Above: Tony Abbott trying out his new Welfare measures with his Advisers.
You want to talk policy?
Tony Abbott doesn’t.
What I really want to talk about now is a future Abbott government’s Welfare Policy (and may it never come to pass – please the Lord).
So, to begin, let’s start with the ecumenical Abbott’s concise and direct, though light on detail, statement about his Welfare Policy:
“I believe in an Active Welfare Policy, not a Passive Welfare Policy”.
So let’s try and unpack that tightly-scripted and opaque line to try and get a handle on what lies ahead for the citizens of this country from a putative Abbott government; and who may be, at some time in their lives, requiring a Social Security safety net to catch them when they need it.
To begin with, I think we can safely say, as a result of the cross-pollination between Abbott’s Conservatives, Cameron’s Tories in the UK, and the ultra-ascetic Tea Party Conservatives presently having an overweening influence on the Republican Party in the United States, that there’s a commonality of purpose and policy between them all. We can see the evidence of this by the trips back and forth to the UK and the US by Coalition leaders and MPs.
We have seen Joe Hockey go to London to give his “End of the Age of Entitlement” speech at the UK equivalent of the IPA, The Institute of Economic Affairs, the Tory Think Tank that Margaret Thatcher regularly tapped for her economics ideology and ideas.
Unsurprisingly, Hockey’s speech was received with much acclaim by the IEA, and the IPA in Australia, as it thematically paralleled their own agenda, as we have seen recently exposed via the IPA’s wish list presented to Tony Abbott.
Now, presumably, due to the fact that our Shadow Treasurer went to the UK to give a major thematic speech about welfare policy philosophy abroad in the Australian Federal Coalition, I think that I would be on pretty solid ground assuming a degree of heterogeneity between the Welfare changes that David Cameron has ushered in in the UK and those that Tony Abbott and the Coalition have in mind to implement here, notwithstanding the fundamental structural differences in the two country’s systems.
Of course, what we’re waiting for in this country is for a truly courageous and persistent journalist to ask Mr Abbott what he means by an “Active Welfare System”. However, until such time as he gets asked and then truthfully answers that question, we’ll just have to assume that it will operate along similar lines to those changes that have been enacted to the system in Britain. Also, as if that wasn’t enough, it appears that we will have a parallel track that borrows from the Asian “Filial Piety” model.
Therefore I am going to attempt to give you an outline of what both of those concepts means in reality so that you might be able to grasp a handle on a policy that dare not speak its name in Australia beyond the pithy blandishments of the Leader of the Opposition.
Will we see debasement and abuse of the poor, the disabled and the downtrodden accompanying these measures, in order to harden the hearts of the populace enough to agree to them? Will those on the lowest rungs of our society again be used for the sport of the wealthy, the fit and healthy, and their mindless troops in the Manual Labour and Tradesmen class, as John Howard did? Will they employ a similar frame to Cameron who has lumped the nation into two camps, “Strivers v. Shirkers”?
What I do know is that what all Conservatives have in common is an ideological zeal that is directed towards dismantling, to as large an extent as they can get away with, the post World War 2 social safety net for the most disadvantaged in their societies. Not vote buying exercises for the middle class or tax loophole closures for business or the economic elite, but a rending of the net that provides dignity for our society’s most disadvantaged. So as to give more money back to those that already have more than enough for a comfortable life.
So, firstly, let’s look at Hockey’s desire to imprint the Asian concept of “Filial Piety” onto Australia’s Social Security fabric.
For an elucidation of this I am grateful to Dr Verity Archer, who is a lecturer in politics and public policy at Deakin University, in an article she wrote for The Drum Online Opinion site on 18 May 2012, a month after Hockey gave the speech in London in April.
In it she makes what should be the obvious point: that this Asian practice puts most of the burden for carrying it out onto the shoulders of working age women:
Filial piety essentially boils down to families looking after their own, without government assistance. This means that women do most of the heavy lifting.
However, Dr Archer provides evidence from South Korea that such a policy also has what would be a financial plus for a Treasurer Hockey slashing and burning programs and Australians themselves metaphorically as he cuts a $70 billion swathe through the Budget:
As for supporting the elderly and the women who care for them, there wasn’t much of that either. Despite the aging population in South Korea, there were few government services for the elderly…Little was available in the way of domiciliary social services, community care, or housing. In a Confucian Welfare State it is assumed female kin will provide the social services that government doesn’t provide.
Now, are you beginning to see why Joe Hockey doesn’t actually mind being seen with a $70 billion Budget hole to fill? He is actually relishing the licence it will give him to cut into the Budget and its social safety net programs. And cut hard. Just like Campbell Newman in Queensland most especially, but of a piece with all the Coalition State Governments already well down this track – who equate a budget surplus with sound economic management.
Just imagine what a federal government overlaid upon all this would be like!
Finally, let’s take a stroll down Abbott Avenue, UK, to see what a National Government embarking upon an “Active Welfare System” looks like.
In Britain, the Cameron Conservative government have introduced a “Work Capability Assessment” and hired an outside the government company, Atos, to do the assessment of every Disability Payment recipient to decide whether they are “fit to work” or not.
What we generally know about these situations, is that the contracted company usually have KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), or targets, built into their contracts, or else why hire them to do a job whose ultimate aim is to get people off benefits and save the Budget money?
I imagine a similar system will be instituted here by an Abbott government in order to weed out the ‘shonks’ with ‘bad backs’ from our own Disability Pension recipient group. However, will the reality be similar to that of Britain, where, in this story in The Huffington Post UK, Shadow Minister for Media and Member for Bishop Auckland, Helen Goodman, reported:
The stories of my constituents paint a terrible picture. One man, a double-leg amputee, was told to undertake an 80-mile round trip for his Work Capability Assessment. Another, who was treated for cancer in July 2010, was deemed fit for work before the results of his operation came through. And a district nurse, who has broken her back, has been told that she too is deemed fit to work. These are just a handful of the stories myself and my colleagues are now seeing every week.
Will we see criteria similar to this used by an Abbott government to transition people out of “Passive Welfare” and into “Actively” looking for work while they are on a government payment?
Currently the Atos administered Work Capability Assessments are wildly unrealistic, demeaning and unfair. Here are just a few examples from the written guidance. “A person who cannot mount or descend two steps” is deemed capable to work. “A person who cannot use a pencil or pen to make a meaningful mark” is deemed capable to work. “A person who is unable to navigate around unfamiliar surroundings, without being accompanied by another person, due to sensory impairment” is deemed capable to work.
Also supposedly fit for work is someone who “cannot learn anything beyond a simple task, such as setting an alarm clock”, or whose “reduced awareness of everyday hazards leads to a significant risk of… injury to self or others… such that they frequently require supervision.”
Such that, as a consequence: ‘It’s patently obvious that in today’s climate these individuals will not find a job, in fact in many cases they will slip off benefits all together. This will solve a problem for the Tories, who will be able to claim they’ve reduced the benefits bill. But it will leave many vulnerable people destitute. Some will end up on the streets.”
Yet the Tories outdid themselves even so after all this meanness. In April they legislated for a £2.5 billion tax cut for the richest Brits.
Hasn’t Tony Abbott already promised Gina Reinhart and the ANDEV cabal virtual tax free status, a tax cut by another name, so that they can have their way with the North of our country? You can guarantee the pound of flesh to pay for the development infrastructure for ANDEV, such as dams and roads, will come out of the Budget Savings from other areas.
I don’t think the money will come from slashing middle class welfare.
Only a sick individual would take the money from the most deserving and give it to the least deserving.