Vulnerable victims of government hit-and-run


Car tyre, close-up of treadCould this humble Sydney-sider make an observation about Melbourne drivers? It seems each time I see them wait for a pedestrian, they can barely restrain the urge to run the poor person over. The other day in Footscray, I saw one driver turning right at an intersection menacingly moving his vehicle forward to a poor fellow in a wheelchair moving quite lawfully in the other direction. As if to make the fellow even more terrified, the forward moves were accompanied by a horn and a few f-words.

You'd expect a responsible driver to give way to a pedestrian at an intersection. Pedestrians can't hold out their palm to stop a car. Pedestrians, whether old or young or disabled, are vulnerable. Pedestrians are individuals.

Similar observations could be made about how our politicians confront the most vulnerable individuals. Apparently we live in a liberal democracy, and the focus of the state is on protecting such individuals' rights. So why are we now once again hearing politicians sitting in their comfortable offices with access to staffers and spin doctors use their Commonwealth cars to run over income support recipients? Why focus on making the often precarious positions of dole payees, single mums and disability support pensioners even harder?

And why don't we see Liberal MPs question the generous welfare entitlements of middle and upper-middle class Australians? Why won't Labor MPs fess up to their past sins in this area? Instead we read Jenny Macklin in The Australian on 27 January proudly declaring that 'recent history shows that when it comes to getting results, only Labor can keep our social security system sustainable and strong'. Indeed. And at whose cost?

Today thousands more single parents are sitting on the crumbs of Newstart. This is due to 'reforms' introduced during the office of Australia's first female prime minister which disproportionately affect women (and their children), such as the severe restrictions on access to the Parenting Payment.

Labor also oversaw rule changes that make it harder for genuinely disabled people to access the DSP. Why is it that people with less severe MS who can barely walk without a stick, frequently lose their balance, and cannot perform many household chores let alone do manual labour, are ineligible for the DSP?

The Liberals seem intent on pursuing the ALP's approach of punishing the vulnerable. Human Services Minister Kevin Andrews refuses to see any reduction in the often middle class welfare dished out to 2.3 million aged pensioners. Instead he wishes to make life harder for Newstart and DSP recipients and applicants.

The irony is that business lobbies have been clamouring for Newstart to be increased. Conservative economists such as Judith Sloan and Ian Harper have said the same. Harper told The Age on 16 October 2011: 'When your living standards are going down like that, people get desperate and depressed. The system is out of kilter. And if they stay on it long enough, they get depression and then they're moved on to the DSP.'

And here's more bad news for the average punter. The Social Security Act is among the more complex pieces of Commonwealth legislation. This Act (and its associated regulations and departmental policy) is almost impossible for your average solicitor to understand, let alone the average punter. Centrelink officers make mistakes. You can appeal their decisions. The broad appeal procedure looks deceptively simple in a brochure. But wait until you actually have to appeal the potentially incorrect Centrelink decision.

If you apply to Centrelink and are knocked back, you can go for an internal review. If you are knocked back there, you can try the Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT). Centrelink don't turn up to tribunal hearings, which often are done over the phone. Instead, Centrelink send a bundle of documents about your application which the tribunal then sends onto you. Good luck if you can understand much of it.

If you get knocked back at the SSAT, you need to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). It's here that you definitely need a lawyer. The procedures and court documents prepared along the way are not easy to follow. The hearing itself is held in a formal court room. The legislation being argued over is complex and often the subject of much judicial interpretation.

You can always try your luck on your own. You will be up against a trained lawyer from the Department of Human Services who knows the legislation inside out and probably conducts 2–3 AAT hearings a week.

You can always contact legal aid in your state or territory. Not all legal aid offices handle tribunal appeals, preferring to focus on defending clients being prosecuted for social security offences. In which case, you can try contacting a welfare rights solicitor working in a community legal centre. Many centres won't have the resources to take on your appeal, and are likely to give you advice.

If reforms to the social security system mean more complexity to the Act, surely punters should be able to access more expert advice and representation.

People on income support, at least those who really need it (as opposed to those whose votes are needed by the incumbent government), are the kind of people liberal democracies need to assist. MPs refusing to do so, who instead make disparaging remarks and pass despicable legislation, will hopefully find themselves in a Centrelink queue after the next election.

Irfan Yusuf headshotIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Car tyre image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, welfare, Newstart



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Existing comments

Thanks Irfan for an excellent article, Clear and concise. Hope some politicians read it.
Maureen | 04 February 2014

Yep... been there, done that. Irfan Yusuf, I confirm your assertions and endorse your opinion. Despite being unemployed and on the Newstart Allowance, I have been rejected from Legal Aid and/or free Community Legal Service on four (4) different occasions. Ultimately, we all face the same question: "How much Justice can YOU afford?"
Bob | 04 February 2014

Howard changed the law shifting responsibility of compensation for work related smashed body parts from the employer to public via disability pension. Now, we have Abbott howling we have too many drawing a disability pension, no kidding. Not only have our lives been ruined but now we are under attack again. Feels like the old one two punch routine out here just trying to survive.
Murphy | 04 February 2014

The shock jocks and politicians are on high incomes and just don't understand what its like to struggle along on a pittance.
David | 04 February 2014

At least Julia Gillard didn't claim to be a Christian, unlike some.
Russell | 04 February 2014

Thanks Irfan for an insightful article. I can’t help but think about MPs of both political persuasions who have nothing to do but wage war against the poorest of the Australian poor. How can they possibly ignore the cries of the vulnerable victims right behind their back door!?
Toan Nguyen | 04 February 2014

"MPs refusing to do so, who instead make disparaging remarks and pass despicable legislation, will hopefully find themselves in a Centrelink queue after the next election." No! They will find themselves on a generous taxpayer-funded pension not administered by Centrelink and with no means test and travel restrictions or work tests.
Gary Dargan | 10 January 2017


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