To cheers of “More! More!” from the party faithful at last weekend’s Liberal Party State Council in Sydney, the Prime Minister said he “liked to set them tests when we come back to parliament”. “Them”, of course, are his political opponents, the Labor Party. The tests Scott Morrison is setting come under the heading of “compassionate conservatism”; that’s how he defines his attitude to welfare payments.
Of course Labor, or the Greens and the crossbench in the Senate wouldn’t see the government was testing them if indeed what was being bowled up was “compassionate”. For students of politics, the phrase sets the bells ringing. Former British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is on the record saying “the only difference between compassionate conservatism and conservatism is that under compassionate conservatism they tell you they’re not going to help you but they’re sorry about it”. Except, if the Prime Minister’s weekend speech is any guide, he’s not apologising.
Morrison has the view that the best way to get people off welfare is to starve them off it. His Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, is just as adamant that the pitifully low Newstart unemployment allowance is not meant to be something anyone lives on but merely some pocket money between jobs.
But what we are seeing this week is an argument over compulsorily drug testing anyone on welfare. The demonisation is complete. If you haven’t got a job or can’t look after your family, you are clearly a drug addicted dropout; except the statistics do not support this view. Labor Leader Anthony Albanese is signalling he is not about to take the bait of Morrison’s “tests” without an argument.
Albanese says new figures show “a significant increase in number of over 55-year-olds who are on Newstart.” He asks ‘are we really going to start drug testing those over 55?’ Well, yes. Morrison says age is increasingly no longer the barrier it was to getting a job and he cites Australia’s biggest hardware chain, Bunnings, as an example of a “non-ageist” employer.
The other test set for the non-government parties this sitting fortnight of the parliament is extending the cashless welfare card. This has been trialled particularly among Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory and Morrison claims great success in getting recipients off the booze and drugs because their cards won’t pay for them.
But the St Vincent de Paul Society says the implementation of the card has been “extremely costly”. The set-up costs are estimated to be over $10,000 per person. Again, Albanese says there is no evidence the cards have made “any significant improvements, importantly in jobs”.
The other test for Labor is the mandatory sentencing for sex offenders. Mandatory sentencing is beloved of law and order crusaders. One of its major drawbacks is that it can lead to fewer convictions with the accused reluctant to plead guilty upfront.
Less party politics and more public interest would be a welcome development.