The Labor Government shifted from 'Mutual Obligation' discourse, instead appealing to the benevolent objective of social inclusion, although they did not renounce the notion of reciprocity, invoked through the term 'compact' (Australian Government 2009). Both governments justify workfare through appealing to multiple objectives, with neither government allowing the reciprocity justification to overwhelm all others. Although some statements by Australian policy makers and in documents do not affirm the primacy of the objective to help workfare subjects, its primacy is never rejected, and it always remains a prominent justification. At the very least, the justification to help workfare subjects has consistently been a substantial justification, and sometimes the chief justification for workfare.

Compulsion has been the primary policy instrument

The primary means used in Australia to move jobless people into employment has been compulsion. This applies to both the Coalition and Labor Governments, although the Labor Government combined compulsion to a greater extent with education and training. The use of compulsion is not usually explicit, but its presence in policies is unmistakable. Compulsion functions by making access to welfare payments conditional. Prior to examining these policies, the disclosure of compulsion in government discourse is briefly discussed.

The Coalition Government often explicitly stated that it has a 'work-first' approach, emulating the American model. Minister Andrews stated in a parliamentary speech that the 'work first approach is at the cornerstone of the government's Welfare to Work measures' (2005b: 7). To those familiar with various approaches and labels associated with workfare, governments can be remarkably explicit about the compulsive nature of their policies.

The Labor government was less explicit, yet it was still apparent that it was deploying compulsion as a central means of reforming the welfare system:

[the government! has been progressively developing a national reform agenda in relation to welfare recipients ... Each measure uses a combination of different tools to achieve its objectives, including conditionality on the receipt of income support (Australian Government: 2011b).

In this statement, compulsion is evident through reference to conditionality.

In interviews with policy makers it was unambiguously stated, albeit reluctantly, that compulsion plays a role in welfare policy changes:

it is a matter of how you get people to want to invest in their own future, and you may need to employ compulsion (former Policy Advisor DEEWR/FaHCSIA).

This statement implies that although compulsion may not necessarily be the preferred means to achieve intended outcomes, it is an important one. An examination of the policies fully exposes the key role of compulsion: the significant changes to Australian welfare policy since 1997 have intensified this role.

The Work for the Dole program was introduced soon after the Coalition government came to power in 1996. It requires people receiving unemployment benefits to participate in training and/or employment programs. Initially, only people aged 18 to 24 receiving benefits for more than six months were required to participate. It has been continually extended, now including people aged up to 59. The activities have also become more arduous, with the number of hours a week that participants can be required to work rising to 25 (DEEWR 2010a).

A further initiative, Australians Working Together, was introduced by the Coalition Government in 2001. It largely extended activity requirements to social security recipients beyond those receiving regular unemployment benefits. For example, recipients of parenting payments, whose youngest child had turned 13, were required to accept agreements that required participating in employment-related activities for about six hours a week. The mature-age allowance was also eliminated, obliging unemployed people over the age of 50 to satisfy similar--although less severe--activity obligations to young people (Australian Governement 2002).

The Coalition Government's 2005 Welfare to Work legislation builds on the previous two initiatives, intensifying requirements and sanctions as well as broadening the targets. It introduced and strengthened activity requirements for those receiving the disability support pension and parenting payments. Eligibility criteria for the disability support pension were restricted, therefore shifting some people previously exempt from activity tests onto unemployment benefits. For example, to be classified as unable to work, one must be incapable of working for 15 hours a week, rather than the previous 30 hours. In regard to parenting payments, the primary change was that parents were subject to activity requirements when their child turned six. The requirements also became more arduous, obliging them to work at least 15 hours a week; if 'suitable', 25 hours could be required (Daniels & Yeend 2005).

