Federal Politics


Welfare in weakened state

Australia can draw lessons from Asia's family-first safety net, but it can be cast only so wide.

In his speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London earlier this year, the Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, referred to filial piety as the ''very best and most enduring guide for community and social infrastructure''. He implied filial piety provides a safety net in Asia, whereas in the Australian system vulnerable members of the community receive unfunded state benefits.

Hockey went on to identify characteristics such as low inflation, low unemployment, modest government debt and minimal unfunded benefits and entitlements as ''not unusual in Asia''. Australia can also boast of low inflation, low unemployment and modest government debt but, according to Hockey, unfunded benefits and entitlements are conspicuous.

Although Hong Kong was used as an example, there are other models in Asia where a cohesive social security framework is not entirely reliant on the state. Japan was no doubt overlooked in Hockey's speech because of its significant level of government debt. In Japan, conceptualisation of the nation as a family produced a system where responsibility for a safety net has been shared between the actual family, the workplace, and the state. Although this multi-faceted system of ''social security'' has been weakened over the past two decades due to changes to the workplace and changes in social attitudes, the model remains effective.

Japan shares with other east Asian collectivist societies a commitment to filial piety. The workplace once provided additional security through the lifetime employment system and seniority-based wage system, made possible through sustained economic growth from the end of the Pacific War until the early 1990s. This system gave workers and their families security against cyclical unemployment. This tendency should not be confused with the private sector responsibility Tony Blair advocated as part of his Third Way, once described by English essayist Tony Judt as ''opportunism with a human face''. The state in Japan takes responsibility for citizens who fall through the gaps.

Hockey approached his subject through the prism of identifiably conservative values that hold the balance of responsibility for any safety net should be provided by family, not the state. Conservatives believe lowering overall welfare payments will reduce taxation and therefore benefit the economy. The left once promoted the value of the Australian welfare state, but its position is now nowhere near as coherent.

Progressives in Australia, as elsewhere in the English-speaking world, rhetorically conceded many years ago the size of the state and the scope of its activity must be reduced significantly. More recently, Labor has also conceded that eliminating government debt is a priority of the highest order, even if the debt is the result of necessary efforts to stimulate the economy. A variety of cuts have been made to rapidly reduce government debt. The people most affected face extreme hardship and cannot rely on family members to soften the blow. In a parliamentary cycle when one would reasonably expect that the Newstart Allowance would be increased and other instruments of the welfare state consolidated or improved, the present government remains focused on winning popular approval for its management of the economy. The rate of the Newstart Allowance remains scurrilously low, while other benefits have been redefined or eliminated altogether.


Without doubt, some individuals on benefits hold a sense of entitlement, and others are adept at manipulating the system. However, the majority do not wish to rely on state support perpetually. Without it, they would be denied a decent existence and any hope of gradually improving their circumstances. Referring to an ''age of entitlement'' diminishes their struggle significantly in the eyes of the general population.

The Coalition contends that the burden of support should fall on ''the best form of social and community infrastructure'': the family. Middle-class families are thus the only demographic with the right to entitlements, as was evident in the middle-class welfare of the Howard years. Hockey used his speech to draw attention to family-oriented attitudes that are thriving throughout Asia. He referred to a system in Asia where ''you work hard, your parents look after the kids, you look after your grandkids''.

This misrepresents the original Confucian understanding of filial piety (the ideogram for filial piety, xiao, represents a father being carried by his son, not the other way around), but it is nonetheless an admirable quality common to Confucian-influenced cultures. It has not, however, absolved most Asian societies of significant pockets of extreme poverty. Evidently, not all are blessed with a strong family unit able to provide a safety net.

It is unclear whether Hockey was seriously suggesting that applying cultural tendencies evident in many Asian societies, such as filial piety, to the Australia system would reduce the need for social security. To achieve this would require a significant cultural shift. Inclinations that have evolved out of the original Confucian teachings on filial piety have developed in east Asian societies over many centuries. Without sincere consideration of how values can translate into a vision realised through sound policy, speeches such as these are clanging cymbals.

What is the alternative? The modern left in Australia has struggled to overcome a dilemma: if it is not longer committed to the welfare state, how does it propose to protect our most vulnerable?

It is unlikely that progressives in Australia will agree the answer lies in strengthening the family unit, however that is defined. The nature of Australian families has changed irrevocably. Encouraging a stronger sense of responsibility to one's family and to society is a sound social ethos, but can it be achieved without compromising the pursuit of equality for people of different sexual orientations, for example? The left must rise to these simultaneously moral, rhetorical and social challenges.

There will always be people in extreme hardship who are without strong family networks and thus require the support of broader society. It is therefore imperative that the left reaffirms its commitment to the welfare state. It should cease accommodating conservative rhetoric about the size of government and refocus debate on the quality of our public services, including human services that are the window to genuine citizenship for many Australians.

As rampant and growing income inequality pushes more people into situations, some form of safety net is needed to protect them from a choice between a degrading existence and oblivion. Even if the left was to evolve its commitment from equality of opportunity to actual equality, the full effects of this paradigm shift would not be felt for at least a generation. In the interim, a coherent set of policies founded on unshakable values is urgently needed. A cultural shift that reaffirms individual citizens' responsibility to family and community will only ease the burden so much. The state must guarantee an appropriate level of support for society's most vulnerable.

>> Andrew Hunter is chairman of the Australian Fabians.