I have considered it necessary in recent years to mount a public policy assault on passive welfare dependency, arising from my analysis of the decisive role that it has played in the social dysfunction of my indigenous people in Cape York Peninsula. My critique has been taken as offensive by significant sections of the official Left as well as by many individuals and groups involved in social services, or what the program for this conference calls the “community services industry”. (As an aside, let me caution QCOSS against describing the social services sector as an industry: my reasons for finding this terminology problematic will become apparent during the course of my speech this morning).
But the point that I wanted to make in this introduction is that I am humbled by the honour that the Queensland Council for Social Services have extended to me in inviting me to deliver the keynote address at this year’s conference. I take it as an expression of goodwill and good faith, notwithstanding how bracing my views might be for those committed to social welfare.
I have been asked to talk about my views on a fair and inclusive community. It is appropriate that the starting point of the challenge for a fairer and inclusive community should be the position of the most wretched people in our Australian community: its indigenous people. If the lowest of the underclass in our society can achieve a fair and inclusive place in their own country – then we will have truly made social progress. Obviously, all our hopes for social policy will come to nought if we can’t turn around the Aboriginal social misery.
But we Aboriginal people are in a very difficult situation. Let me give four reasons:
1. It is now obvious how damaging the effects of passive welfare have been.
2. The substance abuse epidemics and passive welfare reinforce each other and we now need to attack both at the same time.
3. During the most expansive years of the welfare state, before economic globalisation, the resources which were made available by the welfare state were not used as well as they should have been used. Now, when we begin to understand what to do, the trends are against increased expenditure.
4. The so-called “reconciliation” process was a failure in terms of developing policies dealing with the real problems. Some of the outcomes of the reconciliation process are necessary in the long run – such as native title – or justified – such as apologies – but the social disintegration of our people is accelerating.
This morning I want to talk about some theory before I talk about practice. I want to explain why I am at odds with many people who also come from the "left". We see the uplift of the disadvantaged in our society as a priority but disagree when it comes to the policies we say will achieve this. Why do I, as a leftie, say that we need law and order in our communities, when my friends who have the same hopes for my people, say that we need less police harassment and more legal aid? Why do I, as a leftie, say that we do not have a right to dependency, when our friends say that we have a right to welfare? Why do I, as a leftie, say that we need to rebuild a social, cultural, spiritual and therefore legal intolerance of substance abuse, when friends from the left say that substance abuse is a symptom of other “underlying issues” and must instead be treated as a “health problem” and met with policies of “compassion” and “harm minimisation”?
Let me suggest that there is a fundamental intellectual failing within the main currents of leftist thinking in our country – and I would say that today’s official and cultural left would be unrecognisable to the old left that arose from the international labour movements of the nineteenth century. Unrecognisable because instead of basing our analysis on the insights of the old left and applying to our contemporary circumstances the very insights which originally defined the left-right divide in political economy – we simply parrot a whole set of so-called “progressive” nostrums which are handed to us by our culture and which we accept without question. And these nostrums define us as part of “the good tribe”, the tribe that cares for other people. These nostrums are mostly a set of attitudes rather than consciously held intellectual positions – but they form our entire social, cultural and political outlook.
So if you are part of the leftist tribe today you are likely to:
Believe that the degree of social progress in our society will be dependent upon the degree of social redistribution
Be in favour of “drug law reform”
Be against work for the dole
Be against zero tolerance policing
Be in favour of euthanasia
Support Aboriginal land rights
Support environmental conservation
Oppose detention of illegal immigrants
And so on and so on.
Of course I am generalising and simplifying when I say that this list of social, cultural and policy outlooks is the standard leftist list, but you will recognise what I am saying. The list includes many things with which I am in firm agreement. They also include many things which I believe people who are truly concerned about social fairness and inclusivity should be resolutely opposed to.
