Welfare's end at hand
by Marcus Browning A letter by Colleen Pearce of the Uniting Church, published in The Age newspaper pretty much summed up the gist of the proposed changes to the welfare system in the federal government commissioned report, Participation Support for a More Equitable Society, released last month. Her observations are worth quoting. Ms Pearce pointed out that the report had mainly received uncritical support. "True", she said, "the report contains a number of buzzwords, designed to induce a warm and fuzzy feeling, such as `participation' and `community building'. "But behind the modern rhetoric lies the rather old notion of `self-help' - - a 19th century idea that was explicitly opposed to notions of collective responsibility, because this was said to rob individuals of their moral fibre. "In a similar vein, the authors of this report have managed to reconstitute social security — one of the visible signs of a society committed to the wellbeing of all citizens — into a punitive system designed to ensure a fundamental reduction in government spending." She notes some things in the report appear more generous than the current arrangement, such as the proposals to merge pensions and benefits into a common payment, with additional payments for people with a disability or carers, possibly topped off by a participation payment for costs associated with finding employment. Ms Pearce warns that such proposals leave the way open for the government to make considerable savings by introducing a distinction between, say, people who are on a disability support pension who are deemed able to work, and those who are not. "Indeed, so concerned are the report's authors that some people get disability support pensions who could otherwise be working that they question the appropriateness of utilising treating doctors' opinions in the measurement of work capacity. "Clearly, doctors are not to be trusted with making judgements on work capacity because they are too influenced by health issues. "Many people with psychiatric, intellectual and physical disabilities would, indeed, like to have paid employment. "But this proposed `reform' is not really about opening up opportunities for them, nor will it encourage a more tolerant society. "Rather, a far more draconian system is envisaged — one that is intent on making the most disadvantaged members of our society `pay their way'." Colleen Pearce has grasped the intent of this report, which was produced by a group made up of two university academics, a government representative, and a number of corporate executives, including the senior finance executive of the Commonwealth Bank. The group's chairman was Patrick McClure, chief executive officer of Mission Australia, the biggest player in the privatised welfare system. The report begins by blaming "unacceptably high" unemployment on the "failure of the current support system", then names four trends it claims the current system doesn't deal with: * growing divide between the rich and poor; * labour market trends bringing more part-time and casual jobs; * more people on welfare; * technological changes and globalisation with less demand for unskilled workers. It then names four shortcomings of the current system: 1) "Service delivery not focused"; 2) "Overly complex" categories of pensions and allowances for "people of workforce age"; 3) "Inadequate incentives" for "participation" in work; 4) Not enough "recognition of participation". The report promotes the objective of "ensuring that long-term jobless are able to compete in the labour market." "Social obligations" extend to business enterprises and trade unions (this is the only mention in the report of trade unions). These "social obligations" are to "confer substantial benefits on individuals and corporate entities". Enterprises will "benefit through employee morale, customer satisfaction and community respect and a healthy social environment in which to operate". On the other hand, socially obliged employees are to work for their welfare payment in the name of "self respect" and, of course, unions shouldn't interfere in this "healthy social environment". The main thrust of the report is that corporations and various levels of businesses are to be serviced by a privatised welfare system. For welfare recipients this will begin with a "gateway assessment" where welfare recipients are put into categories (although it is not called that because "categories" of welfare recipients are to be eliminated as a stated aim in the report). Under the goal of "integrating access to income support" the gateway system would firstly "determine a person's entitlement to a participation support payment", then "assess the risk of long-term joblessness; identify appropriate participation requirements; assess a person's relative labour force disadvantage; refer people to brokers and service providers", and so on. The participation support payment is a basic, means tested common payment with additional payments "associated with additional needs". While there are a few references to government, the community and family (warm and fuzzy), and that one mention of the trade unions, the overwhelming amount of details and proposals in the 98 pages of the report are about the opportunities being made available to corporations and businesses of various sizes. As a contrast, people with "multiple barriers to participation" in "mutual obligation" (work for welfare) are to be coerced under threat of their benefit being taken away. "There is considerable community concern about the impact of financial penalties on low income people with few other resources", says the report. "Nevertheless, some form of financial sanction must be available as a last resort." If there was any doubt that the end of the welfare system, of a "society committed to the wellbeing of all citizens", as Colleen Pearce puts it, is at hand, this report will dispel it. We are witnessing the creation of a government-funded, all-encompassing cheap labour service to business on an unprecedented scale. To create such a monster by necessity requires the use of ruthless and inhumane measures: the unemployed, sole parents, the disabled are to fuel the fires of corporate profits under the banners of "mutual obligations" and "social partnerships".