War against the poor
The "War on Terror" is costing the Government a bomb. So much so they have foreshadowed major changes to the welfare system in an effort to reign in social security spending. But while changes to unemployed benefits and Job Network schemes were paraded in front of the media, their secret plot to slash disability support pensions in the upcoming budget is being kept tight. The Federal Government, led by the infamous Ministers Abbott and Vanstone, has announced major changes to the Social Security system. The overhaul however, is shuffling the deckchairs on what remains an inherently flawed system, one that ignores the reality of 700,000 unemployed workers. The "public" announcement was in relation to the "breach" system used to punish the unemployed, and a restructuring of some of the privatised Job Network functions. From July 1, the current "breach" system that reduces payments over a set time, when obligations like attending an interview are not met, will be drastically changed to suspend payments completely. Senator Vanstone says the old system was unreasonably harsh on those who were most vulnerable, for example the mentally ill, homeless or illiterate. She argues that suspending their payments completely will "encourage" them to come into a Centrelink office and "discuss their situation" and "work through" their issues. Payments may then be restored from the date of suspension for those with a "reasonable excuse". (It has not yet been clarified how a "reasonable excuse" is defined or who judges its validity.) The changes are in response to a draft report on the Job Network system by the Productivity Commission, which has found significant flaws in the current system. Significantly, it reports that "a significant share of disadvantaged job seekers receives little assistance" from the privately contracted Intensive Assistance scheme. One of the flaws of this system is that the private contractors "park" the disadvantaged in the system; getting paid by the government to have the person on their books without matching them with suitable jobs, and without having to structure a program to address a person's specific problems, e.g. literacy. The report says that intensive assistance should be available for a six- month period only, forcing the contractor to achieve results within a set timeframe. "The Commission stresses the importance of achieving a balance between an overly prescriptive approach aimed at protecting taxpayers' funds and job seekers and one that detracts from efficiency, with greater scope for targeted risk management", says the report. Indeed, the overly prescriptive protection of taxpayers' funds has only been applied when paying benefits to job seekers. When it comes to the private Job Network contractors it has been a free-for-all. Intensive Assistance "parking" is not the only rort contractors have engaged in. Agencies have also been caught creating dummy short-term part- time jobs themselves, placing the unemployed in them, and reaping a commission. After just 15 hours of work the job seeker then goes back on the agency's books for another commission to be earned later. However the most alarming of the changes have been kept hidden from the public, until secret cabinet budget proposals were leaked to The Financial Review last week. Howard's razor gang are planning to make major savings by placing harsh new restrictions on the Disability Support Pension (DSP). Besides redefining the eligibility criteria, they will place the disabled under tighter scrutiny. They also intend to remove the disparity between the DSP and other payments, lowering the amount the disabled receive and placing all benefits under one umbrella "working age payment". They hope this will make the DSP less attractive to the unemployed. As a final insult, they will then throw the disabled off benefits altogether when they are able to work just 15 hours, without respect to how much (or little) they are earning for that work. (The current assessment to grant a person a DSP is that they be unable to work for over 20 for at least two years.) In response to the DSP changes, Labor spokesperson Wayne Swan said, "That's why we say this is a Government that is always strong on controlling the weak and very weak in controlling the strong. "They're not out there saying 'oh we're going to solve the black hole in the budget by cutting out tax avoidance at the top end of town', their solution is to go out there and target the disabled." Ultimately the Productivity Commission, the Coalition and the Labor Party still refuse to acknowledge the truth of Australia's welfare crisis: the huge disparity between the number of unemployed people and the number of jobs available. Throwing the disabled into the "unemployed" pool will only jack the percentage up higher. While the Government trumpets Australia's economic "boom", high unemployment remains. Companies are not employing extra workers, just skimming off the extra productivity as cash profits. One of the only budget targets this Government has met during the last financial year is to keep the unemployment rate at seven per cent. Yet Minster Abbott claims that taking six years to bring the unemployment rate down from 9 per cent to seven per cent over six years "is one of the Howard Government's most significant achievements". Can we then assume that in 21 years time the unemployment rate will be zero per cent? Not unless we have a new type of government that gives priority to social security instead of war.