Hunt for the radical centre: confronting welfare dependency

Speech extract

2016 October, 21

My subject is the legacy of the great American public intellectual and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the author of one of the most famous briefings in the history of public policy. As an aide in president Lyndon Johnson’s labour department, Moynihan’s 1965 paper The Negro Family: The Case for National Action argued that the US government was underestimating the damage done to black families by “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” and the “racist virus in the American blood stream” that would continue to plague blacks in the future. He wrote:


“That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary — a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have … But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.


“The Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in the deepest trouble … While many young Negroes are moving ahead to unprecedented levels of achievement, many more are falling further and further behind.”


Fifty years later, we live in the wake of Moynihan’s electrifying thesis on African-American prospects in the wake of civil rights. The discourse reverberated here in Australia.


Moynihan’s was an attempt to identify the radical centre in thinking about the legacy of slavery and racism and its effects on African-Americans, and what it would mean for the hopes and dreams they held after the catharsis of civil rights. These 50 years saw a tumultuous dialectic play out: between those captured by Moynihan’s striking call to arms and those alarmed by its analysis. This discourse began immediately with a vehement campaign by liberal social reformers and leftist activists to oppose the adoption of Moynihan’s thinking by the US federal government.


The first riposte to The Negro Family came from Harvard academic William Ryan, taking aim at Moynihan’s identification of the black family as the ground zero of black poverty and social crisis, later published in book form in 1971, Blaming the Victim. I re-read Moynihan and Ryan in preparation for this oration, as well as a bracing retrospective by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me. Coates is the leading black intellectual of the Black Lives Matter movement and his book is a searing analysis of the ongoing American dilemma.


Last year on its 50th anniversary, The Atlantic republished The Negro Family and Coates’s article “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. It is astounding to reflect that in the entire leftist argument that any attempt to attribute responsibility or personal agency to individuals in respect of social problems has its genesis in Ryan’s accusation that one may be “blaming the victim”. It became the most powerful nostrum of leftist objection to social analyses on personal behavioural terms and any policy responses predicated on such analyses. In my reading of Ryan, however, I cannot gainsay much of its insight and perception. Unlike the leftist discourse that he spawned in subsequent decades, Ryan’s original critique cuts to the quick and warrants reflection.


I won’t rehearse the terms of that original disputation, except to say Ryan objected to the so-called “tangled pathology” within African-American families as a misattribution of their predicament. While Moynihan’s denunciation of the ongoing horrific effects of racism against black Americans was unequivocal, Ryan cogently argues slavery was not the immediate cause of the problems manifesting in black families: poverty was their cause. Similar problems were manifesting with other peoples around the world in like circumstances.


I find Ryan’s critique sobering in long retrospect because he reminds us of the danger of conveniently pathologising specific aspects of black life, particularly family life in the ghettos, without turning our eyes to the economic and structural circumstances in which these families live and the deprivations they not only suffered in the distant past but continued to endure. Social policy responses in the modern era have been confined to addressing segments of egregious disparity without looking at the broader circumstances that gave rise to those problems and which, more importantly, drive these problems into the future.


The chief accusation against Moynihan is the Negro family’s causal role in poverty. This is, I think, unfair. The better way to understand Moynihan’s argument is that the Negro family was the victim and became the transmitter of poverty. Once entrenched in poverty with all its effects on black family life, the family then becomes the means by which poverty is transmitted to future generations. 


When I reflect on the history of this discourse over half a century, I wonder how much better it would have been if the insights of these two great intellectuals had somehow been reconciled, each correcting and balancing the other rather than repudiating the other. Instead, they became polar opposites in an unresolved discourse that organised a liberal progressive tribe on the one side, and a conservative tribe on the other.


Charles Murray’s 1984 book Losing Ground, which laid out the modern articulation of welfare reform, is the legatee of Moynihan’s Negro Family.


However, the very alarm harboured by Ryan that the political and intellectual Right would pathologise and blame African-Americans for their own predicament was realised when Murray and Richard Herrnstein subsequently published The Bell Curve, spuriously arguing that black Americans were innately intellectually inferior to whites. The problems of poverty and social inequality had their source in the innate character and genetics of black people, and the old assumptions about black racial inferiority found its new sociological cloak in The Bell Curve.


