Mutual obligations and welfare states in transition

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The workshop examined the historical bases, current debates and emerging issues surrounding the concepts of ‘mutual obligation’, ‘dependence’ and ‘community’ as embedded in welfare discourse and practice in Australia and other western liberal democracies.

‘Mutual obligation’ and other key ideas of the contemporary ‘welfare reform’ discourse came under sustained scrutiny at a workshop sponsored by the Academy and conducted at the University of Sydney earlier this year. Additional support was provided by the Pro Vice Chancellor (Research) of the University of Sydney, Professor David Siddle, the Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences and the Centre for International and Public Affairs (Discipline of Government and International Relations).

The workshop examined the historical bases, current debates and emerging issues surrounding the concepts of ‘mutual obligation’, ‘dependence’ and ‘community’ as embedded in welfare discourse and practice in Australia and other western liberal democracies. A range of disciplinary perspectives in the social sciences was brought to bear on the issues, because of the multifaceted connotations and implications of the concepts and their various modes of implementation. These disciplines included philosophy, sociology, social and public policy, economics, law, social psychology, and history.

Several papers at the workshop analysed scholarly, political and popular understandings of ‘mutual obligation’, and the ways in which the implementation of the concept affects relationships between individuals, communities, labour markets and state welfare systems. Others explored debates about the continuum of dependence, interdependence, and independence, as articulated in welfare discourse and institutionalised in practice.

Whether the current Australian manifestation of mutual obligation is just and/or fair was examined in a number of papers. Professor Robert Goodin (Australian National University) argued that there are many ways in which the idea of ‘mutual obligation’ can be structured and made concrete in policy terms. He made the point that it is quite possible to value ‘mutuality’ and ‘reciprocity’ but to reject the Howard government’s particular specification of what is involved in ‘mutual obligation’. Goodin argued that requiring uniform and immediate ‘reciprocity’ from the unemployed is not necessary in the name of fairness, nor is it particularly just. He showed that there are many other ways that people can act in a reciprocal manner and that, from an analytical point of view, it does not have to be exactly the same individuals who reciprocate, nor does the act of reciprocity have to occur at the same time as the initial act. It is quite possible to design a system in which people help one another, in ways and at times that take account of their needs and capacities. This might mean, for example, that those who receive welfare benefits ‘pay back’ at some later time (rather than immediately) and that they do it by contributing to the support of others (not through participating in ‘makework’ schemes). Demanding repayment from people who are in a vulnerable situation, precisely at the time they are most vulnerable, is neither the only, nor the most morally desirable mechanism. Another weakness in the model of ‘mutuality’ present in harsh workfare programs is the claim that the failure of one party (say, an unemployed person) to fulfil his or her ‘duty’ excuses another party (say, the government) from fulfilling theirs. Goodin argued that the obligations of each party are independent of one another. He emphasised that the government’s ‘tit for tat’ approach is particularly problematic when the basic needs of one party are at stake.

Dr Jeremy Moss (University of Melbourne) examined the implicit appeal to ‘fairness’ in the mutual obligation debate and argued that receipt of unemployment benefits cannot be said, on fairness grounds, to generate obligations on the part of the unemployed. Dr Duncan Ivison (University of Sydney) also examined the competing normative and political claims about the personal responsibility of the unemployed and, in particular, what such people ‘owe’ the rest of society. Ivison’s paper mapped some of the theoretical connections between liberal theories of justice and notions of responsibility and addressed recent comments made by conservative critics of political liberalism’s supposed problem with taking personal responsibility seriously.

Professor Anna Yeatman (Macquarie University) argued that a positive aspect of the current welfare reform debate in the Anglo democracies is that it encourages examination of the principles upon which our welfare systems are based. She elaborated a concept of individualised citizenship which she believed should be embedded in enabling and capacity-building welfare practices. She was also particularly interested in the ways in which ideas and practices of citizenship might be extended to children.

Working across traditional disciplinary boundaries and refashioning the debates accordingly, Dr Valerie Braithwaite (ANU), Professor Moira Gatens (University of Sydney) and Dr Deborah Mitchell (ANU) attempted to bring some clarity to the redesign of the Australian welfare system. Their paper gave prominence to the problem of contemporary risk as the pertinent question that lies behind the need for welfare reform. They offered a critical contrast between Mead’s approach to welfare reform and an approach more compatible with Marshallian social values. Finally, they suggested practical ways of understanding mutual obligation that do not sacrifice the moral defensibility of welfare reform initiatives to purely pragmatic factors.

