Contributed by Joe Montero
Australians on welfare payments continue to face a long-running government offensive, which is making getting through life’s basic needs increasingly difficult.
Unemployed individuals already receive the second lowest income support in the OECD, as well as having to contend with a barrage of obstacles and harsh punitive measures. Australia has the most onerous set of requirements in the developed world. It has been made even worse.
From the I July, job agencies have been granted new punitive powers to punish Newstart recipients for failing to comply with the escalating compliance demands. Like excessive reporting requirements that take up time better used for finding a job, and engagement in activities that provide grants to the providers but do little to resolve unemployment.
Refusal to attend a work for the dole program, because it is unsafe, is now considered a particularly serious breach, despite the evidence of too high a rate of serious injury and even death on occasion, as unscrupulous employers exploit the system to get hold of government grants. This does not qualify under what is considered by the government as a “reasonable excuse,” despite the fact that 64 percent of sites are failing to meet basic safety standards. Failure or refusing to attend an unsafe job will result in being completely cut off from Newstart.
Job agencies are to administer this, through a new “demerit point” system aimed at payment suspensions. The old appeals process, even though inadequate, will be largely scrapped. An individual who believes they are being unfairly treated, is left no avenue to be heard. Job agencies have consequently been given the power. to use the points system, to further exploit the unemployed to increase their bottom line.
In 2015-16, job agencies imposed a record of two million financial penalties on the unemployed. The National Welfare Rights Network has pointed out that roughly half of these penalties, were found to be unfair and were rejected by Centrelink. This means that in 2015-16, more than 1 million unemployed people had their payments cut off when they did nothing wrong.
Without even this past level of scrutiny, the number of penalties is bound to escalate, because of little accountability and funding to the job agencies is based on the number of placements, rather than the achievement of proper ongoing jobs. The industry enjoys $10 billion in handouts every year.
The privatisation of the administering compliance, is a response to the enormous criticism that the government, Department of Human Services and Centrelink have been receiving in the recent period. With it, they can deny any they have any responsibility for unfair treatment.
Although the government is keen to get off the hot seat, this is about much more than shoving off the responsibility. The government’s welfare reforms are deeply rooted, in a deep seated belief that in dismantling the existing Australian welfare system, which it sees with interfering with the proper operation of the market. In its view, the market is the best allocator of resources. In terms of labour resources, the welfare system is accused of creating bottlenecks that prevent the most efficient allocation of labour.
Centrelink benefit payments and the conditions under which they are provided , have been deliberately evolved towards dismantling the welfare system. The gap between benefits and cost of living has been purposely widened and the system sharpening to discourage applicants and maximise the number denied. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has revealed that due to the tightening of eligibility requirements, only 36 percent of unemployed people receive Newstart. The government’s own figures estimate that 80,000 unemployed lose Newstart payments over the next year.
This is a future increasingly looking like a march backwards towards the days of the industrial revolution. It was the worship of the unfettered market as the efficient allocator of resources, that saw children working in the factories and mines and the misery of the poor houses in the old world. The unfettered market did not produce a just society.
Admitting any of this would not make for good public relations. So, it is swept under the carpet, and we are told that it is all about reducing welfare dependency and working within the limitations of the government’s budget deficit.
Reducing welfare dependency is a worthwhile goal. It means finding a successful path towards participation in the economy, together with an appropriate share in it. To use the term as a cover for the exploitation of the vulnerable is a mockery.
Australians on Centrelink benefits are not there because they have become over dependent on handouts. They are there because there are fewer jobs available for those seeking them. The latest ABS figures show that there are 16 jobseekers for every position available. Others are incapacitated in some way, have the burden of looking after children or others, or a re just trying to enjoy the reward for a lifetime of work.
Using budgetary constraints as an excuse, fails to explain why the most vulnerable are made to pay the price, while handouts to the richest keep on rising.
These two justifications are not genuine, and a deflection of attention from the real issue.
The unemployed are the thin end of the wedge, because they are the most vulnerable. Recipients of other benefits, single parents and those on disability and their carers are being pushed down the same trajectory. Even those on the age pension are finding the system tougher, benefits tightened and those coming towards their retirement, forced into working till an older age.
The dismantling of the welfare system is leading to a social crisis. We are witnessing the scale of the rise in homelessness through Australia. There is a widespread loss of hope. With this, the government is creating a powder keg. If it goes too far, there is a point at which rising anger will explode.
Perhaps, this is what will be needed to make a difference. Those who are in the firing line can transform themselves from being victims, into asserti9ng their rights and winning greater control over their own destiny. The other side is to in the meantime alleviate the misery being caused, and all of us have a role to play in this.