The Melbourne Campaigners’ Network event on Anti-Poverty Organising in Australia was a well attended energising and inspiring discussion, countering the doom and gloom of the latest attacks on the welfare system.

The night included an overview of the history of Australia’s welfare system, followed by oral history from Annie Nash (sharing stories from the 1980s) and Luke McMahon (talking about his involvement in the Dole Army in the 90s and early 2000s).


‘If the Unemployed Are Dole Bludgers, What the Fuck Are the Idle Rich?’ Michael Callaghan, Redback Graphix, 1979, for Steel City Pictures.

Pre-Welfare struggle

We kicked off with excerpts from Jim Munro’s eyewitness history of the unemployed workers movement in the 1920s and 30s. Jim described the situation facing the unemployed before the federal government started providing benefits in 1945:

For thousands of people out of work there was no assistance of any kind except through the Ladies Benevolent Society. They were a voluntary organisation that existed in practically every suburb and was made up of middle class women, good meaning women a lot of them, some of them not so good meaning because their husbands owned butcher shops or groceries and they were concerned with getting orders for relief diverted to their husband’s business. If you were that desperate that you had to apply for assistance then they would come into your home and they’d go through it and say “Oh yes you need assistance, but you’re not up against it as yet, you’ve got a piano there you don’t need, you’ve got more chairs than you require in the house, you sell those things and we’ll come back in a fortnight’s time.” So they would make you sell up things that were in your home till you were cut down to the bare minimum and then they would provide assistance. When you got assistance it would be docket written out to go to such and such a grocer and get a basic amount of groceries and so forth. They weren’t the only ones on the rating, there were other religious groups too. That was the only assistance there was.

In this excerpt there are examples of welfare approaches still in play today – income management (or welfare quarantining, providing food rather than cash to be spent at the receiver’s discretion) and assets testing (pushing people to use their savings or liquefy assets before providing any relief).

Jim described some of the actions of the unemployed workers movement:

Things weren’t going too well so the Government decided to cut out the sustenance. Instead of getting an order to use at the Grocer you got a sugar bag, a 70 pound hessian bag, with groceries in it. Well we objected. The first day we refused to accept them. We held meetings to clear the flak, picketed the place and wouldn’t let anyone in. So nobody got sustenance that week. The same thing happened at Fitzroy, at Richmond, at Port Melbourne and there was hell to pay for a while. There were big riots down at the Richmond Town Hall and a whole number of people arrested. One of them was Steve Bagley who was the first to build a real unemployed organisation in Richmond. He got jailed over it. But we beat them. They had to go back to the ticket system and give them out again. We knocked that thing out.

So we kept on other things. We raised the question of clothing. None of us had boots, we were getting around nearly bare footed. The men got an issue of army boots, the women were a bit unlucky, they wouldn’t wear army boots so they had a special shoe made for the women that was almost as bad as an army boot. It was heavy. We got that issue once a year. Then they found out they had thousands of army uniforms left over from W.W.1 and figured that this was a good opportunity to get rid of them. So they gave them to the unemployed. So the first week we were all working around in the tunic. So then the Returned Services League (RSL) kicked up a row. “What an insult to the Army that this scum can walk around the streets in an army uniform.” So they stopped it and had them all dyed black and reissued to us. Well that was the best thing they ever did because wherever you walked and saw someone in a dyed army tunic you knew he was unemployed and you spoke to him. So it helped us develop our organisation.

Every unemployed group had its own meeting place – a little hall or a shop. We’d have all sorts of speakers on different subjects. We also held street meetings in a different suburb each night. At one point we started having meetings at Swanston Street on a Friday night. We’d start there and then the cops would move us on and we’d go up to Russell Street and then we’d head up to Little Bourke Street. Meanwhile someone would start in Little Collins Street and when they were done we’d start in Little Bourke Street and they’d go up to Little Lonsdale Street and so on. You’d reach a whole lot of people that way.

Jim also described a powerful march by the combined union and unemployed workers’ movement – 10,000 marchers holding the police at bay, and winning improvements to access to work and benefits. For more see Takver’s Radical History site.

