Hard hearts and false economy: Disability Support Pension under attack

April 20, 2014

(Full disclosure: I am a recipient of the Disability Support Pension.)

I guess the government thought it was time that disabled people came in for a bit of special attention. After all, it’s already targeted low income earners, benefit recipients, orphan children of veterans and aged pensioners; why not add yet another disadvantaged group into the mix?

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has flagged possible changes to the Disability Support Pension, changes that could begin as soon as the May Budget is delivered. You see, he considers this benefit ‘troublesome’ – not because it indicates that thousands of Australians are in need of income support, special services and excellent health care, but simply because it costs the government a great deal of money. Obviously, therefore, the appropriate action to take is to find a way to boot as many people off the pension as possible.

Andrews wants to start with periodic re-assessment by ‘independent’ doctors. For ‘independent’, read: government-approved. That might only apply to those who have received the pension for under five years, he said, but that ‘might’ is nicely vague, isn’t it? No guarantees here. Never mind that in order to be granted the pension at all, you not only have to provide detailed medical reports from your own doctors, but also be assessed by Centrelink’s. If – and only if – Centrelink is satisfied that your medical condition is severe enough to make it impossible to work for a minimum of 15 hours per work at minimum wage for at least the next two years, and you pass an income and assets test, then you qualify for the pension.

The Centrelink medical interview is harrowing. You are expected to be ready to explain every part of every doctor’s report you have provided, regardless of your own medical knowledge. If what you say conflicts with what’s on the report, you’re grilled as to why. I won’t go so far as to say the interviewer assumes you are not ‘really’ disabled, but that’s certainly the atmosphere. That’s hard enough to take if you suffer from a physical disability – imagine being in chronic pain, possibly taking strong painkillers, in that setting. Now imagine how difficult it can be for those who have long-term mental health problems. Anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia – the list goes on. A stressful interview can be devastating.

And Andrews proposes doing this on a regular basis – possibly as often as every three months. Because, you see, those on the pension receive so much money that it ‘provides a “perverse” incentive to qualify as disabled rather than unemployed’.

Yes, you read that right.

Then there’s Andrews’ other brainwave. Some pensioners – assuming they still qualify under the new re-assessment regime – would be deemed more disabled than others. Those who are ‘less disabled’ would receive less money – and the Disability Support Pension falls well below the minimum wage already. So who decides who qualifies? Centrelink, of course, presumably on the advice of their doctors. And what constitutes ‘more disabled’? What criteria would they have to fulfill? Blindness? Paraplegia? Severe intellectual impairment? Would it be enough to be suffering such crippling anxiety that they couldn’t leave the house? Is chronic pain ‘less’ disabling than depression? Just how disabled is disabled enough?

It’s utterly ludicrous. There’s simply no basis for comparison here. Apples and oranges. Forget comparing mental and physical health problems – just trying to figure out which physical disabilities fell into which category would be a nightmare. It places an incredible burden on not only the people seeking the pension, but also the Centrelink workers and doctors who would have to do the re-assessments, make the decisions and maintain a system already tangled in bureaucratic red tape.

Of course, Andrews says this is all about ‘investment’, and not about forcing people off the pension at all. Odd, then, that he should stress how troublesome he finds its $15 billion annual expenditure. Curious, too, that he should be trying to put into place a two-tiered system that would serve no purpose but to penalise some people for failing to fulfill an entirely arbitrary set of criteria. If it’s not about the money, why is the money so important to him?

The answer is simple. It is all about the money. It’s about a government more preoccupied with achieving a surplus Budget than it is with caring for its most vulnerable citizens. It’s about a Coalition wedded to a political theory that says governments should be as small as possible, regardless of the cost in human terms. And it’s about a Minister who, apparently, has no problem with the idea that his decisions might see thousands forced to try and make do with significantly less – or even nothing at all.

It’s about hard hearts, and false economy. Every dollar ‘saved’ will be a life adversely, possibly dangerously, affected. Increased stress could lead to deteriorating mental health, or even suicide attempts. Less money will lead to more and more dependence on charitable organisations, and they are already warning that they will be unable to cope with current demand. People will be forced to make decisions between medications and medical equipment, food, rent, and utilities. They may end up homeless, mired in debt, or with even more health problems due to poor diet and an inability to avoid therapy. When that happens, the government will find itself footing the bill for the damage it has caused, as people seek help from the public health and housing systems.

