Dole bludgers, tax payers and the new right: constructing discourses of welfare in 1970s Australia (Verity Archer)

See also : Brixton Riots, 10-12th April 1981, An eye witness account by the ‘We Want to Riot, Not To Work Collective’, 1982 | The Dole Army : “If it wasn’t real, it would almost be comical.” (January 3, 2010).

Dole bludgers, tax payers and the new right: constructing discourses of welfare in 1970s Australia
Labour History – A Journal of Labour and Social History
No.96 (May 2009)
Verity Archer


The international shift to New Right economics in the early 1970s, led by America, was the driving force for the invention of the dole bludger in Australia. The construction of the ‘dole bludger’ as the financial burden of the ‘taxpayer’ was a vital part of a broader effort to construct neo-liberal parameters for economic debate in Australia. This new discursive frame displaced the old deserving and undeserving poor discourses that existed during the decades of full employment leading up to the 1974 stagflation. This article argues that dole-bludger discourse should be included within a broader understanding of Australia’s shift to neo-liberalism. It focuses specifically on the role that economic think tanks played in bringing these ideas to Australia and the role that political figures played in popularising New Right welfare frames for an Australian audience.

The invention of the term ‘dole bludger’ in 1974 marks a pivotal point in Australian welfare state history. (1) Prior to this point, discursive constructions of the unemployed drew upon the figures of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, prominent throughout the 1930s Depression and in the decades of ‘full employment’ leading up to 1974. This new term constructed welfare recipients as parasites upon ‘ordinary Australian’ taxpayers and in doing so embodied an ideological and discursive shift occurring in relation to the welfare state. The new cognitive frames reflected an emerging struggle to define economic ‘common sense’ taking place in all western economies throughout the 1970s. Together the construction of new cognitive frames and the shift of institutional resources away from Keynesianism led to the fundamental transformation of welfare policy and discourse in Australia.

This shift has not been noted by any of the studies that pay attention to the emergence of the dole bludger. While Philip Mendes has correctly identified the dole bludger as existing alongside the neo-liberal push that occurred in the early-to-mid 1970s, further work needs to be done to provide a detailed analysis of the relationship between the two phenomena. (2) Keith Windschuttle’s 1979 book Unemployment is the only published work dealing specifically with dole bludgers as a discursive category. (3) This study regards the dole bludger as a revival of the deserving and undeserving poor discourse prominent throughout the 1930s and in the lead up to 1974. Studies of the New Right tend to examine the discourse in the context of the 1980s and 1990s–the decades during which the New Right achieved government in the United Kingdom (UK) under Thatcher and the United States of America (USA) under Reagan. Both neglect the formative relationship between the two phenomena. One necessarily acts to strengthen the foundation of the other. (4)

A History of Bludgers

The term ‘dole bludger’ is unique to Australia and New Zealand. (5) Both ‘dole’ and ‘bludger’ are terms essentially confined to Australasia. In America, for example, we see equivalent terms such as welfare chiseller and welfare queen, (6) with their own distinct meanings and gender connotations, used by New Right actors to similar effect, whereas in the UK the term ‘welfare scrounger’ is common. (7) These terms all have their own genealogy and bring with them meanings specific to the people of the nation in which they are used, by this means giving a ‘national character’ to anti-welfare discourses. However, they hold in common the fact that they all have been used by the New Right to render illegitimate social justice calls for welfare state expansion.

From its earliest origins the Australasian ‘bludger’ has been placed in opposition to the discursive category of worker, and for this reason: the term resonates with the Australian working class in a way that terms like ‘scrounger’ and ‘chiseller’ do not. The bludger in its various forms is the antithesis and the enemy of the worker. The bludger lives off the worker’s effort and gives nothing in return. The relationship between the two categories is parasitic and exploitative, and for this reason: the term conjures feelings of resentment and injustice among the working class. Throughout its various etymological twists and turns it has maintained these elements.

In Australia as in the UK and the USA, the term ‘bludger’ was originally used to describe a prostitute’s pimp, chiefly due to the pimp’s weapon of choice–a bludgeon. Other forms of the word bludger draw their connotation from this meaning, in essence describing the ‘exploiter’ in a relationship of economic exploitation. The prostitute in relation to her bludger was termed a ‘battler’. (8) The relationship between the bludger and the battler, while transposed from about 1900 onwards to apply to wider economic categories, has maintained its original meaning. The bludger extracts financial benefit from a worker while exerting no work effort, but the ‘battler’ who is coercively bound to this relationship ‘battles on’ for financial survival. This specific meaning of the word ‘bludger’ continued to apply well into the twentieth century, with the most recent example appearing in the Sydney Fairfax paper the Sun-Herald in 1993, (9) but during the twentieth century others were detected as having a ‘parasitic’ relationship to the worker and consequently named as ‘bludgers’. In countries outside of Australasia, the term ‘bludger’ slipped from common usage at the turn of the century. In Australia and New Zealand the modified version of the term gained popularity among the working class and has been applied variously to the present day.

