Hard hearts and false economy: Disability Support Pension under attack

April 20, 2014

(Full disclosure: I am a recipient of the Disability Support Pension.)

I guess the government thought it was time that disabled people came in for a bit of special attention. After all, it’s already targeted low income earners, benefit recipients, orphan children of veterans and aged pensioners; why not add yet another disadvantaged group into the mix?

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has flagged possible changes to the Disability Support Pension, changes that could begin as soon as the May Budget is delivered. You see, he considers this benefit ‘troublesome’ – not because it indicates that thousands of Australians are in need of income support, special services and excellent health care, but simply because it costs the government a great deal of money. Obviously, therefore, the appropriate action to take is to find a way to boot as many people off the pension as possible.

Andrews wants to start with periodic re-assessment by ‘independent’ doctors. For ‘independent’, read: government-approved. That might only apply to those who have received the pension for under five years, he said, but that ‘might’ is nicely vague, isn’t it? No guarantees here. Never mind that in order to be granted the pension at all, you not only have to provide detailed medical reports from your own doctors, but also be assessed by Centrelink’s. If – and only if – Centrelink is satisfied that your medical condition is severe enough to make it impossible to work for a minimum of 15 hours per work at minimum wage for at least the next two years, and you pass an income and assets test, then you qualify for the pension.

The Centrelink medical interview is harrowing. You are expected to be ready to explain every part of every doctor’s report you have provided, regardless of your own medical knowledge. If what you say conflicts with what’s on the report, you’re grilled as to why. I won’t go so far as to say the interviewer assumes you are not ‘really’ disabled, but that’s certainly the atmosphere. That’s hard enough to take if you suffer from a physical disability – imagine being in chronic pain, possibly taking strong painkillers, in that setting. Now imagine how difficult it can be for those who have long-term mental health problems. Anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia – the list goes on. A stressful interview can be devastating.

And Andrews proposes doing this on a regular basis – possibly as often as every three months. Because, you see, those on the pension receive so much money that it ‘provides a “perverse” incentive to qualify as disabled rather than unemployed’.

Yes, you read that right.

Then there’s Andrews’ other brainwave. Some pensioners – assuming they still qualify under the new re-assessment regime – would be deemed more disabled than others. Those who are ‘less disabled’ would receive less money – and the Disability Support Pension falls well below the minimum wage already. So who decides who qualifies? Centrelink, of course, presumably on the advice of their doctors. And what constitutes ‘more disabled’? What criteria would they have to fulfill? Blindness? Paraplegia? Severe intellectual impairment? Would it be enough to be suffering such crippling anxiety that they couldn’t leave the house? Is chronic pain ‘less’ disabling than depression? Just how disabled is disabled enough?

It’s utterly ludicrous. There’s simply no basis for comparison here. Apples and oranges. Forget comparing mental and physical health problems – just trying to figure out which physical disabilities fell into which category would be a nightmare. It places an incredible burden on not only the people seeking the pension, but also the Centrelink workers and doctors who would have to do the re-assessments, make the decisions and maintain a system already tangled in bureaucratic red tape.

Of course, Andrews says this is all about ‘investment’, and not about forcing people off the pension at all. Odd, then, that he should stress how troublesome he finds its $15 billion annual expenditure. Curious, too, that he should be trying to put into place a two-tiered system that would serve no purpose but to penalise some people for failing to fulfill an entirely arbitrary set of criteria. If it’s not about the money, why is the money so important to him?

The answer is simple. It is all about the money. It’s about a government more preoccupied with achieving a surplus Budget than it is with caring for its most vulnerable citizens. It’s about a Coalition wedded to a political theory that says governments should be as small as possible, regardless of the cost in human terms. And it’s about a Minister who, apparently, has no problem with the idea that his decisions might see thousands forced to try and make do with significantly less – or even nothing at all.

It’s about hard hearts, and false economy. Every dollar ‘saved’ will be a life adversely, possibly dangerously, affected. Increased stress could lead to deteriorating mental health, or even suicide attempts. Less money will lead to more and more dependence on charitable organisations, and they are already warning that they will be unable to cope with current demand. People will be forced to make decisions between medications and medical equipment, food, rent, and utilities. They may end up homeless, mired in debt, or with even more health problems due to poor diet and an inability to avoid therapy. When that happens, the government will find itself footing the bill for the damage it has caused, as people seek help from the public health and housing systems.