The side of the mutual obligation coin much less promulgated in official policy – the obligations of government – was examined by Associate Professor Alison McClelland (La Trobe University). She considered the way in which ‘mutual obligation’ has operated under the Howard government, and how it might operate if the proposals put forward in the Report of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform (McClure Report) were to be implemented. McClelland identified three ‘welfare responsibilities of government’: protecting the individual, the development of self-reliance and capacity and the promotion of social cohesion. She argued that current applications of mutual obligation may actually reduce the likelihood of governments meeting their welfare responsibilities. The harsh administration of the breaching provisions associated with welfare recipiency is one indication of this. McClelland also raised the possibility that the ‘capacity building’ role of governments – the extent to which they assist individuals, families and communities to function effectively in a changing environment – could also be reduced by current arrangements. This could happen if people’s choices are constrained rather than enlarged by welfare practices. Further, the focus upon individual behaviour and motivation – rather than the capacity of institutions and organisations – is short-sighted. Finally, McClelland pointed out that language surrounding mutual obligation tends to reinforce social division and drive a wedge between that who receive payments and those who fund them (although in reality this dividing line is not nearly so clear).

A similar issue was addressed by Professor Terry Carney (University of Sydney) and Dr Gaby Ramia (Monash University) in the context of the administration of employment services under the Job Network. In a paper outlining the findings of an extensive empirical study, they detailed the complexity of the ways in which labour market services are delivered to disadvantaged job seekers. Their findings gave voice to the experiences and frustrations of unemployed people attempting to negotiate the intricacies of Job Network service providers. Dr Tony Eardley (Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW) explored the effects of competition in the quasi-market of non-profit employment services operating within the Job Network.

Another key issue explored was the political construction of claims about dependency underpinning current welfare debate and practice. Papers by Julia Perry (Department of Family and Community Services) and Dr Paul Henman (Macquarie University) revealed the complexity of social, economic and labour market trends in recent decades resulting in various categories of the population needing to rely in greater proportions on income support for certain periods of their life-course, and also charted changes to the social security system which impact on income support eligibility. Their findings cast doubt on claims of uncontrolled and illegitimate public dependency – one of the leitmotifs of current welfare reform discourse.

Professor Jane Millar (University of Bath) took a comparative international view and looked at sole parent family policies and the ways in which different OECD welfare regimes provide income support and transfer payments for sole parent families and children, and/or provide support for the parent’s workforce participation. Dr Richard Curtain (an independent consultant) also introduced a comparative perspective in his analysis of the structure and practice of mutual obligation in relation to unemployed young people in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Focusing on a later stage of the life course, Professor Sheila Shaver and Merrin Thompson (Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW) explored the ways in which policy for the transition from employment to retirement figures in a changing discursive landscape of social policy citizenship. Examining the views of a group of Australians in mid-life, it compared the meanings of entitlement, rightfulness, merit and deserts which they attach to the age pension and occupational superannuation; the requirements, duties, and obligations they think are attached to such benefits, and how they believe these benefits and their financing should be shared among Australian citizens and workers.

Professor Bettina Cass and Associate Professor Deborah Brennan examined the uses of the concept of ‘community’ in the contemporary Australian welfare debate. The notion of ‘community’ looms large in contemporary Australian welfare debates. It is invoked in Commonwealth government strategies such as ‘Strengthening Families and Communities’ and the ‘Community-Business’ Initiative and has a central role in the interim and final reports of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform (McClure Report) and the government’s response to the Report. Yet, unlike other concepts such as ‘mutual obligation’ and ‘participation support,’ its meanings are rarely interrogated. This paper identified seven uses of ‘community’ in contemporary welfare debates. It argued that, while the term at one level draws on notions of consensus and identity of interest, the political and policy usages of this term are frequently divisive, antithetical to the functioning of autonomous, civil institutions, and mask a trend to greater individualised contractualism in welfare policy and administration.

Related issues were analysed by Professor Tim Rowse (ANU) in his study of the interactions of welfare arrangements and their implementation in Aboriginal communities. He asked whether contractual and individualised state-based welfare provisions on the one hand and Indigenous community-based ideas and practices of reciprocity on the other are irreconcilable. He argued that new and innovative community devised and controlled support systems including employment generation are the necessary focus of effective reform in Aboriginal communities.

Dr Paul Smyth (University of Queensland) outlined an historical analysis of the various ways in which Catholic social thought in Australia through the 20th century had conceived of the role of church-based communities not only in the delivery of welfare but also in the conceptualisation of notions of social justice.

Workshop deliberations benefited from the contributions of observers Professor Di Austin-Broos (University of Sydney), Elizabeth Reid (former UN Resident Co-ordinator, Papua New Guinea) and Dr Dan Finn (visiting academic from the UK) who brought international comparisons to bear on the debate.

Participants at this workshop believe strongly that informed debate by social scientists and practitioners in government, community organisations and in industry is essential if mutual obligation and associated ideas and policy practices are to be more deeply scrutinised, more clearly understood, and their differential social impacts fully explored. Discussions are underway with regard to the publication of the workshop papers.

Bettina Cass, FASSA, is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Sydney.

Deborah Brennan is Associate Professor in Government and International Relations, School of Economics and Political Science, University of Sydney.

Moira Gatens FASSA, is Professor of Philosophy, University of Sydney.

A copy of this report appeared in Dialogue Vol. 20, No. 3, 2001.

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