A response to ‘How do we design a dignified welfare safety net without becoming a Nanny State? Lessons from Catholic Social Teaching’ by Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO.
By Jon Altman
National Library of Australia, Canberra
18 November 2011
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of Canberra, thanking John Falzon, St Vincent de Paul Society for the invitation to respond to the 4th Annual Gerald Ward Lecture on Social Justice, and of course thanking Father Frank Brennan for his lecture which I found both insightful and moving; I have little disagreement, as respondent, to the lecture, and so just aim to push its boundaries perhaps with a little less diplomacy and religiosity than the lecture giver.
In his book Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity sociologist Loic Wacquant distinguishes what he describes as the Nanny state of the Fordist-Keynesian era from the Daddy state of neoliberalism where the relative contraction of welfare is replaced by a new set of coercive instrumentalities. The new emphasis on duties over rights, sanctions over support, a stress on the obligation of citizenship and new methods for monitoring and dealing firmly and coercively with the poor and the marginalised characterise this new social landscape for Wacquant.
Wacquant is writing about the punitive turn of penal policy in the USA. He examines the state’s wedding of restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare” under a philosophy of moral behaviourism that uses a moralistic and moralising conception of poverty as a product of the individual failings of the poor. The results in the USA has been a rapid growth in imprisonment, especially of black males, and associated costs in terms of the social fabric and the ideals of democratic citizenship, given that in most States, prisoners now numbering in their millions cannot vote.
What has all this got to do with Australia where the welfare state has historically been so benign and where social security has been largely premised on an assumption that structural factors contribute more than individuals to poverty and marginalisation?
Since 2000 and the McClure Report social security policy here has taken a neoliberal turn, but from 2007 with the Northern Territory Intervention it took a far more draconian and race-based shift: the problem of Indigenous poverty was suddenly redefined as a problem of Aboriginality. This shift was aided and abetted (intentionally or not) by some Aboriginal and anthropological writings like Noel Pearson’s Our Right to Take Responsibility and Peter Sutton’s The Politics of Aboriginal culture as the problem. And so a sophisticated and experimental state project of moral restructuring was embarked upon to alter the norms of Indigenous Australians to become neoliberal subjects.
The state is deploying a powerful metaphor of ‘Closing the Gap’ as the development framework for remote Indigenous Australia. Of course such a quest for equality sounds like common sense, Indigenous people should share in the national wealth enjoying the individualism and freedoms of other Australians; it is just that to do so they will need to be a new and different kind of citizen adopting neoliberal norms.
This approach to moral restructuring is very clear in the Council of Australian Governments’ National Indigenous Reform Agreement and its National Partnership Agreements in a number of areas. The powerful mobilizing metaphor of ‘Closing the Gap’ is repeated again and again. And state documents like NIRA and the Indigenous Economic Development Strategy promulgate new forms of subjectivity, the hard working, individualistic, educated, nationally mobile and materially acquisitive neoliberal subject.
This is presented in dominant discourse as the only rational possibility dependent on a reconfigured relationship of mutual obligation between Indigenous persons and the state, a structural adjustment program that looks to educate by enforcing and strictly policing school attendance and fining the parents of school absentees; that looks to enforce new forms of consumption via income management of the welfare dependent, while providing freedom to spend for the employed; via proposed new forms of accumulation through private housing options like the now failed Housing on Indigenous Land program; and via a new forms of work, ‘proper’ jobs (mainly funded by the state and controlled by state agencies) instead of Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) jobs (mainly funded by the state and controlled by community organisations).
Implementation of these reforms has not been unproblematic and there is a plethora of reports, just eight in the last month, almost all tainted by moral hazard as they are state sponsored, that are still far from uncritical—which makes one wonder how bad things really are as they are so constrained and managed. Release of these reports is also carefully stage managed and all stops are pulled out to offset any negativity with political spin and managed media leaks.
What we are seeing in remote Australia is a grand project of structural adjustment that will cause pain, but this is regarded as the necessary price before there is long term gain. The state is focusing its efforts on just a few places, 29 priority communities, to provide some demonstrations of successful intervention and social engineering. But even in many of the chosen there seems to be higher unemployment, less income, higher costs for goods from licenced stores, more surveillance, less choice, less freedom, less Indigenous authority and autonomy. There is the distinct possibility that the project of improvement is actually creating more poverty owing to the suppression of Indigenous forms of production. There is a dual discourse evident even at these ‘priority’ places, talk by managers and leaders of growth and development and simultaneously withdrawal and resistance by the subjects of all this improvement, deploying what James Scott refers to as ‘the weapons of the weak’.
Frank Brennan has alerted us in his lecture to the measures in Intervention Mark 2, relabelled ‘Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory’ as if a change of name will signify a change of intent. Most concerning is the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance (though Welfare Reform) Measure or SEAM that conveniently leaves out the bracketed ‘through welfare reform’ from the acronym. This measure could see the parents of truants lose their welfare income and so become truly destitute.
I am deeply concerned about SEAM for a number of reasons.
First, there is no evidence that the children of welfare recipients are more likely to be truants than the children of those in employment.
Second there is no evidence from SEAM trials that the measure actually improves attendance.