Unless, of course, the government decides to do the unthinkable – make people pay for Medicare, bring in restrictive eligibility criteria for public housing, or even sell off part or all of both. Unthinkable, right?

Perish the thought.


We’re ‘entitled’ to be outraged, Mr Hockey

April 19, 2012

Last night Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey came out swinging on ABC1’s Lateline program. His topic of choice? Australia’s alleged culture of ‘universal entitlement’, and how we had to stop expecting the government to pay for everything.

Of course, by ‘entitlement’, he was referring to Australia’s welfare and benefits systems, often referred to as Social Security. It was a shambles. A shemozzle. It had to be fixed. Look at the US, he cried. Look at the UK. Their debts are huge, and we’re in danger of going the same way! It’s time for decisive action, and Hockey’s our man for it, apparently. We need to cut this runaway welfare spending while we still can, or we’ll end up like the US. He actually managed to convey the impression that the reason Europe and the US were plunged into the Global Financial Crisis was the fault of welfare spending, rather than under-regulation, irresponsibility and sheer criminal activity from banks and regulators alike.

But the real target of this plan isn’t the government, of course. It’s the most vulnerable people in our society – the chronically ill, the young single parents, the old and the unemployed. Hockey’s plan is aimed squarely at the very people most in need, and he’s not ashamed of it. In fact, he seems proud of it – and utterly contemptuous of the people he proposes to further disenfranchise and disadvantage.

The clue is in how he talked about the issue. He repeatedly used the word ‘entitlements’.

From the World English Dictionary:

entitle (vb)

1. to give (a person) the right to do or have something; qualify; allow
2. to give a name or title to
3. to confer a title of rank or honour upon

Seems pretty straightforward, right? If someone is ‘entitled’ to something, they have the right to receive it. An ‘entitlement’, therefore, is what said person should receive.

But this is a word that’s taken on a very nasty meaning in recent years. We hear people described as having ‘a sense of entitlement’, that they believe they can demand special treatment. In other words, that the world – or in this case, the government – owes them a living.

And that’s the sense in which Hockey is using the word. He could have talked about ‘benefits’, ‘pensions’, ‘government allowances’ – any one of a dozen synonyms. He chose to use the word ‘entitlements’, to invoke the implicit idea that those who receive such benefits don’t deserve them. And lest anyone think it was an innocent choice, we have Hockey’s own statement that there is ‘a lot of spending by government which many voters see as their entitlement’.

In essence, this is no different from the way the Liberals under former Prime Minister John Howard repeatedly targeted those receiving government benefits. They helped whip up the outrage that led to A Current Affair’s notorious ‘Paxton Controversy‘, in which the program vilified and defamed a family caught in a cycle of dependence on government assistance. They positively encouraged the view that anyone – anyone – who was on unemployment benefits was simply a ‘dole bludger’, who would rather sit and home and watch TV than do an honest day’s work. They insinuated that those receiving disability pensions were faking their illnesses, and that a woman on a single-parent pension just ‘didn’t want to work’. They introduced ‘Work for the Dole’, which can best be described as demeaning make-work that looked suspiciously like it was designed to get as much as possible for as little as possible, with the added benefit of humiliating the people forced into it.

At the same time they introduced non means-tested ‘Baby Bonus’ and private health insurance rebates, handing out significant sums of money to those in the top tax brackets. They didn’t even bother to establish any but the most rudimentary criteria for eligibility: all that anyone needed to qualify was a birth certificate or a receipt from an insurance provider. This was certainly welcome relief for those who fell into that ever-widening crater between needing government support just to go to the doctor’s and those who could pick and choose their private hospital and get that elective surgery whenever they wished.

The Coalition thought it was ‘fair’ to provide those same benefits to those who demonstrably didn’t need any help from the government whatsoever. They cut taxes and put in place rebates that ensured Australia’s highest income earners were better off than ever. While they were doing all this, they made it harder and harder for those in genuine need to even gain a Health Care Card to enable them to get medical treatment – let alone help them get out from under spiralling debts, manage their chronic illnesses or stay home with a baby because was no possible way to afford child care.

And Joe Hockey, mouthpiece for the Coalition, wants to do it all again. When pressed on why the Liberals said they’d repeal the means test for the private health insurance rebate, he dodged the question. When asked about the Baby Bonus, likewise. Oh, and they re-affirmed their commitment to establishing a Paid Parental Leave scheme that guaranteed full income replacement for all Australians regardless of income (despite the ever-widening gap between the Coalition’s spending promises and available Budget funds). If those schemes are quarantined from Hockey’s guillotine, all that’s left are the benefits for those who depend on government help just to get through the day.