In relation to our enterprise in Cape York there are four policies which are central:
We support and will fight for land rights
We support and will fight for environmental conservation
We support and will fight for zero tolerance of substance abuse
We support and will fight for the reform of welfare
We are at odds with the greater part of the official and cultural left in relation to our policies on substance abuse and welfare reform. I have said that the gulf that divides our thinking in Cape York and that of the cultural left is firstly an intellectual and analytical gulf. I cannot here deal with the details of my allegation of intellectual failing, except in a cursory way.
Firstly, it is always useful to separate what we subjectively say, believe and observe – from the objective reality. Things are not as they seem. Things certainly are not what their labels say they are. In our culture, the real meaning of things is frequently hidden and deceptive. The subjective reality is often greatly different from, indeed diametrically opposite to, how it looks from an objective viewpoint.
The left has become ignorant of this fundamental insight of the old left thinkers who always questioned what was the objective function of phenomena in society as opposed to the prima faciesubjective explanation of its function.
Secondly, it is always useful to consider the relationship between the personal and the structural. Yes, the predicaments of disadvantaged people in our stratified society are structural, but this does not of course deny the role of personal agency within these structures. It is insight and personal agency (indeed, personal responsibility) which enables social insight, organisation and agency – which enables people to contend with and to counteract and even defy the force of structures.
Let me give you one example. We are wrong if we say unemployment is only a structural issue – one of whether there is the opportunity to work in the economy. Unemployment, when prolonged and when it becomes endemic to families and communities, also becomes a behaviour. When people have grown up with no experience of work and without the necessity of work, then this condition cannot just be explained away as a structural problem – it must be confronted as a behaviour.
And in confronting this behaviour, it is not just a matter of incentives: it is also a matter of obligation. In the transition from passivity to work we are kidding ourselves if the solution is all help – there must be help and hassle.
The problem with the dominant currents of leftist thinking today is that they turn a blind eye to personal responsibility, preferring to explain everything as arising from the flawed opportunity structures of society. (This blindness to personal responsibility is of course in great contrast to the Left’s keen advocacy of personal rights). The problem with focusing on structure and ignoring the personal is that we do not face up to behavioural problems.
Just because behavioural problems today have a structural explanation with roots in history and in social and economic structures, does not mean that we are therefore excused from dealing with these behavioural problems as behavioural problems in the present.
So I have urged you to consider two simple points of advice in relation to how we might analyse things and how we might think about our policies: that is, to distinguish between the subjective and the objective and to think about the relationship between the structural and personal.
Let me now make a more substantive allegation of intellectual delinquency on the part of those who say they come from the leftist tradition. I say that the official and cultural left today have – insofar as its public policy and practice is concerned – abandoned a proper understanding of two of the most important theories of the old labour movement thinkers: the materialist interpretation of history and the theory of class society and how it works.
When I first laid out my critique of “progressive” left thinking about Aboriginal policy in my Light on the Hill Ben Chifley Memorial Lecture in 2000. . This is part of what I said:
… let me first say that my historical and social discussion has been assisted by some of the analyses of the early international labour movement. I am therefore thinking about class. I refer to "class" in Australia because its existence cannot be denied - it is a historical and contemporary fact, even if the term has lost currency, indeed respectability, in public discussion today. Indeed the Australian Labor Party talks no more about class, let alone class struggle. The C word has departed from the rhetoric of the official left. This is understandable, but regrettable.
… the struggle between classes is seen as antiquated, divisive and ultimately fruitless given the apparent inevitability of stratification in a free market society. This notion is after all associated with a political and economic system that is now discredited with the collapse of communism.
However it is harder to understand the abandonment of class in our intellectual analysis of our society and history. How can we pretend that class does not exist?
If the policy prescription - large-scale expropriation of private enterprises - that followed the class analysis of the early international labour movement was wrong, it does not mean that all aspects of the analysis are therefore invalid.
I cannot so easily avoid such analysis in seeking to understand the predicament of that lowest underclass of Australians: my mob. For it explains our predicament in a way that the prevailing confusions do not.