Attempts to build policy in the radical centre found their apotheosis in president Bill Clinton’s enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, aiming, in Clinton’s invocation of Moynihan’s original words, “to end welfare as we know it”. It sought to reconcile the behavioural dimension of welfare dependency and the structural opportunity of employment. These reforms were supported by the now New York senator Moynihan, to the dismay of the welfare rights lobby. 


There is great debate about the success of the PRWORA reforms, but it is clear this reconciliation was dependent on the availability of work. The deal worked during the Clinton administration when jobs were available but could not be sustained in the economic downturn. You can mandate personal responsibility but not employment opportunity. 


My interest is the radical centre. This is the place where those in search of a better society might best hunt. It is the sweet spot representing the right combination of conservative, social and liberal ideas and insights. Rather than the weak, “lowest common denominator” compromise between left and right, the radical centre is the highest, noblest compromise. It brings together high ideals with hard realism. It is high-minded pragmatism informed by intense dialogue and negotiation.


Clinton, Tony Blair and other social democratic leaders around the world were the chief proponents of radical centre politics, however its invention began in Australia with the Hawke Keating government in 1983. Paul Keating was its greatest exponent. My own view is the difference between Keating as the champion of the radical centre — seeking to produce social good underpinned by economic reform — and John Howard, is that Howard was the great manager of the centre, whereas the exceptional character of Keating’s leadership was to drive the radical centre: to pursue reform and not just management.


The politics of the radical centre have declined in the past decade and a half and we have retreated to that old tepid partisanship, plying for the promiscuous affections of swinging voters. The terms of public political debates are largely between the 15 per cent of the far right against the 15 per cent of the far left, with the middle just sagging. 


As perspicacious as Ryan is in Blaming the Victim, in retrospect his thesis informed a half century’s worth of leftists encouraging the poor to see themselves as victims. This was not his intention but it was his effect. His riposte to Moynihan was a nostrum that became an ideology that became a mindset, and legions of leftist social workers and academics compounded the idea that the victimised were indeed victims and entitled to a sense of victimhood. 


I have long argued against the horrific results of this legacy. Inculcating a sense of victimhood in the victimised is for me to remove power from the victims. In a sense, the Right’s relative heartlessness was preferable: better to object to the Right’s hypocrisy than to succumb to the Left sanctifying victimhood. The frog falling in the fire can at least jump, whereas the frog in the freezer hibernates peacefully to his death. In 1999, I published my thesis Our Right to Take Responsibility. My conviction was in the difference between poverty and passivity. Poverty in the Third World as I had witnessed in Vietnam was of a different character to the passivity in my home community. 


My thesis was based on the idea that we needed to assume responsibility as a power — as a power to take control over our lives and to have the kind of self-determination that successful citizens, communities and peoples need, expect and are entitled to in a liberal and social democratic society. Like Moynihan, however, my thesis aroused objections from the Australian Left, indigenous and non-indigenous. A similar discourse that engulfed the Moynihan report played out in a provincial echo here in Australia. 


I want to go through the main contentions in this discourse that have eluded common ground. First, in relation to social disadvantage and poverty, the issue of explaining the ultimate origin of these problems going back to the colonial past, to the legacy of racism and exclusion, versus more proximate explanations such as indigenous communities leaving the cattle industry and joining the welfare rolls, and the rise of substance abuse epidemics, is the subject of great convulsion. My argument has been that, though historical wrongs have ongoing impacts, many problems now manifest in our communities are of recent origin. They concern the rise of substance abuse epidemics and welfare dependency in recent decades. 


Another debate centres on causation. What drives poverty — is it the structural circumstance of disadvantaged peoples, or is it the behaviour of the peoples themselves that explain the cause of these problems? 


Yet another dimension is the effect of racism. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced and continue to experience appalling racism in Australian society. But in responding to that racism, should we inculcate a sense of victimhood in the victimised, or should we resist racism while ensuring it does not become our burden? We should never inculcate a sense of victimhood, otherwise we let the racists win. 


And finally, the whole question about agency: should we focus on personal agency or structural reform? The Left says structural reform and the Right says personal agency. Like Clinton and Obama, I say both/and. Because at the end of the day, it is personal agency that will drive structural reform. We can’t just sit back and hope structural reform will somehow happen, and absolve us of the necessity of agency. This is the passive leftist dream of social justice. Social justice in truth can be secured only when two by two, clutching our children to our breasts, we climb the stairs of social progress in pursuit of better lives for our families, animated by the engine of our own liberal self-interest, while supported by the social underpinnings of that staircase built by the distribution of opportunity. 


