With the ALP conference coming up next week, where are the motions for commitment to making Australian society fairer? The current government’s various social policy commitments have done little to improve equality for the poorest Australians, apart from exhortations that social inclusion meant they should just get a job.

The latest Social Inclusion report has just been tabled by the Minister for Human Services, Tanya Plibersek, in time for the conference delegates to read. It does not unfortunately address the needs of the long-term unemployed or others caught in the changing economic picture. As a long-term feminist and member of the Left, it is surprising the minister does not address the lack of data on whether her government has improved living standards and well-being for the most vulnerable groups in our society.

The report lists some programs that are likely to appeal to reformists but I could find no mention of the adequacy of income support payments levels or explanations for increasing surveillance and control over those already on the payments. There are no figures showing that cutting payments to sole parents has increased their incomes and children’s well-being. There are no valid statistics to show that income management has improved the health or well-being of the families covered in WA or the NT, yet it is being rolled out at great expense.

The so-called social inclusion report lists future plans such as mental health changes and the proposed disability insurance schemes. The pension rise was good but not extended to those on other payments, who now lag more than $130 per week behind the more respectable pensioners. The proposed rise in super will mainly benefit higher income earners, and paid parental leave works for those with paid jobs. There is nothing for those who have not shared recent prosperity and may even have lost jobs because of the GFC.

The paid jobs are not there for the million-plus who are supposed to be looking for them. At any one time, there may be about 200,000 listed job vacancies but most jobs out there are not for those on payments. They are for people who have current and/or very recent experience, who are not too old, or do not have family responsibilities. Employers prefer those who don’t have visible disabilities or recurrent health problems. Many of those on payments are regularly rejected because of employer prejudices. The problem is with the demand side, not the labour supply, yet the policies make the assumptions that the victims of rejection are the problem. The government’s belief that people on income support just need to try harder and solve all their problems by finding a paid job is why the policies become more punitive and controlling.

The report lists a few achievements and some dubious ones. New social housing is good but there is not enough; Closing the Gap is a rhetorical joke if the minimal progress that is measured by Productivity Commission report is accurate. We have no evidence that more training places for the unemployed and flexible help for job seekers actually gets them jobs. Most of the rest is programs for those with paid jobs and not those who miss out.

On almost the eve of its party conference, the government’s own report ignores the loss of rights of some of the poorest Australians and increasing inequity. So where is the public indignation from the ALP membership about the disgustingly low pay rates of the Newstart Allowance? This offers a basic $35 per day to the non-employed that even the Business Council thinks is too low. The statistics show this payment is not short term and condemns most recipients to serious marginalisation. Yet there is no audible party outcry.

This government continues to move increasing numbers of sole parents onto this low-level, tightly income tested payment, making it harder for them to find decent part-time work that fits their parenting responsibilities. Joining them on this low pay rate are increasing numbers of people with significant but not totally disabling conditions, who are being refused the Disability Support Pension. Who is standing up for new applicants and other people with disabilities who will have to go on the inadequate Newstart pay rate?

The welfare payment system is undergoing a massive policy shift that has been hidden from the public. The major change is to payment systems: from forms of entitlement to what is called conditional welfare. While there have always been obligations on those receiving payments to look for work and upgrade skills, these are becoming stringent and punitive. In addition, many income recipients are now being subjected to paternalistic restrictions on how they spend their income, based on unproven assumptions that income quarantining will improve their job readiness.

These are being imposed on payment recipients nationally. After experimenting in the NT with income management in 72 Aboriginal communities, new variations of the program are being introduced in the NT and spread widely into other disadvantaged populations. The changes are being introduced despite there being no clear evidence of their benefits, possible harm and solid opposition from groups such as ACOSS, Welfare Rights and many of the big welfare agencies.

Where are the Labor Party members objecting to this change and the expansion of some very conservative policies? The new year will see the expansion of income management to places such as Bankstown, Shepparton and Logan.  Why no public anger that the NT is about to have income management connected to school attendance despite no evidence it works there either? Where are the Labor people who once would have strongly objected to diminishing the rights of people to welfare payments? Is it because Aboriginal communities were used as the initial stalking horse and residual racism meant people assumed it was all right to infantilise them?

These groups of people have traditionally seen Labor as more likely to care for their needs than the Coalition. Now they have no one to represent their needs. There are no signs in the recently released social inclusion report that there will be any good changes. The government’s wider agenda is to get them all into jobs, even if this is not possible. This may fit the traditional view of Labor as the creator of a working man’s paradise but we have moved away from that narrow gendered view, which left out so much of what were seen as core Labor values. Bad jobs do damage and care needs need to be considered.

Labor had a proud record, post-WW2, of establishing the Australian welfare state, designed to share the resources we had. Imperfect as it was, it signalled to the voters that Labor cared about those who had no access to paid work. The neo liberal shift of the ‘80s fed rising individualism and self-provision in the market but there was still a sense that the ALP would take care of those who needed it. However, under Howard, the welfare of those who did not share in the growth economy was given a lower priority and it was assumed they were at fault and therefore undeserving of public support. The change of government in 2007 brought some optimism that the Labor commitment to a fair go would return.

However, the current Labor government has sold out that basic assumption. It has failed to change the welfare policy directions of the Howard government, while also supporting the gross inequities foisted on indigenous people under the NT so-called emergency. Now, on its fourth anniversary, and on the eve of the national conference, there are no visible signs of a push from the members to reverse increasingly unfair welfare changes.

Peter Fray

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