Sanctions were intensified for failure to meet requirements. Three breaches, no matter how minor, triggered an eight-week suspension of payments (Carney 2006). As a result of changes to the sanctioning regime, a great number of people were more severely penalised (Carney & Ramia 2011). The phrase 'taking reasonable steps to comply with' was removed from several sections of the Social Security Act. The aim of omitting the phrase was to 'remove the jobseekers' rights to argue they were not able to comply [with participation requirements] for reasonable reasons beyond their control ... this is a diminution of jobseekers' rights' (Daniels & Yeend 2005: 28). Hence, the increased use of compulsion is evident in the Coalition government's welfare policies.

The succeeding Labor government softened some sanctions. For example, failure to meet a requirement, such as attending an employment service interview, no longer results in an automatic eight-week loss of payments; the 'client' is contacted and given the opportunity to justify their absence, and when sanctioned, payments resume after requirements are fulfilled (Carney & Ramia 2011: 7).

Subsequent to introducing these reforms, however, the Labor Government intensified other requirements, implementing 'tougher rules for job seekers' with new penalties (ALP 2010). In 2011 the government intensified work requirements pursuant to Work for the Dole, compelling people to engage in activities 11 months of the year, rather than six months, and increased penalties (AAP 2011).

Labor has also introduced new requirements, although it was combined to some extent with education and training. Labor adopted human capital development rhetoric, with one report stating that 'skills [are| an important part of any strategy to reduce long term disadvantage' (Australian Government 2010). Some policies and funding ensued from this rhetoric (Ramia & Carney 2010), but compulsion remained a central element of workfare. In the Compact with Young Australians, the aim is to ensure that all unemployed people up to the age of 24 are at least engaged in education or training, if not working. A 'learn or earn participation requirement' was introduced, obliging engagement in formal education or training to receive specific welfare payments (Youth Allowance). Also, some welfare payments (Family Tax Benefit Part A) were only paid to parents conditional on their children satisfying the requirements.

Compulsion is the dominant means by which Australian governments seek to relocate people from welfare support programs into employment. Since 1997 requirements have become increasingly onerous and the sanctions harsher. Further evidence of the work-first nature of workfare in Australia is that only a little over half as much is spent on active labour market programs as the OECD average (OECD 2011). In explaining why 'authoritarian' workfare policies have been implemented over alternatives, a policy maker frankly stated: 'It's cheaper, it's a resourcing issue in the end' (former Policy Advisor DEEWR/FaHCSIA).

Government discourse disclosing conjunction of compulsion and benevolence

The conjunctive presence of compulsion and benevolence is identified through analysing government discourse, that is, not merely the presence of each element, but how compulsion is enmeshed with the justification of benefiting workfare subjects. The responses of policy makers to the term 'paternalism' have been analysed, revealing discomfort, but acceptance of the presence of paternalism.

There was a complete absence of the term 'paternalism' in official government discourse, in all likelihood because it has acquired pejorative connotations, but its presence was evident from allusions that conjoined benevolence with compulsion. For example, the McClure Report referenced research about a pilot program by a government department: 'For most groups, it appears as if a structured approach within a requirement framework provides the best measure of assistance' (2000: 42). A 'requirement framework' compels people to act in a way that they otherwise might not, and this is justified through 'assisting' those compelled--thus, its reliance on paternalism.

Additionally, policy makers were candid about the presence of 'compulsive benevolence'. For instance, one policy maker said:

[It] is an element of all income support that the rules are there because they are good for you, but what do you do if people don't follow them? So clearly you need some form of sanction (former Policy Advisor DEEWR/FaHCSIA).

Paternalism here is implicit, but certainly not obscured. The overt reference to helping workfare subjects whilst using punishments to enforce behaviour is unequivocally paternalistic.

When paternalistic remarks were made it was usually characterised in the 'weak' sense. For example a policy maker commented:

I think there is a danger ... of relying on voluntary programs, the danger is letting people be ... It might not be what people really want anyway (former Policy Advisor DEEWR/FaHCSIA).

In this comment compulsion is justified as ultimately consistent with the subject's own desires. However, it is clear that the policies have 'strong' paternalistic characteristics. For example, in compelling people receiving parenting payments into employment, the policies are prepared to override a person's preference to concentrate on childrearing.

