Thursday, March 14, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

Robowar on the poor
The Coalition has institutionalised cruelty to people on welfare


Talk about the banality of evil: we are now seeing the mounting human casualties of the Coalition’s bureaucratised, automated war on the poor. The Guardian reports that a Sydney woman with a newborn baby is fighting Centrelink to stay off the ParentsNext pre-employment program, which she only learnt she was on once her payments were suspended in October. Another young mother undergoing chemo for Hodgkin’s lymphoma has had her single-parent payment threatened and received a $2000 robodebt notice, ending up this week in tears on A Current Affair. Questions in Senate estimates by the Greens’ Rachel Siewert reveal 2030 people died in the two years after receiving a robodebt letter, and files show 663 of them were marked as vulnerable. “At the core of this is protection of taxpayers’ money,” a Centrelink spokesperson tells Channel Nine. The cruelty is unfathomable.

Siewert is the Greens’ family and community services spokesperson, who has taken the welfare fight up to the government forcefully over the past two years. Siewert says the aggressive, punitive approach began under Prime Minister John Howard’s welfare-to-work program, which took away single-parenting payments once the youngest child turned eight – forcing parents onto Newstart. At least the program only applied to new applicants.

Things got worse under Labor, Siewert says, when PM Julia Gillard transferred all of the previously “grandfathered” single parents onto Newstart. “You can directly now see the impact,” Siewert says, “by the increase in the number of people that live in poverty.” Under the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison government, the cruelty has been turbocharged and automated, and, for good measure, programs have been given Orwellian brand names, like ParentsNext and Jobactive.

The introduction of the targeted compliance framework (TCF) last July, which gives private “service providers” the power to suspend welfare payments to people who have no other source of income, and imposes a brutal penalty regime, was opposed by the Greens who, unlike Labor, are clear that the war on the poor has to end. “TCF needs to go,” says Siewert, adding that “Robodebts need to go too. There is already a system that addresses deliberate fraud. Robodebt has an unfair impact on people that have done nothing wrong.”

ParentsNext is the subject of a Senate inquiry chaired by Siewert (although she was speaking to me in her capacity as the Greens spokesperson for family and community services). The inquiry, which recently heard that the program breaches human rights law and entrenches poverty and inequality, will report at the end of this month. Jobs minister Kelly O’Dwyer recently rejected calls for an urgent, pre-election overhaul of ParentsNext, saying the $350 million had “the right intention”. Campaigner Ella Buckland, who has garnered more than 35,000 signatures on a petition to “Make ParentsNext voluntary”, tweeted: “$350 mil to be spent on #parentsnext in 3 year contract. A fucking joke. None of that money goes to women, it all goes to the job network ‘providers’.”

Another disastrous privatisation of human services. Another tear in the welfare safety net. And like so much else with the current punitive approach to welfare – from ParentsNext to robodebt to increasing the woefully inadequate Newstart – the position Labor would take in government remains unclear.


“The question is whether the federal government should be building a coal-fired power station. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think we should be. You have got power stations now that will be asking for taxpayers’ money for upgrades.”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton clashes with 2GB host Ray Hadley over whether the public should fund a coal-fired power station in Queensland.

“Expanding democracy is all very well, but we are entitled to be suspicious when the proposal comes from collectivists. After all, this is the same mob that demands slavish adherence to the haughty proclamations of unelected human rights commissioners ... Could it be this bill is motivated by the likelihood the Greens would disproportionately benefit from the resultant vote?”

“The Mocker” in The Australian takes a few cheap shots at the Greens’ proposal to lower the voting age to 16.

The Number

The amount that a 2 per cent increase to the minimum wage of $719.20 a week would represent. This is the increase sought by the Australian Industry Group, well short of the 6 per cent or $43-a-week increase sought by the ACTU.

The Policy

“Poorly funded and highly restricted public dental care, and huge out of pocket costs in the private health system, means millions of Australians put off visiting the dentist. All Australians should be able to visit the dentist when they need to. That’s why the Greens will invest $5.8 billion to provide Medicare-funded dental care to all young people, aged pensioners and concession card holders.”

The list

“It took thirteen years, but it finally happened: the United Nations Human Rights Council formally criticised Saudi Arabia for the first time. Last week, Australia joined 35 other countries, led by Iceland, in the inaugural condemnation. The critics were spoiled for choice, but restricted themselves to the arrest and detention of women’s rights activists, the use of counter-terrorism laws to suppress domestic criticism, and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.” 


“In December, a landmark report was tabled in federal parliament that found six babies are stillborn every day. Despite advances in medical research and technology, the rate of stillbirths has not declined in Australia in more than 20 years ... The report found that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, the rate of stillbirths is double that of non-Indigenous women.” 


“Settler oral history that tells of frontier violence and mistreatment of Aboriginal people is often generic in form. It speaks of Aboriginal people being ‘mowed down’ or ‘wiped out’, but rarely identifies the names of those responsible. Within the many stories that acknowledge wrongdoing on the part of settlers, there is often an inbuilt protection mechanism, a convenient element of forgetting. Responsibility is rarely claimed. Everyone and no one achieved dispossession.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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