Campaigning for a fairer distribution of wealth, income and power: The story of the Victorian Coalition against Poverty and Unemployment (CAPU), 1980-1991 

Philip Mendes

Australia has had high levels of unemployment since the mid-1970s.The Victorian Coalition against Poverty and Unemployment (CAPU) was an activist group established in the last years of Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government. CAPU was a non-sectarian body which attempted to resist the neo-liberal consensus, and engage in research, education, publicity and a range of public activities to effect political change. Based on an alliance of trade unions, churches, community groups and the unemployed, CAPU was influenced by conventional Marxist critiques of the welfare state and was highly critical of both the professional social welfare sector and the Australian Labor Party. It also worked cooperatively on specific campaigns with key community welfare groups such as the Victorian Council of Social Service and the Brotherhood of St Laurence. CAPU was not an anti-welfare organisation, but rather acted as the radical arm of the welfare lobby seeking to shame governments into operationalising in practice their declared social justice principles.

Key CAPU objectives included a right to a job, a living wage, and properly funded welfare, education and health services. CAPU did not seek formal recognition by, or access to, government. Rather, its political strategy was to build an alliance of welfare groups, trade unions and the poor and unemployed that would organise community pressure particularly at the local level to persuade governments to introduce social and economic reforms. 

At the end of its first year of operations, CAPU was able to list over 30 member organisations. About half were trade unions, whilst others included ethnic community groups, social welfare services, student groups, unemployed and pensioner groups, a radical Left organisation, and the Social Justice Division of the Uniting Church. Other leading contacts for CAPU in its early years were the Commonwealth Labor Party MP Andrew Theophanous (Socialist Left faction), community welfare activist Andrew Burbidge, and the community development academics Sue Kenny and Harry Van Moorst who remained involved throughout the history of CAPU. Later key activists included Gail Price, and future Greens Member of the Victorian Legislative Council, Colleen Hartland.

CAPU regarded the development of local action groups as a key campaign strategy. They argued that ‘it is here where people can be involved on a street to street basis, working right in the area where they live, or can establish discussion groups at their workplace’. Later, a women’s group was formed to highlight the widespread and often hidden nature of female poverty and unemployment. Additionally a schools group was formed to unite students, teachers and parents in opposing poverty and unemployment. The schools group were responsible for publishing a book of children’s drawings and writings on poverty and unemployment. 

CAPU’s key political priority was urging government action to relieve poverty and unemployment. Their agenda went well beyond merely ‘asking for greater handouts…and the necessity of giving immediate assistance to those in need’. Rather, CAPU campaigned for a fairer share of wealth that would provide jobs for all, and lift the large number of disadvantaged Australians above the poverty line. More specifically, CAPU pursued four key policy aims: to lift taxation on the wealthy to fund an increase in unemployment payments; to create socially useful employment; to fund public housing and emergency accommodation; and to restore full employment at a living wage. 

CAPU pursued two major strategies for redistributing income. One was their advocacy for a fairer and more progressive taxation system advancing the interests of low-income earners and the unemployed via their annual People’s Budget campaigns and reports. The People’s Budgets were based on consultations with multiple community groups and significant numbers of individuals living in poverty. A second policy strategy involved advocacy for all income support payments to be increased to 120 per cent above the poverty line. In particular, CAPU organised a Children and Poverty campaign which linked with the broader campaign by community welfare groups for government action on child poverty. The campaign ‘aimed at raising awareness about the fact that 800,000 children are forced to live in poverty. We believe this is intolerable in a country with the wealth possessed by Australia. A redistribution of that wealth to ensure that no-one need live below the poverty line, and to give all young people a decent start in life, is a major long-term aim of the campaign’.  

CAPU undertook a number of activities to promote its objectives including designing posters, leafletting Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) offices, placing articles and advertisements in newspapers, organising talks to schools, hosting weekly radio programs on community radio stations 3CR and 3RRR, writing to local government councillors, and hosting a program on the City Square screen. It also held a number of public forums and demonstrations, the most notable of which was the public rally organised in November 1982. The stated aim of the rally was to ‘stop the city’ and the lead slogan was ‘make the rich pay’. 