Despite this candour about using compulsion to help workfare subjects, policy makers avoided the term 'paternalism'. For example, one policy maker admitted:

I'm a bit uncomfortable using that term myself (Policy Analyst DEEWR);

and another interviewee joked:

So we talked about paternalism: you didn't hear me say that word (Policy Developer DEEWR).

Clearly, it is not the benevolent aspect of paternalism that raises discomfort, but the conjunction of benevolence with compulsion. As a consequence of the term 'paternalism' having taken on pejorative connotations, along with the undeniable presence of compulsion, governments are caught in a 'catch 22' situation. If their denials of paternalism are accepted, it can only be concluded that compulsion is not intended to help workfare subjects. The policies are either benevolent, and therefore paternalistic, or neither paternalistic nor benevolent.

Upon explicit questioning, two Australian policy makers did come close to accepting the role of paternalism in welfare policy. One policy maker commented:

I think by its nature the welfare state is paternalistic ...

If paternalism means intervening to try to achieve better outcomes for people ... then all welfare states are paternalistic (former Policy Advisor DEEWR/FaHCSIA).

This was reiterated by another interviewee:

I think there is a sense that governments are paternalistic: that's their very nature, that people would like an entity to look after them (Policy Developer DEEWR).

These comments underplay the compulsive element of paternalism, not fully admitting that it is not all benevolent interventions that are paternalistic, but only those interventions that use compulsion. In neglecting this fact they are able to affirm that there is nothing unusual in recent workfare policies--that paternalism is a standard element of state practices, and in particular of welfare policy. An attempt is made to normalise and thereby vindicate the current paternalistic aspect of workfare.

Despite the general reluctance of interviewees to use the term 'paternalism', they openly affirmed that workfare uses compulsion to help people. Policy makers exhibited a clear line of paternalistic reasoning: employment is good for people, people do not always engage with the labour market as actively as necessary to gain employment, therefore the government should intervene through conditionality to change people's behaviour, for their own benefit.


Workfare policies between 1996 and 2011 in Australia have substantially been justified by appealing to the objective of advancing the interests of people who are subject to the policies. This was consistent across governments. However, under the Coalition Government this was largely specified through seeking to reduce welfare dependency, whereas with the Labor Government the social inclusion framework was used. With both governments the primary means to achieve this was compulsion, albeit the Labor Government emphasised education and training in its workfare policies. Compulsion was operationalised through making the receipt of full welfare payments conditional on meeting certain requirements. The explicit conjunction of the benevolent justification with compulsive means was understated, yet an analysis of government discourse and policy revealed their connection, thereby demonstrating the presence of paternalism. In fact, the term 'paternalism' is absent from official government discourse related to workfare, despite it being a substantial characteristic of workfare in Australia.

Other researchers have also identified the paternalistic nature of Australian welfare policy (Carney 2006; 2012; Yeatman 2000). Yeatman describes Mutual Obligation as 'paternalistic contractualism', that is, the notion of a social contract being applied to compel the self-reliance of subjects (2000: 158). Paternalistic welfare policies aimed at goading people into work are not a new phenomenon. However, the extent to which paternalism characterises welfare policy is novel. With the decline of welfare payments being commonly understood as entitlements, compulsion has become increasingly used with impunity as a policy tool. Although the Poor Laws exhibited a high degree of compulsion, they were not largely justified by appeals to benevolence: rather there was a moralistic emphasis on punishing the undeserving (Trattner, 1999). Paternalistic workfare combines compulsion with benevolent justifications to a new extent.

This paper has demonstrated the paternalistic characteristic of workfare, but it has not questioned its legitimacy. Paternalistic workfare may or may not be appropriate in particular circumstances. Identifying when, if ever, paternalistic workfare is justifiable, is a topic for further research.


I am grateful for the feedback provided by Kathleen Hulse and Brian Costar during the research for this paper.


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Author:Mestan, Kemran
Publication:Australian Journal of Social Issues
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 24, 2014
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