: Franchising mutual obligation
Franchising 'mutual obligation'
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
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
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
The latest Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC)
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
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
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
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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