Third, taking welfare off some will not just impoverish them but will also punish their relatives (employed and unemployed) who will bear the burden.
Fourth, the NT government has recently introduced new laws under its Every Child Every Day policy to fine the parents of any truant. Not only can parents of kids who do not attend school regularly lose their welfare payments, but they can also be fined. This raises important questions about the ongoing contestation about governance authority between the Commonwealth and NT governments and inefficiencies associated with duplication.
Finally, all the focus on the role of parents to enforce school attendance takes too much attention away from the roles of schools and teachers: to attract students with quality, locally relevant, engrossing, maybe bi-lingual, education that would make staying away from school an unattractive option.
Over the last month, the Australian government has released eight reports on the Intervention’s progress and on community consultation on its future. I now realise, listening to Frank Brenan, what this might be all about.
In 2007 the Howard government passed racist Income Management laws that required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. The Rudd opposition and then government that had acquiesced to these laws passage copped considerable national and international opprobrium; and so in 2010 it amended the law to include non Indigenous Australians in its income management regime, thus making it non racist, at least in a technical legal sense.
This time around, in 2011, the Gillard government is seeking to consult to show that it is Aboriginal people who truly desire the draconian measures—what might be termed borrowing from Elizabeth Povinelli’s notion of the ‘cunning of recognition’, ‘the cunning of consultation—so that these new measures can be presented to the world as beneficial special measures under the Racial Discrimination Act consented to by the Aboriginal people impacted. In my view not only is this strategy devious and unconscionable, but it will fail.
This is partly because there is already a counter-interpretation and counter-narrative of what happened at these consultations and I commend this alternative reading to you all, it is called Cuts to Welfare Payments for School Non-Attendance: Requested or Imposed? published by Concerned Australians. Their analysis from a diverse set of 10 community meetings indicates that ‘there was not a single request for welfare cuts or fines to those parents with children who were not attending school’. Concern about education was given a high priority but what was sought was the re-introduction of bilingual learning, access to full-time education in homelands, support for Aboriginal teachers, acknowledging culture in the curriculum and the need to distribute funds more equitably.
There are of course other ways of thinking and talking about Indigenous education and development, but these alternatives such as the reporting from Concerned Australians and others at the coalface are closed off, suppressed and silenced. They mainly come from so called Aboriginal ‘activists’, NGOs, civil society and parts of the academy that are not subject to state capture.
So to conclude let me make a few suggestions.
First, we need to give Indigenous people voice; state policies have at once extinguished the institutional means to hear Indigenous aspirations in all their diversity except through state controlled ‘consultations’. Australia needs to learn from global structural adjustment errors not to replicate them: development approaches need to be bottom-up and participatory. There is much rhetoric about bridge building and partnership but almost all community-based political organisations that have operated effectively as mouth pieces in the past, be they community councils or homeland resource agencies or ATSIC have, or are, being demolished.
Second, we need to debunk the Indigenous socio-economic equality myth; this is not a logical development framework for remote and very remote Australia. And we need to debunk the myth that under-development is mainly the product of new institutions, like individual access to welfare, and of old institutions, like too much custom and tradition. There is a state reluctance to accept that tradition is not amenable to hegemonic externally imposed change, that many have learnt ‘the art of not being governed’ very effectively to again paraphrase James Scott.
Third, we need to debunk the myth that the state is investing enough when clearly this is not the case. And clearly Indigenous-specific expenditure, much imposed by western laws or in the national rather than discrete Indigenous interest, is being deployed inefficiently and ineffectively.
Fourth, and more practically, there is a need to work for development plurality, to assess what is possible, what is productive, where there is comparative advantage (the theoretical foundation of capitalism) and where the market and custom mesh productively this needs to be enabled by the state, the sort of underwriting not called welfare that others in rural Australia seem to enjoy as Judith Brett has recently reminded us in her Quarterly Essay Fair Share.
Australia just seems to be so bad at canvassing policy alternatives, but monolithic imposed approaches are high risk, at least for the supposed subjects of the state project of improvement.
To conclude, one would think that late capitalist uncertainty might provide some space to consider and debate alternative forms of development, giving remote Indigenous communities a say in shaping their futures. Instead they are merely consulted to ensure that policies are not interpreted as selectively targeting the Indigenous poor only rather than all the poor. This one would think is especially the case at a time when there is growing national dependence on the Indigenous estate for minerals, biodiversity, carbon farming and potential clean energy production. We need to start treating Indigenous Australians with dignity and equality, rather than as a population ripe for new ‘daddy state’ social experiments. The welfare safety net can be deployed to enhance development opportunity, livelihood and well-being—there are just too many risks for us as a nation in ‘punishing the poor’ and the different to contemplate, let alone implement, such an approach; and too many likely benefits from constructive alternatives.
As the anthropologist James Ferguson noted in the Anti Politics Machine in 1990 complex development problems cannot just be rendered ‘technical’ to be solved with technical solutions. Ferguson sounds very much like Pope John Paul II who as Frank Brennan reminds us stated in 1987 in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis ‘… whatever affects the dignity of individuals and peoples, such as authentic development, cannot be reduced to a “technical” problem.’ Authentic development requires authentic not imposed solutions; at the very least we as a nation owe Indigenous Australians that.