By Kate Zizys, National Branch Coordinator, AUWU
Recently the fortune of sponsorship allowed me to attend two stakeholder events that dealt with federal budget measures, specifically changes around Australia’s social welfare safety net. The Australian Council of Social Service ‘Post Budget Breakfast’, was essentially an information and discussion opportunity. ACOSS played host to Minister Scott Morrison as well as an observant panel of policy experts. Morrison left before any of them spoke. The Committee for Economic Development of Australia ‘Strengthening Australia’s Social Services Safety Net’, along with their major sponsor (and 20% of the attendees) SERCO, hosted Minister Alan Tudge in a full tilt funding primer.
The events were quite different in style and setting. ACOSS situated their breakfast in a university venue while CEDA positioned itself in the Sydney Hilton. ACOSS served up sausages and eggs and self-serve urns of hot beverage while CEDA served up big chunks of Osso Bucco dripping in rich sauce on a bed of saffron rice. A desert emulating minimalist painting followed and on flowed the fine wines throughout the entire show. Evidently it is standard to start drinking at 11.30am if you are fishing for business and networking with Government.
Both events shared the similarity of having an excess of security officers present, all sporting 2wire-Dhook earpieces with inline microphones and sharp tailored coats, CIA style, assuredly concealing standard issue fight-club weapons. They seemed slightly ridiculous, the men they were protecting appeared lackluster in their aura of celebrity and power and were more in danger of a pie in the face than any genuine risk. Morrison and Tudge both came across as glib and self-satisfied. They struggled with their projections of sympathy and concern, neither man could find quite the right tempo when they spoke of those who are unemployed, both hit on something between derisive frustration and absolute contempt.
During his speech at the ACOSS breakfast Morrison was gleeful to the point of rubbing his hands together when he mentioned the PaTH Program. This pho-internship program operates much like the failed Work For The Dole scheme and will see young people interning for employment experience as part of their mutual obligation for receiving $218 per week to independently live on, up to the age of 25. This means PaTH is paid at $5.50 per hour. One of the providers is Subway, a fast food franchise. Another is the Australian Police Force. They probably need more police to patrol these kind of high risk events.
At the CEDA event Mr Tudge spoke about some inferential statistics regarding future projections that seemed unrelated to fiscal reality. He claimed that welfare recipients receive $49,000 a year in payments but on later questioning he was forced to redact that misleading tout. The Governments surreal social welfare policy measures were explained to the attendees in further weasel words. Representatives of major banks, property developers, pharmaceutical companies and recruitment agencies were treated to some heavy prose regarding the life and times of your average unemployed person. The PR company Thought Broker also attended, they are bound to land a contract, this kind of Schild und Schwert policy is going to be tough to sell. In truth these policies will effect every one of us, they are an offense to civil liberties, undermine our safety net, target vulnerable people and typecast all unemployed as criminal, violent and addicted. Considering the average working, renting Joe is close on two or three paychecks away from potential homelessness it is surprising there are so few speaking out against these proposals.
Both Morrison and Tudge also spoke of the English and New Zealand welfare model and how successfully it’s all going in those countries, when in fact homelessness in New Zealand is a growing problem and the English social welfare system is actually killing people, (see Callums List.org). These comments made SERCO’s sponsorship and attendance at the CEDA event obvious and cynical given the corporation already runs the detention racket in New Zealand and Australia and control a large proportion of the UK’s social services, including immigration services and disability support services. SERCO have a poor public reputation, they’ve been outed for overcharging the English Government by many millions for their services, they have been reportedly been involved in the abuse of detainees and exploiting immigrant labor. As this information is freely available on the internet, it seems strange that our government doesn’t address it.
SERCO are playing for high stakes in the form of lucrative Government contracts which will be paid for by the taxpayer. Any investments by private industry will only support shareholder dividends and company profits while the daily grinders now pay a proportion of their tax to private companies via Government welfare spending. Due to rampant privatization and economic rationalism gone wild, taxpayers no longer have the choice to put money towards an accountable, cost effective and Government protected social welfare service designed to create social stability and be available to all households who earn beneath the taxable income threshold. The blow out cost of private industry managed welfare services is blamed entirely on the welfare recipients themselves, who live way below the poverty line.
According to Tudge’s tutorial, if you’re not at work, in any job, any job at all, you’re no longer really a functional human being, you’re a major addict of some parasitic type, “gaming the system”. Welfare recipients were described as cunning griffters, experts adept at shirking off, using major mental illness or liver cancer treatment as a poor excuse for avoiding good honest labour. There was no mention of those very awful jobs, which no one should do, such as the jobs employers don’t pay you properly or at all for. The jobs that are unsafe and break you physically. The jobs that require endurance beyond your capacities or the jobs controlled by bullies where you get physically and mentally harassed.