Drawing on the original connotation, the term ‘bludger’ was commonly applied throughout the twentieth century to anyone seen to ‘evade one’s own responsibilities and impose on or prey upon others; to live off the efforts of others’ or to ‘one who does not make a fair contribution’. (10) This version of the bludger was most often found to ‘bludge’ in work, and not outside of it. Manual workers used it as a term of abuse to describe fellow workers who were seen to exert less effort than others. An example of this appears in John Spicer’s Cry of the Storm Bird in 1958:

[H]e always appeared to be in the act of lighting a cigarette or sharpening his axe. This gave Rob a feeling of angry satisfaction ‘Bludging over there while I’m working like hell’, he thought. (11)

The bludger among a group of workers is also seen to possess ‘unmately’ and therefore dishonourable characteristics. He cheats his workmates by coasting while other workers are forced to pick up the slack. In essence then, a portion of the value of a worker’s labour goes to the ‘bludger’ and the worker sees this as a form of economic injustice.

Radical workers also defined capitalists as bludgers placing them in opposition to the ‘battler’ worker from whom the capitalist extracted his wealth. (12) More common however was a construction of the white-collar worker as a ‘bludger’ living on the back of the blue-collar worker. This bludger, unlike the workmate who merely ‘coasted’, was seen to live in luxury at the expense of the worker and to falsely regard himself as superior. In 1910 for example we see in the Sydney newspaper Truth reference to non-manual labourers as a ‘blackguard band of blatant, bumptious bummers and bludgers, who bum and bludge on labour’, (13) while in the 1967 play This Old Man by Dorothy Hewett we see: ‘The working class can kiss me arse for I’ve found a bludger’s job at last’. (14) Alex Buzo, one of the first people in Australia to popularise the term ‘new class’ in relation to white collar workers, (15) also wrote in 1969 of bludgers living in luxury and possessing an unfounded sense of superiority: ‘I don’t like those la-di-da hoity-toity upper-crust bludgers with their fancy accents’. (16) While this characterisation of the white-collar worker continued and gained strength after 1974, it was narrowed somewhat to apply specifically to public sector workers, particularly those within the ‘social justice industry’. The term ‘bludger’ was less often associated with the character as it began to take on a new language provided in the form of ‘new class’ discourse. In 1973, the term ‘bludger’ was for the first time applied to unemployment benefit recipients, and in the decade that followed this application dominated.

While the Australian National Dictionary traces the term ‘dole bludger’ back to an article in Australian Consolidated Press’ The Bulletin in 1976, the first use of ‘bludger’ to describe an unemployment benefit recipient extends back to 1973, when South Australian Liberal Party parliamentarian Bert Kelly spoke of citizens paying extra taxes to fund bludgers on unemployment benefits. (17) The first use of the term ‘dole bludger’ came the following year when in December 1974 an article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘Minister hits at dole “bludgers”‘. The Minister in question was the former Anglican Dean of Sydney, the Rev Dr Stuart Barton Babbage, who supposedly uttered the term while speaking to the Scots Presbyterian Church in Margaret Street, Sydney. During his sermon he also claimed that generous social security benefits had given rise to ‘a generation of shameless bludgers’. (18)

In coining the term, Reverend Babbage gave a particular Australian character to a discourse emerging from America. This discourse, invented by the American New Right, constructed welfare recipients as the enemy of taxpayers, on whom they depended for financial survival. Before this, persons in receipt of the dole were referred to variously as ‘shirkers’, ‘idlers’, ‘cheats’, ‘job dodgers’ and ‘swindlers’, and these terms were applied throughout the 1970s, but the term ‘dole bludger’ as this article will show, emerged due to very specific circumstances present in 1974. The questions that remain are why and how did this transformation occur at this time?

Stagflation and Opportunity

The world oil crisis of October 1973 precipitated the onset of ‘stagflation’ in almost every western economy. This phenomenon, named to reflect the simultaneous occurrence of stagnation and inflation within a nation’s economy, defied the principles of dominant post-war economic theory. To this point, the economic theory posited by the British economist John Maynard Keynes continued to be constructed as ‘common sense’. Keynesian theory supported a process by which full employment is maintained by government intervention. Keynes claimed that by running a budget deficit, a government increases the flow of money through the economy, which in turn increases demand for goods and services. The welfare state formed an integral part of the process allowing both workers and the unwaged more disposable income to contribute toward the private market, and therefore toward the maintenance of employment. A trade-off between unemployment and inflation was the necessary result. Most of the time a delicate balance was sought. Keynesian theory was regarded as ‘the only option’ for those wishing to avoid economic disaster.

In the period between the end of World War II and the oil embargo of 1973, there existed economists whose ideas appeared to defy ‘common sense’. Chief among them were the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, the ‘Chicago School’ which included Milton Friedman, and increasingly toward the end of the 1960s a small population of think tanks such as the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs. These men and women seemed to ignore the new economic wisdom by proposing the implementation of economic programs that appeared a lot like laissez faire. While Hayek achieved some notoriety after World War II, Keynes’s theory of demand management had since proven his theories ‘incorrect’. These economists carried on building and refining their theories and practice within a small network and in 1974 Hayek received the Nobel Prize for economics.

