The Guardian 28 September, 2005

"Welfare to work"; government backs off?

Bob Briton

The Howard government has been forced to soften the image of its "welfare to work" onslaught. Community outrage and the unease of some Coalition backbenchers have combined to elicit a number of tweaks to the package that still threatens to drive single parents, the disabled and the unemployed further into poverty.

There will be limited, temporary exemptions from the "cut ‘em adrift" policy proposed for single parents to be introduced on July 1 next year. However, even those parents will be subjected to regular Centrelink review and booted onto the equivalent of the dole — with the loss of $29 a week from the change of benefit. Research by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NCSEM) reveals that the total weekly loss of income will be more like $100 from already inadequate family budgets.

In May’s Federal Budget it was declared that single parents would be forced out of full-time parenting and onto Job Search once their youngest child turns six. Minister for Workplace Participation Kevin Andrews announced last week that single parents in the following circumstances could apply to be spared the total loss of government benefit:

  • Distance educators

  • Carers for adults or children with a serious illness or disability

  • Foster carers

  • Home schoolers

  • Those who can demonstrate a lack of suitable child-care or work

  • Parents of large families

    "These groups are indicative", the Minister explained. "This is temporary; it’s not an automatic permanent exemption… And even if you are in one of these groups it may well be that you can work." He added that the decision to put these parents on the equivalent of the dole was taken because it was ultimately the "choice" of parents to stay at home with their children. Some parents may be able to claim a one-off payment to put towards the cost of getting back to work. As yet no details are available.

    Andrews has also toned down the government’s intimidating language towards the jobless. He claims that no one will lose their benefits without warning or without an opportunity to be interviewed by Centrelink. More people with disabilities will be able to claim a mobility allowance to help meet the cost of getting to and from work.

    According to the government, changes to the way penalties are imposed will ensure people who suffer episodic mental or physical illnesses do not lose their welfare payments if they are unable to meet work requirements because of their condition.

    From July next year Centrelink will apply the baseball logic of "three strikes and you’re out" when suspending single parents, disability support pensioners and the unemployed from payments for up to eight weeks for violations of the conditions for their benefit.

    Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell went public with his misgivings: "Catholic Welfare is properly worried some job-seekers might lose their benefits for up to eight weeks — this is pretty tough."

    "Tough" is putting it mildly

    Catholic Welfare Australia’s Executive Director Frank Quinlan told the media, "The fundamentals of a sound welfare-to-work package are adequate income support, education and training and job creation". The government’s package has nothing to do with those worthy goals. In fact, it was reported that disquiet at the punitive nature of the government’s "welfare to work" assault was so marked that several church-based Job Network members were considering pulling out of the system.

    It remains to be seen if Andrews’ new cosmetic touches will be enough to keep the agencies in the network but few would dispute that the package is fundamentally unchanged. It is still a threat to the basic well-being of hundreds of thousands of Australians and must never be introduced.

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