The ‘bludger’ myth masks the cruel reality: welfare programs are bludgeoning the poor

In recent weeks, the right-wing press has been trying to revive the spectre of the ‘dole bludger’.

Whenever a government announces any minor change to the welfare system—like, raising JobSeeker by $2.85 a day—a barrage of hysterical allegations of welfare fraud and job snobbery follow like clockwork. In this case, 2GB’s shock-jock nepo baby, Ben Fordham, got stuck into jobless Australians for supposedly refusing work, while the Daily Mail decided to go a few steps further: invading an unemployed man’s home to generate content for hate-clicks.

As the Mail discovered (but refused to print), their target for scorn is caring for elderly parents with long Covid, while battling significant mental health issues. Yet again, a ‘bludger’ was nowhere to be found.

In the background to all this noise, the government has been quietly conducting its own half-baked investigation into this elusive phenomenon. In recent hearings of the Workforce Australia Employment Services Inquiry, committee chair, Julian Hill, has been asking job agency bosses and Department heads how many people in the system don’t want to work.

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations claims that 5-10 per cent of people on JobSeeker aren’t serious about finding jobs. These numbers are based on ‘anecdotal estimates’ derived from seven visits to job agency sites they made back in 2016-17—Hardly compelling evidence.

The job agency bosses also failed to supply firm bludger numbers, so Hill told them to go interrogate their frontline staff: ‘Their gut feeling, aggregated up, would be a reasonable indicator of how many people [on welfare] are just taking the piss at the moment.’

To put it lightly: a politician’s understanding of the poor should probably never be derived from the ‘gut feelings’ of people they haven’t met. This is a real ‘well, a friend of a friend of mine said’ approach to public policy-making.

Curiously, in his media appearances Julian Hill has been challenging the myth of the dole bludger, saying ‘our country has been lumbered with that stereotype for far too long.’ Yet his Inquiry’s ongoing obsession with the number of cheats continues to fuel the trope.

Perhaps, Labor is trying to walk both sides of the issue: appeasing its progressive base by uttering sympathetic noises towards the unemployed, while also placating conservatives by cracking the whip on supposed fraudsters.

Despite the lack of actual sightings, the bludger remains a potent stereotype in Australian political culture. The myth that poor people are ‘work-avoidant’ haunts every inquiry, fuels Mutual Obligation programs like Work for the Dole, and ensures our welfare payments remain some of the lowest in the OECD. (It’s always worth asking politicians and pundits how they believe it’s even possible to ‘bludge’ on a payment that’s so far below the poverty line).

The focus on bludgers is always disproportionate to any measurable reality. According to the Department’s latest figures, the percentage of welfare recipients found to refuse suitable work is statistically insignificant—yes, it’s 0.0 per cent.

In 2015, ACOSS reported that less than 0.02 per cent of people receiving welfare were suspected of committing fraud. Of course, this didn’t stop the then-government embarking on the largest, and most disastrous, welfare crackdown in Australian history: bludger-bashing is always politically motivated—never evidence-based.

To this day, the spectacle of the dole cheat continues to distract from the simple, inconvenient reality: the government’s welfare policies are needlessly harming the poor.

In six months, the government’s new employment services system has inflicted over 539 000 payment suspensions on welfare recipients for not meeting the barrage of Mutual Obligation requirements. This included 99 938 pay suspensions for homeless people, 136 301 for Indigenous people and 227 799 for people with a mental or physical disability.

Despite its dubious belief that 5-10 per cent of job seekers are deliberately doing the wrong thing, the Department penalises over 50 per cent of the cohort with the Mutual Obligation compliance dragnet.

The scale of punishment is so profound that job agencies, contracted by the government to administer penalties, are struggling to keep up with the demand. NESA, their peak body, told the Inquiry that 30-40 per cent of job agents’ time is now spent managing job seeker compliance. This preoccupation with punishment doesn’t leave a lot of time to actually find jobs for people: in fact, a job agency told the Inquiry it had to get rid of their last industry engagement officer, because they’re forced to spend so much time policing welfare recipients.

There is a painful, deeply personal, story behind every payment suspension and punishment inflicted on people in employment services: their first-hand reports to Hill’s Inquiry are already horrific.

In one submission, an Indigenous mother experiencing domestic violence was forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to a job agency appointment, because she feared they would punish her for non-attendance. Another mum told the inquiry her payment was suspended, because she needed to spend a night in hospital with her seriously ill daughter. And an older man recovering from a broken back reported that he was pushed into a Work for the Dole activity that exposed him to asbestos.

It should be clear to anyone paying attention (or running an employment services inquiry) that the key problem is not that welfare recipients are cheating the government—it’s that the government is cheating them. For no apparent reason other than cruelty, the mutual obligation system is ripping money, security and support away from the people and families who need it most.

By refusing to tackle this problem—and instead embarking on another harebrained bludger hunt—it’s the government, the Department and the media who are taking the piss.

Jeremy Poxon

Jeremy Poxon is an officer with the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union. You can follow his coverage of the Workforce Australia Employment Services Inquiry @JeremyPoxon.

More by Jeremy Poxon ›

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