The economic downturn of 1974 was described in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Economic Outlook as ‘the most serious since World War II’. (19) Vietnam War spending meant that the USA had maintained balance of payments deficits while the rest of the world dealt with surpluses that caused inflation. The real boost to inflation came with the outbreak of the fourth Arab-Israeli War on 6 October 1973. On 16 October the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cut oil production and increased the price by 70 per cent in order to use it as a diplomatic weapon. By the June quarter of 1974 most OECD countries were experiencing inflation rates of between 10 and 20 per cent. In Australia a rate of 16.7 per cent, measured by the Consumer Price Index, was recorded for the 1974/75 financial year. Contrary to Keynesian economic expectations, unemployment began rising rapidly.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), relying on household surveys to calculate unemployment, found that in December 1975, the height of the 1974-75 stagflation, 5.4 per cent of the labour force was unemployed. The figure was higher for women and youth. Of the female labour force seven per cent were unemployed and the figure for youth (15-19 years) was close to 14 per cent. (20) The invention of the ‘dole bludger’ reflected a moment of transition during which a New Right network began disarticulating previous truths and reforming their elements into new ones.

The Dole Bludger’s American Origins

The 1960s in the USA witnessed a marked expansion of income maintenance programs. President Lyndon Johnson’s plan for a ‘Great Society’ included a ‘War on Poverty’ which, from 1964, rapidly increased spending on social security pensions, unemployment compensation, public housing, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). (21)

The term ‘welfare explosion’ appeared to sum up the social programs of 1960s America, particularly in the rhetoric of those who opposed them. During the economic downturn that appeared at the end of that decade and peaked with the 1973-74 recession, increasing numbers of people began blaming welfare for America’s social and economic discomfort. Discontent at the perceived racial and bureaucratic results of President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ emerged in the 1960s as relief rolls expanded, welfare bureaucracy grew larger and welfare recipients gained more power through protest and Community Action Projects. However, it was not until the economic downturn of the late 1960s and early 1970s that discontent surfaced in an organised fashion. Anti-redistribution advocates emerged at times of relative economic comfort but, like their Australian counterparts, only really broke through to the mainstream during a period of economic crisis.

By the end of Johnson’s Presidency a small and (with the exception of Daniel P. Moynihan and Milton Friedman) peripheral group of anti-welfare advocates had emerged. They came to have a significant influence on Australian welfare discourses throughout the 1970s and beyond. Among the advocates were economic libertarians who sought the abolition or near abolition of the welfare state, and breakaway Democrats and Republicans who would come to be known as neo-conservatives. Together they were known as the ‘New Right’. When Keynesianism began to experience theoretical contradictions, just as the New Right had prophesised, the network exploited these contradictions to shift its agenda from the periphery to the political mainstream. Financial and institutional resources contributed to its success.

While the Keynesian ‘consensus’ remained largely intact in government circles, some American economists began looking to pre-Keynesian laissez-faire economics for answers. Previously ignored or derided anti-Keynesian economists also began to gain influence. Among them the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, whose work consistently challenged the welfare state from the 1940s to his death in 1992, was perhaps the most studied. His arguments for the replacement of Keynesian demand economics with a monetarist economics began to gain some credibility as the New Right searched for alternatives to the welfare system they believed was destroying the nation. Monetarism, and later supply-side economics, provided that alternative. In some ways representing a return to the ‘invisible hand’ thesis of Adam Smith, it reinvoked the theory that the market should determine the allocation of resources and income while the state should minimise interference. In advocating a monetarist framework for macroeconomics, Hayek was less concerned with maintaining the purchasing power of the poor than with limiting the supply and circulation of money and balancing the budget.

In addition, Hayek provided a ‘moral’ justification for the limitation of welfare. His 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty claimed that ‘liberty’ could not exist under a system of progressive taxation and that the provision of welfare to some, using a ‘needs based’ system of allocation, discriminated against the majority in favour of the minority. He claimed:

The third main ambition that inspires the Welfare State is the desire to use the powers of government to ensure a more even or more just distribution of goods. Insofar as this means that the coercive powers of government are to be used to ensure that particular people get particular things, it requires a kind of discrimination between, and an unequal treatment of, different people, which is irreconcilable with a free society. That is the kind of Welfare State that aims at ‘social justice’ and becomes ‘primarily a redistributor of income’. (22)

Not only was the practice of redistribution on a needs basis regarded as morally wrong, the power vested in the government to do so was regarded by Hayek as ‘the greatest danger to liberty today’. (23)

New discourses that outlined the primacy of taxpayers’ rights over welfare rights became central. Robert Nozick was the first libertarian philosopher of the New Right period to concentrate on ‘property rights’ and ‘taxpayers’ rights’ as a direct opponent of welfare rights. His most famous work Anarchy State and Utopia, also written in 1974, claimed that the only legitimate ‘rights’ were those based upon the individual’s right to be free from ‘coercion’ and ‘fraud’. Rights did not exist at the group level. (24) Therefore, welfare rights could not exist. Not only that, welfare was a violation of ‘legitimate rights’ based upon these principles.

