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Disability Pensions in Australia: Where entering into a Relationship can be a Poverty Sentence

It is generally quite difficult to obtain a Disability Support Pension (DSP) in Australia. There are job capacity and impairment tests; and many who are significantly impaired miss out. But there is another problem that has been neglected in most debates: Pensioners generally are assessed differently if they have a partner. The consequence of this is that there is a perverse incentive for pensioners not to enter into a relationship or marry. With the DSP there can be a loss of income of around $200 a fortnight as a consequence of entering a relationship or getting married. If the partner has a high income that is one thing, but many such couples could both be on low incomes or welfare. Also, even if a person’s partner has a higher income, there is a problem with reinforcing dependence: with inhibiting the independence of Disability and other Pensioners. When combined with other government measures: such as running a trial of the Indue Cashless Debit Card, or attempting to claw back money from the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it is clear we have a government which is trying to implement austerity aimed at the most vulnerable.

The bottom line is that these arrangements condemn hundreds of thousands of disabled Australians to probable isolation and loneliness; where they must fear the financial consequences of having relationships.

At the same time, Medicare is under attack. Labor MP in Bendigo, Victoria, Lisa Chesters has observed how recent cuts to Medicare will “radically alter the cost of hundreds of orthopaedic, cardiac and general surgery items.” As Chesters explained: “Patients now face the prospect of life-changing surgeries being cancelled at the last minute or being landed with huge bills they didn’t expect.” And yet these matters have received very little attention in the mainstream media.

We need a Labor Opposition which defends Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). But we also need a Labor opposition which goes beyond the strictly defensive; and comes up with innovative and ground-breaking measures to extend the social wage and welfare state; along with legislated wage increases for those on low incomes.

This would inevitably involve tax reform. Ideally Labor should be aiming to reform progressive tax to the tune of 5% of GDP over 10 years, or at least three terms of Federal Government. This would bring us closer to OECD average levels of tax and social expenditure. Rolling back unfair means testing of pensions – including Disability Pensions – would empower hundreds of thousands of women and men with greater independence; and if we are concerned about equity we need to reform tax in other areas for people with higher incomes. It would also empower those people to enter into relationships without fear of destitution. Eligibility tests should also be relaxed so those incapable of full time work are not threatened with exclusion.

The ‘LIFE’ (Living Incomes for Everyone) campaign is demanding a minimum $550 a week for all. This would mean a great deal for job-seekers living in poverty, especially if combined with other measures like investment in public housing. Effectively it would mean a guaranteed minimum income (GMI). Disability pensions specifically should increase further – by at least $150/fortnight in any case – rising to about $1100/fortnight.

No-one should be in the position of having to say they ‘cannot afford to enter into a relationship’. The NDIS, despite its faults, was a big step forward for disabled Australians. Instead of panicking over the cost we need to accept that providing services for these people meets what is perhaps the most defensible socialist principle: that each should contribute what they can, and receive what they need. This principle needs to become a society-wide ‘common sense’ so that they are accepted even by many Conservatives; as for instance occurred with the issue of Marriage Equality for those in the LGBTIQA communities. But ironically there is no real ‘marriage equality’ for all if some need fear being thrown into poverty should they enter a relationship.

Progressives need to agitate to make this a real issue in the upcoming Federal Election. The advocacy of Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten was crucial for the initial implementation of the NDIS. The NDIS is not perfect, but is a vast improvement on the vacuum that existed beforehand. Now we need additional policy champions within the ALP agitating to take the reform process further. The Labor Aged-Care and Welfare Movement (LAWM) has adopted this as one of its objectives. But we need more avowed Labor members to join our ALP Socialist Left Forum Facebook group; and to advocate for change. Much as has happened with Rainbow Labor, Emily’s List, Labor for Refugees, and LEAN (Labor Environmental Action Network). Currently LAWM exists at the level of Facebook; but over the long term we want to achieve much more. If you’re a Labor member and haven’t joined LAWM yet, please do so. And for Bill Shorten, Julia Gillard and others: Please take up this cause and make it an issue for the upcoming Federal Election.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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  1. Anon E Mouse

    The way a partner’s income is treated is also diabolical. If a partner earns above a rather modest amount, the person on a pension can lose all income, pension card benefits etc and become totally dependent on their partner.
    This is a dangerous place to be because the dependent person becomes totally reliant on the good will and financial support of their partner.

