The Politics    Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Never learn

By Rachel Withers

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Sunrise this morning. Image via Twitter

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Sunrise this morning. Image via Twitter

The federal government’s move to prematurely withdraw income support is another disaster waiting to happen

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.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“I don’t really know why Scott Morrison feels the need to keep it a secret. I’ve got no time for secret stuff.”


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The list

“That first night after the diagnosis she was filled with fury, ‘that red-hot kind of parent angry’, that her children and hundreds of thousands of others had been left exposed by the slow vaccine rollout across the general population and a lack of access for their cohort … ‘Honestly, there is nothing more stark than looking at the face of a feverish child staring at you with scared eyes to make you realise we haven’t done the best we can here,’ says Gallagher.”

“Australians are lining up on one side or the other of the policy debates around COVID-19 based on the degree to which they trust the institutions of mainstream science. As can be seen in Jenny’s FWC case, this is even more determinative than our positions on workers’ rights. It also explains why anti-vaxxers are also likely to be climate change deniers, and why they prefer conspiracy theories and other ‘alternative facts’ on YouTube to public health messaging.”

A Beginner’s Mind is a record that revels in clashes of taste, spirit and style. Spanning 14 songs inspired by 14 specific films ranging from the highbrow and critically acclaimed to the lurid and lowbrow, it’s a record that uses its potentially facile concept to get close to questions Stevens and De Augustine have been attempting to answer in their respective careers: What does it mean to strive and to suffer, to love and to lose, to believe and to doubt? The album finds its answers in scintillating, delicately indelicate culture clashes such as that of ‘Cimmerian Shade’, where pieces of steadfast iconography are reanimated in order to tell an entirely different story.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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