Sham Debate: Charade Of “Live On Newstart” Discussion Masks Need For Reform

This week has seen one of the most inane and pointless “debates” of recent times in Australian politics: can you live on Newstart, the $38 per day jobseeker benefit? Of course not. Yet again, a meaningless fracas has wasted the opportunity for sensible discussion of an increasingly urgent issue.

I really should be taking the opportunity to score a partisan free hit, and to blame Families minister Jenny Macklin for skipping away from a diversion she created.

After all, it was she — at a press conference on the issue of taking single mothers off the parenting payment when their youngest child turns eight, and placing them instead on the significantly lower Newstart allowance — who started the rot, firstly by claiming she could live off Newstart, and secondly on account of the doctored transcript, issued by her office, which sought to edit her dubious claim out of existence.

But I won’t; readers know that I believe far too much money is spent on welfare in this country, and that much of what is spent is misdirected, and so Macklin’s comments should at least receive credit for potentially opening a very necessary can of worms.

Even so, it’s unlikely to result in a serious debate among parliamentarians, and that — yet again — it a triumph of the politics of spin, stunts and slogans over the real business of what we elect governments to do.

Clearly, it is not realistic to expect people to be able to live on $38 per day.

Just look at the modern world around us: the cost of housing, which has ballooned in the past 10 years; the cost of utilities and transport, which have rocketed well beyond any remotely realistic measure of increase in the cost of living; add in costs of running and maintaining a vehicle, food and clothing, and healthcare, and Newstart — the dole — is so ridiculously inadequate that anyone with real-world obligations who finds themselves in need of it may as well declare bankruptcy and engineer their eviction from their homes.

The fraught issue of welfare — or, more specifically, the overall excess of it coupled with the problem of more effectively targeting it — has long been a bugbear of mine, and it annoys me greatly that, once again, a series of stupid stunts are likely to kill off any meaningful attempt to deal with it.

First things first — the week’s unedifying and, frankly, obscene events on the issue.

I actually welcome the initiative to move single mothers off parenting payments once their youngest child turns eight — with a couple of qualifications.

I understand that some women find themselves on the single mothers’ pension through no fault of their own; marriages (or relationships) that end, sometimes involving a violent or otherwise abusive man who also happens to be the breadwinner, leave women in such circumstances not just in dire need of financial assistance, but also well-deserving of it.

It is just such women for whom I feel great sympathy for, and for whom the changes taking effect in their welfare payments will inflict a disproportionate and undeserved hit.

But others, who simply walk out of marriages (or relationships) because they have simply become bland and loveless, or no fun any more, or to evade financial responsibilities or because they want to run off with a new partner, are a different kettle of fish.

And a third group, obviously, are those serial single mothers with a string of illegitimate children, sometimes born to a string of different fathers, who opt to eke a living out of a career of having children and pocketing taxpayer money.

Are these three groups the same?

One thing I feel compelled to point out is that we shouldn’t be shying away from discussing such issues; just because the Prime Minister is playing the gender card like crazy and seeking to demonise anyone who disagrees with her (or her government) wherever a link, real or imagined, to “misogyny” can be claimed, does not mean these matters should be tiptoed around or quarantined from discussion.

But by the same token, Australia’s welfare system, as it stands, is predicated on a basis of lowest common denominator, one-size-fits-all assumptions, and if the assumption being applied is that women should be able to get a job once their youngest child is at school, it at least should be trialled, evaluated, and refined or later abandoned if proven unworkable.

In that sense, I have no problem with moving women in such circumstances off a far more generous welfare benefit — paid by working taxpayers — as an incentive to look for work.

But the initiative has been trivialised this week; Macklin’s remark that she could live off the dole — deemed “inaudible” in the official transcript issued by her staff — is not only an insult to those affected by the very measure she was talking about, but has been allowed to hijack “debate” that might otherwise have been beneficial.

Communist Party Greens MP Adam Bandt, frankly, should have had more brains than to claim he could live off the dole; further, his promise to do so for a week is one of the emptiest and more offensive attempts of recent times by an MP to put himself in the shoes of a particular interest group: Bandt’s parliamentary salary is available both before and after such a “trial” and simply renders the exercise pointless.

