Issue #1569 17 October 2012
Reactionary policies enacted behind sensationalism
Last week must go down as one of the most appalling for some years in parliamentary mud-slinging, regressive legislation and lack of real debate on the burning issues of the day. Opposition leader Tony Abbott sank to new lows. The Coalition and Labor Party joined forces to sentence thousands more innocent refugees to indefinite incarceration on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The two major parties also closed ranks to pass legislation cutting payments to single parents by up to $100 per week.
The House of Representatives descended into a personal slanging match, with the swapping of insults and counter claims of misogyny and sexism (no one mentioned that the pay gap for women is still 17 percent on an hourly rate). The media had a field day covering Parliament and spraying far and wide Slipper’s sleazy text messages. Ashby’s allegations of sexual harassment against Slipper are being heard in the Federal Court.
The hypocrisy, the personal attacks and the rank opportunism that pervaded Parliament last week is not new. But it marks a trend, especially since the right-wing gained a tight grip on Labor and unquestioningly adopted neo-liberal policies. The shift to the right by Labor and the effective gagging of the few dissenting voices within its ranks have left little ground for serious policy debate.
The mud-slinging, the personal insults and language all serve as serious diversion from the real issues. They provide quick grabs for corporate media hungry for sensational reportage.
The important issues before Parliament, the cruel, reactionary, backward policies being pushed through Parliament by the major parties, received very little publicity. Instead the media feasted on “the misogyny wars”, the “gender debate”, the “Slipper affair”, etc. The only shining light, the only principled voices, attempting to debate the issues were the Greens.
Impoverishment of single parents
Labor and the Opposition parties voted through the misnamed Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012. The legislation will see more than 100,000 single parents lose their parenting payments and be forced onto Newstart payments.
The Greens strongly opposed the bill which the government not only claims will create an incentive for single parents to work, but that the savings will contribute $700 million towards a budget surplus.
“How can we claim that we have a surplus if we have just thrust over 100,000 single-parent families and their children into poverty? How can we then claim that there is a surplus when it is on the backs of the most vulnerable in our community?” Greens Senator Rachel Siewert asked the Senate.
Under the bill, recipients’ parenting payments will cease when their children turn six if they are partnered parents and eight if they are single parents. They will then have to rely on Newstart and charity to survive.
Senator Siewert pointed out that recent data from the OECD shows that around two-thirds of the children of single parents who rely on income support are living below the poverty line and 90 percent of that particular group are women.
“Sole parent families on income support already struggle to meet essential living costs and 85 percent of parenting payment recipients experience multiple deprivation,” said Senator Siewert. “Multiple deprivation is when you lack three items that are vital for an adequate standard of living – for example, medical treatment, warm clothes, a decent and secure home, schoolbooks for children. Those are things that we consider essential items.
“I reiterate: over half of the parenting payment recipients are already living in what we would term serious poverty. Now we are talking about cutting their payments further… this is not about incentives; this is about the government saving money on the backs of the most vulnerable.”
Nick Xenephon and the Greens were the only Senators to oppose the bill.
The lower Newstart rate will make it harder for people to find a secure job as they struggle to pay their rent, utilities, fuel and car registration. It is not an incentive to work. It is punitive with an implied moral judgement as though its victims are in some way responsible for their situation – not the system which fails to provide family-friendly, secure employment and affordable childcare.
If the government were serious about incentives to work, then it would be putting more money into childcare to make it affordable and taking measures to create secure employment with family-friendly working hours.
The few dollars the government will save from the cuts will not make a big difference to the budget outcome but they will make a huge difference to single parents struggling to put food on the table for their children and keep a roof over their heads. The Greens pointed to other means of raising the $700 million such as removing the fossil fuel subsidy or not repaying to the big miners the royalty increases that states make.
Dental scheme cut
The bill to close the chronic diseases dental scheme at the end of next month is just as cruel. Eighty percent of dental patients benefiting from the scheme hold concession cards. They are amongst the most economically disadvantaged, as well as having chronic illness.
Many of them cannot afford private dental care without access to Medicare benefits. They will have to join the 650,000 on waiting lists for public dental services and hope that government promises of additional funding from July 2014 will reduce those waiting lists.
This bill received little public debate. Likewise the motion supporting regulations for the establishment of a processing centre for asylum seekers on Manus Island. It was rushed through both Houses with the support of the Coalition. Only the Greens spoke out against it. The government plans to incarcerate 600 asylum seekers there with the first group being sent within a few weeks.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young pointed out that “… there is no detail in this designation of how those children are going to be protected, who looks after them, who will be their guardian, what their rights are. They are the most vulnerable refugees, and this agreement is silent. Yet this parliament is expected to sign off on it,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“Manus Island has one of the world’s highest malaria rates, but we are about to dump refugees, people who already have a fragile state of mental health and physical health, in tents in a place which has a massive rate of malaria…
“The facilities, as outlined in the documents put forward by the government today, show that they are not ready to be housing refugees. We know that they were not ready in Nauru either. We also know that we started sending refugees to Nauru before the Australian government had even signed the contracts with the service providers. This chamber has demanded that the government table the contract with Transfield Services and they are still refusing to do it.”
The health contract does not allow for adequate mental health services on Manus Island. Counselling on Manus Island and Nauru will be provided by phone from Sydney!
There won’t even be a full-time psychiatrist to assist refugees on Manus Island.
“All of the evidence we have is that detaining vulnerable refugees – who have suffered the consequences of having to flee war, torture and persecution – indefinitely, remotely, out of sight and out of mind just compounds their suffering and compounds their traumatic experiences. Yet this government just wants to blindly follow in John Howard’s footsteps.
“This is all about competing with the heartless, callous policies of Tony Abbott’s coalition. It is a race to the bottom. They are scraping the bottom of the barrel and there is no forethought for what impact indefinite detention will have on the children whom we send to Manus Island,” Senator Hanson-Young warned the Senate.
Cutting of parenting payments, closure of a dental scheme and Manus Island were just three of the important issues facing Parliament where the Coalition and Labor collaborated. There were a number of other serious issues on the agenda. Yet the public were subjected to a sideshow, a circus that covered up the reactionary, inhumane policies being pushed through. The major parties avoided exposure and accountability for their actions.
There is little public support for those policies. Nor is there widespread support for Australia’s huge military budget, our war preparations and involvement in Afghanistan. The majority of Australians support increased funding for public education and health, and oppose the sacking of public servants, privatisation, cuts to social welfare, and other austerity measures.
Opposing the cuts to single parents’ payments, Greens leader Christine Milne said: “We will not be supporting this bill and nor will we be listening to the excuses of people who say, ‘We voted for it because it was the party line.’ This is actually a matter of true and core value. What do you value as a person? What sort of society do you want in this country?”
“This is really a moral issue. It is a totally moral issue and it is a matter of choice about what sort of country we want to live in. The Greens are very clear about the direction we want to see the country go in – and this is totally the wrong direction,” Senator Milne said. The Communist Party of Australia agrees it is the wrong direction. It is also clear on the direction it wants society to go in.
The gutter politics and measures rammed through parliament last week show just how urgent the task of building a left and progressive alternative movement is. The fundamental changes required in policy direction and in the parliamentary process will only come through the building of a broad movement, uniting left and progressive forces.
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