Friday Filing: Whatever Happened to Social Security?

Recent attempts by the current Australian government – ultimately unsuccessful – to amend the conditions under which eligible Australians are to be privileged to receive the largesse of the Australian taxpayer have raised some interesting questions in my mind.

When did Australia’s regime of social security mutate into welfare and benefits?

And it certainly has, as I recently discovered, because people are now ‘granted’ a pension or other payment which they apply for when their personal circumstances warrant it. The very use of that term – ‘grant’ – implies that accessing that payment, however it might be described, is something that is something that is, first and foremost, a gift rather than something that as citizens they have a ‘right’ to when their circumstances warrant it.

And I want to stress that I believe it is a ‘right’ that Australian citizens enjoy because they are citizens. The whole purpose of the regime of social security that successive Australian governments have embraced, and which Australian citizens have also sort to enshrine as an entitlement they can access in certain circumstances, was to ensure that no Australian citizen was placed in a position where they were completely resourceless. It is, in that sense, part of the greater social compact that is at the heart of the Commonwealth of Australia, along with universal health care, universal access to primary and secondary education, and so forth.

Imagine, then, the impact of the change in terminology we have seen increasingly over recent years, and which has become abundantly evident in recent weeks and months. The payments of what was formerly known as ‘social security’ – which even had its own government department of the same name – has now been supplanting by ‘welfare’ and ‘benefits’, with the associated stigma of those who find themselves having to access these payments. Such people are now the ‘leaners’ of Australian society, people who have to be managed, constantly monitored against cheating, and demeaned by political figures at every opportunity.

These are the same people who, thanks to faulty and poorly performing data-matching techniques, are told they owe money to the Commonwealth of Australia and pursued with a vitality that is almost embarassing. These are the same people who, regardless of their efforts, are told they must prove the Commonwealth – represented by the Department of Human Services – are in error and until then are also told they must pay the assessed ‘debt’ or face the kind of enforcement action that usually reserved for the commercial debt collection.

The subtle change speaks of an increasing inequality that exists within Australia. No more are we supposed to ensure that our fellow citizens have the very basics that enable human life to be maintained. Now we are supposed to see them as a burden that we must endure, but only so far lest we open ourselves to be taken advantage of by those who don’t wish to ‘muck in’ and make an effort to ensure they care for themselves.

And this change is to be lamented, because it reflects a increasing loss of the understanding of Australia as the ‘Commonwealth’, literally the ‘common wealth’, of all those who call this country and continent, and the increasing encouragement of an individualism, a pursuit of one’s own comfort and prosperity, regardless of that that might cost one’s fellow citizens.

Such a pursuit of individual prosperity regardless, or even at the cost of, the well-being of our fellow citizens flies in the face of all Christian teaching, which tells believers that we are to care for the ‘widows and orphans, the stranger and the needy’. This care we are to deliver because, first and foremost, all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and are, therefore, worthy of respect, of attention, and of care.

More importantly, perhaps, we are called to care for those who find themselves at the fringes of society – for whatever reason – because the good things we have been given, as a society and as individuals, are not given to us in absolute terms, but on trust because those who who are in need have a legitimate claim on those same good things when they require it.

In the context of the Commonwealth of Australia, this means that all citizens, regardless of their relative prosperity, are required to contribute to the care of their fellow citizens who find themselves in need. This is not ‘welfare’ or ‘benefits’ begrudgingly given to others that we should resent, but something that is theirs by right. If we attempt to keep the fruits of our labour and efforts to ourselves – and only to ourselves – we are, in reality, robbing those from whom we keep those fruits, and further entrenching an inequality that should be foreign to any nation that claims the word ‘Commonwealth’ in its official title.

The challenge then is to resist the change in terminology, and the attitude that it reflects, with every fibre of our being. And we are called to do so because we can see beyond the kind of rhetoric being touted by populist commentators and political hacks that appeal only to human being’s baser instincts. We are called to resist because human beings should not be without those things that are required for human lives to exist and flourish, and we are obligated to assist those who find themselves without the very basics they need.

As Australians, as citizens of the Commonwealth of Australia, we should always seek to ensure that none of our fellow citizens are without these basics – even if that means we have to sacrifice some part of our own prosperity and comfort to make sure they are not without. We may rejoice that we live in the ‘lucky country’, but living here also means we have an obligation to ensure that everyone can benefit from the bounty that country offers.

Anything less is an abrogation of our responsibilities, our obligations, and, indeed, the very title of Australian citizen that we claim for ourselves and for others.