Federal Politics


Values now an each-way punt

No one makes it to the top in federal politics without developing essential skills at handling the media in its many guises - selective deafness being the most important facility of all. So it can only be assumed that Families Minster Jenny Macklin took temporary leave of her senses when, in response to a question put to her at a press conference on Tuesday about whether she could live on the dole, she answered ''I could.''

The decision to alter the official transcript of the press conference (deleting the answer and the question and replacing it with the word ''inaudible'') indicates her minders grasped the significance of the indiscretion immediately. They need not have bothered, for the words were clearly audible in footage of the event broadcast on television, and the attempted deception further fuelled the rebukes, the derision and the assorted tut-tutting directed at Ms Macklin by recipients of Newstart (as the unemployment benefit is termed), opposition MPs and Labor backbenchers.

The debate about the adequacy of Newstart is long-standing, with much of it centred on the government's unwillingness to adjust the amount (set at $246 a week, or about $35 a day) to reflect the inevitable rises in the consumer price index. Last April, West Australian Greens senator Rachel Siewert spent a well-publicised week living solely on the Newstart allowance to highlight cost-of-living pressures on job-seekers. Her finding, that survival was not possible without going into debt, should have served as warning to Ms Macklin not to leap at Tuesday's provocatively cast lure - especially within days of the promulgation of new welfare laws moving single parents to the Newstart allowance when their youngest child turns eight.

Ms Macklin is nominally of the ALP's Left, the custodians of the party's collectivist tradition that government should be a force for justice, equity and help for those in need. Her confident assertion on Tuesday that survival on Newstart was not in doubt - together with the qualifier that ''of course, we understand that what's important for people who are unemployed is that we do everything possible to help [them] get work'' - would seem to indicate Ms Macklin still cleaves to old Labor values.

But the diligence with which the Labor government has gone about trying to wean people off welfare - exemplified by the decision to restrict eligibility criteria for parenting benefits - suggests modern-day Labor's commitment to the less fortunate is not the rock-solid thing it used to be. The ALP, of course, is not unique among social democratic parties in the way it has come to regard welfare as having the potential to reinforce despair, despondency, victimhood and entitlement among its recipients. Strangely, that thinking does not extend to middle-class welfare.

Conservative, right-of-centre governments in the US and Britain have been the driving force for the partial dismantlement of the welfare state, or at least that part of it intended to act as a safety net for those in need, and the social democratic parties have got behind that ideological change with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

The idea that more people are becoming dependent on government handouts, and that many of them are freeloaders, has always had currency in the electorate. But in an era when the virtues of small and non-interfering government - capable of creating space within which business, jobs and personal responsibility can flourish - are considered to be self-evident, it is no surprise that Labor might try to claw back benefits where and when possible.

Those defensive of Labor's apparent heartlessness would argue that although the substitution of Newstart for parenting payments will leave individuals up to $223 a fortnight worse off, they still have access to family tax benefits A and B, and to rent assistance. They might also assert that Newstart is designed to be a temporary or bridging allowance to a job, and that this is quite reasonable in an economy where unemployment is a low 5 per cent. But some of Ms Macklin's cabinet colleagues have since admitted the obvious, which is that it is difficult to live on Newstart while searching for work, particularly in the case of single parents.

The government's decision to increase the aged and disability pensions can be taken as evidence that Labor has not entirely abandoned its collectivist traditions. It could enhance that view if it acts to increase the dole to offset erosion by inflation.