Culture

Tony Abbott’s ‘No Jab, No Pay’ Policy Is Misdirected, And Won’t Work

Denying welfare to conscientious objectors won't solve any of the contributing factors that result in lower vaccination rates. In fact, it will make it worse.

This week, the federal government made an official foray into the debate about childhood vaccinations. Targeting those colloquially known as “anti-vaxxers,” Tony Abbott has announced that conscientious objectors to vaccinations will be denied access to particular welfare payments. Parents will be denied family tax and childcare payments, which in total could be worth up to $15,000 per child.

In making the announcement, Tony Abbott said: “The choice made by families not to immunise their children is not supported by public policy or medical research, nor should such action be supported by taxpayers in the form of childcare payments. The government is extremely concerned at the risk this poses to other young children and the broader community.”

The government’s decision comes in the context of increasing debate about vaccination. While Australia’s childhood vaccination rates still remain high, at around 97 per cent, a growing number of parents have listed themselves as conscientious objectors to vaccinations. According to the Department of Health, these numbers are centred around particular geographic areas (Kuranda, the Gold Coast hinterland, Byron Shire, the Adelaide Hills and Daylesford), leading many to worry that it will lead to a similar situation as that in California and Oregon, where congregations of anti-vaccination groups have lead to disease outbreaks in the United States.

As someone who is entrenched within particular scientific communities, and who is a strong believer in the benefits of childhood vaccinations, my initial reaction was to support the government. Anything that can encourage people to get their children vaccinated, I thought, must be a good thing. But since then, I’ve turned against the idea.

A Policy With Little Basis In Evidence 

Over the past few days, many have rightly pointed out that this policy is simply unlikely to work, for a number of reasons.

First, through reducing welfare payments, this announcement is inherently regressive. If it were effective, it would likely hit lower-socioeconomic groups the hardest — which is reason enough to oppose it. But: it won’t be effective. The policy only applies to those who have formally applied for “conscientious objector” status, with both parents signing a form and taking it to their doctor or immunisation nurse. While often lumped in with “anti-vaxxers,” people of a lower socio-economic status generally don’t fit the “conscientious objector” profile; poorer people who don’t get their kids vaccinated are more likely to do so for a range of reasons that are largely logistical. Moreover, as University of Sydney associate professor Julie Leask has already pointed out, these “motivated but disadvantaged” people are already missing out on a range of benefits linked to vaccinations. This policy would therefore have no real impact on these people’s vaccination rates.

This leaves the true anti-vaxxers: those who register as conscientious objectors to the system. This group largely has a higher-socio economic status — the so-called “tree changers” in the progressive rural areas of the country like Byron Bay and the Adelaide Hills. This is a group that is likely not to be receiving welfare benefits anyway, and who therefore won’t be hurt by this policy at all.

As such, ‘No Jab, No Pay’ either amounts to a regressive welfare policy that attacks the very few conscientious objectors in lower socio-economic groups, or a completely ineffective policy that fails to address the real growing number of higher socio-economic vaccination conscientious objectors. Not particularly effective at all.

A Political Statement, And A Bad One At That

When seen this way we can see what this really amounts to: a political statement made by the government to win favour with the public. And a very bad one at that.

There is a problem throughout the pro-vaccination movement. In fact, it is a problem that applies to much of our communication about science. When it comes to talking about vaccinations, we have fundamentally failed to understand why it is that people are registering as conscientious objectors. Why is it that, despite the vast majority of evidence that points one way, more people are turning in the other direction, away from vaccinations?

Many in the science community answer this question with derision. We assume that people are stupid and that we need to simply “teach them the science”. But in doing so, we actually push people further into their beliefs. These people are not stupid. In fact, largely falling into higher-socio economic groups, they are more likely to be educated, and have greater access to scientific information on vaccinations. This is not about a gap in information. So there must be another reason.

In fact, there are many other reasons. Anti-vaxxers fall into a range of different groups, from those who simply want to avoid a perceived (minimal) risk, to those who want their kids to avoid the discomfort of the needle, to those who are simply taking the gamble that the immunity of everyone else will protect their child.

But this announcement has impacts for one group in particular: those who are refusing vaccines because of a lack of trust in our scientific and political communities. As argued by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, the vaccination debate is part of a growing crisis of authority in our society. Around the world we are seeing a drop in trust in traditional structures of authority, that’s playing out in many ways, including through a hatred of our politics, or a growing dissatisfaction with our media. As the anti-vaccination movement shows, this crisis is reaching out to science as well. More members of our community are questioning the authority of scientists, doctors and politicians to mandate that their children be jabbed with needles — an apprehension Leunig claims he was speaking for in his controversial cartoon this week.

We can draw links here with climate science denial. While climate deniers obviously make up a very different demographic to anti-vaxxers, the core issue is still there. Climate denial doesn’t exist because of a lack of information. Like anti-vaxxers, people deny climate science for a range of reasons — from a natural tendency towards denial of hard-to-accept information, to a lack of trust in the politicians and scientists talking climate science. This lack of trust is emphasised more with climate change than vaccinations, as climate change carries greater political and economic impacts, and the way we approach it has divided our major parties.

All this leads to an understanding of why Abbott’s announcement is such a mis-step. If you are someone who already lacks trust in the government and scientific establishment, how do you think you’ll react when they threaten you to vaccinate your kids, or else? The answer is simple: it will simply push you further into your beliefs. This policy does nothing to deal with the fundamental issue behind why people are increasingly refusing to vaccinate their children. In fact, it will only make them dig their heels in.

Deal With The Cause Of The Problem 

Vaccination is a deeply difficult issue. It is dividing our communities, and it has the potential to cause serious health problems too. But casting conscientious objectors as either morons or social outcasts will do nothing to solve the problem.

While it may be difficult for us to admit, people object to vaccinations for very real reasons. They do so because of a lack of trust in our systems of authority. Much of this mistrust, particularly with our political class, has a lot of basis behind it. Therefore, while we may not agree with it all, we have to at least understand and respect it. Government plans to enforce vaccination and punish those who don’t vaccinate their children do the opposite. They will simply entrench this mistrust, pushing people even further away from the system.

We need to find a different solution. Julie Leask argues that in fact the system we have already is working relatively well. Our vaccinations rates are still high and we have yet to see the outbreaks that are occurring in the United States. As Jason Wilson argues, much of our debate at the moment amounts to a bit of “moral panic.” But we can do more. Leask says we need to implement a national vaccine reminder system, home visiting programs and — most importantly — work to build respect for local vaccination centres. This would help those who have logistical barriers to getting their kids vaccinated and deal with the issues of trust.

We can jump up and down about how dangerous and stupid anti-vaxxers are all we like. But in doing so we are just going to entrench views and lead to greater problems. We need to deal with the cause of the problem — and the government’s ‘solution’ definitely does not do that.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He blogs here and tweets at @SimonCopland.