2UE Radio announcer and host of Sky News' PM Live is Paul Murray tweeted a great question today, asking when 'welfare' became 'entitlements'. There are probably as many answers as there are Aussies receiving 'entitlements'.
Paul Murray's question suggests that welfare and entitlements are the same thing. They are payments that come from the same source, yet when I say those words, I see very different images.
Welfare is basic financial assistance for those going through a rough patch. Welfare is minimal. Welfare is housing commission, paycheque to paycheque desperation. It's bread and butter and a kilo of cheap mince meat.
Entitlements are a right, a bonus that someone else is obligated to pay you because you are legally entitled to it. The picture, at least in my head, is of McMansions in outer suburban estates, two car families, professionals. It's the second bottle of wine, or the hand-made pistachio macarons from That Little Shop (you know the one, darling).
Welfare is necessary; entitlements - or the ironically titled Middle Class Welfare - are not.
My response, via Twitter, to Paul Murray's question was that the change occurred during the Howard years, when each budget included some kind of allowance or bonus or tax cut to help Howard's 'Aussie Battlers' - families in the mortgage belt...except that we got greedy.
It was a time when couples weren't satisfied with a three bedroom, one bathroom triple fronted brick veneer in the suburbs where they grew up. They needed a four bedroom plus study, two bathroom plus powder-room, Tuscan style plus alfresco entertaining, in ground pool plus spa. Plus...plus...plus...
And of course, we enabled and encouraged this; it supported the construction industry, even while it strained the budgets of ambitious families who wanted more...more...more.
Year upon year, sweetener upon sweetener, governments have built an expectation in the middle classes that come budget time, early May, we find out what new goodies are coming our way. Aimed squarely at the aspirational middle class, these budget bonbons became entitlements.
Surely, those entitlements to assist you to keep up with the Jonses are not welfare; they were never welfare. These were the prosperous years before the GFC, and the Government coffers were bulging. As these handouts were announced, there was no fine print that said 'Payments Available Only While The Good Times Roll," and thus they became entitlements; Payments made by the Government to the middle classes who should not need them.
God help you if you tried to take these entitlements away! The morning after Wayne Swan delivered his first budget in 2008, my boss was in tears. The Child Care Benefit was being changed: instead of being means-tested and reducing to a minimum rate, as it had under Howard, the sliding scale would now continue all the way to zero. The tears were because on a combined salary exceeding $150,000, she and her husband wouldn't qualify for any Child Care Benefit, and therefore would never be able to afford to have children.
I fought the urge to slap her. They'd been able to afford their $50,000 wedding and honeymoon, and before that, a boob job and an enormous diamond.
Seriously, if a couple on $150,000 can't afford to have a child without government assistance, they need to look at their lifestyle and make some changes. These people were not poor, not struggling, not battling, yet felt entitled enough to cry on my shoulder. The new ALP Government was taking away their only chance to have a baby! Bastards!
I was single then, earning about a third of their combined income, but they expected that my taxes should subsidise their breeding programme. That is the picture of entitlement.
Contrast that with people on genuine welfare: Newstart allowance, aged and disability pensions, Carer's Allowance, DVA Allowances...Are you seeing a different picture?
Today's pre-Budget sweeteners are a little chewier than most, but I wonder why Wayne Swan needs to offer them at all. Isn't the fact that he needs to roll out the dessert cart yet again just a function of our overdeveloped sense of entitlement?
In his drive to produce the Holy Grail of Budgets, a Chocolate Coated Surplus, couldn't he have been honest with us and broken the cycle?
'No sweeteners this year; you get a surplus instead'?