Resisting the 'War on the Poor'

October 29, 2015
Anti-Poverty Network conference, October 16-17, in Adelaide.

Anti-Poverty Network SA hosted the “Stand Up! Speak Out!” conference in Adelaide on October 16 and 17. The grassroots gathering of welfare recipients, community workers and activists from South Australian and Victorian groups was part of Anti-Poverty Week.

One of the highlights was the “War On The Poor” session. Rob Graham from Green Left Weekly and Pas Forgione from Anti-Poverty Network SA spoke to Owen Bennett from the Australian Unemployed Workers' Union and Kerry Arch from the Australian United Sole Parents Network about the attacks on welfare recipients.

* * *

What are the main features of the war on welfare recipients and what has happened recently?

Owen: First, there is the failure of successive federal governments to create enough work. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and Department of Employment figures, there are 12 job seekers competing for every job vacancy. This ratio is at a record high and has led to the average duration of unemployment being in excess of three years — an increase of more than 300% since 1995.

Secondly, there is the disgracefully inadequate rate of Newstart — $523.40 a fortnight ($654 with maximum rent assistance included).

The most recent Henderson poverty-line is $1020 a fortnight. Over the course of a year, Newstart is roughly $13,000 below the poverty line.

The final attack is the punitive array of sanctions, activities and appointments imposed on Newstart recipients. On July 1, the government not only expanded Work for the Dole to 25 hours a week for those under 30 (up from 15 hours a week), but also legislated that Work for the Dole would become a requirement after only six months of receiving Newstart (formerly one year). At the same time, the government greatly expanded the powers of the privately-owned job agencies to penalise any unemployed worker by roughly $60 if they fail to attend an appointment. And there's another push to expand the powers of job agencies currently before Parliament.

Kerry: In 2006, then PM John Howard started moving sole parents from Parenting Payment to the lower Newstart when their youngest turned 8, instead of 16, which was previously the case.

Those already on the Parenting Payment became “grandfathered”.

In 2013, then PM Julia Gillard introduced a bill into Parliament continuing what Howard started, moving the “grandfathered” sole parents onto Newstart, which passed on the same day she gave her misogyny speech.

The 2014 budget contained more attacks on sole parents, for example, the loss of the School Kids Bonus, Low-Income Support Bonus, and Superannuation Contribution. These measures passed Parliament and the benefits are to be phased out by July 2016.

The School Kids Bonus helped those on low incomes to keep up with the educational costs of their children, such as laptops, books, uniforms, excursions and camps. The Low-Income Support Bonus helped those on welfare with large bills they were unable to save for, for example insurance, car servicing and white goods.

Since then the government has also been trying to pass cuts to Family Tax Benefits. These cuts, which would leave sole parents with older children up to $60 a week worse off, have stalled in the Senate.

Why are those on welfare payments so frequently attacked by governments and demonised by the media?

Owen: The reason is relatively simple: to drive down wages and conditions across the workforce.

The harder the government make it to live on Newstart, the more desperate people will be to get work — no matter how bad the wages and conditions. Consequently, real wage growth in Australia is at a record low.

Kerry: The more stories the media promotes of “cheating”, “bludging” welfare recipients, the more the public grow to resent having their tax dollars spent on others needing welfare. Our government believes those on welfare are lazy and social and financial failures and that they are only on welfare due to poor choices people make.

They fail to take responsibility for the lack of jobs available.

Many people don't realise the high level of Australians currently out of work and that they themselves could be only a pay packet away from redundancy.

It often seems attacks on Centrelink clients have bipartisan support, or that the Labor Party does not always put up much of a fight when those on payments are in the firing line. Why do you think this is the case?

Owen: Labor, like the Coalition, is a party for business. As attacking the unemployed and the poor is great for business because it drives down wages, both parties will generally agree. It is for this reason that both parties have refused to increase Newstart in real terms for 21 years.

What are your main impressions of the conference and why are events like this important?

Kerry: The conference was a wonderful opportunity for those with lived experience to have their say. Governments don't listen to those living on welfare but choose to get their information from reports and surveys done by government committees and welfare advocacy groups.

These only tell half the story and without the lived experience politicians don't have a clue. Policy should not be implemented without those with the lived experience having their say. After all, they know more than anyone what they need.

What would it take to build a large anti-poverty and welfare-rights movement in Australia?

Owen: To effectively resist the on-going attacks on the poor by successive federal governments, we must broaden the struggle to include all those affected. Contrary to popular belief, this does not just include those on income support — it includes all workers, particularly the growing section of the workforce that is underemployed.

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