The Politics    Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Please hold

By Amy McQuire

The government’s social security crackdown is a familiar war on the poor

If you want a textbook example of how out of touch our nation’s leaders are with everyday Australians, look no further than Attorney-General George Brandis on ABC’s Q&A last night.

He told a woman on a disability pension that if an incorrect debt-recovery notice had been sent out, it could be easily fixed by calling or visiting her local Centrelink branch.

His statements were rightly met with groans of disbelief from the audience, and this disbelief was probably mirrored in homes across the country, from thousands of Australians well accustomed to hours of hold music or undignified attempts to keep their business private in Centrelink’s open-plan offices.

When you are poor and struggling, it is never that simple. While the federal government tries to spin its way out of this latest PR problem, the debt-automation crisis is having a real human impact on those who never get a voice. This can’t be fixed by brushing these complaints off like flies.

Over the weekend, Martin McKenzie-Murray of the Saturday Paper, uncovered a disturbing account of a young man who, while suffering from severe depression, took his own life. At the time he was being hounded by a collection agency over a Centrelink debt.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie told the Saturday Paper that one of the problems was the program “fails to discriminate between people and sends the same blunt and, frankly, guilty-until-proven innocent letter to everyone. This is lazy and dangerous …”

This is a blanket war on the poor, but it is not a new one. Politicians have been gradually strangling those in the social security safety net for years, using Aboriginal people as guinea pigs.

Under the guise of concern about Aboriginal wellbeing, both Coalition and Labor governments have been forcing blackfellas to undertake compulsory income management, by tying welfare benefits to school attendance and rolling out 100% “healthy welfare cards” in selected communities with no evidence that these policies are working.

That’s despite billions of dollars spent, for example, on compulsory income management in the Northern Territory.

After scrapping the Aboriginal-devised Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), the federal government’s deceptively titled Community Development Programme (CDP) is already forcing remote Aboriginal workers into further poverty. They are being penalised at high rates and are having their dole payments restricted for weeks for failing to turn up to, or to comply with, “work activities”.

Remote workers on the CDP are forced to work up to 25 hours a week (five hours a day, five days a week) or risk having their welfare payments docked.

Rather than moving Aboriginal people into employment, the CDP is instead punishing the most vulnerable people in Australia, while condemning them to decades of “work for the dole”.

How pundits believe disempowering a people can be about “empowerment” is bewildering. The effects these sorts of programs have on poverty, health and violence against women and children remain to be seen, but you can’t make any gains when people are hurting.

Despite preaching about the poor taking responsibility, politicians such as Brandis will no doubt continue to exercise little of their own.

Today’s links

Amy McQuire

Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman and journalist.

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