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The risk society: speech to the University of Queensland School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Queensland.

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The Risk Society

Wayne Swan MP Manager of Opposition Business and Shadow Minister for Family and Community Services

Speech to the University of Queensland School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Queensland

3pm Friday 20 September 2002 (Embargoed until delivery)


I thank the School for the kind invitation to speak today.

The subject of this seminar today - ‘the future of social policy’ - is an ambitious one.

And I am no futurologist.

So today I want to confine my comments to some observations about where we are now in terms of social policy, the challenges we face as a nation and my thoughts on the direction in which we need to go.

I want to start by making a comment about the term social policy.

You all know better than me that social policy means different things to different people at different times.

For instance, immediately following the Second World War social policy described almost our total aspirations as a nation.

During this period economic thought and economic policy was a means to an end -a prosperous and fair society.

Of course in the last twenty-five years economists and policy makers have lost their commitment to serve social policy.

To put it another way, the rise of ‘economics for its own sake’ has seen our societal goals shift from improving the welfare of the people to the maintenance of the market.

Social policy under the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments was an important but largely separate exercise to the task of managing the market.


Under the current Government social policy has been completely relegated to the margins.

Our current Government views social policy as welfare policy - distributed out of benevolence by John Howard.

When social policy was pre-eminent it served as our goal - a good society.

When it stood alongside but separate from economic reform it was seen as ballast against the inherent unfairness of the market.

Now social policy under John Howard is charity for the desperately dispossessed.

And those who need it are increasingly demonised by Howard Government Ministers as part of a political strategy aimed at the complete withdrawal of services.

Our current Government’s only reason for being is to meet the demands of the market.

You only need to look at the views of the Cabinet.

Nick Minchin believes the poor are the responsibility of the States.

Amanda Vanstone believes people with disabilities should have their pensions cut because they are malingerers with ‘bad backs.’

In a recent speech Tony Abbott summed up this approach saying that our malaise is the decline of private rather than public conscience.

In other words, societal problems are individual and behavioural and are not the concern of the National Government.

And this is a problem.

Why? Because at a time of so much change and upheaval, it is imperative that we have an overriding vision, not just for a prosperous society but a fair one as well.

And it is the fairness that is now rapidly receding.


It is my view that Australia under Howard is becoming a ‘risk society.’

By this I mean individuals and families are increasingly bearing the risks of fast moving changes in employment and working conditions. They are increasingly bearing the cost of care and education of their children, the care of their ageing parents, and their own health.

They are increasingly being left to struggle along on their own.


In a recent speech to the Sydney Institute I made reference to a book by Phillip Bobbit who makes the point that many nation states have abrogated their traditional responsibilities to safeguard the welfare of the people.

He believes that the demise of communism has accelerated the transformation of nation states into market states in which governments have less and less to offer.

Increasing globalisation of markets has made it easier for conservative governments like our own to argue the case for dismantling social infrastructure.

But the rub is that these increasingly impotent regimes are still subject to the normal democratic processes and so you see them seeking to justify their existence at election time with symbolic gestures and manipulating cultural divides rather than addressing economic one’s.

This was crystal clear in the way in which the Howard Government manipulated asylum seekers during the last election. They sent the message to the people who were hurting; your insecurity is caused by something other than our unwillingness to stand by you.

The Government successfully appealed to people’s fears because they had no intention of providing hope or a concrete plan for a better life and a more harmonious society.


Nowhere is this more evident than in our workplaces or in our quest to improve our career prospects.

There has been an explosion in insecure employment during the last two decades.

A quarter our workforce is now casual and the Government is facilitating employers’ use of increasing numbers of casual employees.

The Howard Government’s efforts have seen thousands of secure jobs transformed into insecure ones.

This trend is continuing apace.

A report released by the Howard Government this week - Agreement making in Australia under the Workplace Relations Act 2000-01 reveals the proportion of enterprise agreements, which provide for the use of casual labour has rocketed from 43% to 71% in the past two years.

We have an unemployment and an under-employment problem that the market cannot alleviate:

! When the unemployed, the underemployed, the hidden unemployed and disability pensioners are added together, there are over 1.75 million job-poor Australians;


! Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that over the last three years, a net 600 middle-income jobs have been created, compared with 462,000 low-pay jobs. Nine out of every ten jobs created in the last three years paid less than the average weekly wage.

And if we take no action, it will become an intergenerational one because:

! Three-quarters of the individuals who were unemployed in July 2001 did not have an educational qualification beyond Year 12.

! 800,000 children are growing up in jobless families.

While the risk society has left many Australians unemployed or underemployed and financially insecure, others are facing work intensification - overwork.

So we have a situation where work is polarising.

And as my colleague Jenny Macklin has pointed out, this polarisation also has a geographic dimension.


The insecurity of work has had a profound affect on our most important social grouping - families.

Families, better than any other social grouping in our community illustrate the problems we face.

I have talked often about a grouping American Sociologist Theda Skocpol calls ‘the missing middle.’

The missing middle are families who are struggling along on modest incomes or incomes made modest as a result of their childrearing responsibilities.

Many are also battling to balance the time they spend at work and the time they spend caring for their for kids.

They are under tremendous pressure

Mahatma Ghandi once observed that there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Under the Howard Government the pace of life no longer allows families time for their children. Children are lead weights in the saddlebags of the modern worker.

In terms of ‘risk’ our struggling middle class are in the most dangerous place you can be in a globalised economy - one step, one job loss from family catastrophe, or in the risk society, one smart decision from the slipstream to the top.

The changes in the nature of work and the pressures on families in terms of finances and time are the reason it is so important to have a government committed to taking action.


