Like other industrialised Western nations, Australia has been subject to considerable social and economic changes in the decades following the 1960s. In many ways, social policy became more progressive during this time, and multiculturalism, diversity, and identity politics came to the fore, especially under the Hawke-Keating Government through the 1980s and early 1990s. However in 1996, Australians elected a Coalition Government under the leadership of John Howard. This could be seen as something of a conservative backlash, and a weariness of change on the part of the electorate. John Howard claimed to want to make Australians “comfortable and relaxed” with their history and their place in the world, and promised to govern “for all of us.”1 Nevertheless, and regardless of its social conservatism, the Howard Government’s agenda has been one of relentless reform.
When it first took office, the Howard Government introduced a massive raft of changes in many areas, including significant restructuring of the public service, replacement of the Commonwealth Employment Services with a privatised network of job placement service providers, and the creation of Centrelink, an agency which provides services across a range of portfolios and which replaced the Department of Social Security. Welfare reform and taxation reform were key features of the Howard Government’s second term agenda, during which they introduced the notions of the Social Coalition, Mutual Obligation, and a Work for the Dole scheme which has continued to expand since that time. Welfare reforms introduced under the Howard Government have radically altered the relationship between individuals on income support and the State, affecting their rights to make claims on the State and other citizens. Changes to welfare legislation and programs have been designed to alter the culture of welfare recipients, bringing them into line with acceptable mainstream values and identity.
In as far as debates over welfare are to do with the recognition of rights, and with issues of values, difference, and identity, they reflect wider social conflict sometimes referred to as “culture wars,” a term first coined by James Davison Hunter. Cultural conflict of this kind is often perceived to be between the Left and the Right of politics, between social conservatives and progressives, or between cultural elites and the masses of ordinary citizens. This thesis investigates political contributions to the welfare debate in Australia, and how they reflect “culture wars” debates. It argues that the Howard Government’s intervention into culture wars represents an attempt to gain acceptance for neo-liberal ideas across a range of social spheres in order to preserve the cultural and economic interests of particular groups.
The thesis analyses speeches delivered by several ministers in the Howard Government who held portfolios relevant to welfare during the period from the beginning of the government’s second term in office in October 1998 until the release of the McClure report into welfare reform in mid 2000. A Critical Discourse Analysis methodology is used to analyse the speeches, developed primarily from the work of Norman Fairclough with adaptations based on concepts from Teun A. van Dijk.
1 Interview with Liz Jackson on the Four Corners program, ABC, during the 1996 election campaign.
Three research questions are addressed in the analysis, dealing with the order of discourse for welfare politics, the representation of various stakeholder groups in the welfare debate, and how the speakers represent themselves. These questions allow a focus on the way that debates over welfare fit within a broader context of social change and power structures. While a range of discourses are reproduced in the speeches, over all they function to promote the economic sphere over the social sphere and to represent the government’s versions of globalisation and the economy as the only realistic ones. Alternative explanations and potentially oppositional voices are excluded from, or marginalised in, the speeches.
A nationalistic discourse, reproduced mainly by the Prime Minister, defines Australian values and national identity, creating a standard against which some groups are represented as lacking. The representations of groups are structured so as to form an alliance between the government, the business sector, and mainstream Australians. The personal style of several of the speakers, together with the discourses that they draw on, highlights their connections to ordinary Australians. All three aspects covered by the analysis—the order of discourse, the representations of stakeholder groups, and the self-representations of the speakers—reinforce a neo-liberal ideology that is often aligned on the side of the Right, conservatives, or sometimes the mass of ordinary citizens, in conflict over cultural issues.