The Guardian 13 April, 2005

"Welfare reform" —
open season on the disadvantaged

Janice Hamilton

Federal Cabinet is considering imposing tougher activity tests on over 700,000 people claiming the Disability Support Pension (DSP). The activity tests would apply both to current and future applicants. The aim is to force as many as possible disability support pensioners off welfare payments and back into the workforce. It has the strong support of employers, eager to be able to draw on a larger, cheaper pool of casual labour.

This would be done by extending “mutual obligation” principles applied to Newstart (unemployment) allowance recipients and reducing the work test from being capable of working 30 hours to 15 hours per week for a period of at least two years.

What the government is doing is not new. The government has had a bill before parliament for the last two years. That bill, which includes lowering the threshold for the work test to 15 hours, has been blocked by the Senate. As of July, when the government gets control of both houses of parliament it will have free reign to inflict this and other “mutual obligation” activities on people with disabilities.

Other changes being discussed include forcing disability pensioners to face a panel of experts to assess whether they deserve the pension or if they should be transferred onto Newstart (unemployment benefits).

Under the current system, DSP applicants have to get their treating doctor/s to recommend their application for the DSP and then be assessed by a Centrelink Medical Officer. Their application is reviewed every two to five years depending on the severity of the illness or disability. This procedure, although it sounds simple, can be trying enough without the added pressure of facing a group of strangers who in most cases would not have spent more than 10 minutes with the applicant.

Workforce Participation Min­ister Peter Dutton claims there are too many people receiving the DSP who do not deserve it. “We have 300 people a day going onto the DSP and we need to make sure the disability support pension is preserved for those who most deserve it, and not for people who are going to park themselves on to it until they are 65 and claim the aged pension.”

Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews was more forthright. When asked by the ABC AM program what would happen if recipients did not elect to participate or could not find work, he pointed to the labour shortage and a recipient’s obligations to society.

The proposed “reforms” have alarmed disability groups who have been trying to convince the government that an injection of funds is needed before any changes are made. There are many DSP recipients who require long-term special needs assistance, including appropriate equipment and facilities in the workplace and transport to and from work.

“Visually impaired people need special computer software, deaf people need other things, and people in wheelchairs need special transport and workplaces with ramps”, said Heidi Forrest, president of People with Disabilities Australia.

This is something that the federal government and the business groups pushing for this reform have failed to mention.

“Single mums”

But DSP recipients are not the only ones on the government’s agenda. Treasurer Peter Costello in a recent speech to the Australian and Melbourne Institute’s Sustainable Prosperity Conference in Melbourne outlined government plans to fix the so-called labour shortage crisis — in particular he targeted single mothers currently receiving the sole parent pension.

Flagging yet again an obligation style program for sole parents, Mr Costello told the conference that single mothers with primary school aged children “should be looking for work in the same way as those on unemployment benefits”.

The advocacy group, the Nat­ional Council of Single Moth­ers and their Children, and the Australian Labor Party have attacked the Costello proposal because it focuses on “requirements and punishments” rather than support. They both claim the “reforms” to force school age mothers to work without addressing childcare, employer discrimination and training would be detrimental.

The treasurer’s speech is disturbing reading as it sets out the government’s agenda for the future, including how it links welfare and industrial relations reform.

The following is a passage from his speech:

“Another element of encouraging participation is facilitating labour market mobility. If people can’t find work in their existing location, they should be encouraged to look for work in areas of labour shortage. Job Network arrangements and other employment services have assisted in this regard, by better matching jobseekers with suitable job vacancies. But labour market mobility should be encouraged.

“A flexible workplace relations system is also a key factor in allowing the labour market to effectively deal with skills shortages. By allowing wages to act as a better signalling mechanism, it provides incentives for workers to move to areas where their skills are most valued. And by more closely aligning wages with productivity in workplaces, wage rises in one area of shortage should not lead to across-the-board wage rises.”

Minimal welfare support and minimal wages! This is Peter Costello’s future Australia.

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