[Y]our being forced to contribute to another’s welfare violates your rights, whereas someone else’s not providing you with things you greatly need, including things essential to the protection of your rights does not itself violate your rights. (25)

While blame for the ‘violation of rights’ can be attributed to government, Nozick argued that welfare recipients themselves were also to blame for accepting the ‘stolen goods’. It was the New Right’s emphasis on a ‘parasitic’ relationship between the taxpayer and the welfare recipient that had provided the inspiration for the ‘dole bludger’. Australian think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and later the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) acted as a conduit for these ideas.

The Transfer to Australia

As small-state and anti-redistribution ideas emerged in America, powerful Australians began to change their outlook. Links were forged between overseas New Right figures and influential Australian institutions, among them, the Treasury, the Associated Chambers of Commerce in Australia (ACCA) and the most influential economic think-tank in Australia at the time, the IPA. ‘Information campaigns’ modelled on their US counter-parts were set up with the help of overseas think tanks. (26) These information campaigns were heavily funded by national and international businesses and focused specifically on discrediting Keynesian economics and promoting taxpayers’ rights. Further links were forged when Australian New Right figures and the IPA sponsored massive lecture tours for Hayek and Friedman who had both won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974 and 1976 respectively. A great deal of media, academic and political attention also accompanied these tours.

At the end of 1972, a drastic change in the Australian political climate occurred. After 23 years of Liberal Country Party (LCP) governments that had, for the most part, been conducive to advice from the IPA, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was returned to office. Under the leadership of Gough Whitlam, the new government rapidly increased social spending. Within its first year the government increased welfare benefit rates, relaxed eligibility requirements, created new social programmes and made other social programmes universal instead of means tested. In addition, the Minister for Social Security, Bill Hayden, began to speak of welfare as a basic human right and called upon people to claim their various entitlements. The IPA went into damage control, calling on more funds and further assistance in reaching the public. It proposed to do so via a massive ‘economic education’ campaign.

In 1972 alone, IPA publications were used in over 1,000 schools. Many others were on a waiting list. Because this material was provided free-of-charge to schools, demand was so high that not all orders could be filled. (27) In the same year, one IPA booklet entitled ‘Better living–the Key is Productivity’ which promoted a ‘trickle down’ theory of income distribution, was distributed to 200 companies and their 40,000 employees. An additional 60,000 copies were distributed free of charge to teachers, schools and students. (28) The booklet was just one of many produced in conjunction with the Productivity Promotion Council of Australia as part of a ‘national education campaign’. Among other things, this campaign sought to convince Australians that the market was the best place for the allocation of resources and that government should wind back its role in the process.

Throughout the period of ALP government, funding for the IPA’s education campaign increased substantially. New funding from business sources enabled the IPA to spread its message beyond the workplace and into the homes of employees. Managers supplied employee addresses to the Institute ‘so that the whole family could read its message’. (29) Every edition of Facts during these years contained a prominent article on taxation and redistribution. In addition, these articles often contained references to international New Right thinkers who took on the status of ‘expert’ while advocating populist discourses and strategies for ‘irate taxpayers’. In the October-November 1974 edition of Facts, page three was devoted entirely to Milton Friedman’s call for a ‘Personal Independence Day’, which the IPA believed could be equally applied in the Australian context. The campaign also employed the ideas of American libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick by encouraging readers to think of paying taxes to the government as a type of ‘servitude’. Following the Personal Independence Day campaign, Friedman’s observations began popping up in Facts on a regular basis. These observations contributed to a running theme in Facts. They characterised taxpayers as ‘ordinary people’ who were pitted against welfare recipients and against an oppressive government.

By the time Friedman made his first visit to Australia in April 1975, the Institute was ready to make a commitment to a new style of economics. The next edition of the IPA Review described Friedman’s visit as a ‘breath of fresh air’ and as a ‘compelling exposition’ and claimed that his lecture tour had made a ‘deep and salutary impact on the Australian economic and political landscape’. (30) During his time in Australia, Friedman addressed audiences in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, held discussions with Reserve Bank and Treasury officials, and spoke to government and opposition members and to business and academic leaders. He also spoke at the National Press Club, (31) and on the ABC-TV program Monday Conference. A repeat was aired six weeks later. (32) An economic adversary of Friedman’s, the left-wing Keynesian economist Joan Robinson also appeared on the program that month. She spent a great deal of time contradicting Friedman’s views on inflation, and claimed that cost-push inflation was a result of the struggle between capital and labour and not a result of money supply factors. (33) According to Jerry Courvisanos and Alex Millmow, who have produced the only academic study of the tour, it was Friedman’s lecture that was illegally taped by schools and universities and shown ‘endlessly over the next five years’. (34)