Julia Gillard, of course, refused to be drawn; in one way a sensible approach, but in another perhaps inadvisable given the sidestep of a women’s issue it represented.

But whether we’re talking about single mothers, or debating the merits of whether on an individual basis they are deserving or undeserving, or whether it’s even possible at all to live off what  a welfare payment delivers, there’s a bigger issue.

Simply, is Australia’s welfare system doing what it is intended to do?

Are we as a country — literally — getting value for the money we’re paying?

I don’t think so.

I have been on the record previously as stating that were it possible to weed the bludgers out — and there are many of them — the remaining, needy people could and should be paid more. It’s a position I stand by.

But, as ever, the devil is in the detail. How do you weed the bludgers out?

Certainly, it isn’t going to happen in a system based on lowest common denominator assumptions and fixed criteria that utterly ignore the personal circumstances of a given individual.

Age pensioners, obviously, deserve their money; again, were it affordable, I think they should be paid more.

Likewise disability and illness recipients who are assessed as being totally and permanently incapacitated — that, too, is a no-brainer.

But for most of the remainder of what is spent on welfare payments, a huge grey area exists.

And — at the outset — it has to be emphasised that a welfare payment has, in fact, been paid for by someone: be it a portion of the profits of business, or the taxation paid by other individuals on their income, people who have worked hard to generate wealth and income are the only reason such payments even exist.

There are those who believe it’s “government money” — ultimately, there is no such thing.

If we use the single mother scenario as an example, there is a clear difference between the woman on the run from a violent partner, with few if any skills, and the woman content to live off free payments until they eventually, some day, run out.

Or between the single mother with multiple young children whose time must clearly be spent in the home, and the woman whose children are all at school, who left the workforce to have children, and whose only real justification for doing no work is that she must be available at home at all times on the off-chance something happens with her kids at school.

These are different situations; why should the “solution” be uniform?

Or, looking to a scenario based on unemployment benefits rather than parenting payments, there is a major difference between someone with a family, obligations totalling perhaps thousands of dollars each month and great difficulty finding new work, and some bludger who has plenty to offer in employment but who opts to live in public housing, receiving every type of low-income assistance available, and is one individual who actually can live off the miserly stipend the dole represents.

And what of households in which one partner works part-time whilst the other, primary income-earning partner has lost their job; their savings exhausted and no employment being forthcoming despite frantic attempts to secure same, Newstart isn’t payable because the part-timer brings a few hundred after-tax dollars in each week, and the household faces bankruptcy and eviction as it collapses under the weight of its financial obligations?

Who are we kidding here?

And before anyone talks about pie-in-the-sky initiatives such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme — such as it is — it needs to be remembered that that actually needs taxpayer funding as well.

Perhaps one way to talk about moving ahead with welfare reform is to get case workers to do precisely that: actually evaluate cases based on the circumstances of the individual, rather than against some set criteria that don’t even reflect reality, let alone provide any assistance in any truly meaningful sense.

It might be that — parenting payments aside — a time-limited system based on, say, the minimum wage (several times the present rate of Newstart) provides a solution, whereby benefits are paid at a higher rate that more closely reflects the circumstances of the recipient, but which cut out after, say, six months.

The point is that this is a complex issue; there are no easy answers and, indeed, none of any value forthcoming from the present government.

The Coalition at least appears to be tossing around a plan to increase the amount dole recipients can earn before they start losing money from their welfare payments, but this is only marginally better than what is presently in place.

I don’t have the answers, of course, but I do believe that even on the handful of scenarios canvassed here, it’s obvious that drastic reform of Australia’s regime of welfare payments is urgently and critically overdue.

Rather than simply tinker with the existing reality, it may well be that the whole thing needs to be turned on its head and started again; reformed in such a way that genuinely needy people get real help, and that those simply with their hands out are given short shrift.

But the one thing I’m certain of is that half-arsed stunts about living off $38 per day and semantic squabbles over who said what will achieve nothing, and should be viewed as an indictment of whichever elected representative/s, of whichever political stripe, think it’s a good idea to engage in them.

What are your thoughts?