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Issue #1644      June 25, 2014

Welfare attacks

Vicious, unfounded and disastrous

This week’s sitting of the Senate – the last with its current line-up – will be marked by the failure of the Abbott government to get the budget’s raft of welfare cuts passed into legislation. The federal government has not “sold” the program of “reform” to an Australian public that is quite aware what an attack on its way of life it really is. The strength of the reaction has caused incoming Senators to appear progressive on the issues.

The July 1 commencement date for the bulk of the government’s reactionary measures will not be met and a new round of parliamentary horse-trading is set to begin. One thing is certain, workers and other less privileged members of the community will need to lift resistance to the budget measures to another level to turn the current agenda around.

Appeals from Coalition heavyweights for “adult government” to “fix” the so-called debt “crisis” have fallen flat. Former Liberal luminaries, like one-time Opposition leader John Hewson, have spoken out against the inhumane thrust of the budget. “The budget proposed in simple terms a cut of some 12 percent to 15 percent in the disposable income of the lower-income groups, single-income families, families with children, but only less than one percent cut in disposable incomes for those on higher incomes,” he said. He could have added that those on higher incomes are only being asked to chip in for three years and that many of those would get their accountants to work to sidestep the levy.

Devil in the detail

Revelations about what’s in store for the unemployed have just kept on coming. Job seekers under 30 years of age will have to provide proof that they are applying for at least 40 jobs a week even while they are not receiving benefits. Failure to comply will see the six-month qualifying period to receive the Newstart allowance extended. Welfare advocates, including the president of the Welfare Rights Network, Maree O’Halloran, have slammed the government over the worsening of the predicament the unemployed already find themselves in. “They will have no money for bus fares, newspapers, phone calls or an internet connection, yet if they don’t look for work they risk having their payments suspended for another four weeks,” she said.

Deputy secretary of the Department of Social Services, Serena Wilson, lifted the lid on government contingency plans to deal with the wave of misery the government would unleash. It has set aside $230 million over four years to deal with an expected 550,000 applications for assistance for food, clothing, medications, transport, rent and utility bills. The aid will be distributed via charities already struggling to cope.

“When we factor in people having no income for half the year and the idea of a safety net is to put more money into emergency relief … it’s just so extraordinarily removed from reality, it defies comprehension,” Emma King, chief executive of the Victorian Council of Social Service said. She noted that people in Melbourne’s growth corridors are already camping near welfare agencies to access basic aid.

The devil truly is in the detail of the budget and the longer it takes to get passed, the more obvious its agenda will become. The $7 co-payment for GP visits is obviously a foot in the door for the killing off of Medicare. Less well publicised was the fact that patients will have to pay up to $1,000 upfront for medical imaging such as CAT scans, MRIs and X-rays. Self-funded retirees who currently qualify for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card will lose the $876 Seniors Supplement. Soothing letters from the Prime Minister to older Australians have not calmed anger about the shifting of age pensions’ indexation from movements in average weekly earnings to the Consumer Price Index.

Attacks not finished yet

The same will happen to those receiving the Disability Support Pension (DSP) and Carer Payment. Both these vulnerable groups are seen with suspicion by the government. Former Mission Australia CEO and Howard government adviser, Patrick McLure, has handed his interim report on welfare “reform” to the current government and it proposes getting tougher with recipients of these payments and would-be applicants. The government refers sneeringly to the DSP and Carer Payment as “set and forget” benefits, which shows just how out of touch or uncaring it is about the bureaucratic load it puts on people to survive with some dignity. The full McLure report is due for completion in September or October. It is expected to “simplify” the system and reduce the number of payments to four or five. The budget is not the end of the government’s ambitions to smash social security as we know it in Australia.

People understand their own straightened circumstances and are starting to hear the different messages about who are the country’s “lifters” and “leaners”, to borrow federal treasurer Joe Hockey’s terms. Deputy Greens leader Adam Bandt has used Hockey’s self-serving methodology to show that Australian taxpayers have to work a week and a half every year to pay for the subsidies and tax concessions going to the fossil fuel, superannuation and private health insurance industries. At the same time, latest Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) figures show Australians are less reliant on social security payments than at any time since the 1980s.

An Oxfam report on income disparities confirms what we all knew – the gap between Australia’s rich and poor has blown out. “The Australia figures are quite staggering if you think that nine individuals have a net worth that is equivalent to the total 4.5 million, or the bottom 20 percent of income earners – that’s pretty stark,” Oxfam Australia chief executive Helen Szoke said.

The government’s determination to serve the few to the huge cost of the many must be defeated. The community’s willingness to fight has been impressive but needs to be lifted to ensure the budget is blocked.

Next article – Editorial – Polluters’ open slather

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