Aug 1, 2014

Welfare recipients aren’t bludgers, and they deserve respect from Joe Hockey – Opinion – The Guardian

The search for a scapegoat, according to former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.

As we learn more about the political narrative of the Abbott government, I worry that Tony Abbott’s zeal to appear tough is causing him to hunt those with the least power to defend themselves – pensioners and the unemployed.

I’m losing count of this government’s attacks on people in receipt of a government benefit. Disability pensioners are being targeted regularly, with newspaper reports creating anxiety that they will be cast aside. At the same time the government is cutting health funding, something of critical interest to people with disabilities or chronic illness.

Unemployed people are told they have to fill out 40 job applications a month or lose the dole. At the same time the government has reduced spending on training. Programmes like Youth Connections, that enabled disadvantaged young people to move through education to work, have been cut. Cuts to apprenticeship support are short-sighted and cost not just individuals; but the economy as a whole. A skilled workforce is a productive workforce.

I’m sick of hearing Joe Hockey beat his chest and declare the end of “the age of entitlement’’. It’s a term that comes with the unspoken suggestion that recipients of government assistance are somehow conniving to receive something to which they are not entitled.

The introduction of this type of scapegoat terminology – designed to malign all welfare recipients – has encouraged tabloid newspapers and radio shock jocks to resort to terms like “bludgers’’ and “rorters’’.

The truth is that most welfare recipients are not bludgers but honest people doing their best in difficult circumstances. It’s time for a more serious debate on welfare – one that goes beyond dog whistling and demonisation of the poor.

As a society, we owe it to ourselves to help people work if they can. There is dignity in work, as well as empowerment. Higher workforce participation reduces the call on the public purse and also generates greater economic growth – a benefit to the entire nation.

However, we need to abandon the ugly rhetoric and start from the proposition that there are people who aren’t in the workforce through no fault of their own. If we put aside politics for just a moment, most people would accept that our shared values of decency demand that people down on their luck receive support rather than vilification.

Maybe their marriage broke down and they are struggling to raise children alone. Maybe they are sick and genuinely unable to work. Maybe they have a mental illness. Maybe they are homeless. Perhaps they are over 50 years of age and have been made redundant and are unable to find anyone who will give them a shot at a second career.

Whatever their circumstances, people receiving welfare deserve neither disrespect, nor this government’s transparent attempts to punish them for their misfortune, with ever more tests to maintain their payments.

Hundreds of people in my electorate in Sydney’s inner west are on disability pensions because they are literally unable to work. Many sole parents would love to work but their circumstances and their responsibility to raise their children make work difficult. Such people endure a daily struggle to overcome their circumstances and raise their children to become educated so they can escape the poverty trap.

That’s something to be applauded. Instead, the current rhetoric of the government tries to make people feel as though they’re lazy or burdensome. That’s just not fair. It is completely disrespectful. The approach of the current government appears to be punitive, rather than helpful. The very last thing elected representatives should do is encourage working Australians to treat welfare recipients with suspicion or hatred.

The former Labor government faced the same issues about the structure of the workforce as those being grappled with now by Abbott. Sometimes Labor got it wrong – such as with the extension of the Howard government’s changes moving more single parents onto the Newstart program.

Entrenched unemployment and welfare dependence are very difficult to address in a policy sense. Labor’s starting point was and remains that people who are disadvantaged need help, not character analysis from politicians looking for headlines.

The role of government in this area is to provide opportunity through better education and training options, and ensure jobs are available through economic growth. Yet the Abbott government seems unable to discuss these issues without treating such people as cannon fodder in its rhetorical war against any and all government spending.

Earlier in the year Hockey, anxious to demonstrate his desire to end the age of entitlement, complained that some single mothers could access up to $55,000 a year in benefits. As it turned out, the Department of Human Services refused to endorse the figure.

In any event, one of the benefits the treasurer used to reach this figure was the jobs education and training child care fee assistance, worth up to $15,120 and designed to help single parents access child care while they attend university to make themselves employable.

Hockey wants to have it both ways. He wants to attack single mums for being unemployed and then attack them again if they dare to access government benefits designed to make them employable. His unspoken message to these parents is that they should feel bad about trying to improve their circumstances.

The treasurer seems to be more interested in promoting resentment of single mothers than in actually helping them into the workforce. Elected representatives need to understand that whenever they attack pension recipients in the hope that this will jolt them into the workforce, their comments have the reverse effect.

Being told indirectly that you are a lazy piece of scum malingering on the public purse does little to improve a person’s confidence, so important to attaining employment. No-one deserves to feel attacked in this way. As another former US President, Bill Clinton once said: “‘We’re all in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own’.”

This article was originally published by The Guardian Australia.