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Franchising 'mutual obligation'

Minh Nguyen*

First published on New Matilda, issue 83, 5 April 2006

Very few Australians could have predicted in 1996 that so much would change with the election of the Coalition Government led by John Howard. Ten years on, the government has left a distinctive mark on the Australian political landscape. As the government celebrates its decade in power, it is important that those who believe Australia has become less compassionate and more utilitarian under Howard’s watch reflect not just on Howard, the political entrepreneur, but also on how his brand of ideology is fast becoming a franchise in its own right.

Driven by a desire to undo the "socialist experiment" of bygone decades, the government's ideological framework stresses the importance of free enterprise and individual choice and responsibility. The latter was illustrated most clearly a year after Howard’s victory with the arrival of the Work for the Dole scheme, signifying the start of major reform to the welfare system. Howard calls his social philosophy "a modern conservative approach". One policy application of his "modern conservatism" is "mutual obligation".

This concept is unique to this government. Howard stressed in a Today Show interview in 2000 that "mutual obligation is ... an Australian concept". The phrase taps into the basic idea of reciprocity and the social contract under which rights have corresponding responsibilities or obligations, but its application has had more far-reaching implications.

In his address to the National Press Club this year, Howard defined mutual obligation as a principle that insists "not only that individuals ought to do something in return for the support they receive from society, but also that in order for society and the government to help people in need, they need to be willing to do something to help themselves." Public speeches on the subject may place the emphasis on mutuality, but in policy practice the emphasis is mostly about creating a culture of obliging self-helpers.

In application, Work for the Dole is about tightening unemployment activity tests and imposing harsher conditions and penalties upon those considered to not be seriously searching for work; measures considered necessary to give jobseekers "a new attitude", according to former employment minister Tony Abbott. Meanwhile, the level of public investment in training and education in Australia remains disturbingly low. Tim Martyn argues that the government’s mutual obligation policy has placed the responsibility upon low-skill jobseekers to solve their unemployment situation through US inspired ‘workfare’ policies that focus on attitudes to work rather than the skills required to work.

Although mutual obligation may have started off in the welfare sector, the concept is being rolled out into other policy areas. Australia’s remote Indigenous communities have, since late 2004, also been asked to shoulder their share of responsibility. Under the government's new arrangement for Indigenous Australians – which followed the dismantling of the only national elected indigenous body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) – communities must negotiate directly with government to secure services that are often taken for granted by mainstream Australia.

The latest Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) Social Justice Report said that the new arrangements, called Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs), are potentially positive for communities, with consultations now occurring directly with the local communities. However, highlighting the word "‘potential" in its description of the SRAs' benefits, the report also noted that the "SRA process is an evolving one".

On the other hand, research by Jumbunna Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney indicates that the government has failed to meet key commitments made to Indigenous communities under the program (see "Shared Responsibility Agreements: progress to date"). "Evidence that is publicly available suggests that the government is more concerned with furthering its 'mutual obligation' policy agenda than genuinely addressing Indigenous disadvantage", the report concluded. The jury is still out on whether the government will be more "mutual" to Indigenous people than they have been with jobseekers.

The Howard government's commitment to SRAs is in contrast with its apparent lack of interest in the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) inherited from ATSIC. The CDEP is arguably a form of mutual obligation instigated by Indigenous people two decades earlier. However, government ministers rarely describe this scheme in the same breath as "mutual obligation". When they do, as in a speech by Workplace relations Minister Kevin Andrews last year, it is usually in the context of its failure to effectively link "individuals to local labour markets [or] uniformly [enforce] its mutual obligation requirements." ("The business of indigenous affairs," Speech for the Institute of Public Affairs).

This scheme involves federal grants given to a particular project within an Indigenous community whereby the Indigenous individual working on the project forgoes his or her social security entitlements in return for a "wage". CDEP schemes appear to have provided good short term benefits to Indigenous communities through much needed community development and skills training. They may have also benefited communities by providing cheap social and cultural services to the communities in which they operate; services that would otherwise be covered by governments.

However, the government's mutual obligation policy does not sit comfortably with the CDEP program in that the "mutual obligation within CDEP lies primarily within the community conducting the particular project and not between a disadvantaged welfare recipient and the government", said David Martin of the Australian National University . There appears to be too much emphasis on "self-determination" for comfort and not enough "self-help" in the existing program. This will all change with new reforms to align the project to mainstream mutual obligation arrangements.

In December 2005, the franchising of the government's mutual obligation policy reached another level in its development with an AusAID-commissioned report for its White Paper on aid. This interim report, available on AusAID's website, recommends that the government implement the "mutual obligation" principle for major donors. The report suggests that Australian aid can be used more effectively to hasten reform in recipient countries to stimulate economic growth. Although the practice of putting conditions on aid is not new, the report promises that such practices will be more stringent in future.

Howard has so far avoided the controversial "mutual obligation" term in aid, opting for the diplomatic "reciprocal responsibility", in which recipient governments are expected to "tackle corruption, strengthen governance and promote institutional reform" in return for receiving additional aid from Australia (See John Howard Media Release, 13 September 2005). The carrot-and-stick approach to forcing behavioural change in poor countries indicates a desire to adapt mutual obligation to overseas aid. It remains to be seen whether the government will be more explicit about the policy underpinnings in light of the AusAID report.

The influence of mutual obligation on AusAID's current review of its aid program has so far escaped the attention of most commentators. It illustrates that, ten years after the election of the Howard government, Australia’s policy landscape has been almost completely transformed, including international relations policies that have traditionally been considered distinct from domestic politics.

From a single, nuanced policy concept, mutual obligation has now developed into a national brand. The concept of mutual obligation shifts our gaze to the disadvantaged individual, group or nation and implies there is something intrinsically wrong with their behaviour, requiring adjustments through systems of reward and punishment.

Some argue that there are positive benefits from this shift, as "political correctness" and the "rights agenda" in the 1990s may have gone too far. What is certain is that the notion of mutual obligation as a major government policy platform is firmly embedded in Australia. In such a situation, the work of those committed to a responsible, socially just Australia, must ensure that the obligation in "mutual obligation" is actually mutual.

This means arguing for the necessary public investment in training and education so that disadvantaged jobseekers are prepared for Australia’s competitive labour market. It means monitoring government's key commitments to Indigenous communities under SRAs and the CDEP scheme. It implies lobbying government for a fairer balance of interests between Australia and developing countries in its aid program. After ten years of mutual obligation the idea is unlikely to go away. But this should not stop us from ensuring that the concept means what it says.


Visit the research section for Uniya's research on mutual obligation.


John Howard, interview with Steve Liebmann, Today Show, 29 March 2000, www.pm.gov.au

John Howard, address to the National Press Club, Great Hall, Parliament House, 25 January 2006, www.pm.gov.au

Tony Abbott, “Engineering the end of unemployment”, Speech, Canbeerra, 17 December 1999, mediacentre.dewr.gov.au

Tim Martyn, ‘Training for work is more effective than Working for the Dole’, Uniya and Jesuit Social Services, March 2006, www.uniya.org

Minh Nguyen, ‘Mutual trust: an alternative to mutual obligation in development aid’, Uniya and Jesuit Social Services, March 2006, www.uniya.org

* Minh Nguyen is the Research Officer at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre. His latest research paper is titled Mutual trust: an alternative to mutual obligation in overseas aid, available for download at www.uniya.org

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