Commons Social Change Library: ‘People gather for a demonstration organised by the Campaign Against Poverty and Unemployment prior to the occupation of the Melbourne Club on November 12 1982. Courtesy of Jeff and Jill Sparrow.’

The rally gained major support in both Melbourne and country areas, attracted almost 7,000 people and was Australia’s ‘largest rally against poverty and unemployment … since the 1930s depression’. A small number of demonstrators went beyond the planned route, and launched an invasion of the establishment Melbourne Club, throwing bricks and bottles and engaging in other minor incidents of violence. Four demonstrators were arrested and charged with unlawful entry, criminal damage and riot but were later found not guilty. Comparing the struggles of the unemployed in the 1930s and 1980s, and identifying potential lessons from the 1930s for current political responses, the following year CAPU organised a series of seminars. 

In its early years, CAPU seems to have maintained a cooperative relationship with sections of the Labor Party as reflected in the Victorian ALP’s endorsement of the November 1982 public rally. CAPU initially welcomed the election of the federal ALP Government in March 1983, expecting that their promised reforms were likely to give the unemployed and poor ‘a better deal’. However, CAPU quickly became disenchanted with the Labor Government’s commitment to small government, and its refusal to substantially increase expenditure on social programs and payments. CAPU were equally critical of the Liberal-National Party opposition, suggesting in 1984 that they would only promote greater exploitation of unemployed young people. According to CAPU, both major parties ‘have again sold out the unemployed and the poor’. Subsequently, CAPU offered two alternative options. One was implicit support for proposals to establish a new progressive political movement to the left of Labor. The second option was the ‘don’t vote’ campaign which CAPU pursued in the July 1987 federal election. 

CAPU adopted a mixed approach to relations with mainstream welfare provider and advocacy groups such as the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Victorian Council of Social Service. Some of their statements were highly critical of the ideology of the welfare state and associated professional welfare workers and groups. For example, the 1984 People’s Budget report argued in favour of justice and rights, and dismissed welfare as processes of ‘charity, patronisation and degradation’ that served to ‘de-politicise the issues of unemployment and inequality’. In practice, CAPU often worked in cooperative partnership with the welfare bodies . Their collaboration included joint work on the People’s Budget campaign, the Children’s Poverty campaign, action to defend youth wages, and advocacy to improve the efficacy of job creation schemes. Additionally, CAPU actively engaged with service user groups representing the unemployed and old age pensioners such as the Unemployed Workers’ Union, Work for Today, and the Combined Pensioners Association. 

CAPU ceased to exist in 1992. Local unemployed groups had fallen away, and funding cuts and tiredness gradually wore out its declining number of committed activists who were unable to maintain the formal infrastructure necessary for ongoing activities. CAPU’s universalistic approach to mobilising low income groups ceased to attract support from the highly diverse group of individuals who were divided by age and gender, geography, identity, and ethnic or cultural background and language. The increasing domination of neoliberal ideas within both major political parties and the wider community limited CAPU’s influence and indeed that of all left-wing alternatives to free market capitalism. 

This organisation arguably represented the only serious local attempt in the period to form what could be called a ‘coherent political movement’ focused on politicising community concerns about poverty and disadvantage associated with high unemployment and increased inequality. For little more than a decade, CAPU had a core group of activists, provided an opportunity for the voice of low income earners to be heard in policy debates, and was able to provide an ongoing structure for protest activity around poverty and unemployment. Today there are few organised forums available for income support recipients, human service workers, union activists and others who wish to publicise the injustices of the welfare system, and canvass more radical alternatives than those proposed by mainstream welfare advocacy groups.

Philip Mendes is Professor of Social Policy and Community Development at Monash University. This piece is drawn from Philip’s article in Labour History, No. 1, 2021.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 18-20.