Hockey Ramps Up Fear Around Disability Support


Perhaps this is all a dark satire, I thought hopefully as Joe Hockey delivered last night's budget. Future generations will applaud Hockey's brilliant use of irony to lampoon his government colleagues' commitment to “ending the Age of Entitlement”. He even smuggled in a reference to Swift.

Or am I the only one who found Hockey's announcement that patients would be required (sorry – “asked”) to make a “modest contribution” towards the cost of their healthcare unfortunately reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick — a proposal that famously purported to extoll the potential benefits of encouraging starving Irish families to sell their offspring as foodstuff for the rich.

Sadly, on considering the matter in the cold light of day, I'm pretty sure that Hockey's speech is intended to be taken literally.

The end of bulk billing (aka Hockey's “modest contribution”) is not specifically targeted at any particular segment of the Australian population, with the possible exception of sick people. Turning from literary to Biblical allusions, it's a “widow's mite” that all of us, rich or poor, will be expected to sacrifice for the good of the nation. But the widow's mite is supposed to be, well, a mite … in due recognition of the fact that even a mite represents a large proportion of a small income.

And the proposed “mite” for a visit to the GP comes on top of changes to the Disability Support system that will force those under 35 to undergo regular reassessments by government doctors (because the doctors in charge of their day-to-day care can't be trusted to conduct an appropriately budget-conscious assessment), with those deemed capable of working eight hours or more per week required to sign up for “engagement plans” to “help” them participate in the workforce.

The Human Services website provides more detail about what these engagement plans will look like. Compulsory activities will focus on employment and “may include, but are not limited to” Work for the Dole, job search, work experience, education or training, and connection with a Disability Employment Service or with Job Services Australia.

This sounds like a recipe for a booming employment sector in exactly the type of nanny-state from which Tony Abbott promised to deliver us. However, it seems calculated to drive people living with a disability into poverty rather than into the sweet dawn of employment.

The “carrots” of training and employment services are already available — and insufficient. And the “stick” is being applied to the wrong backside. If DSP recipients capable of working are not in the workforce, it's not because they'd rather live off the taxpayer. It's because of the reluctance by employers to make the necessary (and legally mandated) “reasonable accommodations” to employ them.

Very few Australians living with a disability would dispute Hockey's assertion that “The benefits of work go far beyond your weekly pay packet. Work gives people a sense of self, and work helps to build a sense of community.” They didn't need Hockey to declare that the age of entitlement is over. For them (us — I wage daily battle with disability, in the form of multiple sclerosis), it has never dawned. The DSP has never been either readily available or lucrative, and while tax breaks and “incentives” for high-income Australians are presented as no-more-than-they-deserve, we have always been made aware that we are here on sufferance.

The final Swiftian touch to last night was tucked away in the ABC's response: “In addition to the funding cuts, the ABC will also have to manage the cessation of funding for the online disability website, ABC Ramp Up, at the end of this financial year.”

In the absence of further information, I will assume that the ABC will find a way to continue to fund Ramp Up rather than deprive disabled writers and readers of a forum which has provided a means to explore disability-related issues, thrown a spotlight for talented role models such as its editor (and star of the Melbourne Comedy Festival) Stella Young, not to mention offering a means of employment and income for its wide range of contributors.

Ironically, the site would also offers a platform for those targeted by any forthcoming changes in the disability sector to document its impact on their lives. Thus, the demise of Ramp Up would provide a sadly appropriate sideshow to last night's theatre of the absurd. Which is why my confidence that it would never happen is probably misplaced.

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