Unless, of course, the government decides to do the unthinkable – make people pay for Medicare, bring in restrictive eligibility criteria for public housing, or even sell off part or all of both. Unthinkable, right?

Perish the thought.


Nothing to apologise for, Mr Andrews?

December 22, 2010

Dr Mohammed Haneef is an innocent man. He is an Indian citizen who came to Australia to pursue his medical career – and his life as a medical registrar at Gold Coast Hospital was abruptly shattered in 2007 by a series of events that saw him incarcerated, victimised and demonised. Presiding over that whole affair was then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews.

Three years later, Dr Haneef returned to Australia to seek compensation for loss of wages, the damage to his reputation and the personal suffering he was forced to endure. Today, he reached a settlement with government solicitors – an undisclosed amount, of course, but one with which Haneef seemed very happy.

Talking to the media afterwards, Haneef stated that he would like to visit Australia again to see friends and relatives. He also said he would consider seeking re-employment at Gold Coast Hospital. In light of what he went through, that is truly remarkable.

Inevitably, the question arose within the commentariat: should Kevin Andrews apologise for Dr Haneef’s treatment? Tim Smith, Councillor for the City of Stonnington, seemed outraged at the very idea. Kevin Andrews is an honourable man, he protested. He had some bad advice, but he did what he thought was right. There is literally nothing for which an apology is due.

Nothing to apologise for?

Let’s set the Wayback Machine for July 2, 2007, and see.

First the Federal Police arrest Dr Mohamed Haneef as he was leaving the country to return to India to visit his wife and newborn daughter.

They hold him for over 200 hours before finally charging him with giving his mobile SIM card to a cousin who allegedly blew up a car at Glasgow Airport. The card, of course, was recovered from the wreck. This is, mind you, not an intentional support of terrorism, but a ‘reckless act’ … whatever that means. It’s also, it seems, suspicious that Dr Haneef only bought a one-way ticket.

Then the Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, revokes Haneef’s visa on ‘character’ grounds, i.e. that he associates with known terrorists. This, of course, refers to his cousin. Never mind that the British authorities have decided, by this time, that said cousin is not only not a known terrorist, he’s not even a suspected terrorist. Such details are unimportant, apparently – and Haneef is headed for a detention centre pending deportation – mind you, booting him out of the country will come after they’ve convicted him.

As the farce grinds on, whoops! The AFP realise that the SIM Card of Doom was not found in the wreck at Glasgow Airport, but seized in evidence from Liverpool – 300 km away. They also realise that a particular piece of evidence used to make the initial allegations is, in fact, nothing of the kind. This ‘evidence’ is supposedly Haneef’s diary, which he consistently denies as being anything to do with him. In fact, the Australian police were presenting their own notes to the doctor, and insisting that he explain them. Of course, he can’t.

Enter the Director of Public Prosecutions. He steps in to check out everything, and lo and behold! – suddenly Haneef is released on July 27. Amazingly, there is no evidence to link Haneef with terrorist groups, evil SIM cards or, indeed, Osama bin Ladin (who, I’m sure, would have made an appearance eventually). That should be the end of it, but instead Haneef heads off to home detention. Because his visa’s still revoked, and Andrews isn’t budging on his ‘character’ judgment – lack of evidence notwithstanding. Apparently, an Immigration Minister is blessed with a preternatural ability to see the Evil That Men Do – or Think. Andrews also hints darkly that he has a secret dossier.

Over a year later, the AFP finally clear Haneef’s name and return his passport – but not his work visa. The good doctor decides he’s had enough. He’s been systematically victimised, had his character publicly assassinated, and has a long fight on his hands just to be allowed to stay in the very country that’s screwed him over so royally. To no one’s surprise, he gets on a plane to India and his family, where he’s welcomed with flowers and cheers.

Oh wait – one person’s surprised. Kevin ‘I Know Something You Don’t Know’ Andrews. He, apparently, thinks it’s suspicious that Haneef would want to turn his back on Australia and all those highly dubious laws that make it permissible to drag a doctor off the ward and into indefinite detention, kick him out of the country and publicly defame him – for no good reason. Andrews, apparently, still has information that will justify his outrageously draconian actions – and if we’re very good little boys and girls, he might just condescend to show us.

