Budget time for dole bludgers

Every year around the release of the Australian budget I think back to when I was a young man trying to find a job.  There was always a debate around budget time about the amount of money that should be spent on unemployment benefits.

Getting unemployment benefits

The social-minded would argue that it was too difficult to live on the meagre amount offered; while the less sympathetic would attack “dole bludgers” for their idleness. A dole bludger is defined politely as an unemployed person who has no intention of seeking a job and survives on government-funded unemployment benefits.

The origin of dole bludger

Australia’s unemployment rate jumped sharply in the early 1970s as major developed economies suffered “stagflation” (rising inflation and rising unemployment). Long-term unemployment became a serious problem—and led to “unemployment scarring”—the financial, psychological, and health “scars” left on individuals (and their families) who endured long-term unemployment.

At the same time Australian voters began to hear of “dole bludgers”. The first person to use the phrase was Liberal MP Bert Kelly, from the  “New Right”. But it was the left who took it up with gusto. Clyde Cameron, minister for labour in Gough Whitlam’s Labor government (1972-1975), really promoted the term.

According to historian Verity Archer (quoted in the SMH 30/05/21) the phrase “dole bludger” served a crucial ideological purpose at the time. It redefined welfare recipients (many suffering from unemployment scarring) as parasites upon “ordinary Australian” taxpayers, it changed the economic debate in Australia to more neoliberal lines, she said.

The origin of bludger

In Australian slang, a “bludger” is someone who avoids work or is lazy, often relying on others for support or financial assistance.

The word “bludger” originated in the 1850s. It is believed to have originated among the criminal and vagrant populations in Australia. But the word derives from the English slang word “bludgeoner,” which referred to a “harlots bully” or a “a bawdy house chucker-out” (a bawdy house being a brothel and a bludgeoner we would now call a pimp). The bludgeoner got the name from the heavy club known as a “bludgeon” which they used as a weapon.

The meaning of bludger soon evolved to encompass those who lived off others without engaging in productive work. It was then used as a way of denigrating the long-term unemployed so that the politicians of both sides could justify keeping welfare payments low at budget time. The power of words!