I then went on to say:
The two questions I ask myself about the Australian Welfare State in general and the future of Aboriginal Australia in particular are:
First, why were the lower classes not prepared for the changes in the economy and the accompanying political changes in spite of the fact that the labour movement has been a powerful influence for most of the century? The stratification of society is increasing, but the lower classes are becoming less organised and less able to use their numbers to influence the development of society via our representative democracy.
Second, why are we unable to do anything at all about the disintegration of our Aboriginal communities?
Let us admit the fact that we have no analysis, no understanding at all. All we have is confusion dressed up as progressive thinking.
When I have been struggling with these questions, I have gone back to the early thinking about history and society of the nineteenth century international labour movement. A main idea was that social being determines consciousness, that is, economic relations in society condition our thinking and our culture, and that our thinking is much less conscious and free than we think it is.
If we allow ourselves to analyse our society in the way I think early social democrats would, I think we would come to the following conclusions:
Society is stratified. There is a small group at the top that is influential. There is a middle stratum that possesses intellectual tools and performs qualified work. The third and lowest stratum lacks intellectual tools, and does manual, often repetitive work.
The middle stratum consists of two groups with no sharp boundary between them. One performs the qualified work in the production of goods and services (the 'wealth producers'), the other (the 'ideology producers') have as their function to uphold the cultural, political and legal superstructure that is erected over and mirrors the base of our society, the market economy.
I believe that a main function of our culture, from fine arts to footy today is to make people unable to use their intellectual faculties to formulate effective criticism and analysis while still allowing them to do their work in the economy. In this talk I use the word "culture" in a wide sense, including not only art and literature but also our social and political thinking.
Our society and our culture is not a conspiracy. There are no cynics at the top of the pyramid who use their power to maintain an unnecessarily unequal society. Stratified society is perpetuated because of the self-interest that everybody has in not sinking down. People believe what it is in their interest to believe. Influential people believe that a stratified society will always be necessary for economic growth and development. Their subordinates, the intellectuals of the middle stratum who maintain our culture, sense the cues from above, then produce ideology for the conservation of the current state of things, but are not conscious of the reasons for their actions. I am not only referring to nominally rightist ideas. I am just as much thinking about much of the nominally leftist thinking, which I think serves a function that is the opposite of its stated goal of liberating people.
So, the main objective function of our culture is to stop people from breaking away from the hierarchy, but at the same time allow them to develop specialised areas of competence and creativity so that they can participate in production and even develop the economy. Our culture treats you in two different ways depending on whether you are born into, or moving towards, the lower stratum or the middle stratum of society.
Workers need only limited intellectual tools. After a basic education, the face that Culture shows the lower stratum is one that has the objective function of deterring them from unauthorised intellectual activity, that is to use their language and their knowledge to analyse our society and their position in it.
It is therefore wrong, as the present prejudice does, to regard the lower stratum as hopeless yobbos who refuse to participate in a cultural life that would make their lives richer. On the contrary, they are right in rejecting most of our culture, but they throw out the baby, the useful intellectual tools, with the bathwater. Most people unnecessarily have a bad conscience for their lack of interest in culture. They shouldn't. Most of our art, literature, history writing, philosophy, social thinking and so on really is as irrelevant as most people think. Not by accident, not because those who made it are useless and isolated from real life, but because it is one of the objective functions of our culture to deter most people from acquiring intellectual tools. I think that much of our official culture exists in order to scare the majority of the people away from acquiring the habits of critical reading and analytical thinking. And at the same time as our schools often fail to interest children in reading and social and political analysis or even convinces them that such activities are futile, students are given the option of taking subjects like Soccer Excellence or Rugby League Excellence or Film Studies at High School as if these are the qualifications necessary for their futures.
And if people can't be prevented from independent thinking by means of discouragement and strict formatting, there is a last net which catches almost everybody who makes it that far. I believe that most of what is seen as progressive and radical thinking today in our cultural, academic and intellectual life are simply diversions for keeping rebellious minds occupied and isolated from the social predicament of the lower classes.
The great mistake of the Social Democrats of all countries is that they put all their efforts into economic redistribution and failed to build a movement that could take up the battle about the laws of thought. The Social Democrat leadership thought they were going to solve the problems with some major reforms and settlements between industrialists and representatives of the majority. Now when the economy is changing, and the Welfare State is being dismantled, the majority of the population are unable to take part in the analytical debate about their future.
Of course many people will think it is outrageous when I dismiss much of our contemporary cultural and academic life as being just a big confusion-producing mechanism in the service of social stratification, that keeps dissenters occupied and makes it difficult for people to analyse our society so that they can organise themselves politically and try to rid society of the things that divide us and consume our energies (drugs, crime, ethnic conflicts, discrimination and so on).
But I have been driven to this desperate conclusion by the fact that our current thinking can't provide any solutions to our problems. And for Aboriginal people, the prevalent analyses are more than confusing, they are destructive.
Aboriginal Policy is weighed down by mixed-up confusion. Many of the conventional ideas and policies in Aboriginal Affairs - ideas and policies which are considered to be "progressive" - in fact are destructive. In thinking about the range of problems we face and talking with my people about what we might be able to do to move forward, the conviction grows in me that the so-called progressive thinking is compounding our predicament. In fact when you really analyse the nostrums of progressive policy, you find that the pursuit of these policies has never helped us to resolve our problems - indeed they have only made our situation worse.
Take for example the problem of indigenous imprisonment. Like a broken record over the past couple of decades we have been told that 2% of the population comprise more than 30% of the prison population. The situation with juvenile institutions across the country is worse. Of course these are incredible statistics. The progressive response to these ridiculous levels of interaction with the criminal justice system has been to provide legal aid to indigenous peoples charged with offences. The hope is to provide access to proper legal defence and to perhaps reduce unnecessary imprisonment. To this day however, Aboriginal victims of crime - particularly women - have no support: so whilst the needs of offenders are addressed, the situation of victims and the families remains vulnerable. Furthermore, it is apparent that this progressive response - providing legal aid support services - has not worked to reduce our rate of imprisonment. In fact Aboriginal legal aid is part of the criminal justice industry which processes Aboriginal people routinely through its systems. It is like a sausage machine and human lives are processed through it with no real belief that the outrageous statistics will ever be overcome.
In my critiques I have always been at pains to point out that our people in Cape York have only experienced one aspect of the Australian welfare state: passive welfare provisioning, which has been disastrous. When I talk about the poison of passive welfare; it is not out of hostility to the welfare state, but to that part of it which operates to keep disadvantaged people in a state of perpetual and sickening dependency and passivity.
I have not repudiated the Welfare State and indeed I believe it is a great civilising achievement. My own education I owe to the policies of Prime Minister EG Whitlam, as no doubt do many others who have come from the wrong side of the tracks. Rather than seeking to contribute to the dismantling of welfare provisioning by government to ensure universal access and opportunity, I urge its reform.
But of course the future of the Australian Welfare State faces bigger questions that the position of indigenous peoples within it. And in the following analysis I wish to raise a question which we all face – where is the commitment to the great social contract which the Welfare State represented during the Twentieth Century, going to come from in the Twenty First Century? The answer to this question is not at all clear.
Let me turn first to the question of, “what is welfare?”.
The word “welfare” has gained a pejorative meaning which it did not always have. This is probably the consequence of the derogatory use of the word in American discussions about government provisioning to citizens. Although in Australia the term is still often understood in its classical and broader meaning, it has become common usage to equate “welfare” with “unconditional cash payouts from the state to the needy (and some bludgers)”. In order to distinguish between the broader and the narrower interpretations of the word “welfare”, I have used the term “passive welfare”. By “passive welfare” I mean welfare in the narrow sense of assistance to needy citizens who may never repay via their taxes what they have received, and of whom nothing further will be required or expected.