Even if we do get to see this damning information that even the Brits don’t have (or else they would never have released Haneef’s cousin), it’s unlikely that anything in that dossier can even begin to justify what was done to Dr Haneef in the name of ‘protecting Australia from terrorism’. Our government and law enforcement overreacted massively and came close to destroying a man’s life. Certainly, they destroyed his career, and his faith in justice.

But wait …

Kevin ‘Sees All, Knows All’ Andrews, surprise, surprise, suddenly says that it might not be possible to release the dossier after all. If he does, it might jeopardise an ‘ongoing investigation’ being undertaken by both Australian and British law enforcement.

Hang on, didn’t the Federal court establish that there was no connection between Haneef and any terrorist-related activities or groups? And didn’t the British already say they had no interest in Haneef’s cousin (remember him, the one with the cursed SIM card)?

It’s likely that the only thing releasing this ‘dossier’ would jeopardise is Mr. Andrews’ job. It would show everyone just how baseless his actions were, how flawed and prejudiced the investigation was, and how he manipulated a disgusting piece of legislative xenophobia – possibly for no other reason to satisfy his own sense of pique at being thwarted by the courts.

The Clarke Inquiry of 2008 concludes that the case against Haneef is ‘completely deficient’. It stops short of calling for Andrews’ resignation, however. In fact, it pretty much lets him off the hook altogether, stating that Andrews probably acted out of a genuine belief that Haneef had terrorist connections. There’s a faint whiff of criticism in the Inquiry’s report directed at Andrew’s failure to analyse all the information provided, but even then, Clarke is only ‘puzzled’.

So, back in 2010 …

Does Kevin Andrews need to apologise?

Why is this a question that even needs to be asked?

Andrews not only refuses to apologise, but commented publicly today that no legal action taken by Haneef would ever have succeeded had it come to court. The government, apparently, will issue an apology, which is commendable. Those who really need to front up, however – Andrews, former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and former Prime Minister John Howard – have no intention of doing so.

This quasi-mythical dossier should be released – because what we have is a paraphrased extract of a chat room conversation between Haneef and his brother that talks about Haneef’s newborn daughter and his planned trip to India. There has never been even one piece of evidence that might suggest Haneef is a terrorist or associates with them. Yet, on the basis of a Minister’s say-so, he was treated as though his guilt was not merely likely, but already proved beyond any doubt.

Andrews, Ruddock and Howard avoided having to answer the hard questions in 2008. In 2010, they should be compelled to do so. They should also be compelled to apologise publicly to Dr Haneef and his family, and that apology should be broadcast.

Instead it seems that – yet again – the only apology that will ever come out of the Howard years is one delivered by others.

Euthanasia and territory rights

September 20, 2010

Senator Bob Brown doesn’t waste any time. Before the new Parliament even gets to the doors, he’s signalled that he intends to introduce a private members’ bill aimed squarely at one of the most divisive issues in Australian social politics – euthanasia.

In 1996 the Northern Territory passed legislation decriminalising voluntary euthanasia – that is, a situation in which someone takes their own life in order to avoid protracted terminal suffering. Nine months later, the Howard government introduced and passed a bill to override those laws, exploiting the fact that, under Australia’s peculiar system, none of its Territories enjoy the same level of autonomy as the states. Although both the NT and the Australian Capital Territory have Self-Government legislation, in reality a Federal government can change or deny the provisions of those Acts.

Brown considers this an unconscionable interference, and wants to take steps to ensure that the NT can make its own laws in respect of end-of-life issues. Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled that she would allow a conscience vote on the matter.

Conscience votes are serious stuff. For most bills, the party cabinets decide how their members as a whole will vote, and members must be bound by that – the infamous ‘party line’. (The notable exception was the Australian Democrats – all sitting members participated in deliberations to determine how they would vote.) Should someone vote against the declared stance, they are said to ‘cross the floor’; literally, they leave their seat and move to the other side of the chamber during vote counting. If a conscience vote is declared, however, no direction is given, freeing members to vote according to their individual beliefs. The exception to this is if a party has already declared a position on the issue at hand – for example, ALP members are not free to vote their consciences on abortion-related legislation, due to the party’s declared support for reproductive choice.