Friedman’s visit was a very important experience on which the New Right could further build a relationship with the public. It provided the New Right with an ‘expert’ whose name could be raised in general conversation, in media, parliament and bureaucracy, in schools and universities, and instantly recognised by people outside of these institutions. This process was further enhanced the following year when Friedman received the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Inspired by Friedman’s successful visit, the IPA arranged for F.A. Hayek to give a lecture tour the following year. Hayek’s address to the Institute revolved around the issue of economic planning. The paper outlined the benefits of economic Darwinism and the tendency for planning to stunt man’s natural evolution. (35) The Institute saw Hayek’s visit as a reflection of a parting of the ways between those who favoured liberty and those who favoured welfare. At least, his visit was intended to shore up the arsenal of those who favoured liberty. In an issue of IPA Review devoted to Hayek’s visit, the Institute declared:

Professor Hayek came to Australia at a peculiarly appropriate time. It is clear that this country has reached a grand climacteric, a fateful parting of the ways so far as its political and economic future is concerned. The momentous question is whether, in the years ahead, libertarian values are to prevail, enterprise, both corporate and individual, is to be properly rewarded, and the market is to be allowed to perform its traditional function of allocating the resources of the community in the most effective manner in the interests of all; or whether government is to assume an ever larger role in the distribution of resources and income, in the provision of so-called Welfare and in the general direction of the lives of the people. In short what is ultimately at stake is the survival of individual freedom. (36)

On the final page of the issue, the IPA advertised a job for a research economist and statistician. There was only one essential criterion: ‘a personal commitment to the values of individualism, free enterprise and the market economy’. (37)

These campaigns encouraged a new way of speaking about welfare by highlighting ‘waste’ and ‘irrationality’ within the public sector, and within the welfare sector in particular. According to organs like the IPA, any growth in the welfare sector reflected greed, not need, and meant higher taxes for everyone. The ‘handout mentality’ Australians clung to was said to result in greatly reduced take-home pay packets, a sore point due to the simultaneous rising inflation. Consequently, the IPA argued that the distribution process should be shifted to the market where men like Hayek and Friedman had ‘proven’ it belonged.

Popularising New Right Welfare Frames

New ways of thinking about the state and about rights and justice were an integral part of the popularisation of a new economic ‘common sense’ in Australia. Central was the claim that welfare recipients acted as parasites or bludgers upon economically maligned taxpayers. The concept, if not the term, was commonplace among the think tanks, but the government’s ability to reach more people and to popularise the philosophies of Friedman, Nozick and Hayek far surpassed the abilities of the think tanks. The terms in which these philosophies were expressed were intended to connect with feelings of financial stress among low to middle income earners, especially given the effects of the stagflation. The new economic common sense was therefore accompanied by a legitimising philosophical common sense, which sought to redefine contested notions such as ‘rights’ and ‘justice’ and to replace the social with the individual. By placing the rights of the taxpayer at the apex, claims for welfare rights could be declared to be ill-founded and illegitimate, mainly because ‘property rights’ as defined by libertarian philosophy could not exist in conjunction with welfare rights. (38)

Most members of the government followed a neo-conservative as opposed to a libertarian line on taxation. This meant that while it was agreed that government should still collect and spend taxes, it was also agreed that the process should accord with the wishes of ‘the people’. More often than not the wishes of the people coincided with the wishes of the parliamentarians promoting them. This meant that rhetoric on taxpayers’ rights coincided with and supported government policy. In a parliamentary debate in March 1976, Senator Kathryn Martin claimed, while discussing unemployment benefit:

There is no doubt at all that there was enormous resentment in our society, and there still is, towards people who claim that they do not have to work but that those who do have to work should keep them as well … We have a responsibility to them [taxpayers] as the people who fund the operations of government, to ensure that the basic democratic process, that is the right of the taxpayer and the right of the voter to direct how their money will be spent, is safeguarded. (39)

Robert Nozick’s characterisation of taxation as theft in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia also played an important role in the promotion of a small state agenda during parliamentary debate. Liberal member for Petrie, John Hodges, for example, likened the receipt of dole money to shoplifting and encouraged each taxpayer to view him or herself as a victim of crime. (40) While claims that the poor ‘do not want to work’ are by no means new, what is new at this time is the demand for government to uphold taxpayers’ property rights by winding back the welfare state.

Around this time too LCP members began to use ‘socialism’ as short hand for Keynesianism. This reflected techniques used by the New Right in America to bring Old Right Cold War crusaders over to the cause. Malcolm Fraser outlined the difference between a socialist and a liberal in his speech to the 46th ANZAAS conference in 1975, stating that ‘the socialist will turn to government-sponsored solutions while the liberal asks, “can individuals solve it for themselves, can the government create the climate in which that can happen?”‘. (41) Senator Douglas Scott of the National Country Party claimed in 1978 that ‘socialism’ had been the cause of unemployment. It had encouraged people to demand entitlements under circumstances of financial strain rather than simply ‘getting on with the job of production’. (42)

