The age of entitlement is over, again. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says the government’s COVID-19 disaster payments will be phased out once states reach full vaccination targets of 70 and 80 per cent for the over-16 population – even though targeted lockdowns may still be necessary after this point and industry-hampering restrictions are likely to apply for some time. The decision will see the automatic renewal of income support cease when a state reaches 70 per cent, with the payment to be tapered off over two weeks once 80 per cent is reached, ultimately consigning those who haven’t been able to return to the workforce to the measly JobSeeker rate. In a statement, Frydenberg argued that the decision would give people the “certainty” they needed to plan for the future (though the move will provide the opposite of certainty for those whose industries are still curtailed), adding that it would be up to states to offer further support if they chose to lock down. It’s clear the decision is aimed at – yet again – discouraging lockdowns, making it harder for states to implement them, no matter how badly they might be needed. The Coalition is desperate to see the country reopen, but has it learnt nothing from its previous attempts to “disincentivise” restrictions by unfairly withholding support from those enduring them? Does it remember what happens when decision-makers resist a necessary lockdown? And does it not recall how bad the pressure gets when it is seen to be stingy over this?
The move to wind back the payment has, unsurprisingly, been poorly received, including by Labor, state premiers, advocacy groups and – perhaps most importantly of all – commercial breakfast TV hosts. Appearing on Sky News this morning, deputy Labor leader Richard Marles noted that it appeared to be “a race” for the government to withdraw support, even if the vaccine rollout hadn’t been, while ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr told the ABC he was seeking an “urgent” update, arguing that there would still be people with their hours of work restricted once the 80 per cent threshold was reached. Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie told Sky that the decision would leave many in “fear and distress” about the future, while Catholic Social Services Australia released a statement labelling the decision a “blow to struggling families”. “Sadly the federal government seems to be late in providing assistance to struggling families and fast in cutting off the support,” the body added. Appearing on Sunrise, Frydenberg was asked if he was trying to “punish” premiers who wouldn’t open up, with a suggestion he was being “stingy”, but he received an even colder reception on Today, where Karl Stefanovic accused the government of being “cold and brutal”, noting that many industries, such as the arts and hospitality, wouldn’t be back to normal for some time.
The Coalition, as Marles and Catholic Social Services Australia note, has been quick to turn off the income-assistance tap at every turn, whether or not the nation is ready. It was most eager to end JobKeeper and the JobSeeker supplement in March, only to be forced to introduce the disaster payment in June, when Victoria went into a two-week lockdown (only to later have to increase the payment, and expand its eligibility, several times, when NSW entered one of its own). In revoking the disaster payment, which surely wouldn’t cost that much to keep paying out to those most severely affected, the government seems to have forgotten the circumstances under which it was introduced: the Coalition was facing widespread criticism over its miserly attempts to avoid assisting those who had lost work, because it didn’t agree with the circumstances. It also seems to have forgotten the lesson it eventually learnt about the inutility, not to mention the risk, of “disincentivising” cautious health measures: the longer you wait to lock down, the longer you spend locked down (a lesson that Frydenberg himself never really seemed to come around to).
We all hope there will be no further need for lockdowns and restrictions in the future. But they won’t necessarily be brought to a halt just because the treasurer withdraws income support, triumphantly declaring he is “giv[ing] Australians their lives back”– just as they weren’t brought to a halt by the end of JobKeeper. Density limits, “low” level restrictions and, yes, potential lockdowns are here to stay, for a while at least. Ignoring the need for them won’t make them go away.