Fighting back against poverty

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Low-income people, activists, community workers and others will gather in Adelaide on October 21 and 22 for “Power to the Poor — Silent No More”, a two-day Anti-Poverty Week conference.

The event — organised by Anti-Poverty Network SA, a grassroots group composed of welfare recipients struggling with poverty and joblessness — promises to be one of the largest Anti-Poverty Week events in the country.

With its strong focus on the much-ignored voices of those dealing with financial hardship and unemployment — not to mention with punitive, stress-inducing government policies — the conference is an unique addition to the Anti-Poverty Week calendar. The conference will not only explore the challenges and attacks faced by welfare recipients, but also ways of effectively fighting back.

This focus sharply contrasts with much of the political and media discussion around welfare. Whether it is Andrew Forrest's latest attempt to advocate for his brainchild, the cashless debit card; the government's continuing commitment to having young job-seekers go one month without any income, while also refusal to raise the Newstart Allowance; its announcement in this year's budget that another 30,000 Disability Support Pensioners will be shifted onto Newstart; or social services minister Christian Porter's recent comments at the Press Club on “welfare dependency” and unsustainable levels of spending on payments; the conversation happens as if the opinions of welfare recipients themselves do not matter.

In fact, this is what our elites think: that those receiving government payments should be grateful for whatever crumbs they receive. And be silent.

A vivid illustration of this mentality — that Centrelink clients should be seen, but not heard — was the ferocious reaction to Duncan Storrar, who was subject to an intense, sustained media onslaught from the Murdoch media after daring to ask one simple question about the government's proposed tax cuts for well-off people, in a May episode of ABC's Q&A.

Storrar, who will be attending the Anti-Poverty Week conference, drew attention to, on the one hand, the government's ironclad stinginess towards those on low incomes, and on the other hand, its generosity, to those at the top who already possess substantial incomes and wealth. It would be an understatement to say this is a recurring theme.  

The government claims it can afford a tax cut for business, which, if implemented, would mean $50 billion less in revenue over the next ten years. But it claims it cannot afford to raise Newstart, which according to Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), would cost only $1.5 billion per year. Only a few days ago, the government passed, with Labor support, a tax cut for the top 20% of earners — those people on more than $80,000 per year — at a cost of $1 billion per year.

Politics, as they say, is about priorities. Over and over again, both major parties have shown that they regard unemployed people, pensioners, sole parents, carers, and other low-income people as not worth prioritising.

This why Newstart, now roughly $195 per week, has not been raised in real terms for 22 years, including during the six years of the Rudd-Gillard government. Despite multiple government and independent evaluations showing the policy to be an expensive, counter-productive, humiliating, failure, we have a bipartisan consensus around compulsory income management, including its more extreme version, the cashless debit card.

Both sides of politics speak of “mutual obligation” — the idea that governments and the unemployed each have obligations to each other — with a straight face. But it is governments that continually fail to uphold their obligations, by ignoring the elephant in the room, the fact there are not enough jobs to go around, with 19 job-seekers for every job vacancy; making welfare payments so grossly inadequate that growing numbers suffer from housing crisis, an inability to afford dental care, eat properly, participate in social life, and cope with financial emergencies; and repeatedly cutting essential community services.

Why is cracking down on welfare fraud always so urgent — despite the tiny sums of money and numbers of people involved, and the fact much of it is accidental over-payment or confusion about one's entitlements, but cracking down on tax fraud — involving much larger sums of money — is not.

This is why this conference is so important and necessary.

Sessions will cover topics such as the deepening jobs crisis; the attacks on Disability Support Pensioners, particularly younger recipients; the myriad of ways that job agencies confuse, frustrate, and punish unemployed people; horror stories from Work for the Dole; the struggles and resilience of sole parents; and the impacts of climate change on Australia's poorest and most vulnerable people, for instance through more frequent severe weather and sky-rocketing power prices.

The conference will also feature high-profile interstate guests, including Dr. Cassandra Goldie, CEO of ACOSS; Owen Bennett, President of Australian Unemployed Workers' Union; Marilyn King from Fair Go for Pensioners; and representatives from the Homeless Persons' Union of Victoria.

It will be held at Clayton Wesley Uniting Church, corner of Portrush Road and The Parade, Beulah Park, Adelaide.

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