Christian By Name, Not By Nature: Porter Punches Down On The Poor


Christian Porter is commending his government for ‘taking risks’ with the lives of vulnerable people, writes Jeremy Poxon from the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union.

Last week, Social Services Minister Christian Porter lauded his government’s increasingly punitive and evidence-deficient policies (see: drug-testing welfare recipients) as “bold” and “innovative” strategies that will continue to deliver savings to the Federal budget.

In a speech at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Minister Porter said that while some of the welfare reforms may be “controversial,” he was proud that his government is “willing to take risks” when it comes to programs that significantly affect the lives of the vulnerable.

The minister heaped praise on the notorious Welfare Reform Bill, amid stiff opposition from advocacy groups and health experts who say it would push already vulnerable people further into poverty and homelessness. For these groups, government proposals to drug test welfare recipients and control their income feel a lot more “cruel” and “unusual” than “bold” and “innovative.”

Christian Porter, the social services minister pushing for the drug testing of welfare recipients.
Christian Porter, the social services minister pushing for the drug testing of welfare recipients.

Ignoring the views of these organisations, Porter made a specific plea to Senate crossbenchers, asking them to consider the Coalition’s success in reducing the welfare budget, when sizing up whether or not to support the drug-testing scheme. Effectively, Porter told Senators to prioritise the health of the budget above the health of drug-afflicted Australians on welfare.

The Minister’s speech largely focused on what he described as the Coalition’s fiscal “successes” compared to Labor, in reducing expenditure on social security and welfare dependency. He said that spending grew over 9% a year for six years under Labor, compared with 2% under the Coalition.

Shop-Sparkke-Consent-300-x-250While it is true that the rate of welfare spending has slowed significantly under the Coalition, Porter neglected to mention that spending grew under Labour, mostly because of a tiny spanner in the works called The Global Financial Crisis. Between Rudd’s election in November 2007 and the middle of 2009, the number of unemployed people jumped from 470,000 to 660,000. Accordingly, the Labor government increased spending to look after those extra claimants needing welfare support during this difficult time. It doesn’t bear thinking about what would’ve happened to these people had someone like Porter been in charge of their payments.

Even though Australia already has one of the toughest compliance systems in the OECD, Minister Porter, whose background is in legal justice, continues to make impassioned pleas for even tougher welfare programs. In front of the packed room of journalists, he said he has actually seen drug-testing measures work first-hand: “I first became attracted to the idea of compelling people to seek treatment via drug testing when I was a crown solicitor in drug court.”

Alarmingly enough, he sees absolutely no reason why this testing can’t also work on welfare recipients. In the Minister’s mind, there appears to be little distinction between those under immediate prosecution, and those struggling to survive on $244/week Newstart payments.

He believes that mandated testing and strict restrictions actually have “a strong behavioural effect” on welfare recipients; however, it remains unclear what the Minister is basing this claim on.

Currently, there exists no evidence, here or overseas, that shows mandatory testing will help drug-addicted people receive treatment and find work.

Eventually, the focus of the Minister’s speech turned to jobs. (A motto for this government could be: ‘when it doubt, start beating your chest about job creation.’) He boasted that more than 370,000 jobs (mostly full-time) have been created over the past year – seemingly implying, again without evidence, that the 140,000 people his government has moved off welfare are predominately landing these newly created gigs.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (IMAGE:  Dept. of Defence photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Flickr)
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (IMAGE: Dept. of Defence photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Flickr)

Not even his Department’s own reports can verify how many of these 140,000 people have actually gained employment, and how many have simply stopped making claims for payments. If anything, the data suggests that (due to increasingly stringent requirements) the latter scenario is more likely. After all (to give Porter his due), the government’s policies have proven to be quite adept at denying welfare to those who most need it.

Although he’s right to claim good full-time employment growth, the labour force data released last week shows that, overall, labour participation is actually going down. This is because there’s been significant growth in the number of discouraged workers: people who are completely removed and alienated from the labour market.

Shop-Sparkke-Consent-300-x-250It’s incredibly concerning that more and more Australians are simply giving up looking for work – yet, these “hidden unemployed” are barely acknowledged by pollies or pundits.

When there are 17 job seekers for every position currently available, you can understand why these unemployed workers feel completely disillusioned, demoralised and forgotten.

As it stands, labour under-utilisation (unemployment and underemployment) remains at a lofty 13.3%. In the latest batch of data, prospects for young people appear particularly grim: the teenage unemployment rate has now hit 28%, when factoring in hidden unemployment.

The Coalition does not have a viable plan for those locked out of the labour market and meaningful income through no fault of their own. Instead, it’s committed to implementing arduous welfare obligations, in order to ‘modify’ behaviours and disincentivise ‘bludging.’

For those ‘lucky’ unemployed workers who manage to clear the welfare hurdles, Newstart hardly delivers relief from the depredations of poverty. Minister Porter again dismissed suggestions that he needed to raise the Newstart allowance, even though the payment has remained the same in real terms for the last 23 years. Under his watch, 55% of people on the payment now live below the poverty line.

In lieu of all this, it’s staggering that Minister Porter continues to pronounce the government’s welfare reforms such a resounding success. There are far too many disadvantaged Australians locked out of the labour market, and falling into extreme poverty, for these claims to be remotely convincing.

Sadly, the mainstream media continues to uncritically reproduce his government’s bogus narrative that we must deplete our safety net for the sake of the budget. Alarmingly, we’ve all become accustomed to treating vulnerable people like little more than a financial burden.

No doubt, as the Welfare Reform Bill edges closer to the Senate, Minister Porter will continue spruiking punitive welfare policies that do more to alienate and penalise the vulnerable than provide them with assistance.

It’s up to us to publicly reject his claims, and stand alongside the 44 civil society organisations, who are calling on the Federal Government to stop these “bold,” “innovative” attacks on the three million Australians who currently live in poverty.

Jeremy Poxon is an independent journalist and media officer for The Australian Unemployed Workers Union.