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Issue #1786      July 19, 2017


Ten into one won’t go

Bit by bit the former Abbott and current Turnbull Coalition governments have been targeting social security recipients and families to fund corporate tax cuts and a bloated military budget of $1 trillion over 20 years. Payments have been shrinking and eligibility requirements for income support have become tougher and tougher.

The government, in its 2017-18 budget, has come up with a new approach to stigmatising the unemployed, this time for substance abuse. This latest attack on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, the victims of government policy, is contained in the Social Services Legislation Amendment Welfare Reform Bill 2017 which went before Parliament on June 22. It is one in a series of bills as the Turnbull government seeks to push through the remaining cuts in the Hockey-Abbott 2014 horror budget.

“The measures in this Bill will better support people into work and ensure the welfare system continues to provide a safety net for those who need it most,” the Minister for Social Services Christian Porter dishonestly claimed in his Second Reading speech to Parliament.

One of the central features of the Bill is the introduction of a new Job Seeker Payment to replace seven existing payments including the Newstart, Youth and Sickness Allowances from March 20, 2020 for people of working age “with the capacity to work.” For people with a temporary illness, certain job seeking exemptions apply during a period of sickness.

Around 800,000 Newstart recipients are expected to transfer to the new Job Seeker Payment in 2020. A further 20,000 recipients of other working-age income support payments are expected to progressively transition to the Job Seeker Payment, or other payments such as the age pension or carer payment where eligible.

The government takes a punitive approach towards the unemployed, as though it is their behaviour that has caused their unemployment, and hence they are undeserving.

Consistent with this approach, the reputation of the unemployed is yet again being tarnished. Instead of the usual “dole bludger” line, which has worn rather thin, an association is made with unemployment and substance abuse, as if this were the cause of their unemployment.

The Bill provides for a two-year trial of random drug testing of 5,000 new recipients of Newstart and the Youth Allowance payments who are unemployed. The trial will begin in 2018, in three locations.

This is despite the fact that drug testing is not a test for substance abuse or dependence and there is no evidence to suggest that substance abuse or dependence is a major barrier to employment.

It is also a gross invasion of privacy and human rights.

Cashless Debit Card

Porter emphasises that the drug testing trial is not about taking welfare payments off people who use drugs. “Drug users who return an initial positive drug test will continue to receive the same amount in welfare payments,” Porter says. The government talks about rehabilitation programs but does next to nothing to make adequate provisions for such services.

“However, their welfare payments will be quarantined to help them manage their payments to meet essential living costs and to limit their ability to fund drug abuse.”

As for not taking payments off those whose tests return a positive result, that is only for the first occasion.

The trial is for 24 months. The humiliating basics card, first imposed on Indigenous communities, will replace cash payments, thus restricting what their income can be spent on and where.

Drug or alcohol dependency will be ruled out as a reasonable excuse for not meeting mutual obligations unless job seekers are also seeking treatment, “if it is available and appropriate.” One of the main issues here is the lack of services for people who are already seeking treatment.

The Bill allows jobseekers to undertake drug or alcohol treatment as part of or as completely meeting their mutual obligations to search for jobs or undertake study.

If a jobseeker refuses to participate in “available and appropriate treatment”, they will no longer be able to continue to use their drug and alcohol conditions as a reasonable excuse for future non-compliance. If they again fail to meet their requirements due to drug or alcohol use, they may then face a financial penalty.

The drug testing will be contracted out to the private sector and carried out when Newstart and unemployed Youth Allowance recipients attend Centrelink for interviews.

New tougher regime

There is a new, harsher system of penalties for all unemployed workers receiving income support, what the government calls a “targeted compliance framework.”

This new compliance regime is set to save $204.7 million over the first four years – by “save” Treasurer Scott Morrison means by reducing or cutting people off payments.

New rules will not allow job seekers to keep using drug or alcohol dependency as an excuse for failing to meet their requirements rather than seeking treatment.

Job seekers who have “persistently” committed mutual obligation failures will also face graduated loss of income support payments for further failures to meet their mutual obligation requirements. The penalty amount will be either 50 percent or 100 percent of the person’s income support payments for the fortnight.

Job seekers may also be subject to payment cancellation, and, if they then reapply for income support, a four-week non-payment period applies starting from the date of cancellation.

None of these punitive measures will put the unemployed into jobs.

Jobs crisis

According to the Generation Stalled report, commissioned by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, almost one third of young Australians are unemployed or under-employed – 13.5 percent unemployed and 18 percent under-employed.

In February there were more than 650,000 people aged between 15 and 24 looking for work or underemployed. By 2014, 39.3 percent of non-students were in casual work, and 35.8 percent in part-time employment.

Increasingly these jobs tend to be low paid and in the services sector. July 1 would have seen many of them hit with a wage cut as weekend and public holiday penalty rates were cut.

This latest legislation will not create jobs but it will force more families, youth and unemployed into poverty and homelessness if it is passed and compounds the impact of penalty rate cuts which also targets those on the lowest incomes.

How can these young people have hope for a better future that the government promises? That will require radical policy changes and attitudinal approach to the unemployed.

John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, summed it up saying: “These measures are another iteration of the government’s ideological obsession with attacking and demonising people who are excluded from the labour market. Their crime is the crime of being poor.”

As for studying to qualify for a job, because of funding cuts TAFE and university fees put that out of reach of the unemployed.

With around one job for every ten people looking for work, job creation programs are needed if the unemployed and under-employed are to find work and be in a position to become economically independent.

In fact, there is no shortage of potential jobs. For a start, anyone who has rung or queued up at Centrelink, Medicare or any other government agency will have felt the impact of the thousands of job cuts in the public service.

What better place to start than by restoring the jobs and quality of service that once existed. Instead of cutting jobs, the states should be rebuilding their public services including transport, health and education.

Renewable energy is opening up the prospects of thousands of secure jobs. It would not take a great imagination to generate enough employment for those seeking jobs. And, in the education sector, the abolition of fees and an increase in student allowances would open the way for training and education.

Next article – Editorial – Military takeover

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