The government also began using another popular New Right discourse that had emerged from the neo-conservative movement in the USA and particularly from prominent New Right activists such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. This discourse, later termed ‘new-class’ discourse, invoked an image of an elite ‘new class’ of welfare bureaucrats and middle-class intellectuals whose purpose in supporting the ‘social justice industry’ was purely self-motivated. The ‘new class’, therefore, wasted taxpayers’ property in a fashion that did not benefit the economically disadvantaged. Their main object, according to proponents of the discourse, was career advancement and institutional power. Victorian backbencher Neil Brown articulated this when in 1978 he spoke of a ‘social welfare establishment’ whose main concern lay in encouraging a ‘dependent mentality’ in order to maintain the ‘boundaries of its empire’. (43)

The discourse enabled its proponents to claim that welfare did not help ‘the people’, in fact it hindered the people. ‘The people’ did not want middle-class elites interfering in their lives. The new class were out of touch with what ‘the people’ wanted. In contrast, the LCP claimed to speak on behalf of the people, vocalising their desire for lower taxes, a decreased welfare state and ‘less interference’ in their lives. The people’s wishes mirrored the New Right’s vision for economic recovery. In Fraser’s ‘National Objectives’ speech in 1975, under the heading ‘Solution to Crisis’ he claimed that ‘In our society individuals will not tolerate and ought not to tolerate vast increases in government’s right to direct how their incomes will be spent’. He added that if the current distribution of resources were deemed to be acceptable by the people ‘they would not be making such vigorous claims to increase the real value of their take home incomes’. In saying this Fraser drew a discursive line between those who promoted social services and those who desired more take-home pay. Essentially, the latter were probably the highest users of social services and welfare payments, but to choose more take-home pay over social services became synonymous with being ‘one of the people’. Those who chose social services were ‘bludgers’ or part of the ‘new class’.

Liberal Country Party members began to find opposition to welfare and to the new class among all sorts of ‘average Australians’ just as Kristol and Podhoretz had found among ‘average Americans’. Not only did this serve to promote anti-welfare identification among the working classes who were always identified with the label of ‘average American’ or ‘average Australian’, it also served to separate disgruntled Old Left Democrats and ALP supporters from parties that had changed their focus quite markedly over the previous decade, particularly under Lyndon Johnson and Gough Whitlam.

While making a claim against the Labor Party and the new class, the New Right sought to attach itself to the traditional Labor Party constituency by representing itself as the true defender of the worker. This was a strategy engaged in by the American New Right and adopted by the Australian New Right both in the promotion of new-class discourse and in the promotion of taxpayers’ rights. The development of this strategy arose for the most part not from the new-class discourse developing within the New Right in the USA but from the work of two American Democrats hoping to revive their own party. The Real Majority, written by Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg claimed that the key to winning a majority of voters lay in defining them. The average American according to the authors, had mixed views about race and civil rights, was fearful of crime and most importantly ‘had always voted with her pocket book’. (44) The New Right adapted the profile to ensure that it included resentment towards the beneficiaries of the ‘average American pocketbook’, that is, government employees and welfare recipients.

Members of the Fraser Government adopted this New Right strategy and language without necessarily identifying fully with a New Right agenda. Essentially it could be adopted by anyone wishing to separate ‘taxpayers’ from welfare recipients in order to gain support for policy decisions. Its effectiveness during a time of economic crisis lay in the fact that it provided a plausible explanation for the economic pressures felt by ‘average Australians’. Senator Peter Rae, a parliamentary ‘dry’, articulated the rhetorical divide when he claimed in 1978:

I think one of our troubles in Australia at the moment is that to quite an extent we are suffering from a hardening of the compassion artery as a result of the constant twitching of the hip pocket nerve as people have been required to pay more and more to cover the cost of compassionate action. I was intrigued during the recent election campaign, while in the field for some three weeks meeting hundreds of people in factories, timber mills, shops, pubs and other places that the one matter that was raised constantly by the average person was his concern about unemployment. But it was not a concern for the unemployed; it was a concern for the amount of money it was costing the country to support people whom they regarded as not wanting to work. (45)


We can trace much of the tenor of current welfare policies and discourses back to the 1974 shift. Although it has been common to disregard the dole bludger as a phenomenon of a past era, not worthy of much attention today, an analysis of current-day concepts such as ‘work for the dole’ and ‘mutual obligation’ and the ‘welfare to work’ policy package, which came into effect in July 2006, will reveal the extent to which the dole bludger is still alive and well. In the September 2006 issue of Just Policy, Benno Engels claims that the dole bludger has been replaced by welfare dependency frames; while the importance of this ‘dependency’ discourse cannot be denied, it is not necessarily the major shift that Engels suggests. Rather, work that regards the concept of ‘dependency’ as pivotal to welfare state discourses confuses the dole bludger with the category of ‘undeserving poor’, failing to acknowledge that the bludger is essentially defined by its relationship to the taxpayer–a major departure from deserving and undeserving poor discourse. Much of what is attributed to welfare dependency discourse, including the focus on ‘big government’ and dependency, actually occurred from 1974 onward. (46)

Current taxpayer versus welfare recipient discourses incorporate much of the logic present in the 1974 shift, casting the taxpayer as ‘victim’ and adding a requirement that he or she be ‘compensated’ by the welfare recipient. In addition we have seen a further extension of this taxpayer as victim mantle with ‘battler’ increasingly used to describe the taxpayer when juxtaposed with beneficiaries of government schemes and benefits; not only ‘dole bludgers’, but Indigenous Australians, single mothers, and on many occasions, women in general.