  2. DrakeN

    The whole of that which is ironically described as “welfare” is imbued with outdated concepts, inhumane thinking and economic fallacies. That suits the purposes of those who seek to gain from the miseries of others; especially the neo-fascism/corporate kleptomania/political expediencies/power adddictions etc. of those who currently rule over us. For the benefit of the nation as a whole only a guaranteed share of the wealth of the country will ever suffice; judging your value to the society simply be means of your being employed by a third party is fallacious. A liveable basic income provided to each and every individual is the only way in which a reasonable degree of equity can be achieved: Any excesses can be recovered by appropriate taxation. The country can no longer afford to award the wealthy with greater wealth while simultaneously depriving a large portion of the population of a decent standard of living.

  3. Keitha Granville

    Let’s lose ‘welfare’, and start calling it social security. The former denotes some kind of charity, the latter a normal societal network providing for citizens.
    This could be achieved overnight with a UBI, so that nobody is left out. At the very least Labor must make it abundantly clear before the next election what they will do with this, the NDIS, the Indue card, as well as maintaining Medicare and other social supports. They MUST not listen to the taunts of ‘higher taxes’ from the LNP. Fairer taxes is what we need. Lose the tax concessions that many wealthy folk use, make sure business is actually paying something. Most of the electorate will be perfectly happy to vote for thrmnif they understand everyone is paying, and receiving their FAIR SHARE

  4. Williambtm

    Australia’s mainstream media are aiding the destruction in our societies.
    Murdoch, Costello, Stokes, these are the bastards in our midst that need to be dealt with in the most inhumane manner known to mankind.
    These 3 are greed-stoked gangster chiefs nothing more.

    Morrison, a pentecostal chanting god botherer and liar to the Australian people would run and hide if anything happens to these 3 bastards.

  5. wam

    The lnp and its supporters cannot accept normalcy in anyone who is a recipient of welfare. But especially the disabled who must be visibly deficient and incapable of ‘relationships. They are faking, rorting, cheating, bludging and deserve feeding but no money.
    To this simpleton, there are too many escaping the medicare levy. The solution is to impose the levy on gross income. This would include investment properties and catch, pollies, the majority of CEOs, board members and self employed professionals, who like frankers, currently have lawyers and accountants to avoid paying their share. Plus all pensioners and welfare recipients nobody should escape the levy. Oops, I must take my tablets I am fantasizing again.

  6. Bronte ALLAN

    Sadly the persons needing most help from this fucking bunch of lying, flat earth, happy clapping, robodebt bastards, INDUE card bastards, sports rort bastards, parking station bastards, could not care less about anyone but themselves & their obscenely wealthy business mates! The longer this fucking COALition mob ru(i)ns our country the happier they will be–no one to get any “welfare” or Social Security payments at all! They would love it then, the BASTARDS! Great & very informative article Dr Ewins!

  7. Tristan Ewins

    thanks Bronte 🙂 ; But we need the ALP to come on board for change here as well!

  8. Florence Howarth

    Social security is needed to underpin capitalism. Essential in building a civil society. Vital, if one believes in democracy. Government for the people, by the people, of the people.

  9. leefe

    The partnership issue is not even the most unfair of the issues with Australia’s social security system, but it is one of the most unkind. Even if you manage to get a partial pension when you are in a relationship, a small rise in pay for that partner can see you stripped of your pension and both thus left considerably worse off overall.

    The DSP assessment criteria need to be radically overhauled. As it stands, you need to have a high level of impairment in at least one of various categories, but lower levels of impairment in multiple categories is considered to not be relevant.
    News for whoever writes the rules: arthritis does not need to be so cripplingly severe that you endure extreme pain from every single movement for it to remove the ability to work or, at least, greatly reduce the types of work you can do. It is the same with many other conditions. Score a 10 on their list in six different categories (and I know people who do) and you are no more capable of holding down a job than I am, but you have no chance of getting DSP.

    The whole system is set up and operated to make it as hard as possible for people to qualify.

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