Disability is not a protection against villainy


By John Tomlinson

Sectional interests can gain interim advantage over other less powerful sectional interests. Disability lobby groups can succeed in getting government to advance the interests of those with a disability over the unemployed and perhaps lone parents in the short term. The aged might gain a sectional advantaged over the young or those with a disability for a few years.

But these are pyrrhic victories. They lay the foundations for counterattacks by competing interests.

Governments fully understand and are delighted when sections of the welfare industry compete amongst themselves. They know that the efforts wasted on gaining sectional advantage deflect the citizenry from the major struggle to redistribute from the rich to the poor.

Since 1908, the commonwealth government has paid means-tested pensions to widows, the elderly and people experiencing severe disablement. Asian Australians were excluded until the 1940s. Indigenous Australians had to wait until the 1960s.

The ideological justification for payments was that the recipients were in need through no fault of their own. Recipients were required to demonstrate that they were in impecunious circumstances and worthy.

Since the second decade of this century, one category of disability pensioners — those who were blind — were entitled to a pension even if they had substantial income and assets. After reading social security researcher Allan Jordan's excellent 1984 report entitled Permanent Incapacity: Invalid Pension in Australia, I found that the government paid blind pensioners irrespective of means because it thought those who had been assessed as having lost 85% of their sight were more likely to obtain employment than were others 85% incapacitated from other causes.

So blind citizens received a basic income as a right. People who were blind received the total amount of the pension irrespective of their relationships with others, their income and their assets. Widows, the aged and other people with a permanent disability had their pension substantially reduced in relation to income and assets and the wealth of partners.


After the second world war, a range of benefits were introduced to cover short-term unemployment, sickness and other eventualities not covered by pensions.

Beneficiaries were subjected to greater surveillance than pensioners and paid at a lower rate. The unemployed had to pass a test to establish they were fit, available and willing to work.

In the five years I worked for Social Security, I encountered many people who had a permanent disability but not of sufficient severity to have them adjudged permanently incapacitated. They were not able to obtain work and often failed the work test.

Many of these people received no income support; they were not sick temporarily, they were not fit, and they were not incapacitated within the meaning of the Social Services Act. They were often described as malingerers or lazy; they did not fit any pattern; and, apart from welfare relief agencies and shelters, they received no support.

These were people disadvantaged and disabled by their impairments, yet they often received no income support.

Basic income

I believe the income support regime provided for blind pensioners was the appropriate approach for all citizens. The basic income which people who were blind received:

  • had no poverty trap;

  • accrued less stigma;

  • did not interfere in the development of personal relationships; and

  • encouraged blind people to increase earned income and to accrue assets.

Surely it would be rational to implement an identical scheme for unemployment beneficiaries who had to show they were fit, available and willing to work. As Keith Windschuttle pointed out in 1981, in his seminal work Unemployment, governments did not do this because of their fear that the unemployed were work shy.

A linchpin of the ideology of economic fundamentalism which has infected every cabinet since Whitlam is that, if the goal is to increase productivity, the rich have to be rewarded and the poor compelled.

Even if governments were constrained by their compulsive desire to believe that lone parents, the sick, the aged and the unemployed are so determined to live at or below the poverty line that they would avoid work once a basic income was in place, it seems strange that they were willing to provide a basic income for blind disability pensioners but not every other disability pensioner.

If the argument for paying blind pensioners a basic income is that it gave them an incentive to work, then there is an even more compelling argument to provide that same incentive to other disability pensioners whom governments believed would encounter greater difficulties obtaining work.

The failure of the trade union movement and the organisations of the workless to unite and build into the social wage a basic income as the central plank demonstrates how easy it is for the powerful to deflect sections of the working class into pursuing sectional interests.

The aristocracy of the workers, understanding the disproportionate rewards which the rich got through tax subsidies on superannuation, set out to join the gravy train rather than derail it and replace it by a basic income for all.

The welfare and disability lobby groups were busy protecting their sectional interests in what was left of the Australian welfare state from the ravages of the economic fundamentalists. They too failed to understand the main government game of shifting wealth from the less well off to the rich and the super rich.

Instead of a society in which workers and the workless, the able bodied and those with a disability, men and women, indigenous and non-indigenous, migrant and Australian-born are united and harmonious, we have a society:

  • about to be torn apart by a race election,

  • which pretends the repression of asylum seekers is not occurring,

  • in which many workers reckon the unemployed are dole bludgers,

  • where the clash between patriarchy and feminism is daily played out, and

  • where the able bodied are indifferent to difficulties of their fellow citizens with a disability.

What we have now is a society in which:

  • 8% are regarded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as unemployed,

  • a further 5-10% are discouraged unemployed,

  • over a third of the full-time work force is working in excess of 50 hours per week,

  • half the work force are concerned their jobs are insecure, and

  • nearly everyone under 21 years old receiving unemployment benefit is forced to survive on an income well below the poverty line.

Young disability pensioners are also forced to live on an income well below the poverty line. Until the end of the 1980s, young disability pensioners received an income above the poverty line.

Then Brian Howe, as minister for social security, decided to distort social justice by reducing the income of 16-year-old disability pensioners to 44% of the poverty line to bring them into line with the starvation rates paid to the young unemployed. Having a severe disability is certainly no protection against villainy.

Australian governments have been extraordinarily successful during the 1980s and '90s diverting money from the poor to the rich and super rich. The main vehicles for the transfer of funds are tax cuts provided to higher income earners or through share imputation. Governments can forgo collecting tax from the rich as a direct result of austerity measures imposed on welfare and disability clients.

Governments get away with pandering to the rich because the welfare sector is divided and alienated from the wider working class.