Gillard government deepens cuts to social security

The Gillard government announced details of its latest attack on welfare rights on July 30. This will put restrictions on new applicants for the disability support pension (DSP). While the minister for attacking community services, Jenny Macklin, told ABC News 24 that the changes would affect only those who apply after January 1, 2012,  if they were applied to those currently on the DSP, they would cut around 40% of people off the pension.

This is the most severe attack on the DSP since the cuts began under the Howard government, which introduced eligibility requirements under its “welfare-to-work” program in 2006 — which meant those who could work 15 hours or more a week were no longer eligible for the DSP.

While the Gillard government has increased the hours that can be worked to 30, it has at the same time radically deepened the attack on the DSP with new participation requirements and the introduction of a new “impairment table”. 

In the May budget, it was announced that DSP recipients under the age of 35 would be required to attend regular interviews with Centrelink to develop “participation plans”. This is the first time there have been participation requirements for those on the DSP. These could include forcing DSP recipients into low paying jobs, volunteer work or mickey-mouse training schemes.

The new “impairment table” will each year deny up to 18,000 people their right to the DSP. According to Macklin, the current table is “no longer consistent with contemporary medical and rehabilitation practices”.

The attacks on the DSP have nothing to do with “rehabilitation” or supporting people with disabilities. They are about expanding the pool of super-exploitable workers for business to profit from.  This increased access to cheap labour will be coupled with $11 million in subsidies to businesses that employ people on the DSP for 15 hours a week or more.

Corporate media campaign

This is what is behind the consistent campaign of the ruling class against social security payments, which the DSP has been a primary target of recently. The corporate media have prepared the ground for the attacks by promoting the myth that the DSP is some sort of “loophole” or scam. They frequently refer to the DSP as more “lucrative” than other social security payments. The rate of the DSP is currently $670.90 a fortnight for a single person over 21. Those who are deemed “partnered” by Centrelink receive $505.70.

A good example of the pensioner bashing was a March 27, 2010, article in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail about government cuts to the DSP for people who spent time living overseas. The article stated that “a loophole in welfare laws has been allowing hundreds of disability support pensioners to use their pensions to travel overseas most of the year and keep second homes in popular South-East Asian holiday destinations”. The 776 pensioners whose livelihoods were about to be destroyed by the government were derided as having “jet-setting lives”, and the article applauded the joint Centrelink and Department of Immigration investigation for having “discovered” these “offenders”. Typical of the corporate media attempts to prejudice working people against those on social security payments, the article claimed that in the two top locations for DSP recipients living overseas, Thailand and the Philippines, “$700 a fortnight is considered a small fortune, much more than the earnings of many working full-time, who would consider themselves relatively well off”.

Relative to who? Certainly not relative to the corporate elite running the campaign; the $3 million a year in government spending on DSP payments for people living overseas would not even come close to the government subsidies and bailouts they receive.  The May budget announced around $74 million in subsidies under various employment schemes!

That is why the corporate media campaigns are necessary: to distract the attention of working people. It is also why the government attacks on social security start with the most vulnerable and isolated.

Extending ‘welfare quarantining’

The attacks on Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory under the racist NT intervention have now been extended to other parts of the country — something Aboriginal leaders and others warned of when the measures were imposed by the Howard government in 2007. In the May budget, two trials were announced in 10 areas: Hume (Vic), Burnie (Tas),  Wyong (NSW), Shellharbour (NSW), Kwinana (WA), Playford (SA),  Shepparton (Vic), Bankstown (NSW), Rockhampton (Qld), Logan (Qld).

In the latter five areas, “welfare quarantining” will be imposed from next July 1 on families that are reported by child protection or reported by housing authorities for being in rental arrears. Those targeted will have 50% of their social security payments paid onto “basics cards” that can be spent only on “essential items” approved by the government. Those reported by child protection will have 70% of payments quarantined. In addition to Aboriginal communities in the NT, such measures are already being imposed in a number of poor suburbs in Perth, in the Kimberley in WA and on Cape York in Queensland.

In addition, teenage parents in all 10 areas who are receiving parenting payment will be forced into work, study or training from when their child is one year old.

Politically weak opposition

The Labor government’s attacks have faced tamer opposition than those of the Howard government. The mainstream welfare rights groups are hamstrung by their inability to counter the government’s rhetoric, because they are unwilling to point out the real intention of the attacks.

For example, in a July 30 press statement, ACOSS said that it “is broadly supportive of the Government’s attempt to give more people living on the Disability Support Pension an opportunity to be involved in paid work”. Further, ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie stated: “Unless there is a dramatic improvement in the job prospects of people with disabilities, all the tightening of access to DSP will achieve is to leave people with disabilities $128 per week poorer”.

ACOSS accepts the government’s claims that it is acting in the interests of people with disabilities by aiming to improve their “opportunities”. People with disabilities who are denied the DSP will be put at great risk. Among the most vulnerable are those who suffer from mental illness, which is the fastest growing proportion of those who receive the DSP.

The corporate media continually infer that this is some sort of scam, rather than identifying the social reasons why mental illness is on the rise. The new “impairment table” is alarming for those whose capacity to work is impacted by mental illness. On July 30, the Australian stated: “... there would be new guidelines on mental health ... People who suffer from episodic mental health conditions would now be treated with a focus on rehabilitation.” On April 1, an article in the Australian stated that the government’s review of the DSP would “look at how better technology and new medication have improved the capacity of the disabled to work”. Such an approach could not only force people into work situations that further damage their health or into extreme poverty, but is also likely to pressure people with mental illness into medical “rehabilitation” against their wishes.

Similar dangers exist for other people who will face restricted access to the DSP, like people with back pain. The July 30 Australian article stated: “... bad backs would no longer be assessed by how much movement and mobility has [sic] been lost, but rather on what the back condition prevents the person from doing — such as sitting for a long period of time, or bending over to pick up objects”.  Will people be pressured to accept unwanted medical intervention in order to increase their “capacity to work”?

This is not supportive in anyone’s terms. The Gillard government might have smoother rhetoric, but its motivations are no more in the interests of people with disabilities than those of Howard. It is slashing social security as part of creating greater access for big business to super-exploitable labour. This will also put a downward pressure on wages across the board; it is an attack on all workers. The government and corporate media’s propaganda campaign against those on social security is nothing more than a divide-and-rule tactic to pit working people against each other and distract us from fighting against the real frauds and bludgers — the capitalists. 


Governing for the rich. The ALP website boasts of the number of people refused access to the Disability Support Pension.