Historically, conscience votes tend to concern highly controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, same-sex relationships, family law, war crimes, and certain areas of parliamentary procedure. Debate often gets tangled up with issues of religion and bio-ethics. Unlike most legislation, the outcome of a conscience vote is almost impossible to predict.

This is a huge risk for Gillard. Critics are already spinning her announcement as ‘proof’ that the Labor minority government is ‘held hostage’ by the Greens. If Brown’s bill passes, those voices may well be joined by those who believe euthanasia is morally and legally wrong.

Brown’s bill, in itself, does not call for legislation of euthanasia. It’s targeted at federal legislation. Should the bill pass, the NT would be free to re-introduce the issue in its own Parliament – but it would not be compelled to do so.

There’s a wider issue at work here, though. More generally, Brown is zeroing in on the federal government’s power to run roughshod over the territories’ right to self-government. In doing so, he puts the Labor government in an uncomfortable position. Issues of same-sex civil unions have already caused a good of deal of wrangling between the Australian Capital Territory and the federal government, with territory legislation repeatedly overturned or blocked, and the Legislative Assembly subjected to what can only be described as federal intimidation. The so-called ‘Northern Territory Intervention’, in which territory laws relating to indigenous peoples were overwritten by federal legislation, is another point of contention.

There are plenty of complex legal issues at work here. Technically, the federal government does have the right to these kinds of actions, although the justifications used often skate right up to the edge of legal trickery. Additionally, there are moral considerations. Should the federal government be able to repeal a law passed by a territory government simply because it doesn’t like it? Doesn’t this simply disenfranchise the citizens of that territory, a majority of whom voted for their direct representatives?

And in the case of the Northern Territory, are there really any good reasons for it to remain a second-class citizen? Why not grant states’ rights? The ACT is in a different situation – after all, it was specifically created to be a national capital, beholden to no particular state – but no such justification exists for the Northern Territory.

The issue of territory sovereignty, linked to the fraught question of legal voluntary euthanasia via this proposed bill, creates a potential minefield for Parliamentarians. Allowing a conscience vote puts increased pressure on members. There are two distinct areas of concern here, and there’s no guarantee that a member who supports territory rights would also be in favour of voluntary euthanasia. Or vice-versa.

Perhaps this is why Tony Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, are doing the media rounds right now attacking Brown’s bill. They’re not criticising the idea of euthanasia – in fact, one could say they are carefully not doing so. Instead, their strategy aims to paint Brown as politically naive, and out of touch with the ‘real’ concerns of Australian people. Abbott made several references over the last two days to ‘bread and butter’ economic issues, which he says are far more important than repealing the ban on the NT’s legislation. This is a curious tactic to employ, given how emotionally charged the whole question of euthanasia becomes at the drop of a hat. It’s as though the Coalition want to keep this as far from their Shadow Cabinet as possible.

Kevin Andrews, the original sponsor of the bill overturning the NT’s laws, appears to be designated as the person who’ll fight this bill on its merits. People ‘don’t want’ euthanasia legislation, he claims. ‘Every attempt’ to introduce it at state level has failed. Of course, here he’s being disingenuous. Strictly speaking, he’s not saying anything that isn’t true – he’s just not mentioning that a territory did pass the legislation and was prevented from implementing it.

What no one in the Coalition wants to do, it appears, is tackle the question of territory rights. By attempting to restrict the issue entirely to euthanasia, and further undermine its importance by implying that is frivolous, the Coalition seems to be hoping that they can avoid the thornier question. If they can’t, they’re damned either way. They’ll be forced to either defend or repudiate the Howard government’s interference. If they defend it, they look like autocrats – and they’re dragged into the general euthanasia question. If they repudiate it, the euthanasia question again becomes relevant, and in addition they leave themselves open to attack on every instance of intervention.

Brown’s certainly right in saying that territory rights are at stake here. In choosing the test case of the euthanasia laws, however, the Greens may have undermined themselves. If either issue dominates, it’s very possible that the bill will fail – not on its merits, but simply because the two issues have eroded rather than bolstered support for each other.

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