Family Services Minister Mal Brough wants to withhold up to 40per cent of the welfare cash paid to problem families and to divert it into paying their rent, food and utility bills. The aim is to stop neglectful parents spending benefit payments on booze and drugs, and to force them instead to pay their bills and look after their children. The most controversial part of the plan involves issuing these parents with debit cards which could only be used to buy approved foodstuffs, and which could not be used to pay for alcohol or tobacco.
Predictably, the welfare lobby is up in arms about this idea. The St Vincent de Paul Society thinks the proposed debit cards would "degrade parents". It seems not to have occurred to them that it is already pretty degrading to be so hooked on drugs and alcohol that you are willing to take the food out of your children's mouths rather than starve your own habit.
The Australian Council of Social Service criticises the cards for "controlling behaviour" and says bad parents should be allowed to learn for themselves how money should be spent. But some parents have already demonstrated that they are unable or unwilling to learn. Should we keep giving them money while their children continue to go without?
The Welfare Rights Network acknowledges that there is a real problem with some parents but dismisses the Brough plan as "short-term, unsustainable and populist". It says the new system should only be introduced on a voluntary basis. But only responsible parents prepared to do the right thing would consider opting in to a voluntary system.
The only criticism that carries any weight came from the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children which worried about the possibility of fraud and a black market in debit cards. This is certainly a legitimate concern, for in the US, which has long experience with welfare food stamps, there have been problems of recipients trading stamps for cash so they can buy alcohol.
Welfare debit cards will not be as easy to trade as food stamps, but they could be defrauded, just as ordinary debit and credit cards sometimes are. But this is not grounds for opposing the proposal. Rather, it points to the need for putting good ID security measures in place, and for imposing strong penalties against those who get caught rorting the system.
There is also the problem of how to determine which welfare parents should be issued with these cards. Brough wants state government child-welfare agencies to identify bad parents for him, and he says school truancy records will also provide a good indicator of neglectful parenting. Clearly, however, care will be needed in identifying at-risk families, and there are bound to be "difficult cases" where officials make mistakes.
The really thorny issues raised by this policy are, however, philosophical rather than practical. Conservatives and classical liberals do often diverge, and the Brough proposal is a case in point.
The proposal is an example of conservative paternalism (people who cannot or will not look after themselves properly are told how to behave by the Government). It is consistent with the Government's broader commitment to "mutual obligation" in welfare, which rests on the belief that government should cajole people into doing the right thing as a condition of giving them help. It is also consistent with some of the initiatives being championed by Noel Pearson and others in remote indigenous communities. These ideas are, however, anathema to classical liberals who believe government should leave people free to go to hell in their own way (although they do recognise that children's welfare has to be protected).
On this issue, Brough has got it right. As a community, we have a duty to ensure children are properly looked after. Once taxpayers agree to help people meet the costs of raising their children, they are surely entitled to expect that the money will be spent as it was intended to be. Equally, if you claim welfare support to help you raise your children, it is not unreasonable for the rest of us to require that the money be spent responsibly.
Professor Peter Saunders is social research director of The Centre for Independent Studies. This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.