When Did Labor Stop Caring?

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With the September election fast approaching, many Labor MPs are finally speaking out about the approach their government has taken toward some of Australia’s most vulnerable people, in particular single parents and those struggling on the Newstart Allowance.

Former Minister Kim Carr is one of a number of government MPs who voted for January’s cuts to payments for single parents– but is now responding to growing public opposition by questioning whether their party acted in accordance with its own values when it tried to build a surplus on the back of our most vulnerable families.

I doubt very much that these public platitudes matter to the families who are struggling to cope with the loss of $60 to $130 from their already tight weekly budgets.

With these cuts cementing another piece of John Howard’s Welfare to Work agenda, it’s absolutely critical to understand that the income support policies implemented by the Gillard Government are demonstrations of an extremely conservative, paternalistic agenda dressed up in a guise of fiscal responsibility. This will remain true, regardless of the values that are now being publicly debated by its MPs.

The introduction of Welfare to Work dramatically shifted the focus of our social safety net. For the unemployed, this meant turning away from supporting people to navigate their way into secure work and resorting to increasingly complex rules, further restricting access to payments, along with a suspicious approach to anyone seeking support.

The recent single parenting payment cuts impacted on a group of single parents who had been previously left out of the Welfare to Work program. These cuts not only dropped people’s basic incomes but made it more difficult to access support such as job service providers or extra assistance like the Pensioner Education Supplement.

The rushed nature of this policy has led to confusion and ambiguity around a number of these additional supports. I’ve received numerous reports from parents who have lost their education supplement, or have been told that because they’re already in part time work, they’re unable to access job service providers.

While the government has tried to justify its decision by claiming that shifting people onto Newstart will help them into work, half of those affected were already in some form of paid employment. Ironically, it is these parents who were combining part-time work with their parental responsibilities who have been the hardest hit by the cuts, with Newstart’s lower earning capacity meaning a single parent on can only earn a meagre $62 per fortnight before their income support begins to reduce.

Part time work is often essential for single parents who need flexibility to meet their family circumstances. It can also be invaluable for those people looking to gain experience or undertake trials as they move back into the workplace.

How does the Government expect people to build their employment prospects and capabilities if access to part-time work, education and job services is hard to come by?

Regardless of the increasingly torturous contortions that the Labor Party is undertaking to explain its actions against single parents, including their ridiculous claim that they are making things more equal, the simple reality is that it was not fair to cut payments in order to achieve the goal of ensuring parity between this group of single parents and those who had already been affected by the 2006 cuts.

The Parliament’s own Human Rights Committee recently highlighted that another way to achieve "fairness" without the other negative impacts would have been to re-instate the payments of those who were affected from 2006 onwards.

While the ALP has argued that cutting payments to single parents is the fiscally responsible approach, there is something distinctly incongruous about these arguments when the first year’s savings from the single parenting payment cuts dramatically outstripped the first year of income from the Mineral Resources Rent Tax.

Moving single parents to Newstart is not the only Howard legacy that has been embraced wholeheartedly by the ALP.

Recently, the Government took steps to yet again expand its radically conservative, paternalistic program of compulsory income management to new sites in remote WA communities around Laverton. By July, additional payment types will also be added to the income management schedule.

Under the ALP, income management has been extended and expanded, despite the fact that such action almost entirely disregards the government’s own preliminary evaluation of the longer running NT program which stated clearly that, "for many, there is a strong sense of having been treated unfairly and being disempowered", and found "little evidence to date that income management is resulting in widespread behavioural change".

If the government was so keen to find budget cuts in pursuit of a surplus, income management is littered with examples of ineffective expenditure and bureaucratic waste. Nationally, by the 2014/15 budget period, $1 billion will have been spent on Income Management, which has been partly sourced from budgets cuts to other programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including things like youth leadership programs.

The Coalition has also signalled their continuing belief in the values of income management, with Kevin Andrews going so far as to suggest that the current rollout was being set up to fail because it also had a significant focus on signing up voluntary participants and didn’t force enough people into the regime.

While it is clearly the government’s policy to continue to broaden the reach of this regime, one can only think what Andrews would have in mind were he in a position of power.

The impact of income management on individuals, particularly Indigenous people, is primarily one of disempowerment and coercion, which will have a long lasting emotional and social impact.

As with the reality of life on Newstart, the facts about income management’s cost and effectiveness are easily overlooked by the older parties. It is far easier for them to apply unproven, paternalistic policies in spite of unjustifiable costs, a lack of evidence and broad human rights concerns.

Only the Greens are offering viable policy alternatives that care for people rather, than punishing them when they are most in need of help from their government.

No amount of discussion about Labor values can disguise the fact that its commitment to a deeply conservative social policy is hurting our most vulnerable citizens.

The only way for this Government to re-establish its credentials in this area is for it to abandon the recent spate of conservative policy making, commit to boosting Newstart by $50 a week and do far more to help people into secure, sustainable employment.

New Matilda

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