We woke this morning to find out that the Opposition were about to reveal some new policies, targeted at ‘welfare reform’. Commentators remarked excitedly that here, at last, was a sign that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was listening to all those criticisms of how negative he’d been. (Mind you, very few of those criticisms came from said commentators.)
Strategically leaked details looked alarming – toughen up work for the dole, cut disability pension recipients by up to 60%, quarantine half of all long-term welfare payments and force people into work – but we had to wait until 2pm to find out the whole story.
Abbott’s choice of venue was curious: a rugby club. It’s not exactly the kind of location one associates with welfare reform; maybe some health announcements about nutrition and fitness, or a sports policy, but not the dole. Be that as it may, the speech commenced – and it was a poisonous, insidious exercise in stigmatising the poor, couched in Newspeak. The code to decipher this follows below.
Welfare is Economics.
First, Abbott tried to reframe the issue. It wasn’t about welfare reform, it was about economic reform. It’s possible he thought this might endear him to those concerned with the budget bottom line – and certainly, he did his level best to get in a few jabs at the government’s proposed carbon price and mining tax. What he may not have counted on, however, was that he also gave the clear impression that his focus was squarely on money, not on the human beings who would be affected by his policies.
After that we were treated to what appeared to be a de facto censure motion. Perhaps Abbott was feeling nostalgic for Question Time.
Labor is Labor/Greens.
He repeatedly attacked Labor, referring to the ‘Gillard/Brown government’. More Newspeak. If the correct form of address for any government was to refer to it by the surnames of all those who formed the ruling coalition, surely he should have said the ‘Gillard/Brown/Wilkie/Oakeshott/Windsor government’? And why, then, did we never hear the former government referred to as the ‘Howard/Fisher government’?
Of course, Abbot wasn’t the slightest bit interested in correct forms of address. This was about promoting the idea that Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown is at least a Deputy, but more likely a co-ruler – neither of which is true.
One wonders what Wayne Swan would have to say about his summary demotion by the Opposition Leader.
Opposition is Government.
Bizarrely, Abbott went on to extol the virtues of the former Howard government – many members of which, he helpfully pointed out, currently sit on the Opposition Front Bench. Then he urged his audience to judge the Opposition not on its record in the current position, but ‘on our results in government’.
Some twenty minutes later, Abbott appeared to finally exhaust his list of accusations – many of which contained outright lies and strategic misrepresentations – and turn to the putative ‘real issue’. He started by telling us what a government should not do, most of which could be boiled down to the brief phrase, ‘don’t create a nanny state’.
(Nanny state. It’s such a marvellously meaningless term – good for all occasions, but completely lacking in substance.)
Help is Harm.
A strong government, Abbott argued, should not ‘create a domineering state at the expense of purposeful persons in a free civil society’. Take a moment to unpack that, and remember the context. Abbott is leading up to the idea that a government – by assisting the poor, the unemployed and the disabled – is actually hurting them and, by extension, hurting the country.
Deciding to Target Welfare Recipients is ‘My Hand was Forced’
Then came a truly outrageous statement – that welfare reform was necessary because the Labor government had not made ‘significant savings’. It’s not that he wants to do it, but he has no choice. If the Labor government had done their job properly, he wouldn’t be standing here proposing changes to welfare.
Which is, of course, nonsense. These policies are recycled, tougher versions of ideas dating back to the Howard era – or should I say, the ‘Howard/Fisher era’.
As for the policies themselves? They were every bit as draconian as the leaks promised, and worse.
Unemployment is Bludging
Anyone under 50 receiving unemployment benefits for six months should be forced to do Work for the Dole. This program is ridiculously flawed – it’s little more than make-work at less than minimum wage. Participants have little choice as to where they will be sent, and usually learn no useful job skills. Past programs include sending people to file folders and staple newsletters; and even in jobs where training is promised, it rarely materialises due to time constraints in the organisations where they are placed.
People under 30 were targeted for a special provision. If an unskilled job existed in their area, they would be forced to take it, or lose their benefits. Indeed, Abbott suggested, people should be forced to relocate to areas that had such unskilled labour shortages. In other words, it’s great that you spent thousands on a good education, but they really need grape pickers in the Barossa, so off you go.
Welfare-Dependent is Incompetent and Untrustworthy
Anyone who is welfare-dependent for six months should have half of their payment quarantined ‘for the necessities of life’.
Never mind that quarantining is specifically designed to protect children whose parents neglect them. Never mind that almost every recipient of welfare robs Peter to pay Paul every fortnight, because their benefit is simply not enough to allow them to meet the deadlines of bills, rent or house payments.
