Robodebt royal commission findings remind us our contribution is not our worth

Justine Toh reflects on how the Royal Commission into Robodebt highlights our need as a society to rethink the basis of human value.

Remember when Indiana Jones pursued the Holy Grail?

Now, in the report summarising the findings of the royal commission into Robo-debt, a scheme that spuriously accused people of being welfare cheats, Commissioner Catherine Holmes, SC, has sent politicians on a similarly desirable but unlikely quest: to “lead a change in social attitudes to people receiving welfare payments”.

Just as the Holy Grail is a pipe dream, so is the faint hope that politicians would ever stop bashing so-called welfare bludgers. Why? Because all of us – not just our elected reps – believe that our worth as people is linked to the contribution we make.

Remember, former Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey once described Australia as a nation of “lifters, not leaners”. Similar ideas get a workout elsewhere: in the UK, the language of “skivers” and “strivers” haunts welfare debates. Stateside, there’s “makers” or “takers”, with one-time Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney caught on camera saying almost half of Americans sponge off the government.

Sure, for public welfare to exist, we need to chip in. As Hockey said: “by everyone making a contribution now, we will build a bigger, better Australia.” All very reasonable.

But push the logic further and it gets punishing.

On one side, there’s Team Deserving: the hard-working and therefore deserving lifters. On the other, Team Undeserving: their non-working and therefore unworthy counterparts. Which group would you rather belong to?

Membership in Team Deserving comes with an added perk: a warm wash of self-congratulation that allows the lifters to point the finger at – even blame – the leaners for their misfortune, lack of grit, whatever.

In The Tyranny of Merit, Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel calls this “meritocratic hubris”, or the tendency of the deserving to “inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way”. If you believe that you’re the master of your fate, and that hard work and perseverance leads to success, then not winning at life is your fault. It’s on you if you fail to thrive.

Which explains everything from suspicion of “welfare cheats” to dogged refusals to lift JobSeeker, even amidst an ongoing cost-of-living crisis. Even against the advice of the Australian Council of Social Service and the Albanese government’s own economic inclusion committee.

Yet this lifter-leaner version of reality makes no sense. Who among us sprang from the ground a fully formed taxpayer? We were born dependent – and are likely to exit stage left the same way.

It turns out that the “contributing” human is an elusive creature: only spotted through the lens of Gross Domestic Product for a portion of their lives. Add in other quirks of fate that prove a barrier to ongoing employment – disability, short term contracts, retirement, illness, language issues, caring responsibilities, visa status, even being female (!) – and it’s hard to know who isn’t stigmatised by this “paid work equals worth” regime.

The deeper issue is that we’ve tethered people’s dignity and worth to their employment status.

Plus, as Annabel Crabb points out in The Wife Drought, the liftiest among us has undoubtedly leant on the free services of a “wife” to advance their career. Along the same lines, social critic Anne Manne recently told me that any talk of welfare bludgers should invite discussion of “care bludgers” or those who free ride on the caring labour of others.

The point: it’s easy to forget that all of us lean and all of us lift. We just arbitrarily count some contributions and not others.

But the deeper issue is that we’ve tethered people’s dignity and worth to their employment status – the source of those nasty attitudes to welfare recipients.

OK, fine, let’s change those attitudes. But the wicked problem is that the world is run by Team Deserving. Having put props on the productive among us, we then expect them not to judge others by the measure that made them great. How good are you at seeing your own blind spots?

Put another way: the more we ascend the ladder of success, and the more we believe that success is the product of our unaided efforts, the more harshly we’re likely to judge the failings of others. That’s why asking the lifters to go easy on the leaners is like chasing the Holy Grail. Good luck with that.

It’s a shame Christianity gets such bad press these days – admittedly, by the institutional Church scoring plenty of own goals. But the faith’s central idea of grace – of God’s kind acceptance of all people, regardless of worthiness – radically challenges our assumptions about who deserves what.

Which could make grace, I guess, another Holy Grail: that is, unreal. Or something, perhaps, beyond human power that can humanise our inhuman systems that, as this most recent royal commission has reminded us, have claimed people’s lives.

Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of Achievement Addiction.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times