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Issue #1624      January 29, 2014

Welfare “reform”

Divide and conquer tactics

The unemployed and people with disabilities will be the main target of the latest batch of “reforms” to be rolled out, beginning with the Federal Budget in May. The Abbott government has announced an audit to be headed by the former CEO of Mission Australia, Patrick McLure. Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has been trying to reassure the bulk of the one in five Australians who now receive some form of income support from the government.

“This is essentially a limited review … It’s about the normal things, DSP [Disability Support Pension], Newstart, that sort of thing basically,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald. The capitalist system has failed to meet the basic needs of millions of Australians – starting with a job – but the Libs are determined to keep blaming and punishing the victims.

The federal government hopes aged pensioners and Family Tax Benefit recipients will breathe a sigh of relief and hardly spare a thought for the 650,000 people on unemployment benefits and the 827,000 DSP recipients. It would be a mistake to adopt a “she’ll be right” attitude, however. The government will eventually be taking an axe to those other sectors of social security, too.

The “divide and conquer” approach is also evident in a proposition to subject only new applicants to a raft of new and very draconian regulations. Newstart recipients will no longer be able to decline a job offer if travel to the workplace takes longer than 90 minutes. Advocacy and support groups have pointed out the consequences of this for single parents of children of eight years and older who were dumped onto the dole queues last year.

Work for the dole will be expanded. The unemployed may have to work for nothing in aged care facilities as well as cleaning streets and parks. Opposition spokeswoman Jenny Macklin has blasted the mooted changes. “Kevin Andrews should be telling people how he’ll improve services for families and vulnerable people, not floating yet another thought bubble on how to make savage cuts,” she said.

But these aren’t thought bubbles. They’re part of a long-term plan for governments to step out of their responsibilities to the disadvantaged and essentially hand them over to charities. Labor governments have been singing from the same neo-liberal hymn book for a long time, too. And these changes don’t save public money. Handing over the social security system to profit-making and nominally not-for-profit outfits is expensive. “Nothing is set in concrete yet, but I’m not doing this to chase savings,” Mr Andrews said.

Some measures do fall into the category of traditional budgetary pruning. Merging the Department of Human Services and Social Services and the sacking of more public servants is on the cards. The Abbott government is reigning in its verbal support to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, citing a cost blowout during trials of the scheme.

The big reform being sought from the audit is a single, flat, miserable welfare payment that may, or may not, be supplemented by a number of “top-up” payments according to the circumstances of the applicant. “Monolithic”, “homogeneous” welfare payments are one of government’s new enemies. Applicants will have to demonstrate their need for the various “top-ups”, who knows, maybe while standing in a queue in a fully privatised Australia Post shop. These reforms are not about simplicity, either.

Patrick McLure will be a valuable ally in this current crusade. He was a seminarian training to be a Franciscan priest before his career in social welfare. “My family had known the Franciscans for many years and I was attracted to St Francis because of his simplicity, preaching of the Gospel and his working with the most disadvantaged,” he told The Catholic Weekly. He is the author of a memoir entitled Seize the Day: From Priest to CEO that was launched by former Liberal PM, John Howard. In 2006-08, McLure was CEO of Macquarie Capital Funds’ Capital Retirement Villages Group from 2006-8 which raised $850 million of institutional funds for investment in retirement villages in Australia and New Zealand.

Under McLure’s leadership, Mission Australia became a major provider of employment and training services in the federal government’s privatised Jobs Network. In 2005, it acquired a one third stake in Working Links, a company that provides employment and training services to the UK equivalent of the Jobs Network. Mr McLure was deputy chair of the 2006-07 Welfare to Work Consultative Forum that led to the recent changes to single parent payments.

The Abbott government’s plans are pretty plain despite its sham musing and hiding behind “audits” and “reviews”. It is seeking to blame the victims of a failed, corrupt system and to divide the community while it is being robbed of its social security system. This must be met with a united response from workers and the other exploited people of Australia.

Next article – Workers not to blame

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