This article provides an overview of the construction of the ‘dole bludger’ as the enemy of ‘average Australian taxpayers’, examining how this construction stems from the New Right’s formative period in Australia. The welfare discourse popularised during this period helped promote a general shift away from a Keynesian ‘common sense’ supportive of the welfare state, drawing Australia instead into a period of neo-liberal ‘common sense’. This new ‘common sense’ cast ‘taxpayers’ as the supreme bearers of economic rights, and the welfare state as intruding on those rights. The ‘dole bludger’ then, has arisen from the way in which the New Right has been able to draw the economic needs and desires of low-to-middle-income workers into a broader New Right logic.

At the time of revising this article (October 2008), a new economic crisis has emerged to challenge the existing neo-liberal framing of the welfare state. The ‘global financial crisis’ was generated chiefly by the subprime loan industry in the USA, where high interest home loans were granted to high-risk customers, many of whom had no income or assets. It has manifested in the collapse and subsequent bail out by government of the financial institutions dealing in subprime loans that cannot be repaid. The crisis has been described by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, as the ‘single greatest threat to our economic security in a generation’ and ‘the most significant upheaval in the global financial system in our lifetime’. (47) The Bush administration has introduced a $700 billion rescue package intended to prevent an economic catastrophe. The effects in other countries are at this time feared but unknown.

One of the immediate effects of this global financial crisis has been to alter public discourse regarding the purpose of the welfare state. At the time of writing, the Australian Prime Minister has just made a speech to the National Press Club announcing a $10.4 billion dollar package made up of cash payments to pensioners and low-to-middle income earners with the purpose of ‘boosting household consumption’ and stimulating the economy. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has all but declared the death of the invisible hand by stating that

what we see now is the comprehensive failure of extreme capitalism extreme capitalism which now turns to government to prevent systemic failure. The institutions of government that extreme capitalism spent decades deriding. (48)

The Liberal opposition, under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, has supported the package and its stimulatory intentions, even claiming it does not go far enough to boost the purchasing power of pensioners. (49) To this point, unemployment benefit recipients have been left out.

While this may look like the beginnings of a major paradigm shift, it is difficult at this stage to predict the effect this will have on the formation of new ideologies and on the discursive framing of unemployment benefit recipients. Suffice to say it is worth close attention.


(1.) This article examines exclusively the role of think tanks and parliamentarians. The role of the Australian media is quite different to that of parliamentarians, and therefore worth dealing with separately. This is examined this in Verity Archer, In Search of the Australian Dole Bludger: Constructing Discourses of Welfare, 1974-83, PhD thesis, Australian National University, Canberra, 2006.

(2.) Philip Mendes, Australia’s Welfare Wars: The Players, the Politics and the Ideologies, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2003, p. 31.

(3.) Keith Windschuttle, Unemployment: A Social and Political Analysis of the Economic Crisis in Australia, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1979. There have also been two unpublished PhD theses dealing with the Australian dole bludger: Alan Law, Idlers, Loafers and Layabouts: An Historical Sociological Study of Welfare Discipline and Unemployment in Australia, PhD thesis, University of Alberta, 1993; and Archer, In Search of the Australian Dole Bludger.

(4.) My PhD thesis provides an alternative to Windschuttle’s analysis of the dole bludger as a manifestation of deserving and undeserving poor frames produced to mask the failures of capitalism. My thesis argues that New Right discourses became popular in Australia during the 1974 stagflation and led to the production of a new taxpayer-versus-welfare discursive frame in which the welfare recipient/welfare state was viewed as a parasite (bludger) upon the ‘ordinary taxpayer’.

(5.) H.W. Orsman (ed.), The Dictionary of New Zealand English: A Dictionary of New Zealandisms on Historical Principles, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1997; W.S. Ramson (ed.), The Australian National Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988.

(6.) The term ‘welfare queen’ was popularised during the Reagan administration. The famous monetarist Milton Friedman was the first to use the term in his book , referring to ‘well-publicised reports of welfare “queens” driving around in Cadillacs bought with multiple relief checks’. Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, Harcourt Brace Javanovich, New York, 1980, p. 136.

(7.) For an examination of the ‘welfare scrounger’ see Peter Golding and Sue Middleton, Images of Welfare: Press and Public Attitudes to Poverty, Robertson, Oxford, 1982.

(8.) See the entry for ‘battler’ in Australian Words, Australian National Dictionary Centre. Available at: (accessed 5 March 2009).

(9.) ‘The judge fined Rahme, who had no previous convictions, $10,000 on the bludging charge, holding that “his income stems from and depended upon the exploitation of a large number of women”‘. See Sun-Herald, 19 December 1993, cited in G.A. Wilkes (ed.), A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 1996, p. 38.

(10.) W.S. Ramson (ed.), The Australian National Dictionary, p. 68.