Hockey read us a lecture on how this might be brutal, but it was ‘financially sustainable’. He exhorted to look to ‘Asia’ as a role model and embrace ‘filial piety’ – in other words, expecting help from the government was a sign that we were failing in our responsibilities to our relatives. We were children raised by ‘bad parents’, he insisted, who had instilled in us a sense that the government would look after us.

Here’s a news flash, Mr Hockey – it is the government’s job to look after us. We elect the government to build our roads, manage our borders, represent us to the world, regulate the systems on which we depend, protect us from (to coin a phrase) ‘enemies foreign and domestic). We also elect our government to help look out for those in our society who are not able to help themselves – the destitute, the chronically ill, the disadvantaged. We expect that our government will be there for us when a flood or cyclone devastates our town and tears away the infrastructure built with our money.

We pay taxes and levies to provide the government with revenue to do these things. Income tax, fuel tax, sales tax, company tax, levies of various kinds, and of course the GST – there is not one person in this country who is exempt from taxes. Despite what’s often said by those who subscribe to the ‘dole bludger’ rhetoric, an unemployed person pays taxes every time they fill up their car or do their shopping. To suggest otherwise is a poisonous untruth, and that unemployed person has the right to expect their government will assist them if they need it.

As Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this morning, ‘If Australians think they’re entitled to Medicare, aged pensions … they’re right’.

And as for your idea that we should look at Asia, Mr Hockey – just which part did you have in mind? Let’s look at a few countries, just on the issue of public health care.

Let’s start with China’s Communist-Capitalist hybrid, where an adult leaves his family and lives in a faraway city just to find enough work to lift them (barely) out of subsistence? Where huge construction projects reap billions for a few companies, but then stand empty for years because no one can afford to move into the apartment complexes? Where the young nouveau-riche spend millions on collecting sports cars while the elderly in the provinces go without medical treatment and die from diseases that simple nutrition can prevent?

But China is also in the process of overhauling their health care system to provide near-universal health care, for the cost of about 10 yuan per person after provincial and national government contributions. Their public health infrastructure lags sadly behind, and if someone has the misfortune to need to visit a clinic in the country, they’re only covered for 60% of their bill – but reform is in progress.

So which part of China should we emulate? The universal health care, or the massive class divide that exists as a result of China’s race to outrun the US?

How about India? That’s a booming economy – and it eclipses the millions who live in abject poverty. It has a maternal and neonatal death rate that is simply appalling. For every person with a good job and health care, there are thousands dying in rural areas because its public health spending is less than 2% of its Gross Domestic Product.

Or how about South Korea, which has a well-developed public health system subsidising development of hospital and medical services, and financial assistance for most of its population to cover medical bills and social disadvantage?

Which one of those, Mr Hockey?

Our health care and welfare systems have real problems – in some areas, they’re utterly broken. Nonetheless, we still enjoy a higher life expectancy than most developed economies. Our maternal and neonatal death rates are lower than most developed countries. We don’t have raging epidemics of measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and a whole host of diseases preventable by vaccination. We’re lucky. We have some incredible medical personnel, and we are in a position to take advantage of the latest research.

We also have public money – our money – allocated to public health care. Our vaccinations are subsidised, if not actually free. Our poor have access to subsidised medicines and aids. Our chronically ill and disabled are not thrown out into the street and left to beg for scraps.

Can we do more? Yes, we can, and we should. We shouldn’t be talking about cutting that kind of spending, Mr Hockey – we should be increasing it.

Remember, Mr Hockey? It’s our money. We hand it to the government in trust that our needs will be properly met. If your party isn’t prepared to do that, then why on earth do you think we should give it to you? It will be no comfort to us to have your fabled ‘large Budget surplus’ when our most vulnerable are suffering – and you still maintain that there’s something wrong with them expecting you to help.

You should be ashamed of yourself.


Kindness is killing – Abbott’s welfare Newspeak

March 31, 2011

We woke this morning to find out that the Opposition were about to reveal some new policies, targeted at ‘welfare reform’. Commentators remarked excitedly that here, at last, was a sign that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was listening to all those criticisms of how negative he’d been. (Mind you, very few of those criticisms came from said commentators.)