The Howard Government’s refusal to elevate their aspirations ahead of the one’s the Government has for the economy means they are hit coming and going.

In Australia where our Government has no intention of making a long-term investment for a fair and prosperous society, more people are put at risk and you inevitably have more victims.


An issue that demonstrates the poverty of our current Government’s approach compared with previous one’s is family payments.

During the Hawke-Keating years, growing economic risk was accompanied by a dramatic increase in family payments.

It is important to note that while these payments delivered more to those families who had less - they differed from traditional income support payments in that there was a substantial and deliberate attempt to deliver support to families in recognition of the social and financial costs of bringing up children.

Research by NATSEM has since shown that Australia was more successful in combating growing inequality because of these transfers.

So there has been a huge increase in the proportion of Australians receiving some form of direct transfer payment from Government.

Whereas in 1965, less than 4% of the population received income support, now it is around 21% - many who are not ‘unemployed.’

In the case of families, most of the can be accounted for by boosted family payments.

Put simply, as work income becomes less stable - riskier - family payments become more important.

That is why the current debate about family payments is so crucial.

These payments that the Prime Minister regards as handouts are an increasingly vital component of family income.

If governments are unwilling to address the larger question of employment for working age Australians then at the very least they need to pay attention to ensure those who are struggling get their family payments each fortnight.

Events of the last week demonstrate that the Howard Government cannot even be relied upon to do this.

Two years ago they established a new system of payments for families that offered them a choice of taking the money upfront or at the end of the year through the tax system.

Families voted with their feet.


97% took their payments up front.

But the system asks these families - nearly 1.8 million of them - to accurately estimate their income a year in advance.


Because in using actual taxable income to pay family payments the Government has made a neat saving to the Budget.

They say it’s fair and logical.

But for families it is a kick in the guts.

Because in the risk society they can’t accurately estimate their income a year ahead anymore.

The design the Howard Government system has as its foremost aim, the end of year clawback of payments - a clawback that saw one million families paid wrongly, leaving 650,000 with average debts of $850 (over half a billion dollars in total).

You can’t get a much clearer example of the how, when economic ends alone drive policy, there is detriment to the recipients.

Even the Government’s changes to the payment rules this week still force families who are trying to avoid getting into debt to forgo up to $160 per child each fortnight - all because the government can’t get the system right.

But the significance of this is lost on many.

Some have characterised the crisis in the family payments system as simply ‘an administrative problem’ involving people who have been overpaid.

Putting it down to ‘an administrative problem’ is one way of brushing aside the half a million families and pinning the problems on public servants.

That many consider the family payment problems of secondary interest, unhappily demonstrates how successful John Howard’s sly attack on social services has been in propagating the notion that payments are a generosity - a kind of icing on the cake.

But if the foundation of fairness in a society is doing better in the care of children, why do people rush to ignore the foundation of that support: family benefits.

Today The Australian newspaper reported the Government’s planned work and family policy package was being delayed until next year.

It’s no wonder.

The truth is the Howard Government isn’t committed to family friendly policies.


The way the Government’s flawed family payment system works, and its refusal to fix it, proves how out of touch it is with average families.

Family budgets don't figure in the thinking of this Government.

If the Coalition had a policy like this one that was messing with the finances of the big end of town it would fix it in a flash.

It doesn't care about the problems faced around the kitchen table only those of the boardroom table.

They won’t step into the industrial relations arena to broker a better balance between work and family life.

They won’t commit to paid maternity leave because a significant number of those in Cabinet are committed to the risk society.

Some, like Margaret Thatcher, won’t even acknowledge the notion that we live in a society.

They are not interested in work and family policy or any such thing. They are committed to one thing and one thing alone - letting the market rip.


The Howard Government will never acknowledge that investment in families and communities is essential for our future as a cohesive society.

To the Howard Government the welfare of families, of all Australians is increasingly contingent on handouts from above.

Australian social policy is at a low ebb, narrowly conceived.

Education, health, transfer payments and services are all seen as a drain on the economy that need to be pared back.

At a political level this is done by stigmatising everyone from the missing middle downwards as leaching on the system.

We need to turn this around.

Long-term investment in services and communities is the soundest investment you can make.

We need to start planning and investing not just for a better future but to safeguard our future.

If we do not plan to intervene earlier to arrest disadvantage in communities and ensure education provides a platform to work - whole neighbourhoods will experience intergenerational poverty.


The evidence shows that an investment early on in programs and assistance to communities pays dividends down the track in the form of lower unemployment, crime and dislocation.

The OECD has identified a clear economic payoff for social investment pointing to long-term increases in per capita output of up to seven percent.

We need to get our system of transfer payments right but more importantly give people hope for the future.

Obviously universal health and education are important in this regard but so too are programs like Early Assistance - universal programs delivered first into communities with the least infrastructure - which also bring jobs and help to establish bonds between people.


The work and family debate is the most urgent one we face.

It is important for those of us who would like to see social policy driving all our decision-making.

Work and family is important because it is a mainstream debate that is driven by the needs of families who are both economic actors and people who are bringing up the workers of tomorrow.

The Government is having real difficulties with this debate because it has a welfarist view.

But for Labor, work and family is heartland stuff.

It is about why Government’s should be interested in what goes on in the workplace.

It is about why Governments should roll up their sleeves and give parents and children a hand.

Most of all it is about why social policy - the good of our society - is the end goal rather than the by-product of everything Government’s do or don’t do.

To the Howard government we have become a nation of taxpayers and tax collectors.

Our nation is the sum of its individuals. And where there is hurt without compassion, where there is wealth without sharing and where there is self-interest without social conscience, then every family every individual - no matter their comfort level -suffers.

In a risk society you accept that some will lose out, in a good society you aim higher for your people.