From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Sun Aug 20 10:38:57 2000
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Punishing The Poor - McClure's Welfare Scam
From Franklin Wayne Poley <culturex@VCN.BC.CA>, 19 August 2000
Late last year Tony Abbott indulged in the popular political past time of kicking people when they're down by labelling welfare recipients as job snobs. He and his fellow government ministers Jocelyn Newman and Amanda Vanstone then went a step further by calling for all on welfare to be punished via an expansion of mutual obligation. Under this concept they called for single parents and the disabled to join the unemployed in work for the dole and other mickey-mouse job training schemes. Schemes designed, in their words, to discipline the unwaged into accepting insecure and badly paid work.
When a public backlash against these plans occurred the government quickly backtracked claiming that these were just vague ideas and opting for the time honoured method of commissioning a rigged study on welfare reform. After a series of public consultations that have consistently ignored the views of those actually on social security benefits the government finally delivered the McClure report in mid August.
Inevitably this report delivers what the government has wanted all along- a rationale for punishing the poor and recommendations as to the means of doing so. The report puts the final nail in the coffin for the ideas of welfare as a way of assisting those in need on the basis of that need alone and of unemployment benefits as a method of compensating those denied work. It ignores the fact that there are eight job seekers for every job on offer and pretends the unwaged are poor because of individual shortcomings rather than those of the economic system itself.
Whilst decidedly vague on a number of key points the report proposes that the government, over a 5-10 year period, roll all existing forms of welfare into one. With the sick, disabled, single parents and the unemployed all under one scheme Centrelink will then pay out three levels of benefits. A base rate will be topped up by two higher rates tailored to those with special needs (childcare, health, etc) and those who are participating in mutual obligation. Everybody regardless of health or child rearing commitments will be expected to orient themselves towards the job market and be involved in training schemes, forced voluntary work, military service and work for the dole. Penalties for the refusal or inability to participate will be toughened.
That the report recommends further expanding the role of Christian charities in policing the unwaged is hardly surprising given that the report drew heavily on the opinions of those groups currently profiting from their involvement in a privatised Job Network. The reports architect McClure himself heads up the conservative Mission Australian group who are now one the primary providers of welfare in many country towns. The fact that increased monitoring of the lives of the unemployed, disabled and sole parents will occur under the recommendations is chilling given the conservative family values of many of these organisations. How much sympathy are evangelical (like the Salvation Army) and Catholic organisations who oppose sex before marriage likely to have for the situation of single parents?
The report scapegoats the unwaged in the nicest possible terms and aims to hurt us in the name of doing us good. Rather than labelling us no good bludgers and parasites who need a kick up the backside it labels us job poor and disempowered people who need to be helped back into the community. In the classic tradition of Christian charities the individual is blamed for the failings of the system and should they fail to cooperate they must be taught a stiff lesson. For these charities all community life is based around work, no matter how crap, anti social or bad for our health and children that work may be. Mutual obligation is only for the poor. The idea that the rich and their friends in government have an obligation to pay back some of the wealth they have gained at our expense never comes into play.
The big lie driving the whole report is the assumption that if everyone on welfare got out there and looked for work they would find a job. This ignores that through sheer poverty alone the unemployed generally are already desperate for work and that the majority of those on sole parent and disability pensions are already involved in part time work. The reality is that there are not enough jobs available for all something acknowledged by studies done by Centrelink and by the Liberal and Labour parties both of whom quietly define full employment as around 4% unemployment.
If both parties believe they cannot deliver a job for everyone then why are they going through the pretense of forcing people to look for something they know doesn't exist? All this talk of helping the unwaged into work serves to disguise the real rationale for welfare reform which is to drive down wages and conditions, hide the real level of long term unemployment and deliver further tax cuts to the rich through a reduction in spending on welfare.
Even if they could give everyone a job the current economic system requires a certain amount of unemployment so that employers can avoid paying decent wages to attract workers. Through welfare reform the government hopes to find a balance between not having to pay too much to maintain this pool of unemployed labour and keeping people desperate enough to take whatever job they can no matter how bad it might be.
Workplace restructuring has seen a quarter of the workplace move into insecure casualised work in recent years. Centrelink has led the way putting the majority of its call centre staff on short term contracts and recommending they keep putting in dole forms as they cant guarantee they'll have a full 13 weeks work! If the government cannot even provide secure, decent jobs for its own staff is it any surprise that a small minority of the unwaged continue to reject most of the jobs on offer on the basis that they are boring, underpaid and only designed to profit someone else.
The increasing number of fines laid upon those on benefits for petty infringements of social security rules is another way the government sees welfare reform complementing that in the workplace. Despite the McClure report acknowledging that at least 150 000 people (which only represents the third who successfully appealed Centrelink decision) were incorrectly docked their benefits last year it still calls for a further expansion of penalties. The belief here seems to be that if they can condition people on welfare to accept petty autocratic rules and fines then they will prepared to cop the same in the workplace.
In recommending a further dismantling of welfare the McLure report surprised some by advising it be done over a period of time rather than hitting the unwaged with one hard blow. In borrowing the Labour Party's strategy of death by a 1000 cuts the Liberals hope to overly avoid alienating the third of Australians now reliant in some way on welfare and those in the community who still believe in a fair go for all.
Although the government is yet to indicate how exactly they will apply the reports recommendations it appears initially the scheme will only force sole parents with kids aged 6-13 to attend a single interview a year although after age thirteen the pressure to abandon children in favour of work will kick in heavily. Similarly they appear keen to go relatively lightly on the disabled in the beginning. The experience of New Start though would indicate that once the government has a foot in the door the number of expectations and penalties will only spiral ever higher.
The suspicion that is all about hacking away at welfare is further underlined by the fact that the government has already out of hand rejected the few positive recommendations made by McClure. An immediate increase in the level of social security is not on the cards and an expansion of childcare funding to allow sole parents time to work would seem unlikely given extensive cuts made in recent years.
The government has promised to deliver its final reform package by the end of the year. With the Labour Party, Democrats and the Australian Council of Social Services all broadly approving the McClure Report we can expect some quibbling over the final legislation, but little real opposition to an overall crackdown.
So as ever we are on our own. In reply to these attacks we need to continue to push the fact that welfare is already failing to meet our needs and that social justice will only come through the redistribution of wealth and the ability of all of us to have a say in the way our lives are run. After all the only mutual obligation we have is to each other so lets get together and wipe the smirk off Howard's face!
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