The many failures of our wild welfare regime

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Every day, the Kafkaesque nightmare that is Australia's welfare system takes another wild turn.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, on ABC's Lateline program.It's hard to succinctly describe the many cruel failures of policy that have taken root when meanwhile the job market is calcifying. Around the country, workforces are becoming increasingly casualised, and underemployment is at a record high at 8.7 per cent (ABS). A recent report from Anglicare Australia found that five jobseekers are competing for each available entry-level position.

And yet the government's welfare strategy is becoming even more punitive. The cashless welfare card which quarantines 80 per cent of a Newstart recipient's income and cannot be used to purchase alcohol or to gamble has recently been announced for Bundaberg. Human Services Minister Alan Tudge says it's an incentive to help people find work.

Like many regional centres, Bundaberg has higher unemployment and fewer job opportunities than its urban counterparts. But no one has been able to explain how restricting the sale of alcohol to unemployed young people will get them into jobs that don't exist.

While I was there writing a Saturday Paper story, I spoke to people struggling to get even physically taxing, short-term work like fruit picking (an industry notorious for extreme exploitation). They were not welfare dependent but desperate to get off it.

During an interview for ABC Wide Bay radio, in response to criticism around the decision to expand the program into Bundaberg, federal MP for the area, Keith Pitt, did acknowledge the complexity of unemployment, and cited incoming infrastructure funding for the area. But he always brought the focus back to people's failure to be employed, to be good parents, to spend their money correctly. How else could the introduction of the cashless welfare card be justified?

An earlier incarnation of the Indue cashless welfare card, the even more restrictive Basics Card, was rolled out in Aboriginal communities by the Howard government in 2007 as part of the oppressive NT Intervention. A study showed it had no positive impacts on people's behaviour, and even made people more dependent on welfare. Many reported that it made their lives worse.

 

"It's as if the belief that unemployment is caused by people playing video games and smoking weed makes us feel inoculated from the reality that the forces that get and keep us in a job are largely out of our hands."

 

But there's much political capital to be gained for such dehumanising measures from voters who could never imagine that they might also be unemployed one day. An August ReachTel Poll showed 68 per cent of people surveyed supported drug testing for welfare recipients, a program being rolled out in three trial locations in January next year. This is despite significant criticism from experts, and no evidence to support the effectiveness of such a program in reducing or even identifying substance abuse.

It's as if the belief that unemployment is caused by people playing video games and smoking weed makes us feel inoculated from the reality that the forces that get and keep us in a job are largely out of our hands.

Unemployment can isolate people from normal social support networks, and comes with an obvious financial burden as well as an increased risk of suicide. Our lives are heavily structured around going to work each day. The loss of routine and of a feeling of productivity can be devastating, especially for people managing mental illness.

Increasing the feelings of shame of being unemployed and restricting freedoms doesn't create more jobs and only grinds down a vulnerable group who are subsisting on a meagre payment that's half of the weekly Australian minimum wage.

But the government is yet to show any meaningful concern over the significant risks of these draconian welfare policies. Malcolm Turnbull called cashless welfare 'an exercise in practical love'. And in a 2016 policy speech, Tudge warned against the dangers of wanting to be a caring society in relation to unemployment — 'we may have reached a point where we have taken our good intentions too far.'

The opaque, and some would say deliberately error-ridden robodebt scheme shows no sign of abating, despite a senate inquiry calling for the system to be suspended until issues are solved. At least one person, Rhys Cauzzo, has taken his own life after being pursued by debt collectors for a Centrelink debt.

And 18 months ago, 18 year old Josh Park-Fing died from head injuries when he fell from a trailer during a Work for the Dole placement. The government has refused to release the outcome of the internal review into the accident.

All of these measures send a very clear message: if you are on unemployment benefits, you are guilty. And you are disposable.

 

 

Amelia PaxmanAmelia Paxman is a Brisbane-based writer, filmmaker and winner of a UNAA Media Peace award.

Topic tags: Amelia Paxman, unemployment, welfare, Newstart, cashless cards


 

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Existing comments

With respect, Amelia, the two cases you have chosen to support the contention that "if you are on unemployment benefits you are guilty" have nothing to do with being on benefits and bear no relationship to government policy. One was been hunted up to repay debt and clearly was not entitled to benefits. The other suffered an unfortunate accident which had nothing to do with the work for the dole system. As far as work for the dole is concerned. in those Aboriginal communities in which it was trialled it resulted in a significant reduction in drunkenness and domestic violence and greater school attendance. Not everything is bad!
john frawley | 24 October 2017


The Cashless Debit Card has been put forward for Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Howard, Childers, overall the whole Hinkler electorate, however, it has not been through the Senate Enquiry on the 2nd of Nov and has not yet started, They are pushing for a Feb start date, however it still have to go to the senate enquiry and then to the senate report on the 13th of Nov and be voted on, so not so fast with it has already been started in Bundaberg, it has not, as yet.
Kathryn Wilkes | 24 October 2017


An insightful article that shows up the ideological basis of the Cashless Welfare Card, dtug testing,Work for the Dole and other punitive measures against social security recipients.
Jacqueline | 24 October 2017


Hi Amelia, Fantastic article - it's really great to see people doing what they can to expose the Cashless Debit Card 'trial' for what it really is - nothing more than a money-making racket for a private company, and a punitive and discriminatory measure for everyone else who falls into the 'target' group wherever it is rolled out. On a fact check / grammatical note... Bundaberg is indeed in the crosshairs, but it has not been implemented yet, and cannot be implemented until the "Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017" goes into effect, and to do that, it needs to pass the current Senate Committee inquiry, House of Reps and then the Senate, all unchanged. Hence the statement by Keith Pitt MP and Alan Tudge MP about it coming into effect early (February) next year - they're arrogant enough to expect they can force it through by the first parliamentary sitting next year. In other words, they've announced it BEFORE they have the legislative authority to actually implement it!
Peter Feerick | 24 October 2017


Thank you for speaking out against this craven, political motivated policy. This government is possibly the most incompetent and shortsighted in living memory. Certainly the cruelest.
Sara Dowse | 25 October 2017


As Australian citizens, in early 2011, we chose to sell up, leave and not live there again. At that time it was a denial about climate change. This demonising of the poor and downtrodden tells us we made the right decision.
Dr Benjamin Pittman | 25 October 2017


Thanks, Amelia - excellent article
Anne | 25 October 2017


An excellent article! Government poliicies lack social justice and human rights philosphies. These policies are the result of neo-liberal economic policies which have the aim of minimal government involment in the economy and low taxes. Also, most Australian people live in a bubble and have very little interest in people who are disadvantaged. Most Australian people are only interested in material possessions and their level of income
Mark Doyle | 25 October 2017


I've often noticed how frequently young people today claim to be 'scared' or 'shamed' or 'victims of stigma'. Those people are not, generally, the people who are the subject of this article. I think the response to this kind of treatment from their government is unlikely to result in feelings of fear and shame which will promote successful job seeking, whatever Tudge's secret hope. The feelings will be of anger and alienation. How healthy is that for our society? Or will we become like Aotearoa-New Zealand, whose Liberal government once funded expensive advertising specifically and untruthfully attacking its own people (social welfare recipients, but their own people nevertheless). Does our government understand how divisive is this blame-the-victim policy? Does it care?
Joan Seymour | 26 October 2017


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