Working paper

In this working paper, the authors propose five indivisible principles to underpin Australia’s social security system so that it contributes to a just, fair and compassionate society.

Our social security system is ill equipped to respond to current and future technological, demographic, environmental and geopolitical challenges. The authors argue that social security needs to be reframed as being there for ‘for all of us’, emphasising the unpredictability of life events, such as becoming disabled or experiencing an unexpected health downturn, becoming a carer to a child or partner, or experiencing family violence leading to homelessness. Principles from Australia’s past and from overseas provide much food for thought.

The aim of this paper is to start a wider conversation about how Australia can enable economic security for all, now and in the future.

Proposed principles:

  1. Adequacy: Economic security is a human right and a precondition for wellbeing (International Labour Organization 2012). There is extensive evidence that the rate of Newstart Allowance is inadequate, being well below various poverty lines (Davidson et al. 2018; Melbourne Institute 2019). To prevent poverty and enable economic and social participation, social security payments must be adequate for people to live with dignity.
  2. Dignity and autonomy: Individual dignity and autonomy are fundamental to human rights. As the UN collaborative platform Social Protection & Human Rights (2015) points out, these are ‘inextricably linked to the principles of equality and non-discrimination’. The principle of dignity and autonomy also respects the right to privacy.
  3. Equity: An equitable system is fair and impartial. An equitable assessment of the adequacy of social security recognises that people have different needs depending on their age, gender, health and circumstances.
  4. Accountability: Accountability is reciprocal. For too long, the concept of reciprocity has focused on the obligations of those receiving income support payments, rather than also recognising the obligations of government. If work is held to be the best form of welfare, government must ensure that decent, sustainable jobs exist (Smith 2017). Accountability entails transparency: clear statements of eligibility, assessment and decision-making processes, so that individuals can understand their entitlements and if necessary challenge decisions.
  5. Solidarity: Social security provides a safety net for all of us. As part of a progressive tax and transfer system it socialises risk across the whole population. A social security system that recognises the value of investing in people enhances social cohesion.
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