Wherever you go in the world, there are people trying to demonise welfare recipients.
In Australia, it has been ‘lifters versus leaners’ or the ‘taxed versus the taxed-nots’. In the United Kingdom it was the ‘strivers versus skivers’. In the United States it’s the ‘47 per cent who are dependent on government’ versus the hardworking 53 per cent.
The colloquialism may be different, but the objective is always the same: to divide the community. The goal of these sayings is to create an ‘us versus them’ mentality; to split people into those who are worthy and those who are not. The aim is as simple as it is crass: to peddle the same old false stereotypes in the hope of winning a few more populist votes.
But for the Turnbull Government, the chickens have come home to roost. After years of whipping up fear and hatred over the alleged armada of dole bludgers across Australia, the Government is grappling with the fact that their scare campaign has leaned into a harsh reality.
Just look at some of the tabloid headlines over the last 12 months: ‘Welfare con job: Aussies reject job offers to stay on benefits’, or ‘Bludgers on welfare get a Centrelink free pass’, or ‘Government’s tough new measures to strip bludgers of welfare payments’ or ‘Welfare is like heroin – time to cut the supply’.
No surprises where these stories originate from: the Turnbull Government’s media unit.
Having whipped up a fear campaign, the Turnbull Government repeatedly promises to deliver significant new budget savings, through yet another ‘crackdown’ on ‘welfare cheats’. In the 2015 and 2016 budgets, they promised savings of nearly $6 billion. At the 2016 election, they promised to deliver nearly $2 billion more, with Social Services Minister Christian Porter boasting that ‘we are now able to cross match in a very sophisticated and quick way’.
The result? The government’s robo-debt debacle: where Centrelink clients’ fortnightly income disclosures are compared with their yearly tax returns to determine the magic number the government thinks they should have been paid.
Using computers to carry out checks is nothing new. What changed was the decision to take human oversight out of the system.
Over recent months, thousands of letters are being sent to disadvantaged Australians, sometimes suggesting they have defrauded the government out of tens of thousands of dollars. In one case, a 67 year-old pensioner had her payments cut off after she was accused of owing $36,000. In fact, she owed the government nothing. The system is so geared towards the presumption of guilt that an Australian of the Year finalist was slugged with a false debt of $8,000.
The Turnbull government isn’t just running a populist rhetorical campaign; it has bought into its own myth.
It’s not the welfare system that lacks integrity. It’s the Government. And yet they’re at it again, with the latest tabloid headlines promising that the 2017 budget will contain ‘tough new measures to strip bludgers of welfare payments’.
The Government’s inability to balance the budget on the back of welfare fraud should not come as a surprise. The Australian social security system is the most efficient in the world. Per dollar spent, no country’s welfare system does more to reduce inequality.
As the Australian National University’s Peter Whiteford has shown, this didn’t happen by accident. Our pension has both an income test and an assets test. Unemployment benefits are set at the same level regardless of how much you were earning when you lost your job. In most advanced countries, the majority of cash payments are untargeted. In Australia, three-quarters of our cash payments to welfare recipients are targeted.
For all the rhetoric about ‘leaners versus lifters’, Australia’s welfare system looks a lot more like a piggy bank than a conveyor belt. When times are good, we put money in. When we find ourselves jobless, homeless, or with a disability, government protects us from poverty. In any given year, only two in ten working age people get welfare. But if you look over a 15-year period, around seven in ten people spend time in a household that gets welfare. That’s social insurance in action.
On the Labor side of politics, we’re always up for a conversation on how to improve the safety net. It was people like Bill Shorten and Jenny Macklin who argued in government for scrapping the Baby Bonus, creating the National Disability Insurance Scheme, phasing out the Dependent Spouse Tax Offset, and raising the full-rate pension.
But what Labor won’t do is peddle fiction. As the poet, writer and historian Bill Copeland once said: ‘when you stretch the truth, watch out for the snapback’.
Let’s hope the Government heeds the advice and stops attacking disadvantaged Australians.
Linda Burney is the Shadow Minister for Human Services. Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer.