Tuesday, December 23, 2014

'Having a go'

During his recent reshuffle of his cabinet ministers, the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, appointed Scott Morrison as Minister for Social Services. Scott Morrison was formerly in charge of immigration or, rather, what it became: border protection. He was responsible for implementing the government’s hardline, heartless and—some would say—illegal border protection policies. Now he is in charge of social services. Australians should strap themselves in for a bumpy ride.

During his speech while explaining his reshuffle, Abbott explained Morrison’s job to us. His job was to ensure that ‘everyone was having a go’. Not—in a much more Australian phrase—to ensure that everyone in Australian ‘had a fair go’. The implication, of course, is that those who receive some kind of benefit from the government—unless you’re a mining company—are not really having a go. It goes without saying that there are people who are not ‘having a go’ in our society. Some of them are unemployed or disabled, some of them are working, and some of them are in the Federal Cabinet. But Abbott’s word reveals once again his underlying ideology and belief system. We all must be ‘lifters, not leaners’, ‘workers, not shirkers.’ We must all ‘have a go’.

There will always be those who take advantage of any and every system. They are among the poorest and the wealthiest in our nation. But social security should be first and foremost about security (a much more important form of security than border security). It is about ensuring that our citizens are secure when tough times hit. And they do. It is about support. It is about providing a service. People, from time to time, need to lean, and should be allowed to do so. Social security is not a privilege. It is a right. It is—to use a word Abbott hates—an entitlement.

This does not mean that I am some kind of naive, bleeding heart liberal, although I don’t really see those epithets as an insult. Of course we should prevent people (and governments and corporations) from rorting the system. But the primary function of social services is not to ensure that everyone is ‘having a go’. It is to ensure that everyone ‘has a fair go’. It is to ensure that people are given a hand up when they are down. It is to encourage (not bludgeon) people to participate in society. And its purpose is to continue to support people even when they are unable to contribute (at least in the narrow, economic sense of that term). If, sometimes, that means society has to carry along a few bludgers, so be it. The choice is: support those in need and put up with a few bludgers; or get rid of all the bludgers and punish people who are genuinely in need along the way. It seems fairly clear what Abbott’s preference is.

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