Strategically leaked details looked alarming – toughen up work for the dole, cut disability pension recipients by up to 60%, quarantine half of all long-term welfare payments and force people into work – but we had to wait until 2pm to find out the whole story.

Abbott’s choice of venue was curious: a rugby club. It’s not exactly the kind of location one associates with welfare reform; maybe some health announcements about nutrition and fitness, or a sports policy, but not the dole. Be that as it may, the speech commenced – and it was a poisonous, insidious exercise in stigmatising the poor, couched in Newspeak. The code to decipher this follows below.

Welfare is Economics.

First, Abbott tried to reframe the issue. It wasn’t about welfare reform, it was about economic reform. It’s possible he thought this might endear him to those concerned with the budget bottom line – and certainly, he did his level best to get in a few jabs at the government’s proposed carbon price and mining tax. What he may not have counted on, however, was that he also gave the clear impression that his focus was squarely on money, not on the human beings who would be affected by his policies.

After that we were treated to what appeared to be a de facto censure motion. Perhaps Abbott was feeling nostalgic for Question Time.

Labor is Labor/Greens.

He repeatedly attacked Labor, referring to the ‘Gillard/Brown government’. More Newspeak. If the correct form of address for any government was to refer to it by the surnames of all those who formed the ruling coalition, surely he should have said the ‘Gillard/Brown/Wilkie/Oakeshott/Windsor government’? And why, then, did we never hear the former government referred to as the ‘Howard/Fisher government’?

Of course, Abbot wasn’t the slightest bit interested in correct forms of address. This was about promoting the idea that Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown is at least a Deputy, but more likely a co-ruler – neither of which is true.

One wonders what Wayne Swan would have to say about his summary demotion by the Opposition Leader.

Opposition is Government.

Bizarrely, Abbott went on to extol the virtues of the former Howard government – many members of which, he helpfully pointed out, currently sit on the Opposition Front Bench. Then he urged his audience to judge the Opposition not on its record in the current position, but ‘on our results in government’.

Some twenty minutes later, Abbott appeared to finally exhaust his list of accusations – many of which contained outright lies and strategic misrepresentations – and turn to the putative ‘real issue’. He started by telling us what a government should not do, most of which could be boiled down to the brief phrase, ‘don’t create a nanny state’.

(Nanny state. It’s such a marvellously meaningless term – good for all occasions, but completely lacking in substance.)

Help is Harm.

A strong government, Abbott argued, should not ‘create a domineering state at the expense of purposeful persons in a free civil society’. Take a moment to unpack that, and remember the context. Abbott is leading up to the idea that a government – by assisting the poor, the unemployed and the disabled – is actually hurting them and, by extension, hurting the country.

Deciding to Target Welfare Recipients is ‘My Hand was Forced’

Then came a truly outrageous statement – that welfare reform was necessary because the Labor government had not made ‘significant savings’. It’s not that he wants to do it, but he has no choice. If the Labor government had done their job properly, he wouldn’t be standing here proposing changes to welfare.

Which is, of course, nonsense. These policies are recycled, tougher versions of ideas dating back to the Howard era – or should I say, the ‘Howard/Fisher era’.

As for the policies themselves? They were every bit as draconian as the leaks promised, and worse.

Unemployment is Bludging

Anyone under 50 receiving unemployment benefits for six months should be forced to do Work for the Dole. This program is ridiculously flawed – it’s little more than make-work at less than minimum wage. Participants have little choice as to where they will be sent, and usually learn no useful job skills. Past programs include sending people to file folders and staple newsletters; and even in jobs where training is promised, it rarely materialises due to time constraints in the organisations where they are placed.

People under 30 were targeted for a special provision. If an unskilled job existed in their area, they would be forced to take it, or lose their benefits. Indeed, Abbott suggested, people should be forced to relocate to areas that had such unskilled labour shortages. In other words, it’s great that you spent thousands on a good education, but they really need grape pickers in the Barossa, so off you go.

Welfare-Dependent is Incompetent and Untrustworthy

Anyone who is welfare-dependent for six months should have half of their payment quarantined ‘for the necessities of life’.
Never mind that quarantining is specifically designed to protect children whose parents neglect them. Never mind that almost every recipient of welfare robs Peter to pay Paul every fortnight, because their benefit is simply not enough to allow them to meet the deadlines of bills, rent or house payments.

