The Guardian September 20, 2000


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".

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