The Guardian • Issue #1963

Reforms to DSP desperately needed

The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs will conduct an investigation this year into the “purpose, intent and adequacy of the Disability Support Pension” (DSP) after an allegation that 130 people died last year from a terminal illness while waiting for their DSP application to be processed. The scope of the inquiry is broad and includes the impact on the DSP on disabled peoples’ ability to find work, discrimination against DSP recipients, the appropriateness of the current eligibility criteria, the adequacy of the DSP to provide a suitable standard of living, and the capacity of the current system to meet the needs of those with chronic conditions and terminal illnesses.

Under the current social security law, people who have a terminal illness with less than two years to live may apply for a “manifest grant” without the usual rigorous assessment required for the grant of a DSP. The idea is that such claims ought to be expedited in order to help support terminally ill people and their families in the last months of their lives. However, this has not been the reality.

Increasing automation of Centrelink’s processing systems means that claims are not being prioritised correctly. As a result, those with a terminal illness are being left with no support in the last months of their lives, such as one man whose estate was credited $4,000 in back pay after he passed away waiting for access to the DSP. Access to the DSP can make a big difference to the lives of those with terminal illnesses and their families. While the current Jobseeker rate is $620.80 per fortnight, the base rate for the DSP is $952.70 per fortnight. That extra $330 can go a long way towards covering the extra costs associated with living with a terminal illness.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, whose motion in the Senate initiated the inquiry, has accused the government of pocketing the savings from the newly digitised model rather than reinvesting them in the people who need them the most – those on social security payments, including the DSP. One look at the state of the current system suggests that this is probably true. In recent years, the DSP has become increasingly difficult to access due to the tightening of eligibility requirements by both Labour and Liberal governments, meaning there is less room for decisions to be made on a truly case by case basis.

On top of the more stringent eligibility requirements, the increasing automation of Centrelink services means claims such as “manifest grant” claims for those with terminal illnesses may not be granted as quickly or as readily as if they were processed face-to-face. The 2021 federal budget cut $860mil from employment services. While employment services are separate from disability support, at least in principle, this is part of an ongoing trend across the social security system.

The latest federal budget is drawing criticism across the board for its failure to allocate resources where they are most needed for a strong economic recovery from the pandemic. The chronically underfunded and understaffed social security administration has been hit hard over the past few years, with the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) raising concerns over staffing shortages. The government has acknowledged the need for staffing levels to be raised but the CPSU fears that the proposed increase of 50,000 jobs won’t be enough.

Funding cuts lead to staffing cuts and automation, which in turn means fewer people are given face-to-face consultations as part of their claim being processed. All of this compounds to mean that less people are eligible for the support they need. All of this is occurring while the pandemic pushes more and more people onto social security, overwhelming a system that is not equipped to deal with the influx.

Not to mention the new measure announced in the budget, which means that new migrants to Australia will have to wait up to four years to access most forms of social security. There is no information in the budget documents to indicate that the DSP will be included among these payments – or which payments will be included at all for that matter – but this move is extremely concerning. What the government did not fail to mention is that they expect to save $671mil over the next five years.

The Senate inquiry also comes in the wake of controversial reforms to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The government has allocated a much-needed funding increase to the NDIS, but with a catch – participants in the NDIS will now have to undergo controversial ‘independent assessments’ by government-approved health professionals to qualify. There are concerns by disability advocates that these do not appropriately take into account to complex individual needs of people with disabilities and that the new regime was developed without community consultation (for more on the scheme see Guardian #1962 “Backlash against NDIS Independent Assessments”).

While the NDIS is different from the DSP – the NDIS is designed to provide funding for disability-related support, while the DSP provides money to people with disabilities to help with day-to-day living expenses – it all forms part of a broader picture about what the government really values when it comes to Australians with disabilities and chronic or terminal illnesses.

The DSP doesn’t work because it isn’t designed to. It is cheaper for the government to keep people on the lower Jobseeker or Youth Allowance rate for as long as possible in order to protect their bottom line. Unfortunately, terminally ill people are falling through the cracks of this cruel system. Disability Support claims should not be automated – a computer isn’t capable of assessing whether a person is eligible in any nuanced way. The emphasis ought to be on people’s individual needs, not on the government’s bottom line.

The report of the Senate Inquiry into the Purpose, Intent and Adequacy of the Disability Support Pension is due to be published by the 30th of November 2021 and is currently open for submissions via the Parliament of Australia’s website (

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