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Centrelink and class war

Cuts to welfare are just another way of keeping the poor in their place

I haven’t telephoned Centrelink in over three years, but I still have a conditioned reaction of immediate panic whenever I hear the Centrelink hold music. The number of hours I spent listening to the cheery Mozart string arrangement over tinny mobile phone speakers doesn’t bear thinking about; it must be in the hundreds. Every minute of those endless hours was torturous, especially since most calls to Centrelink involve the risk that your meagre welfare allotment is under threat (or has already been suspended). I’m not unique in this response: one comment under a YouTube recording of the same piece reads, “This music reminds me that living in Australia and in the economy that the baby boomers fucked up is futile and waiting on hold for three hours is the way you’ll spend the rest of your life.”

The news that complaints from Centrelink recipients rose 38% in the 2015–16 financial year  hasn’t received all that much attention. Nor has an ABC investigation from January showing that expected call waiting times can be up to 75 minutes, and the standard of customer service is unacceptably low. This won’t come as a shock to anyone who has spent any period of their lives relying on welfare payments to eke out an existence; it becomes clear very quickly that Centrelink’s organisational approach to recipients is one of distrust, dehumanisation and coercive control.

Despite “welfare dependency” in Australia being at historically low levels, and despite 3 million people living in poverty, the Turnbull government’s welfare policy is becoming more and more extreme. Zed Seselja, the assistant minister for social services, commented recently that “we simply can’t go on assuming [that for] huge numbers of Australians welfare will just become the norm”. Minister Christian Porter has called for a “welfare revolution”, which seems mostly to consist in targeting the vulnerable for further persecution.

Punishing the poor with austerity measures in times of economic uncertainty is par for the course with Coalition governments. But it’s worth noting that this recent crackdown comes at a time when evidence from other countries, especially the UK, shows that benefits sanctions have a devastating human cost, up to and including untimely death. Our own Work for the Dole program is woefully ineffective, with new figures revealing that 90% of participants are not in full time work after three months. Even those radical lefties at the Business Council of Australia have said that rates for the dole are far too low, and impede jobseekers’ efforts to look for work.

There is an unwillingness in progressive discourse to acknowledge that the purpose of conservative welfare policies is the infliction of pain. Writing in the AFR, Laura Tingle comments,

It’s not that the investment approach – the idea that you spend a bit of money in early intervention to avoid having to spend a lot later on – isn’t without merit. It’s just that its launch ended up being drowned in breathless facts and figures – literally stretching in the ‘trillions’ – which kept the debate firmly focused on bottom line costs, rather than better outcomes that might more significantly ameliorate those costs in the long term than blanket cuts.

Tingle appears to assume that cruel welfare policies are the result of simple miscalculation or short-termism, and the problem could be remedied if only the government would realise the longer term economic benefits of a robust social safety net. Of course, Tingle isn’t wrong on her own terms; her writing reflects the foundational social democratic belief that we’re all better off living in a society that doesn’t condemn people to lives of destitution. The problem is that she, like many soft-left small-l liberals, assumes the government is also committed to these beliefs, when evidence suggests this is not the case.

A more materialist or harder left approach would acknowledge that welfare provision is not simply an abstract issue that can be rationally solved to everyone’s mutual satisfaction using the right technocratic instruments. There is real hostility at play here that cannot be papered over, which is obvious if you take a good look at the government’s actual pronouncements on the matter.

In September, Porter said

I would actually put to you that the fact that people who find it challenging to subsist off Newstart, do so for short periods of time, might actually speak to the fact that that’s one of the design points of the system that’s working OK because the encouragement is there to move off those payments quickly.

Porter is unusually willing to reveal the undergirding beliefs of many on the right: poor people must be bullied into the labour force, using the threat of poverty, homelessness and social exclusion if necessary.

But even this is a tendentious avoidance of reality, considering that, as ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie estimates, one job opening is currently available for every five people looking for work.

“We frame it as if it’s the fault of the individual – you’re either lazy, not working hard enough, not retraining hard enough – but the basic numbers are there,” she said.

So who is actually helped by forcing welfare recipients into precarity and immiseration, with no likelihood that it will help them find employment? Judging by austerity’s loudest proponents, it’s our gormless billionaire class, including mining magnate Twiggy Forrest, who recently gave a speech at the National Press Club railing against lazy bludgers.

Forrest and his mates in the Coalition clearly do not subscribe to the basic belief that a solid welfare state is universally beneficial, so it’s not clear why so many commentators are content to argue with them in these broadly liberal, polite, conciliatory terms. Their entire ideology is based on prolonging the status quo, from which they benefit handsomely. It’s transparent class conflict, a war against the marginalised that is waged using whatever tools are closest to hand.

This is an upsetting prospect for those who think of the state and the public sphere as a neutral terrain of issue-solving, where all differences can be remedied by appealing to a set of common civic values and economic prescriptions. Nevertheless, this analysis cannot account for the brutality of our current system. The rich and the poor really are locked in conflict, and there really is no way to resolve this conflict without first coming to terms with its existence.

Australian politics has vanishingly few players who are willing to acknowledge this reality in an uncompromising way. Even those who advocate on behalf of more reasonable welfare policies do so using the right’s preferred terms of debate, which puts them on the back foot from the start. The poor and disadvantaged are crying out for a more robust, populist left-wing politics that treats the liberal mythologies of the state with the scepticism they deserve, but not much is forthcoming.

About the author Eleanor Robertson

Eleanor Robertson is a freelance writer and comedian living in Sydney. She writes for Guardian Australia, SBS Comedy and Daily Life.

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