Abbott wasn’t satisfied with the welfare cuts meted out in the Budget. The interim report of the government’s welfare review signals that more cuts and changes to welfare are on the cards.
The report is an ominous preview of the government’s agenda for a reduced welfare safety net, based on restricting access to welfare, pushing people with disabilities onto lower Newstart payments, and extending income management to unemployed youth.
The review was commissioned by the Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews, and led by former Mission Australia CEO Patrick McClure. McClure’s last review into welfare for the Howard government in 2000 helped entrench and expand work-for-the-dole.
His new report is a perfect complement to the brutal cuts to welfare and social services in the Budget. It recommends a drastic slimming down of the welfare system, currently made up of 20 benefit categories and 55 allowances, into just four main payments with additional payment “top-ups” where necessary.
The four main categories will include a “working age” payment, disability, child and age pension payments. This merging of payment categories will mean people are put on the lowest rate of payment and then made to jump through hoops to prove their eligibility for higher payments. People with real disadvantage and special needs will have to contend with an unwieldy bureaucracy in order to access the appropriate benefit.
This attempt to further reduce welfare spending comes on the back of indexation changes proposed in the Budget that will lower payments. The government has proposed to tie increases in Age and Disability Support Pension (DSP) as well as carer payments to the lower Consumer Price Index instead of average male earnings. If passed, this will reduce these payments by $80 per week within ten years.
The McClure report also makes the offensive recommendation that only people with “permanent” disabilities should be eligible for the DSP. Those DSP recipients whose disability is deemed semi-permanent or episodic would be moved onto the lower Newstart payment, $166 a week less. McClure has suggested that it will be people with mental illnesses who are shifted onto Newstart first.
This recommendation is in line with the government’s scare campaign about welfare “dependency”. People on welfare are routinely demonised as undeserving “dole bludgers”, with the aim of whipping up resentment towards them to distract from the real causes of social inequality and disadvantage. “Disabling Rorters”, the Sunday Telegraph’s headline on the release of McClure’s report, was typical.
The implication is that those on the DSP could work, but choose not to. This trivialises their disabilities, including the seriousness of the impact that mental health issues and periodic illness can have on a person’s ability to work.
It also ignores the severe discrimination that people with disabilities face when applying for jobs, as well as the lack of jobs on offer in the first place. The National Employment Services Association says that there are currently ten unemployed people for every job available. This puts paid the idea that unemployment is the choice of those on Newstart or the DSP.
McClure’s recommendations come on top of Budget changes requiring the disabilities of recipients under 35 to be reassessed for their potential transfer onto Newstart. This would condemn many people with disabilities to a life of greater hardship and poverty.
The Newstart payment is just $255 per week, putting it well below the poverty line. Even groups like the Business Council of Australia and the OECD have called for an increase.
The McClure report also hints at the introduction of new paternalistic measures to control the behaviour and spending of welfare recipients. These would add to the already extensive job search and training requirements on the unemployed. The report suggests making parenting support payments conditional on requirements such as health checks or school enrolment, as well as extending Income Management to unemployed youth.
Income Management involves controlling where welfare recipients spend up to 70 per cent of their payments, through forcing them to use a BasicsCard that can only be spent on approved items at certain stores.
So far Income Management has been targeted mainly at Aboriginal people under the NT Intervention. Those forced to use a BasicsCard have been stigmatised as incapable of managing their own money. Despite costing the government $1 billion, all independent reports show that Income Management has failed to improve social or health outcomes.
Even mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s recent indigenous policy review criticised the cost and stigma of Income Management.
McClure’s report provides a framework for the government to plough ahead with attacking welfare. We have to oppose this agenda as part of the fightback against the Budget and demand that it is never passed into law.
By Daisy Livesey