We need strong, healthy, educated children to emerge in distressed communities while working for the structural reforms for the progress of our communities. The stronger our children are, the better they will be able to fight for structural reform. 


In 2015, eight regional communities across indigenous Australia developed and provided the federal government with an agenda for empowered communities, which grapples with the structural dimensions of indigenous empowerment. 


This blueprint sought to answer the call for empowerment made in the 1990 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Twenty-five years after the royal commission the number of indigenous people in prison doubled. Australia’s indigenous imprisonment rate is the highest in the world: 27 per cent of our prisoners come from 3 per cent of the population. No statistic speaks more profoundly to the structural nature of our predicament than this one. If there is not a structural, indeed, constitutional basis for 3 per cent of any society filling 27 per cent of its jails, then we would have to subscribe to a theory of innate criminality on the part of those peoples. The most notorious figures concerning the indigenous plight in this country make plain this is not a problem of criminology or socio-economic development — this is a problem of disempowerment derived from that people’s status in the nation. 


We proposed a comprehensive policy program for consideration by the federal, state and territory governments. Essentially, the challenge of creating a level playing field between the elephant of government and the mouse of indigenous Australia is to find the right fulcrum between the two, to create a relationship of negotiation and mutual responsibility and respect, rather than a top-down relationship of mendicancy and control. 


The other structural agenda that is imperative, in my view, is the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. This, too, is about empowerment and responsibility. Australia’s first nations must be empowered with a voice in relation to the laws and policies affecting our people. 


Finally, the country needs to embrace the indigenous heritage of Australia in a way that celebrates it as the heritage of the entire nation, and which provides assurance to our first nations that the extraordinary languages and cultures of this land may endure long on this continent, as they have done for more than 50,000 years. 


Empowerment. Recognition. Cultural embrace. These are the structural agendas of indigenous policy to which we must employ the shoulders of the nation. But achieving them must be the mutual responsibility of indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians alike. We all recognise the problems and yearn for solutions. The question is: will the nation’s leaders take up this challenge? Are we willing to work together to make the paradigmatic shifts that are needed? Is anybody willing to lead?


 As a nation, we must have the courage to change the way we do business in indigenous affairs. 


I put these views forward from the unfortunate conclusion that there is little that is promising in what has been done and is being done under the banner of ‘‘welfare reform’’ in Australia. Fiddling around with entitlement design and conditions is not by itself going to reform welfare. They will be components of a comprehensive agenda, but they are not sufficient to constitute real reform.


Indeed, we have probably worsened things with the move to outsourcing human service delivery to the private sector. While this outsourcing may be said to be more efficient, the truth is that we have now created and entrenched industries whose sole rationale is the existence of social problems. Beyond the employment and training services industries, we now have private sector industries in all manner of social need and misery, the dead end of which is child protection. The profit motive now exists in the space that separates lost children from their mothers’ bosoms. These vampire industries have completely colonised indigenous communities, and constitute the Australian welfare state’s main response to poverty and the problems that arose from welfare dependency.


Now that rentals flow in these industries there is no incentive for players to work to resolve the social problems that is their market. Rather, the imperative now is simply to manage and, indeed, sustain them. The purveyors of these quasi-markets of outsourced government service delivery now hold the commanding heights, and resist reform.


My belief has always been that we need to pursue reform on both fronts: at the behavioural and structural levels. I do not resile from mutual responsibility and conditional welfare. By themselves they will not solve our problems but there is no escaping the fact disadvantage over time becomes dysfunction, that poverty over time becomes passivity.


The struggle for structural reform is not easy. Even where we have developed concrete agendas for empowerment, the country’s political leaders do not know how to respond. If I have learned anything these past 15 years it is that reforms to secure the radical centre on poverty and disadvantage require national leaders to lead them. You need the equivalent of Keating to lead real social reform, as the flip side of economic reform. The radical centre cannot be secured by activists and provocateurs from the outside, and neither by minor ministers. Only a Johnson or Keating can have the dexterity and authority to do what needs to be done.


This is an edited transcript of  Sir Keith Murdoch Oration, Still Hunting the Radical centre, delivered at the State Library of Victory.

Hunt for the radical centre: confronting welfare dependency