Take action to stop more attacks on welfare recipients

Members of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union march against the demonisation of the unemployed. in Sydney in 2017. Photo Bernadette Smith.

When federal parliament reconvenes on February 5, the Coalition government’s first priority will be to pass two punitive bills which, if made into law, will make life even harder for those trying to get by on income support.

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union is urging people to express their opposition to the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 and the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017.

Below is an edited summary of the bills, produced by the AUWU.

Welfare Reform Bill

The Welfare Reform Bill will create a single jobseeker payment as the main payment for people of working age from March 20, 2020. It will replace the widow pension, wife pension, bereavement allowance, sickness allowance, widow allowance and partner allowance.

It contains many ominous measures including: removing the ability of Newstart recipients aged over 55 to satisfy the activity test by doing voluntary work; removing exemptions for drug or alcohol dependence; increasing the powers of job agencies to apply penalties; increasing mutual obligations; and increasing waiting periods for the dole.

The bill introduces a new “demerit points” system. Failure to meet a mutual obligation, by missing an appointment for example, will result in the mandatory loss of a point. The loss of four demerit points in six months puts the beneficiary in an “intensive compliance” phase. Thereafter, one point means the loss of one week’s payment; two points means the loss of two weeks’ payment and three points means the loss of four weeks’ payment.

Parents will have to provide a third party witness to back up claims their relationship is over to receive the single parent pension. Witnesses making a false declaration about a relationship could be jailed for up to a year. About 90% of single parent pensioners are women and this provision will make it significantly harder for mothers to leave abusive relationships.

The maximum Liquid Assets Waiting Period for single people with savings of more than $18,000 or couples and singles with dependants with savings of $36,000 will double from 13 to 26 weeks, meaning people with savings could wait up to six months before receiving a payment.

People aged 30 to 49 will have to spend an extra 20 hours a fortnight looking for work or undertaking Work for the Dole. Those aged over 55 will no longer meet their mutual obligations by volunteering for 30 hours a fortnight, but must spend 15 of those 30 hours on job searching or Work for the Dole.

People suffering from drug or alcohol dependence alone will no longer be eligible for the Disability Support Pension. Drug or alcohol dependence will no longer be considered an acceptable excuse for failing to meet mutual obligations.

Extenuating circumstances, such as hospitalisation, domestic violence or homelessness, will no longer be an acceptable reason for not lodging a completed claim on time.

Payments will be calculated from the date of your first appointment with an employment services provider, not from the date a claim was lodged.

Those currently on the bereavement allowance or a wife or widow pension will have their pensions cut.

The Department of Human Services' power to gather information through coercive means and to use that information during investigations and criminal proceedings will be broadened.

However, the most odious of these measures — mandatory drug testing — has been abandoned.

Cashless Welfare Card Bill

The Cashless Welfare Card Bill removes section 124PF of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, which specifies that the cashless debit card trial will occur in only three locations, include no more than 10,000 people, and will end on June 30.

Removing this section will allow the indefinite extension of the program in current sites and the card’s nation-wide expansion.

The Cashless Debit Card (CDC) — formerly the Healthy Welfare Card — is a measure that forcibly restricts 80% of any income support payment to an EFTPOS-style debit card. The card can only be used at approved shops. It is a much tougher version of the completely discredited Basics Card, which only quarantined 50% of a payment.

The CDC was developed by billionaire mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and forced on communities with little or no consultation. It is currently being applied indiscriminately to the unemployed in three trial sites. About 78% of those subjected to it are Indigenous people.

A recent evaluation of the trial found that 75% of respondents either don’t have a drinking, substance abuse or gambling problem or, if they did, their behaviour was not affected by the card.

Moreover, 74% of respondents said the trial had either made their lives worse, or had made no difference.

The card is produced by the Australian company Indue. To use it, the business owner needs to enter into an agreement with Indue. Small businesses in regional and rural areas do not necessarily use EFTPOS machines. There is currently no way for small business owners to quantify how much of their takings is supplied through welfare recipient cash transactions, making an assessment of whether to invest in an EFTPOS terminal and go into an agreement with Indue impossible.

The cashless card is geared towards bigger businesses, such as Coles and Woolworths, where shopper anonymity is encouraged.

EFTPOS is a company that makes money from transactions and card production. It is wholly owned by its 18 members, including Coles and Woolworths, so all profits from cashless welfare transactions will go to a handful of large companies.

The Indue card operates as a credit card in the sense that funds are not the property of the recipient, so a recipient has no claim to interest accrued on funds over time. If a recipient becomes ill and spends time in hospital, the interest on their account goes to Indue.

The small amount of cash that can be accessed through compulsory income management is not enough for users to participate in alternate markets such as farmers’ markets, trash and treasures, local craft markets, alternate food and goods banks and many charity shops, which deal exclusively in cash transactions.

The small economy becomes impossible under income management. How do you pay the babysitter with an INDUE card? How do you support your children and teenagers to participate in school fetes and local excursions that require lunch money? How do you give them pocket money and taxi money for an emergency? How do you teach your kids how to handle cash?

Compulsory income management stigmatises people and separates them from society even further: it scapegoats poverty.

Cashless welfare, in a society where the welfare payments do not lift people over the poverty line, forces people to use mainstream shopping outlets that are too expensive for those on limited budgets and makes emergency situations requiring cash impossible to manage.

Indue is not a bank and cannot provide any of the privacy and security measures that banks provide. People’s private data will be open to organisations that collect data to profile and target consumers. The government cannot guarantee privacy because Indue is not a government organisation.

This lack of privacy is already an ongoing issue with Jobactive providers, who are reported to be repeatedly breaching the privacy rights of their clients.

For a concise indictment of the Cashless Debit Card Bill, see the Australian Council of Social Service’s submission.

Take action

The AUWU is urging people to write to politicians to tell them to vote against the legislation.

Send a letter to the following crossbench MPs and Senators outlining your opposition. Template letters and sample reasons to oppose the legislation are available here.

Contact details and voting record for Senator Stirling Griff, Nick Xenophon Team.

Contact details and voting record for Senator Rex Patrick, Nick Xenophon Team

Contact details and voting record for Senator Derryn Hinch, Justice Party

Contact details and voting record for Rebekha Sharkie MP, Nick Xenophon Team

Contact details and voting record for Bob Katter MP, Katter’s Australian Party

Contact details and voting record for Andrew Wilkie MP, Independent

Contact details and voting record for Cathy McGowan MP, Independent

Enter your postcode here to find your local MP.

There is also a petition against the bill.

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