Abbott bolstered his argument by commenting that ‘if it was right for the Territories’ it must be right in the rest of Australia. There’s a nasty little assumption at the basis of this; that people on welfare cannot or will not manage their money responsibly, and therefore the government must do that for them.
Funny, sounds like a ‘domineering state’ to me.
Disabled is Able
Abbott moved on to the disabled. Fully 60% of those on the Disability Support Pension, he alleged, suffered from ‘potentially treatable’ conditions. (Of course, he didn’t say where he got those figures.) Those people should be taken off the DSP and put onto a ‘new’ benefit, and encouraged to return to work. Now, we already have a benefit available for those with medium-term illnesses or injuries – it’s called Sickness Benefit – but Abbot either didn’t know that, or didn’t care. He also didn’t bother to delineate the criteria by which ‘potentially treatable’ would be determined, or suggest ways in which the government might assist in rehabilitating people. Perhaps he believes that those who ‘want to work’ will find a way to pay for their own therapy – on a benefit that does not even approach the minimum wage.
Of course, Abbott acknowledged, this might not fix our skilled labor shortage – but he had a solution for that, too. The government should simply increase the number of 457 (skilled work) visas! We can fill those jobs with people from overseas!
Yes, you read that right. The man who lavished praise upon the Howard government – the government that systematically cut funding to higher education and levelled an ever-increasing financial burden on tertiary students, while cutting their access to financial assistance – is now complaining of a skills shortage. But the answer isn’t to boost the upskilling of Australians, oh no – we should just import people, and send Australians to be cleaners in Karratha.
Abbott could have announced an incentive program to encourage skilled workers to relocate. We do that with doctors already – why not extend those incentives to other highly skilled professions?
He could have suggested setting up a jobs-matching scheme, to match up job vacancies with suitable candidates. Oh wait, we used to have one of those – it was called the Commonwealth Employment Service. Whatever happened to that? That’s right – the wonderful Howard government privatised it and parcelled its work out to a series of agencies, most of which folded after they were unable to meet Howard’s restrictive funding criteria.
Support is Disempowerment, Compassion is Cruelty, Kindness is Killing
Abbott wound up his speech by telling us all that compassion was a wonderful thing, but we needed to ensure that compassion is not ‘misguided’. Such a mistake, he said, ‘over time, breaks down the social fabric’. His policies would be good for ‘national morale’, and people would feel better about themselves because of these measures.
I’m sure the disabled parent who has to regularly explain to the landlord that they can’t pay the rent on time because their cash flow has been cut in half will feel better.
I’m sure the unemployed engineer who accumulated a huge education debt and now has to work as a grape picker while overseas workers are handed visas and jobs in his field will feel better.
And I’m sure the person forced off disability support because someone arbitrarily decided they were now magically ‘treatable’, and who reads an article about cutting company tax for the wealthiest corporations, will really feel that boost in national morale.
Abbott’s proposals are not ‘kind’. They are not ‘compassionate’. They are not – as they are now hideously being called in the media – ‘tough love’.
These so-called ‘reforms’ are based on Howard-era policies, vilifying the poor and penalising the disabled and unemployed. They’re predicated on the ridiculous notion that anyone who is not working does not want to work, and is therefore a drain on the public purse. Shades of the 1996 federal election and the beat-up by A Current Affair on the Paxton family. They’re designed to make those of us who do work turn on the ‘bludgers’, without a shred of evidence to justify the anger and vilification.
Abbott didn’t provide any incentives. He didn’t propose training, job-matching, rehabilitation, or any form of positive support. And he apparently doesn’t care that his policies, if implemented would force already overstrained charities like the Salvation Army, Anglicare or St Vincent de Paul to try to accommodate the needs of potentially thousands more people whose only crime is to be unemployed or disabled.
Undoubtedly, Abbott’s proposals will be astonishingly popular with News Limited – although we’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s editorials, the glowing praise given by The Australian’s Jennifer Hewett on Sky’s PM Agenda seems a fair indicator of what’s to come. Channel Ten’s 5PM news – describing Abbott’s proposals as a ‘crackdown’ – decided to do a vox pop outside a Centrelink office – presumably so it could catch people handing in their Newstart forms.
In fact, there’s been no media criticism to speak of – at worst, Abbott’s ideas have simply been presented without comment.
But all the Newspeak in the world can’t obscure what Abbott is really saying – that money is more important than people, and that corporations deserve help from the government when the most vulnerable citizens do not.
And that – while neither new, nor unexpected – is an utter disgrace.