An Examination of the Australian Welfare State

Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Tom Griffiths, Queensland University

My name is Tom Griffiths, and I am a fourth-year Bachelor of Social Work (Honours) student from the Queensland University of Technology located in Brisbane, Australia. This blog post is a brief adaptation of my current honours research. My honours research focuses on examining the Australian welfare state, particularly in regard to its presentation in the dominant discourse, and is supervised by Professor Christine Morley. If you would like further information on my research, or anything discussed in this blog, please email me:

I write this blog during a turbulent time for the Australian welfare state. On 30th March 2020, in response to COVID-19, the current conservative Australian government rolled out a landmark temporary increase to a selection of social security payments known as the Coronavirus Supplement. It remains the largest increase to social security payments in Australian welfare history (Kelly, 2020). The $550 temporary fortnightly financial supplement was initially announced to span for a 6-month period, ending on 27th September 2020.

Immediately, the payment increase had overwhelmingly positive results for welfare recipients. The nation’s most financially disadvantaged were able to pay off debts and afford boons to their wellbeing such as new glasses or healthier food (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2020a, 14:45; Australian Council of Social Service, 2020). Even if for a limited time, recipients who were unaccustomed to this kind of support were able to live a life with drastically lessened financial stress.

As the September deadline approached, there was no swift end to COVID-19 in sight. This pressured the government to extend the Coronavirus Supplement. Could this be the moment that progressives (and people just wanting to see and experience less poverty) in the nation had been yearning for? Was Australia about to finally increase social security payments to be above the relative poverty line? Unfortunately, decades of austerity measures meant that the roots of neoliberalism were embedded too deep in the Australian welfare state for this hope to be achieved (Marston et al., 2014). It was here that the systematic dismantling of the Coronavirus Supplement began.

The government boldly announced an “opportunity to earn $300” with this reduction to the Coronavirus Supplement (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2020b, 2:35). On 25th September 2020, the Coronavirus Supplement was more than halved from $550 per fortnight down to $250 per fortnight, set to end entirely on 31st December 2020. As Christmastime loomed and Australia remained in a recession, the government was once again pressured to extend the Coronavirus Supplement. And so, they did – but not without the cold embrace of austerity measures attached to the extension.

The Coronavirus Supplement was extended for a final time from 1st January 2021 until 31st March 2021 at a further reduced rate of $150 per fortnight. This leaves Australian welfare recipients back at square one, below the relative poverty line, just one year after a temporary payment increase that let them live without the fear of skipping meals or missing rent (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2020a, 15:20; Australian Council of Social Service, 2020).

The rush to raise the rate of social security payments when COVID-19 caused widespread unemployment for more than 600,000 Australians (Australian Government, 2020; Murphy, 2020) exposed the inadequate nature of the Australian welfare state. This inadequacy was by design (Marston et al., 2014; Standing, 2014). The Australian welfare state is rife with austerity measures, providing inadequate payments in order to push financially disadvantaged people into unsafe and exploitative work.

The Australian government is giving its poorest citizens no option but to work a low-paying job with very little employee benefits or job security. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, this is so commonplace that Guy Standing (2014) refers to a new social class for individuals experiencing this type of exploitation: the ‘Precariat’, a portmanteau of ‘precarious’ and ‘Proletariat’.

As social workers, we must question this injustice. Why would anyone, let alone the leaders of the country, want this outcome for its poorest citizens? The answer is that it serves their interests. The neoliberal notion of ‘more for less’, with which the Australian government is intertwined (Klein, 2016; Marston et al., 2014), combined with capitalist exploitation of workers has resulted in the leaders of our nation to push their citizens off of welfare at all costs, forcing them to work under deprived conditions that keep the economy afloat. The more limited our financial safety net is, the more power that employers are able to hold over their employees.

One might consider that this behaviour would make voters unhappy and, therefore, expel the conservative government from leadership. However, the voters are not shown this behaviour. They are studiously presented with the idea that welfare recipients are a problem and, therefore, do not deserve equal treatment, financial autonomy, or rights at work. This ideology is so powerful that even welfare recipients may buy into it, and continue to vote against their own best interests. The people who present these ideas are the proponents of the dominant neoliberal discourses (Amundson & Zajicek, 2018), which have permeated the Australian welfare state (Klein, 2016).

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, key proponent of neoliberalism, has managed to convince voters – that is, a huge portion of the Australian public – that the Coronavirus Supplement was the reason for the high levels of unemployment that the country was (and at the time of writing, still is) experiencing. On national radio, Morrison (2020, para. 16) announced that he had received anecdotal feedback from employers who were “finding it hard to get people to come and take the shifts because they’re on these higher levels of payment.” He wanted the voters to believe that the unemployed were staying on social security payments and refusing work because they were lazily enjoying the luxuries of unemployment that was paid for by the taxpayer. What we see here is a meticulously crafted placation of voters’ perspectives on welfare austerity measures.

Another example of this manipulation of voters can be observed when we examine the presentation of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) in the dominant discourse. The CDC is a type of income management program currently being rolled out across the country at numerous low-socioeconomic sites. When welfare recipients are on the CDC, 80% of their social security payment is placed onto the titular card which can only be used at businesses that use EFTPOS that agree to not sell alcohol or gambling products to cardholders (Department of Social Services, 2020).

Numerous reports have been conducted on the CDC, all but one producing scathing results (Australian Council of Social Service, 2018; Australian National Audit Office, 2018; Hunt, 2020; Mendes et al., 2014). Despite this, the Australian government adamantly supported the card. Social Services Minister Anne Ruston (2020) claimed that the card reduces “the amount of taxpayer-funded social security which is available to be spent on alcohol and gambling products.” Technically, the card does do this. However, there is evidence to suggest that areas in which the CDC is active do not even have issues with alcohol or gambling (Marston et al., 2020).

There are some clear parallels between how the pull-back of the Coronavirus Supplement and the rollout of the CDC have been presented in the dominant discourse. I am unable to cover all of the common threads in this blog; however, they are explored with more depth in my honours research. The most salient of the connecting themes between the presentation of the two welfare programs is that the government positions welfare recipients as slighting the working-class by receiving social security payments.

The idea that taxpayer money is being squandered through welfare is echoed through the chambers of Parliament house and the media. We hear conservative government leaders like Scott Morrison and Anne Ruston spout off this divisive discourse aimed to pit the working class against the unemployed. The sad reality is that this works. It prevents the working class and the unemployed from searching upwards in the socioeconomic hierarchy for the culprit behind the structural inequality that they face (Klein, 2016).

Instead, the devious tactics of hegemonic discourse employed by the conservative Australian government ensure that the system enmeshed in neoliberalism is never to blame for their hardships (Garrett, 2020; Klein, 2016). Maintaining this structural imbalance keeps their pockets full, so convincing voters that they benefit from welfare austerity is crucial. That is why the Australian government presents welfare recipients as adversarial to the working class in the dominant discourse.

As social workers, it is crucial that we question the often unquestioned: the hegemonic discourse that rules our world, often to the detriment of social justice (Garrett, 2020). By questioning these dominant discourses and the proponents that proliferate them, we may begin to unravel the flawed ideologies that underpin them. Only then can we begin to pave the way for the disadvantaged to rise against structural inequality.

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