The Guardian 2 March, 2005

Welfare "reforms" re-launched

With a Senate majority within sniffing distance the Howard government has re-launched its "welfare reform" agenda, and is primed to hit sole parents, people with disabilities and Indigenous Australians. These budget cuts will be made in order to supplement the $14.7 billion in income tax cuts Howard has already delivered to high earners.

The government has established a "work-age reform group" of Ministers to target four main categories of welfare beneficiaries with "low workforce participation rates": sole parents, the disabled, mature-age men and Indigenous people.

The government has touted its "reforms" in language designed to win public support for its agenda "shared responsibility" is a key theme. It says it will not remove people from the Disability Support Pension, it will only "lift the bar" for new recipients.

And while Howard has made it clear he will enact tough "mutual obligation" requirements on Single Parents, he also attempted to assure them: "We are looking at matters in this area and I think that's desirable, but we're not in the business of punishing sole parents".

"The government appears determined to target vulnerable, low-income groups by imposing harsher conditions on them for income support payments that barely cover the basic costs of living", said Greens Senator Kerry Nettle.

"The government would prefer to target these groups rather than address the serious obstacles to people entering the workforce like effective marginal tax rates, affordable childcare, support for disabled workers, insecure work and transport."

"The government needs to invest more in education and training, in supporting disabled workers and removing barriers such as employer discrimination and inadequate transport.

Mr Howard's definition of "low workforce participation" must be questioned. Already one third of sole parents are juggling their family responsibilities with paid work.

Under Mr Howard's policy there will be two sets of standards for families. Two-parent families can choose how they manage work and family commitments. However sole parents will be given no choice when their youngest child turns five. If the parent does not voluntarily take up work they will be forced into schemes to make them "work ready" study, community service or work-for-the-dole or have their benefits taken away.

"If the government wants to help others who are in a position to join the labour force then it should improve access to childcare, not waste money on a childcare tax rebate that gives most to high earners", said Senator Nettle.

"The government should also abandon its push for 'workplace flexibility' that leads to more casual work without leave entitlements."

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