Federal Election 2019: A primer on welfare policy

Federal Election 2019: A primer on welfare policy

G’day voters! Today I’m talking to you about welfare, the parties who love it, and the parties who love it less. Australia’s modern welfare state has its roots in a number of schemes enacted during WWII, and our major parties have since converged on a degree of consensus about the scope of social security.

Today we have Youth Allowance for young students, apprentices and job-seekers, Newstart for the unemployed, and the Age Pension for retirees. We have carer payments, maternity payments, the recently-implemented NDIS, and a selection of other pensions. So let’s take a closer look at each major party’s thoughts on this basket of schemes.

The Coalition

For our purposes, I’ll assume that the Liberal party and the broader Coalition’s welfare policies are one and the same, since the Nationals’ website says little about the welfare system. The Libs, on the other hand, pull no punches on their welfare philosophy, with the relevant page titled “Welfare to Work”.[1] While acknowledging that Australians have made a strong welfare safety net “part of our national ethos”, the Liberals place on this the philosophical constraint of “having a go”. “The best form of welfare is having a job” states the website, along with most frontbenchers when given the opportunity.

The ideological outcome of this appears to be the introduction of new policies designed to ensure those on the dole are queuing up in good faith. This includes drug testing for recipients, with those simultaneously on drugs and welfare forced to undergo treatment. The Coalition also wants to expand their trials of cashless welfare cards, and to continue their “fraud crackdown” by data matching.

One of the most important changes the Coalition proposes is the streamlining of seven current welfare payments, including Newstart, into a single “JobSeeker Payment” by 2020. As per their website, “a simpler system means less money is spent on red tape”. This line is indeed a nice summary of the Coalition’s welfare platform.


Labor’s ideal welfare system appears to be the closest of the major parties to its current state. Their main site does not contain as many direct policy positions as the Liberals, however their 2018 platform seemed to prioritise the protection and continued administration of our current welfare system. Specific attention is given to upholding the NDIS, a Labor initiative whose rollout only began mid-2016. It is indeed strange to consider that the opposition party has fewer proposed reforms to float than the incumbent government, but the political sphere is a topsy-turvy place, with initiatives often taking years to commence in practice.[2]

This does not, however, mean Labor has no changes to make to the welfare system whatsoever. Labor’s Terri Butler announced late last year that Labor did not consider the “Jobactive” employment finder to deliver value for money.[3] This was echoed by a Senate committee in February, which found the program to be “[unfit] for purpose”.[4] If elected, it’s likely that Labor will either overhaul the program or scrap it entirely.

The Coalition appears less likely to act on this front, assuming their policy has remained unchanged since January 23, when Liberal Minister Paul Fletcher authored a piece condemning Labor’s condemnation of the project. It is possible the Coalition will adopt the advice of the Senate committee if they win the election, yet little has changed since 2017, by which time the program was already being described as “a mess” by the chief executive of Jobs Australia.[5]

The Greens

The Greens are unsurprisingly more willing to pour money into welfare programs than either of the two major parties. This normally involves hopping on the expansion initiatives of either major party, while decrying any attempts to reduce payments, as happened late last year, when Labor and the Coalition united to restrict welfare payments to new migrants.[6]

The Greens maintain that both major parties have “cut services and frozen payments so they can afford to give big businesses tax breaks and subsidies instead”.[7] They plan to raise both Newstart and Youth Allowance by $75 a week, to repeal the Coalition’s cashless card scheme, to provide free or low-cost access to all essential community services, to re-introduce payments to single parents, to provide easier navigation of the NDIS, to increase the accessibility of aged care and childcare services, and to boost the amount of social workers through increased wages. Quite a bold platform.

These initiatives will be paid for, as per the Greens website, by a combination of reforms, including tax cut reversals, a tax on pollution and the “super-profits” of mining, oil and gas industries, and crackdowns on “corporate handouts” and tax avoidance.[8] While the Greens do list the projected revenue that will be raised by these reforms, it is unclear just how far this fundraising would take them towards accomplishing their welfare goals.

So who’s right?

At the risk of pleasing nobody, there are reasonable arguments to be made for both the expansion and reduction of individual elements of our welfare state. Prosperity and quality of life are improved by economic growth that increases national wealth, and trying to cut the pie up too finely between us can retard this growth through the distortion of economic incentives. However, it is just to feel an obligation to help those in need, and rational to endorse programs that provide this kind of support in an effective manner, particularly for those unable to work through no fault of their own.

Either way, what are you asking me for? Go and make up your own mind. Besides, my Youth Allowance just came through and I’m off to buy some beer.

[1] Liberal Party of Australia. (2019). Welfare to Work. Retrieved from https://www.liberal.org.au/

[2] Australian Labor Party. (2018). A Fair Go for Australia. Retrieved from https://www.alp.org.au/

[3] Hutchens, G. (2019, January 8). Labor says Jobactive system is failing job seekers and businesses. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/

[4] Kolovos, B. (2019, February 15). Jobactive program ‘not fit for purpose’. news.com.au. Retrived from https://www.news.com.au/

[5] Morton, R. (2017, October 31). Failing job sites branded ‘a mess’. The Weekend Australian. Retrieved from https://www.theaustralian.com.au/

[6] Australian Associated Press. (2018, November 29). Labor does deal with Coalition to force migrants to wait four years for welfare. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/

[7] The Greens. World-class health, education & social services. Retrieved from https://greens.org.au/

[8] The Greens. Paying for our plans. Retrieved from https://greens.org.au/