Both Morrison and Tudge extol values that seem to be based on the Soviet era Gulags where those in charge of the labour system were always ‘good’ and had the right to debase others. In the Minister’s world all employers are always good, honest people doing their best to accommodate workers. Tudge also told the crowd that ‘being unemployed gives you a mental illness’, this new information regarding neurological, psychological and psychiatric illnesses is sure to revolutionize psychiatric medicines approach to closed ward patients in mental health facilities around the country. Finally he pointed out that we all have low expectations of the unemployed workers and that’s why welfare recipients are not currently gainfully labouring in underpaid positions in far flung corners of tourist rich Australia.
At the ACOSS breakfast the attendees, representing peak welfare bodies and charitable not-for-profits among others, kept clapping enthusiastically after everything Morrison said even though the measures he discussed will be disabling to many people. The policies will have negative impacts on children and the aging population by financially destabilizing their guardians and carers. Clapping for Morrison’s every statement normalizes his party’s negative attitude about people reliant on social welfare among those who should be most disturbed by it. Judging by the appearance of the crowd the applause was probably out of politeness, on a more cynical level it may have been about securing future funding. This kind of well-mannered approach to policies that expand a system of suffering and entrenches a welfare industry designed to use the least fortunate communities as the main resource for company profit, or in the case of some not-for-profits as leverage to expand the organization, seems very misplaced.
Within the CEDA/SERCO event the nature of collusive politics and corporate deal making was more pronounced. The event itself cost $300 per person and there were 57 attendees. That is a total of $17,100 just for a luncheon. A small amount for many of those present no doubt but at the table kindly funded by activist group GetUp!, completely dumbstruck, sat the few people in the room with genuine, lived insight into the experience of Centrelink legislation coupled with Disability Employment and Job Active Network mutual obligation strategies. Tudge yarned on about Aboriginal people before he segued into tales of those other, “similar demographics”, unemployed with substance abuse and impulse control problems apparently, who need a firm hand and no money at all unless they can give up the drugs, gambling and alcohol and be quick about it. SERCO will no doubt be managing this transition into further destitution.
The CEDA event started at 12 and finished at 2.30. It was net-worth more than a person on Newstart or DSP survives on for a full year. Those on welfare payments who receive well under the cost of Tudge’s lunch to live on, entirely, for a whole week, listened to him explaining how the demerit point system would prevent unemployed people, single parents included, access to any money in the event of non-compliance, which includes missing appointments, presumably overseen by the Job Provider industry. Four strikes and you’re out for four weeks, on reapplication you will be drug and alcohol tested and if you test positive you’ll be out again. To hear Tudge speak of welfare recipients “gaming the system” and the unacceptable cost of social security was very profound in Hilton’s plush environment where fine food was laid on and alcohol flowed freely, delivered to the tables by wait staff styled in black who chassed about offering reds, whites and chilled sparkling water.
Represented at the GetUp! table were unemployed and underemployed workers, all whom work hard as parents, community volunteers and participators, IT industry workers, union members and event organizers, none were drinking. Some were in and out of paid work, one man was almost retired and had worked most of his life in the transport industry before they privatized and retrenched everyone. There were women over the age of 45, well qualified with sound experienced who have been stuck in underpaid casualised employments for over 20 years and are now on a hidden scrap heap of aging women with little access to stable paid work and almost no superannuation and there were young people who face a potentially unstable jobs market ahead, matched with education debts that are indexed and will grow very large if they are out of work for too long. The GetUp! table laughed at Tudge’s funny ideas about financially penalizing people who can’t keep to appointments, forcing chronic alcoholics into acute withdrawal, denying real barriers to work, discounting the demands of single parenting, rejecting the reality of physical and mental disabilities and co-morbid drug problems alike, because if they didn’t laugh they would have been screaming and pulling out their hair.
During the speech and all through question time Tudge and some of the attendees referred to unemployed workers as “they” even though “they” were sitting right there, dining fugitive on the lam thanks to GetUp!. Questions about the punitive compliance policies were directed at Mr Tudge, who has no experience of being unemployed, even though there was a table of people who could have commented with full validity about their personal successes and lack thereof, under current welfare policy and the effect that the expansion of compliance policies will have on them. Punitive policy has little positive effect on job seeking outcomes, the experience of them enacted is overwhelmingly negative for many welfare recipients and none of these Welfare to Work and Job Active measures create any new jobs outside of the private welfare industry, where under-regulated and inexperienced people gain the opportunity to police and penalize others. In fact the Job Provider system has made no difference to the unemployment rate in Australia since its inception 20 years ago. It is a profoundly failed system.
Later one of the women in the GetUp! group tried to give Tudge a cardboard box containing a petition signed by 75,000 people asking for the government to fix the Robodebt problem. She was manhandled out by security. They must have been worried there was a pie in there.
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