Federal Labor rejects the government’s attempt to portray Australians as either lifters or leaners, the opposition leader says.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has accused Treasurer Joe Hockey of cynically dividing Australians into “lifters” and “leaners”.

Mr Hockey told the Sydney Institute on Wednesday night too many people relied on government payments, arguing the average worker had to toil for one month, full time, each year to fund the welfare of another Australian.

“We must reward the lifters and discourage the leaners,” the treasurer said.

“It should not be taboo to question whether everyone is entitled to these payments.”

Mr Shorten has now used an address to the Australian Council of Social Service in Brisbane to reject the treasurer’s statement.

“Labor and I reject the cynicism that divides Australia into the so-called lifters – successful businessmen, coalition ministers, conservative media commentators – and the leaners – the disabled, the disabled pensioners, the people going to the doctor, the fixed-income pensioners and families with children between six and 16 receiving modest payments,” he said.

However, when it came to so-called middle class welfare, Mr Shorten declined to take a position on whether or not negative gearing for property investors should be scrapped

“I will not allow certain people in the media or this federal government to run a scare campaign on us,” he said on Thursday in response to a question from a conference participant.