The rationale behind policies that undermine the most vulnerable in society is rooted in a conservative ideological outlook that good individuals succeed in spite of any hardship and circumstances and those asking for more assistance are to be distrusted until they prove their worth through such suffering. Those who contradict the ideal of self-reliance, usually socially and/ or economically disadvantage, are tarnished as collectively suffering from a disorder, a moral disease as the cause of a moral panic.

Tony Abbott’s government engages in punitive policy measures in huge contrast with reality. The recently announced ‘Work for the Dole’ scheme, including the denial of unemployment benefits for those under 30 for six months, directly contradicts an Australian economy in free fall – the worst time for youth employment measures. Tertiary graduate employment rates after four months are the worst in 20 years, and the youth unemployment rate is 12.4% nationally and as high as 20% in parts of Australia.

Similarly, the expense and effectiveness of asylum seeker policies similarly contradict the Abbot Government’s commitment to deep cuts to public spending. Mandatory offshore detention centres in Christmas Island, Nauru, and Manus Island, increased military patrols, payments of up to $10,000 for asylum seekers to return home will cost at least $2.96 billion in 2014-2015, while a more humane onshore, community-based process would cost less than a third of that amount.

In this case, unemployed youth are lazy and asylum seekers are lying cheats until state-induced deprivation either justifies state suspicion or encourages individuals to succeed. The response as moral panic is akin to a public witch trial, whose solution is akin to the water dunking test used during the Salem Witch Trials. A suspected witch was bound and dunked into a pool of water, and if the suspect floated to the top, they were apparently a witch; if they drowned, they were innocent, albeit dead. If a youth can survive six months of unemployment without assistance or an asylum seeker can survive offshore detention or living in the community with months to years of uncertainty with little to no support and often no work rights, they’ve both proved their innocence. If unemployed youth can’t find work and exit the job market or asylum seekers give up and return home, the state was right to be suspicious.

A significant part of the fallacy of this guilty until proven innocent approach is that, in spite of being tarnished with a collective brush of scum, people can only succeed and fail as individuals. Any failure to succeed in spite of circumstances simply confirms the collective stereotype and any success confirms the superiority of conservative individualism. The effectiveness of moral panic trials is in the public spectacle, a public show trial that denies the failures of the free market and global poverty and conflict by denying any responsibility – ironically the same quality the Abbott Government demands that unemployed youth and asylum seekers seek.


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