A Rather Too Conservative First Year

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has apologised to the Stolen Generation, signed Kyoto and fixed some of the worst conditions for asylum seekers. These actions seemed to suggest a serious change in political directions, but other signs show he is leading a government designed to avoid scaring off the Howard voters.

This is worrying, as the social agenda of the government could be defined as a more modern form of social conservativism, with some residual neo-liberal tendencies. It lacks the fire and imagination that would challenge some of the retrograde social assumptions that drove most of the last government’s policies.

In this article I will look at their record in four areas of social policy: Indigenous issues, income support, child care and parental leave. While a year is not long in power, especially with the big problems of climate change and macro economic crashes, the social framework is important. Without increased levels of generalised trustworthiness – good social capital – dealing with major problems becomes much harder. Egalitarian social connections are a core part of this so I am concerned that in each of the areas nominated above, there are indications of continued support for the somewhat paternalistic policy directions of the past and only limited indications of change.

Indigenous Issues

Starting with Indigenous policy, the current government inherited a decade of bad relationships, the abolition of structures of consultation and an extraordinarily authoritarian intervention in over 70 Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. The last government’s basic assumptions were that the problems in these communities were intrinsic: addictions and lack of self discipline, individual aspirations, and order. More central control was thus warranted. Therefore Rudd’s apology, linked with promises to Close the Gap, was welcomed, setting up expectations of changed policy approaches.

Disappointingly, the intervention has continued and has now been further extended, with very few changes. While it has some Indigenous supporters, there is no evidence that it is protecting children or improving other indicators. Minister Jenny Macklin’s promise that an evidence based evaluation would be done and acted on, has proved hollow. The Task Force report was generally ignored, with no counter evidence produced. The result is that Indigenous communities are deeply divided and there remains no formal processes of consultation. Many Indigenous people feel angry that they are treated like irresponsible children, that they are no longer covered by the Racial Discrimination Act and that they have lost other rights. Closing the Gap may also fail because the necessary workforce planning and training of local workers in health and human services is non-existent. Former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough would not be displeased with the effects.

Income Support

There is an Inquiry underway on income support with Jeff Harmer to report in the new year. However, there are already indications that some of the moralism of the last government is still alive and flourishing in terms of who is and isn’t seen as a legitimate recipient of support. A campaign by aged pensioners, rightly concerned about the plight of single pensioners who can’t live on $281 per week, has been effective and there is already a promise of more money in next year’s budget and a bonus of $1,400 before Christmas as a fiscal stimulus. (Incidentally, the $1400 bonus will also go to part pensioners, including those singles whose private income is up to $770 per week of probably untaxed super.) But what about the unemployed on Newstart? They are paid $224 per week, so they have even less to live on than pensioners. No rise is in view for them and they didn’t get the bonus – the implication being that they should be able to get a job. In a time of shrinking employment, this is just populist claptrap, not social justice.

And there are other losers. Income quaranting is now to be imposed on other families apart from NT Indigenous people. Those subject to this new scheme must be identifiably poor parents (as opposed to the NT scheme which made no such distinction) but this policy is another cause for concern. There is no evidence that income control improves parenting, but it does fit with a very paternalistic view on welfare that assumes that a lack of money turns the unemployed into workers and better parents. The continued ‘get a job’ pressures on the unemployed, sole parents and those with lesser but still significant disabilities continues under Welfare to Work with minor amendments, but with no recognition, for instance, of parenting needs.

Child Care

Residual neo-liberalism is writ large in the problems of ABC Child Care. The Rudd Government had a chance to make changes to the system but preferred to support it further by raising the child care tax rebate to 50 per cent. This extra cash reinforced the problems inherent in the Howard Goverment model of encouraging private sector provision of child care. By funding parents, not services, the last government gave up previous controls on the location and costs of services. Generous subsidies for fees attracted many players and new services multiplied. These were not, unfortunately, responding to market needs but tended to be located where cheap land limited capital costs, with the result that too many services opened in many areas and too few in others.

A cowboy capitalist blew the system by setting up new services to compete with others, and buying out non profitable as well as profitable competition. The last government even hired Eddy Groves to run their defence services’ child care centres and encouraged the expansion of his company. The incoming Labor government should have reviewed the whole system and used its extra funding to impose some planning order and controls on the sector. So far it has chosen to support the current strategy, but funding only some centres in areas of need. Rather than mutterings about monopolies there needs to be discussion of how to move from child care from a laundromat model back to an essential community service.

Paid Parental Leave

As one of only two OECD countries that have no form of universal paid parental leave, it would seem to be a no-brainer to introduce it. The Government set up an inquiry with the Productivity Commission to assess it from a hard edged economic viewpoint, and we were all hopeful that this perennial problem would be solved. It is after all now mainly the lower income, lower status workers that have no access to such leave, as about 40 per cent of workers have negotiated some leave from employers. So there is a strong social justice argument as well the economic ones.

The interim report emerged and it is pretty good, recommending 18 weeks plus two weeks for fathers/partners funded publicly at the minimum wage. The report makes it quite clear that the payment of parental leave to mothers is not just about money but also about workplace connections and the recognition of the contribution women make in the paid workforce. It would also firmly connect the roles of paid workers and parenting carers in ways that open up further debates about care-friendly workplaces and conditions. The first Government reaction was good with Rudd stating it was time to ‘bite the bullet’.

The Opposition, not surprisingly, leapt in to condemn the report as disrespectful of mothers who were not in paid work, ignoring their baby bonus, which was introduced to counter a proposal on maternity leave in 2002 and is still in place. Although the overall financial entitlements were fairly similar, at least one Government representative immediately claimed there would be no differentiation between paid workers and the rest.

Why is the Government worried in 2008 about recognising that women in paid work may have some entitlements not available to those who are not employed? This is a picket fence, Howard-era viewpoint. The final report from the Productivity Commission is still to come and hopefully these remarks will not be followed up, but another threat has appeared on the horizon, as Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner has suggested that this payment may not be affordable in the current economic crisis. As the costs of 13 of the proposed 18 weeks leave would come from redirecting current spending, this seems an inadequate excuse.


There are other indicators of a conservative bent – the overreaction to the Henson pictures, the focus on the sins of binge drinking and over-eating and definitions of social inclusion that are primarily aimed at getting the excluded into paid work. I am worried about the faint hint of 19th century “poor laws” moralism underpinning these initiatives, which is somewhat surprising in a Labor government. However, rising unemployment may raise awareness of the social, as opposed to individual, causes of the difficulties many Australians face, and this may in turn create the space for broader discussions of ways to remedy inequalities.






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