The poor need more say in society

November 24, 2017

Pas Forgione is state coordinator of Anti-Poverty Network South Australia (APNSA), a non-government organisation with a difference.

APNSA is made up of welfare recipients and other low-income people who organise and campaign in defence of society’s marginalised people.

Green Left Weekly’s Renfrey Clarke spoke to Forgione.

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Anti-Poverty Network SA recently held a successful conference. What was it intended to achieve, and how do you see its outcomes?

We held our “Attack Poverty, Not the Poor” conference in Adelaide on October 20 and 21. It was our third annual Anti-Poverty Week conference. Like the earlier two, it highlighted government attacks on poor people — especially welfare recipients, who are six times more likely to be living in poverty than workers.

Our conferences are among the largest Anti-Poverty Week events in the country, and they’re the only ones organised by poor people themselves. For us, this is critical — the fightback against government cuts to the welfare system must be led by those in the firing line: by unemployed people, pensioners, sole parents, carers, students, and others who rely on government payments.

At the conference we looked at the Community Development Program, the turbocharged version of Work For The Dole that runs in remote Aboriginal communities. Another big session explored South Australia’s skyrocketing electricity prices, exposing their sources in privatisation and energy company price-gouging. We examined the sell-off of public housing, and the exploitation of the unemployed by job agencies. Other issues addressed were the PaTH youth "internships", single parents and poverty, squatting, and mental health and poverty.

Particularly exciting was the growing number of grassroots groups, from four different states, who were represented.

What are the origins of APNSA? What specific needs was it meant to address?

APNSA was formed in late 2013, shortly after the election of the [Tony] Abbott government.

We saw that Abbott and his ministers meant to take the knife to the welfare system, cutting access to payments and bringing in punishing obligations for those out of work. Thankfully, Abbott's worst proposals never made it through parliament.

Our goal was to help welfare recipients organise and gain a collective voice. At that time there were small campaigns against the Basics Card — the original version of cashless welfare — in areas such as northern Adelaide and western Sydney. And of course, there was fierce resistance from the Aboriginal community to the Northern Territory Intervention.

Sole parents were also campaigning against changes by the [Julia] Gillard government that saw them shifted from Parenting Payment Single to the much lower Newstart when their youngest child turned eight, instead of the previous age of 12. But overall, there was nowhere near as much grassroots organising as was needed.

We saw the need for a broad organisation that could rally all welfare recipients, not just those on a specific payment type, but everyone dealing with Centrelink. There’s always been a need for unity among the poor. Governments have sought to discourage this by branding some groups as more "deserving" than others.

How is APNSA now organised? Apart from campaign work, what else does it focus on?

APNSA has five suburban branches across Adelaide, largely in high-unemployment areas. Membership is open to everyone, but we always seek to prioritise people on low incomes, especially people on Centrelink payments. Those people make up the bulk of the group, and hold most of the leadership positions.

As well as our campaigning work, we also run an advocacy service that gives advice to job seekers having difficulties with their job agency or with Centrelink. Often, we accompany people on their appointments. We meet with a wide range of cases where the system deals out shoddy or even abusive treatment to those it’s supposed to serve.

There are job seekers who can’t get their medical issues recognised. People are lumbered with too many appointments. Sole parents, or job-seekers aged over 50, or casual/part-time workers are forced to do Work For The Dole, when it’s not a compulsory activity for them. We find job seekers being breached for missing appointments or activities they weren’t notified of, or had a reasonable excuse for not attending. People get harassed and bullied by case-workers.

Poverty and unemployment are persistent features of Australia's social landscape. Why is this the case, in a country where some people are doing very well indeed?

Poverty is an integral part of capitalism. It’s the flip side of the outlandish wealth that’s been cornered by a tiny group of individuals who wield enormous power. The system depends on exploiting ordinary people, on making their lives as meagre and insecure as possible. It’s deliberate, and it’s preventable.

Six hundred Australian corporations pay no tax, which means we lose $8 billion a year, and that’s a conservative estimate. There are generous concessions and subsidies for the big end of town, but every dollar for people on welfare is means-tested and scrutinised. Recipients have to jump through endless humiliating, demoralising hoops.

Unemployment is also a necessary part of capitalism. To keep competition for jobs high and wages low, the bosses need to have a large group of people out of work, experiencing financial and personal stress.

Full employment would shift the balance of power away from bosses and towards workers. It would bring higher wages, more rights and better conditions. The government and the business community have no interest in letting this happen.

There are plenty of jobs that need to exist, that would bring environmental and social benefits, but that don’t exist because no one is willing to pay for them. No one is able to make a profit from those jobs.

Can you tell us more about the new round of attacks on welfare recipients? What's the purpose of these attacks for those who are mounting them?

The latest federal budget was more subtle than previous ones, but just as harmful to welfare recipients. The new element that has gained most attention is the government's plan to drug test 5000 young unemployed across three sites. This scheme would do tremendous harm to those experiencing substance abuse, and it has been opposed by virtually every anti-addiction, community and medical organisation in the country.

Less attention has been paid to the government's other proposals, such as its demerit-points system for job seekers. This will see those who earn four demerit points in six months put on a three strikes plan, where one strike leads to being fined a week's payment, two strikes a fortnight's payment, and three strikes the loss of at least a month of payments.

Our welfare system is already very punitive, one of the strictest in the OECD. Last year, two million penalties, payment suspensions or fines were imposed on job seekers.

The government's plan to deny the Disability Support Pension (DSP) to people whose health issues are solely caused by substance abuse will have devastating consequences. Access to the DSP is already tightly restricted, with fewer than one-sixth of applications successful. People thrown off the DSP will languish on Newstart, which pays $160 a week below the poverty line.

The government also plans to increase activity requirements of unemployed people between the ages of 30 and 50 from 15 hours of activity a week to 25; to make Work For The Dole compulsory for unemployed people over the age of 50; and to further expand the cashless debit card. Report after report shows the debit card scheme has failed to achieve its alleged goal of reducing alcohol consumption and financial mismanagement.

None of these ideas have anything to do with improving people's lives, or with helping unemployed people find work. People are jobless because 1.8 million of them, unemployed and underemployed, have to compete for just 170,000 job vacancies. The government’s policies are meant to make life harder and more stressful for the jobless, to keep them competing for even the most unpleasant, insecure, low-paid work, just so they can exit the system.

In the poverty and harassment the jobless suffer, there’s also a message for those in work: don’t rock the boat, because if you’re sacked, your life under the welfare system will be wretched. Meanwhile, the community is encouraged to blame the poor and the unemployed for their plight, while letting the rigged systems and structures off the hook.  

People in jobs aren’t meant to empathise with welfare recipients, and workers aren’t supposed to solidarise with people on benefits. But fortunately, many people in the community understand that we all have an interest in a strong safety net.

What new activities is APNSA planning?

We’ll be continuing with our Newstart and local government campaign. This has seen 10 South Australian local councils, including large metropolitan councils, decide to publicly support an increase to Newstart, after lobbying by our unemployed members. These 10 councils represent 580,000 residents, more than a third of the state’s population.

Next March we’ll be campaigning in the state election, particularly about the cost of energy. South Australia has the highest power prices in the country — in the world, according to some sources. Another issue we’ll take up is the cost of public transport.

We’ll be holding an election forum, but one with a twist. Before the candidates get to speak, they’ll have to listen to people on low incomes speak about their lives, and how government policies have added to the frustration and hardship they experience.

The candidates will be grilled by people who know first-hand about poverty and unemployment. The poor know more about these topics than any politician.

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