Changing Course – Why we need social security reform in Australia | The Greens (WA)

Changing Course – Why we need social security reform in Australia

In a rapidly changing workplace environment we need a new approach to tackling poverty, inequality and insecure work

By Senator Rachel Siewert
Thursday, October 26, 2017

I had the pleasure of speaking at John Curtin Institute of Public Policy’s Curtin Corner at Curtin University on the 13th October. I argued for significant social security reform in Australia, below is a shortened version of the speech I delivered.  

Australia’s social safety net has systemic issues which have resulted in it being increasingly ineffective and difficult to access. It is outdated, inflexible and unable to meet the needs posed by a twenty-first century workforce. It is essential that we undertake a new approach to tackling poverty, inequality and insecure work.

It should be noted that Australia is under international obligation to provide social security to all Australians. The international human rights framework has recognised the right to social security as a fundamental human right since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly of the United Nations on the 10th December 1948.

Rather than fulfil this obligation, the Government has tried to shirk its responsibility by blaming unemployment on peoples’ unwillingness to work rather than the fact that there are not enough jobs.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in February of this year there were 186,400 job vacancies in Australia, while there was more than 743,700 people who were unemployed. This is accompanied by an additional worrying trend of increasing underemployment, which is of major concern.

A report from CSIRO on the future of the Australian workforce found that all industries are going to be affected by automation. It was predicted in the report that a 15 year-old today is likely to have up to 17 different jobs in 5 different industries.

Our current system is not equipped to respond to these kinds of demands.  We need a system that can interact with increasing seasonal, casual and insecure work and offer stability and certainty for workers

Successive government cuts to funding for Centrelink have made it challenging to access the program; last year alone, there were over 42 million calls to Centrelink that went unanswered.

In the last couple of years, the government has increasingly tightened the job seeker compliance framework by introducing increasing obligations and penalties which have negatively impacted people trying to find work. This system often does not take into account the precarious environment and multiple barriers that many people face.

The Government’s Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention program, also known as the robo-debt debacle was a horrific piece of policy that was hastily written, poorly implemented and extremely costly to those that could least afford it – either mentally nor financially. It undermines the integrity of the social security system.

The robo-debt debacle caused thousands of Australians who have accessed the social safety net in the last six years to be put through the traumatic experience of having to prove a debt that may not even exist. The robo-debt was not only about retrieving money but also a calculated effort to continue the punitive approach. The Government targeted the most vulnerable who could least afford it, while handing out billions in tax breaks to big business and the most wealthy.

The system is further undermined when programs are implemented based on ideology rather than evidence. Work for the Dole programs have been shown to be ineffective yet have been reintroduced, with the latest iterations of this poor approach including PaTH and the Community Development Program (CDP).

A number of evaluations of Work for the Dole have been undertaken since the program was introduced. These evaluations have found that Work for the Dole has failed to realise significant employment outcomes. An assessment in 2014 found that Work for the Dole had resulted in only a 1.9 percentage point increase in job seekers’ prospects of gaining employment.

The CDP is yet another failed Work for the Dole program targeted at Aboriginal people; I recently visited Warburton where the program operates to talk to the people affected. During the visit, it became clear that CDP is having a devastating impact on the community, with large numbers of people being breached meaning that they weren't getting income support. They talked about the impact it was having on their community, about the lack of food people who had been breached could put on the table and about the pressure it put on other members of the community.

CDP pays no respect to cultural obligations and is discriminatory. It is a program that has different more harsh conditions for Aboriginal communities compared to others.

The Government has also introduced the Youth Jobs PaTH Program.  Under the program an unemployed young person under 25 years, will be paid an extra $200 “incentive” each fortnight on top of the usual income support payments, to complete an internship of between four to 12 weeks. This works out to be a payment of $4 an hour while businesses receive upfront bonuses for taking on interns. We’ve seen in the UK and Ireland that similar plans resulted in high exploitation, with employers churning interns in and out whilst pushing existing workers out the door. And we have already seen signs of this occurring here in Australia.

Governments of both persuasions have continually cut away at the social safety net; reducing payments and the portability of payments, increasing requirements and waging a war on income support recipients. There is perhaps no better example of this continuing attitude than the proposed drug testing trials for income support recipients.

The Government wants to introduce a two-year trial in three regions of mandatory drug testing of 5,000 new recipients of Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance (other). This measure not only fails to understand, but actively ignores, the medical nature of addiction as well as the complex biological, psychological and social underpinnings of drug addiction. Drug testing will demonise and isolate people struggling with drug addiction and has been overwhelmingly rejected by drug and alcohol addiction experts. Such measures have failed in the US and proposals have been abandoned in both the UK and Canada.

Drug testing is only one of many punitive programs aimed at vulnerable members of the community. The cashless welfare card is a form of compulsory income management and aims to address complex health and social issues through punitive control measures. Income management measures were introduced as a part of the NT intervention and the final independent evaluation showed it met none of its objectives. 

The cashless welfare card is a punitive approach and people talk of feeling ashamed and experiencing a loss dignity due to being on it.

I have many concerns about the cashless welfare card and the way the Government has sought to justify it with shoddy reports and evaluations. We need to stop focusing on trying to punish people if we want a system that will help people out of poverty and disadvantage.

The problem income support recipients have is generally not about managing their money, but the inadequacy of income support payments. Newstart and Youth allowance in particular are woefully inadequate.

Newstart Allowance has not been changed by legislation in the past two decades despite considerable rises in cost of living. A single person receiving Newstart lives on just $38 a day.

A recent UNSW report found that the long-term decline in the adequacy of income support payments is a major policy failure that needs to be redressed. The report also found that for those out of work and reliant on Newstart Allowance, the safety net provisions fall short of the budget standards estimates by $96 a week for a single person, $58 a week for a couple with one child and $126 a week for a couple with two children, leaving many in poverty.

In fact approximately 36.1% of people receiving social security payments are living below the poverty line, including 55% of those receiving Newstart Allowance, 51.5% receiving Parenting Payment, 36.2% of those receiving Disability Support Pension, 24.3% receiving Carer Payment, and 13.9% of those on the Age Pension.

Too many people fight a daily battle with poverty and the impacts of inequality. Currently there are 2,990,300 people (13.3% of the population) living below the poverty line. Living in poverty has significant negative effects on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing, societal cohesion and stability, as well as their economic growth and productivity.  

 A strong social security safety net is the foundation of a more inclusive and productive society. We are committed to moving our social security system into the twenty-first century, by creating a system that is flexible and responsive to the changing needs of our economy and society. But in order to achieve this we need real leadership, approaching plans with a long term vision which will give people dignity and choice.

There are many challenges in trying to create a social safety net for the 21st century – politically, logistically, financially and practically but if we are serious about tackling inequality and poverty, and if we really want a system that can meet the needs of a 21st century workforce, we need bold, creative and effective reform, and we need it now.  

Header photo: Rachel at Curtin Corner. Georgia Blackburn