(11.) John Spicer, Cry of the Storm Bird, Heinemann, London, 1958, cited in Ramson (ed.), The Australian National Dictionary, p. 68.

(12.) ‘That would fix the greedy squatter, the stupid banker, the bludging city merchant’. See Leslie Hayden, Big Red: A Novel, Australasian Book Society, Sydney, 1965, cited in Ramson (ed.), The Australian National Dictionary, p. 68.

(13.) Truth, 27 March 1910, cited in Ramson, The Australian National Dictionary, p. 69.

(14.) Dorothy Hewett, This Old Man, Currency Press, Sydney, 1992 (1968), cited in Ramson (ed.), The Australian National Dictionary, p. 69.

(15.) Alex Buzo, Meet the New Class, Angus & Robertson, London, 1981.

(16.) Alex Buzo, Front Room Boys, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic, 1973 (1970), cited in Ramson (ed.), The Australian National Dictionary, p. 69.

(17.) Windschuttle, Unemployment, pp. 156-57.

(18.) ‘Minister hits at dole “bludgers”‘, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 1974, p. 3.

(19.) Quoted in E.G. Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972-1975, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic, 1985, p. 183.

(20.) Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Unemployment rates: the unemployed in each group as a percentage of the civilian labour force’, Australia Labour Force Monthly, ABS, Canberra, 1975.

(21.) Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, Vintage Books, New York, 1993, p. 183.

(22.) Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1960, pp. 25960.

(23.) Ibid, p. 262.

(24.) Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1974, p. 90.

(25.) Ibid., p. 30.

(26.) E.A. Jones, ‘Report of the Chairman of the Executive Committee’, in Annual Report (29th), Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), 1972.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) ‘Profits and Prices’,
Annual Report (31st), Institute of Public Affairs, 1974.

(30.) ‘Milton Friedman’s Visit’, IPA Review, April-June 1975.

(31.) Milton Friedman’s address was delivered to the National Press Club, Canberra, on 9 April 1975.

(32.) J. Courvisanos and A. Millmow, ‘How Milton Friedman came to Australia: a case study of class-based political business cycles’, School of Business Working Paper 2005/03, University of Ballarat, p. 10.

(33.) Ibid., p. 10.

(34.) Ibid., p. 12.

(35.) Friedrich A. Hayek, ‘Address to the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Institute of Public Affairs’, IPA Review, October-December 1976, p. 84.

(36.) ‘Professor F A Hayek’s Australian visit’, IPA Review, October-December 1976, p. 80.

(37.) ‘Research economist and statistician’, IPA Review, October-December 1976, p. 96.

(38.) See for example Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia.

(39.) Senator Kathryn Martin, Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates: Senate, 18 March 1976, p. 637.

(40.) John Hodges, MP, Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates: House of Representatives, 30 March 1976, p. 1125.

(41.) Malcolm Fraser, ‘National objectives: social, economic and political goals’, The Australian Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 1, March 1975, pp. 24-35. This was based on a paper presented to the 46th ANZAAS Congress, January 1975.

(42.) Senator Douglas Scott, Governor General’s Speech Address-in-Reply, Parliamentary Debates: Senate, 2 March 1978, p. 299.

(43.) Neil Brown, MP, Parliamentary Debates: House of Representatives, 8 March 1978, p. 557.

(44.) R.M. Scammon and B.J. Wattenberg, The Real Majority, Coward McCann, New York, 1970.

(45.) Senator Peter Rae, Parliamentary Debates: Senate, 23 February 1978, p. 102.

(46.) Benno Engels, ‘Old problem, new label: reconstructing the problem of welfare dependency in Australian social policy discourse’, Just Policy, no. 41, September 2006, pp. 5-14.

(47.) Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, Address to the National Press Club, Canberra, 15 October 2008.

(48.) Ibid.

(49.) Malcolm Turnbull, MP, and Julie Bishop, MP, Turnbull Joint Press Conference: Economic Stimulus Package, 14 October 2008.

Verity Archer is a Williamson Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne. She completed a doctoral dissertation titled In Search of the Australian Dole Bludger: Constructing Discourses of Welfare 1974-83 at the Australian National University. Her doctoral dissertation won the Australasian Political Studies Association dissertation prize for 2007.

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About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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4 Responses to Dole bludgers, tax payers and the new right: constructing discourses of welfare in 1970s Australia (Verity Archer)

  1. Mike says:

    As a traditional right winger I’ve always been rather bemused with the neoliberal idea that just because someone is on welfare, they are somehow automatically morally inferior to a taxpayer.

    According to this logic a recently unemployed industrial worker is morally lower than a hard-core porn director or drug dealer, simply because the later pay tax.

    Also the traditional definitions of deserving and undeserving took account of circumstances and free will. For example, someone who was unemployed in a recession would be seen as more deserving than a couple who choose to have a kid with no means to support themselves. And they also extended to the wealthy – rich land owners who didn’t work the land were regarded as parasites, while today, it’s ok to be a parasitic speculator and add nothing to the economy as long as you aren’t taking government money.

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