The narrow ahistorical interpretation of the term makes it difficult to appreciate the scope of “the Welfare State”. The “Welfare State” is both an ideological concept and a concrete type of society where the welfare ideology has been implemented. In the wider sense the term welfare includes, for example, universally accessible health care and compulsory education. In most modern industrialised countries the state has assumed an overall responsibility for these domains, even if there is a mixture of state and private enterprise in these sectors of the economy. In the Welfare State the working taxpayers - the “mainstream” - collectively finance facilities aimed at their own wellbeing, development and security. Classical welfare is not just a matter of the more affluent classes supporting the poor and marginalised. Welfare in the wider sense does redistribute resources from richer to poorer citizens, but it also redistributes the resources of the individual over her or his own life cycle. The citizen is assisted during childhood, then works and pays tax, and is finally taken care of during retirement. Her taxes also insure her against disaster like serious illness.
We take welfare in the classical sense for granted. The state is assumed to have the ultimate responsibility for insuring that there are satisfactory private or public solutions for everybody in the areas of housing, education, health care and so on. But in pre-industrial society, and throughout early industrial society, this responsibility was not presumed. During the end of the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth, all highly industrialised countries developed into welfare states to at least some degree, no matter whether they were ethnically homogenous or comprised marginalised minorities, like the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Why did this happen?
During the stage of the industrialised market economy when the Welfare State was developing, the lower classes consisted mainly of a huge, homogenous industrial army and their dependants. Since they lived and worked under similar conditions and were in close contact with each other, they had both the incentive and the opportunity to organise themselves into trade unions and struggle for common goals. They possessed a bargaining position through collective industrial action.
At the same time it was in the objective interest of the industrialists to ensure that the working class didn’t turn to radical ideologies, and that the workers weren’t worn down by the increasing speed and efficiency of industrial production. Health care, primary education, pensions, minimum wages, collective bargaining, and unemployment benefits
created a socially stable and secure working class, competent to perform increasingly complex industrial work, and able to raise a new generation of workers. Workers with an income above the minimum required for survival and reproduction also constituted a market for the immense collection of commodities that they themselves produced.
These two factors, the organisation of the workers and the objective interest of the industrialists, produced an era of class cooperation: the Welfare State. The support and security systems of the Welfare State included the overwhelming majority of the citizens. Thus it was in Australia during the long period of bipartisan consensus that Paul Kelly calls “the Australian Settlement”, established by Deakin just after Federation and lasting up to the time of the Hawke and Keating governments in the 1980s.
The Social Democrats have given three reasons for defending the Welfare State:
Firstly to counteract social stratification, and especially to set a lower limit to how deep people are allowed to sink.
Secondly to redistribute income over each individual's lifetime.
Thirdly because health care and education (the two main areas of the public sector of the economy) can't be reduced to commodities on the market, because health care and education are about makingeverybody an able player on the market. In other areas of the economy you can then allow competition.
Classical welfare is therefore reciprocal, with a larger or smaller element of redistribution.
Now this has all changed and we must ask, ‘What is the future of welfare?’
The modern economy of the developed countries is no longer based to the same extent on industrial production by a homogenous army of workers. The bulk of the gross domestic product is now generated by a symbol and information-handling middle class and some highly qualified workers. These qualified people have a bargaining position in the labour market because of their individual competence, whereas traditional workers are interchangeable and depend on organisation and solidarity in their negotiations with the employers. A large part of the former industrial army is descending into service jobs, menial work, unemployment. Many of their children become irrelevant for economic growth instead of becoming productive workers like their parents and grandparents.
As always in times of economic revolution, new growth sectors of the economy absorb many people who can’t make a living in the older shrinking sectors. Also, income stratification is now being permitted to increase. The new employment in growth sectors and the partial deregulation of the labour market has mitigated unemployment caused by the demise of manufacturing in the original industrialised countries. But even if mass unemployment is avoided, the current economic revolution will have a profound effect on our society: it will bring about the end of collectivism.
The lower classes in developed countries have lost much of their political influence because of the shrinking and disorganisation of the only powerful group among them, the working class proper. The shift in the economy away from manufacturing, and economic globalisation which makes it possible to allocate production to the enormous unregulated labour markets outside the classical welfare states. These changes have deprived the industrial workers in the developed countries of their powerful position as sole suppliers of labour force for what has until recently been the most important part of the world economy, the manufacturing industry of the original industrialised countries. The lower classes are therefore now unable to defend the Welfare State. Nor is there any longer any political or economic reason for the influential strata of society to support the preservation of the Welfare State.
