Attitudes to poverty had changed in the wake of the Great Depression and both parties saw a need to take action. In 1941 the Menzies government established a cross party Parliamentary Joint Committee on Social Security. The committee’s first interim report declared:
For long it was held that poverty was the fault of the individual and was solely due to inefficiency, improvidence, dishonesty, drunkenness and the like. More modern opinion is that poverty is mostly not the fault of the individual but the environment in which he lives. Social services were developed largely because of the conviction that it is misfortune, not inherent evil, which brings people into want, and therefore it is the duty of the community to mitigate the worst effects of that want.
As always, the responsibility of the community was balanced by the responsibility of the individual: "to contribute to the community welfare to the utmost of his physical and mental capacity."
After Labor won office later in 1941 the committee continued its work. And in 1943 Minister for Post-war Reconstruction, Ben Chifley wrote:
I believe that the time has already passed in Australia when the principle of comprehensive social security has to be advocated or defended. The valuable reports of the all-party Parliamentary Joint Committee on Social Security acknowledge the community’s responsibility for guaranteeing in all emergencies – whether sickness, unemployment, incapacity, widowhood, or old age – a national minimum of income below which none of our citizens can be allowed to sink (SMH, Wednesday 1 December 1943).
Chifley argued that the national minimum should rise over time as the economy grew. By 1945 Labor had added new payments for sickness, unemployment and widowhood to existing schemes for age and invalidity.
But the centrepiece of Labor’s post-war welfare system was its pledge to maintain full employment. For Chifley social security was a palliative measure that would become less necessary as government mastery of the economy increased incomes and made full employment sustainable. According to the government’s 1945 white paper Full Employment in Australia: "The maintenance of conditions which will make full employment possible is an obligation owed to the people of Australia by Commonwealth and State governments."
Labor’s post-war work and welfare policies embodied a kind of mutual obligation. Governments had an obligation to maintain full employment and protect workers from the misfortunes of unemployment, sickness and invalidity. And in return, citizens had an obligation search for and accept paid work.
But in recent years this vision of mutual obligation has collapsed. By 1975 the Whitlam Labor government was overwhelmed by the problem of inflation. Governments lost faith in the idea that they could maintain full employment. Then in the 1980s policy makers became convinced that unemployment had structural causes. The Social Security Review introduced the idea of ‘reciprocal obligation’. Unemployed workers would need to retrain in order to become employable. So in return for government funding for active labour market programs, the unemployed had an obligation to participate. Being willing to work for wages is no longer enough.
In today’s Australia, it’s difficult to know what full employment means. Many policy makers believe that we are close to the Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU). This suggests that welfare numbers can’t be driven down simply by stimulating the economy. So over time, obligations have shifted from government to the individual. And the idea that "poverty was the fault of the individual and was solely due to inefficiency, improvidence, dishonesty, drunkenness and the like" is making a return.
Quiggin is becoming increasingly disillusioned by the current Labor government. In a post on Gillard’s Whitlam Oration he accuses her of repudiating Labor traditions and embracing the rhetoric of the Liberal party:
Nothing in Gillard’s speech suggests any awareness that there are Australians who cannot provide for themselves, or any desire to do anything for them. Quite the contrary. The theme of “those who do not work, neither shall they eat” is stated repeatedly, for example with reference to being the “party of work not welfare”.
According to Quiggin: "Any positive thinking about Australia’s future will have to come from outside the Labor party."