Brief (incomplete) timeline of social security payments in Australia

  • Prior to World War II unemployment assistance primarily provided by charitable bodies and the states provided some food relief.
  • 1909 Aged pension introduced for those over 65 (or over 60 if presently incapacitated from work). It was means tested. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were excluded from eligibility.
  • 1910 Invalid pension introduced.
  • 1945 Unemployment and sickness benefit introduced. A flat payment funded from general revenue, unlike in UK where they established contributory unemployment schemes.
  • 1960 Aboriginal and Torres Strait people eligible for unemployment benefits and the aged pension.
  • 1973 Unemployment benefit paid at same rate as aged pension.
  • Mid-80s Social Security Review undertaken by Bettina Cass – Active Labour Market policies proposed.
  • 1985 Junior unemployment rate introduced for 16-17 year olds; an intermediate rate for 18-20 year olds. These rates were not indexed unlike the adult rate.
  • 1988 Introduction of the Job Search Allowance for young unemployed people which included for the first time an “activity test” (instead of just a “work test”).
  • 1991 All unemployed benefits subject to an “activity test”. Disability Support Pension introduced, replacing the invalid pension.
  • 1996 Newstart payment introduced.
  • 1997 Mutual Obligation – “Work for the Dole” – introduced.
  • 1998 Youth Allowance payment introduced for unemployed people 15-20 years of age and those studying from 16-24. Parental support requirements and mutual obligation strengthened.
  • 2000 Aged pension indexed to MTAWE (Male Total Average Weekly Earnings), Newstart remains indexed to CPI.
  • 2006 Welfare to Work: single parents with school aged children no longer eligible for parenting payment but have to go on the lower Newstart; greater restrictions on accessing the Disability Support Payment (if you have capacity to work part-time then onto Newstart); penalties for breaches of participation requirements (activity test) includes 8 week non-payment period.
  • 2007 Income management introduced as part of the NT Intervention and a trial in Cape York (two very different schemes).
  • 2010 Income management extended on a trial basis outside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
  • 2012/13 All single parents with children over 8 moved onto Newstart.
  • 2014 Proposals that people under 30 receive Newstart for only six months of any given year, including single parents on Newstart; Report on Disability Support Pension recommends further restrictions with the DSP only applying to ‘permanent’ disabilities.

* Dates in red indicate that the ALP were in government; dates in blue indicate that the Liberal-National coalition was in government. Source: Parliamentary Library.

This overview shows a consistent erosion of the welfare system, with greater restrictions over time. It should be noted that the ALP initiated aspects of the wind-back (such as the activity test) and consolidated and expanded aspects that were initiated by the Liberal Party (such as welfare quarantining and single parents being moved on to Newstart).

Inspiring oral history

Annie Nash described the creative, fun and radical nature of 1980s protest, with frequent rallies on a wide number of issues. She shared examples of the poster art of the era, some of which can be viewed here. She described being arrested at a large action outside the Melbourne Regent Hotel in 1987, which was protesting the Accord and many aspects of the Hawke government’s budget including attacks on the under-18 dole.

As Executive Director of Flat Out Annie brought her understanding of policing and surveillance to discussions of what has changed between now and then. She described how Amanda George was able to talk to those in the lock-up via a megaphone from the solidarity protest outside, in a way that couldn’t happen today. She also emphasised the impact of criminal records on people’s lives, including employment discrimination, and the fact that she and others still have records from the Regent protest.

Annie spoke about the unashamed activism of many community sector agencies in the ’80s which led to lively discussion about what has changed. Funding contracts which limit or forbid advocacy were raised and Annie argued that not-for-profits can segment their funds to provide systemic advocacy through donations and philanthropic support. Luke shared a powerful quote to highlight the impact of neoliberalism on not-for-profits:

It has been argued that one of the corollaries of a competitive corporative culture (predicated on the notion of efficiency and performance optimisation) is that it fosters the conditions that lead to the conflation of bullying with management. ‘Managerialism’ (the leadership style associated with the competitive, market driven organisational cultures) demands ambitious management, which is prepared to implement cost constraints over service delivery. Workers are recast as ‘productive units’ and traditional service users are ‘customers’. ‘Managerialism’ becomes a form of legitimised bullying – denying promotions, launching unsatisfactory performance actions and/or disciplinary procedures – or even to ensure that a staff member is made redundant. The net effect creates a system that ‘rewards obedience, conformity, quiescence, and punishes non-compliance, eccentricity and dissent. Above all, it breeds fear, cowardice, cynicism and sycophancy’.

Neoliberalism and Child Protection: A Deadly Mix, Martha Knox Haly

For more on this topic see also Tamed or Trained? – The Co-option and capture of ‘favoured’ NGO’s by Ruth Phillips.

Luke McMahon talked about his experiences as a young unemployed person in the 1990s, accessing support services via Youth Access Centres attached to CES (Commonwealth Employment Services, parallel to the DSS Department of Social Security of the time). Luke described the shift in treatment of unemployed people under the Howard government, doing away with YACs and outsourcing the CES to private Job Network providers.

The anger and frustration this sparked led to the formation of the Dole Army. This included a website informing people of their rights in relation to benefits, with the same appearance as Centrelink’s website. Centrelink threatened legal action on the basis that people may mistake the Dole Army site for the official Centrelink site (despite the prominent Dole Army logo), DA countered with ‘cease and desist’ on the basis that people may mistake the Centrelink site for the DA site. The Dole Army’s irreverence and anti-authoritarianism was summed up in the creative hoax on A Current Affair. A response to the inflammatory rhetoric and anti-unemployed bias of tabloid TV, the hoax involved some creative reframing including the ‘Toorak bludger’.

Have a watch:

… and see coverage of the response to the hoax here. The laughter in response to Luke’s excellent stories was definitely therapeutic.

More ideas for action

Many thanks to Iain McIntyre, Melbourne’s own radical historian, for tips for this Melbourne Campaigners’ Network event. Check out How to Make Trouble and Influence People for more social movement history inspiration.

Please share any extra resources or ideas in the comments below.