Those who have important functions in the new economy will be employed on individual contracts, and will be able to find individual solutions for their education, health care, retirement and so on, while the majority of the lower classes will face uncertainty. The Welfare State will increasingly be presented as an impediment to economic growth.
The market-oriented policies that the voters have endorsed in many recent elections are a reflection of this general trend away from collectivism. I am not saying that my Aboriginal people can influence the large economic and political trends, nationally or internationally. A realistic plan for the survival of our society must simply take them into account.
The most pressing question for QCOSS in relation to its hopes for a fair and inclusive society is this: from whence will the commitment to the social contract of universal guarantee of access and opportunity – provided by the Welfare State established in Australia last century – going to come in the long-term?
Let me now say some concluding words about what we do in practice.
Firstly, let me say again that the answer to the big question that I have raised about where the commitment to the social contract on welfare is going to come in the community, is not at all clear to me. I have no economic policy for society that answers this question. All that I can say is that, if we are serious about the predicament of disadvantaged people in society we must find a cure to the hopeless education our people receive. This is of course what everybody says must happen and my pointing to education will sound trite. But it is the most important ladder that we know of.
But in our dysfunctional underclasses, our education challenge must first deal with the dysfunction in our homes. Only if we have functional families in the lower classes can we develop educated children who can climb ladders out of disadvantage and perhaps work to achieve a fairer and more inclusive society.
And there are two critical contributors to dysfunction that afflict our underclass families and which we must confront head on if we are to make progress: the addictions to substances and to gambling that consumes so much of our meagre resources, unravel family cohesion and destroy hope for the future, and our passive welfare condition.
If we don’t deal with substance abuse as a behaviour and with work as an inescapable obligation – then we cannot restore functional families in dysfunctional communities.
Disadvantaged families have been undermined and corrupted by Governments. In particular, governments have developed their own political addiction to gambling and a system of gambling has become an endemic feature of our society and the profiteers from gambling feast on the carcass of the underclass on a weekly basis.
For those of us in this conference hall who protest that our constituents on income support are on the minimum level of income necessary for their week to week subsistence, let us ask ourselves what proportion of this income goes straight to those who profiteer from addiction?
In his recent book From Hunting to Drinking about the tragic history of Mornington Island over the past four decades, the anthropologist David McKnight calculates that this community of less than 1000 people spends $4 M per year on alcohol. He then comes to the conclusion that the community does not need $4 M, it is surplus to their subsistence requirements. The Aboriginal people have offered up their bodies and their livers and kidneys as income launderies for the alcohol industry.
Why is it that we in the social services sector and on the left generally are prepared to fight for more income support – but we are not prepared to face up to the extent to which this income support is just evaporated away because of the dysfunction in the lower classes? A more sensible policy would be if Centrelink sent a weekly cheque direct to the breweries and to the TAB and saved our bodies from being the laundries of poison.
It is because we refuse to face up to, and refuse to be honest about reality. Our outlooks are not tempered by a direct and daily confrontation with reality. And even when we see reality in front of our noses, we avoid dealing with the problems because we have some larger social explanation for the problems.
If only I had a dollar for the number of people who have said that the new alcohol laws that will give our communities in Cape York the chance to restrict availability will not work because the sly grog dealers will just fill the gap. I can only conclude that these people want us to do nothing, even though women, children and our whole community suffer daily.
Let me therefore conclude with my advice to all of us who share the same subjective vision for a fair and inclusive society: we must, as a matter of great urgency, apply our energies to preventing social disintegration as much we advocate for social redistribution. We have many policies and much of our political energies are directed to questions of redistribution. But we have turned a blind eye to the social disintegration that is occurring in disadvantaged communities. Passive welfare and addictions are primary contributors to this disintegration and if we are serious about working for a more fair and inclusive society: then we need to confront these problems directly and honestly.