Abbott bolstered his argument by commenting that ‘if it was right for the Territories’ it must be right in the rest of Australia. There’s a nasty little assumption at the basis of this; that people on welfare cannot or will not manage their money responsibly, and therefore the government must do that for them.

Funny, sounds like a ‘domineering state’ to me.

Disabled is Able

Abbott moved on to the disabled. Fully 60% of those on the Disability Support Pension, he alleged, suffered from ‘potentially treatable’ conditions. (Of course, he didn’t say where he got those figures.) Those people should be taken off the DSP and put onto a ‘new’ benefit, and encouraged to return to work. Now, we already have a benefit available for those with medium-term illnesses or injuries – it’s called Sickness Benefit – but Abbot either didn’t know that, or didn’t care. He also didn’t bother to delineate the criteria by which ‘potentially treatable’ would be determined, or suggest ways in which the government might assist in rehabilitating people. Perhaps he believes that those who ‘want to work’ will find a way to pay for their own therapy – on a benefit that does not even approach the minimum wage.

Of course, Abbott acknowledged, this might not fix our skilled labor shortage – but he had a solution for that, too. The government should simply increase the number of 457 (skilled work) visas! We can fill those jobs with people from overseas!

Yes, you read that right. The man who lavished praise upon the Howard government – the government that systematically cut funding to higher education and levelled an ever-increasing financial burden on tertiary students, while cutting their access to financial assistance – is now complaining of a skills shortage. But the answer isn’t to boost the upskilling of Australians, oh no – we should just import people, and send Australians to be cleaners in Karratha.

Abbott could have announced an incentive program to encourage skilled workers to relocate. We do that with doctors already – why not extend those incentives to other highly skilled professions?

He could have suggested setting up a jobs-matching scheme, to match up job vacancies with suitable candidates. Oh wait, we used to have one of those – it was called the Commonwealth Employment Service. Whatever happened to that? That’s right – the wonderful Howard government privatised it and parcelled its work out to a series of agencies, most of which folded after they were unable to meet Howard’s restrictive funding criteria.

Support is Disempowerment, Compassion is Cruelty, Kindness is Killing

Abbott wound up his speech by telling us all that compassion was a wonderful thing, but we needed to ensure that compassion is not ‘misguided’. Such a mistake, he said, ‘over time, breaks down the social fabric’. His policies would be good for ‘national morale’, and people would feel better about themselves because of these measures.

I’m sure the disabled parent who has to regularly explain to the landlord that they can’t pay the rent on time because their cash flow has been cut in half will feel better.

I’m sure the unemployed engineer who accumulated a huge education debt and now has to work as a grape picker while overseas workers are handed visas and jobs in his field will feel better.

And I’m sure the person forced off disability support because someone arbitrarily decided they were now magically ‘treatable’, and who reads an article about cutting company tax for the wealthiest corporations, will really feel that boost in national morale.

Abbott’s proposals are not ‘kind’. They are not ‘compassionate’. They are not – as they are now hideously being called in the media – ‘tough love’.

These so-called ‘reforms’ are based on Howard-era policies, vilifying the poor and penalising the disabled and unemployed. They’re predicated on the ridiculous notion that anyone who is not working does not want to work, and is therefore a drain on the public purse. Shades of the 1996 federal election and the beat-up by A Current Affair on the Paxton family. They’re designed to make those of us who do work turn on the ‘bludgers’, without a shred of evidence to justify the anger and vilification.

Abbott didn’t provide any incentives. He didn’t propose training, job-matching, rehabilitation, or any form of positive support. And he apparently doesn’t care that his policies, if implemented would force already overstrained charities like the Salvation Army, Anglicare or St Vincent de Paul to try to accommodate the needs of potentially thousands more people whose only crime is to be unemployed or disabled.

Undoubtedly, Abbott’s proposals will be astonishingly popular with News Limited – although we’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s editorials, the glowing praise given by The Australian’s Jennifer Hewett on Sky’s PM Agenda seems a fair indicator of what’s to come. Channel Ten’s 5PM news – describing Abbott’s proposals as a ‘crackdown’ – decided to do a vox pop outside a Centrelink office – presumably so it could catch people handing in their Newstart forms.

In fact, there’s been no media criticism to speak of – at worst, Abbott’s ideas have simply been presented without comment.

But all the Newspeak in the world can’t obscure what Abbott is really saying – that money is more important than people, and that corporations deserve help from the government when the most vulnerable citizens do not.

And that – while neither new, nor unexpected – is an utter disgrace.


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