Social Policy Whisperer: A Scott Morrison Fantasy

I dreamt I had a phone call from Scott Morrison now Minister for Social Services. He explained that his newly repentant government had realised it was out of step with the Australian people on social policy matters. He wanted to establish better communication with the people and, hearing that I had studied Australian social policy for so many years, wondered if we might chat about the ‘Australian Way’.


Next thing we were having a coffee and I am setting out to explain about the ‘Fair Go’. It, I said, holds the secret for unravelling your government’s problem. Properly understood and acted upon it can guarantee you a place of honour in our national history rather than in its dustbin.   Tell me more, he said.

Well first, I worry about the media image being created of a Morrison campaign to ‘Stop the Bludgers’ and ‘Turn Back the Cheats’. This really would be fatal. From the outset of colonial history Australia has been distinguished by its rejection of institutions and attitudes associated with the Poor Law of 1834. This was synonymous with punitive welfare, blaming and attacking the underdog. It was completely out of sync with the emerging Australian ethos. It is true that over the last decade or so the nation has sadly edged towards a poor law type culture for the first time. Nevertheless, I believe the people have been scandalised at the way Labor ran down the value of Newstart and it is also reflected in the way your own ‘tough Budget’ measures for the unemployed earned serious ridicule. It is time to close this unsavoury chapter, Scott. Rather you should aspire to be the one who returned the nation to that spirit of generosity and justice which marked the liberal spirit in colonial times. Uphold the right to a decent income for the unemployed and sole parents. But you absolutely cannot stop there. To be a real champion of the underdog you will have to get tough with the real villain: the absence of opportunity.

After all, that’s what your liberal ancestors were all about: providing opportunity for all when markets didn’t. When overseas visitors came in the early twentieth century they didn’t see much ‘welfare’ but they were struck by what Albert Metin saw as the ‘right to work’. That too was a period of recovery from a global financial crisis but Australian governments, Metin thought, were remarkable in international terms for the way they shouldered the responsibility for finding people work. They set up labour bureau, provided transport to employment opportunities, employed people on public works, gave individuals blocks of land to farm, set up whole communities on the land and so on. Think again of the Menzies era. Markets failed but government acted: unemployment at 1 or 2 % for three decades. Nobody demeaned themselves and their society by programmatic policing and punishing the unemployed. There weren’t any!

I know Scott you are thinking ‘But jobs aren’t my portfolio’. But this is where you really need to get tough. You will simply have to stop Joe and those central economic agencies fobbing their failures off onto you. If there are ‘too many people on welfare’ make sure the right people wear the responsibility.

The rest of our conversation related to those other Social Services for which Scott is not responsible, education and health but which are closely tied to his responsibilities for ‘communities’. I linked the public angst over proposals promoting further and further privatisation and marketisation of social services as evidence of concern at the weakening of the Fair Go. Scott, I said, needed to tap into this new yearning for greater security of opportunity for all and ensure that the health and education ministries act to strengthen and not undermine his efforts to develop flourishing communities.

As our meeting concluded, I acknowledged that this would be a big shift from his party’s recent history but emphasised the overwhelmingly negative popular reaction to its current social policy measures. What if the policy tide is turning and there is a real appetite for fairness? Think Europe. Think the US. Greed is good is over. Ordinary people are seeking a stronger sense of social security. Keep an eye on Labor; they are already switching over to Inclusive Growth. I was just about to tell him to make sure Joe shut up about ending the age of entitlement, when I woke up.

By Paul Smyth