From the Department of If the unemployed are dole bludgers, what the fuck are the idle rich? comes…
Toby Hall, CEO of Mission Australia (MA), thinks it’s ‘Time for fresh thoughts on welfare reform’. Precisely what prompted Toby to call for a re-think is unclear. Presumably, it’s because we have a new government — and new governments demand new ideas, and new visions.
At the very least, they provide new business opportunities.
Toby begins his stirring call-to-alms by noting that it’s eleven years since the last major report into reforming Australia’s welfare system. The reminder is entirely apposite, for although Tony fails to mention it, it was MA’s previous CEO who gave his name to this report (produced by the HoWARd government’s Reference Group on Welfare Reform, chaired by Patrick McClure). Toby describes ‘The McClure Report’ as having provided an opportunity for a radical overhaul of a broken system, one which was — sadly — missed.
Toby was appointed to the role of CEO at MA in July, 2006; prior to this, he was Chief Operating Officer @ World Vision Australia. Toby took over the role of CEO from Patrick McClure. Appointed to the position in 1997, in 2003, McClure boasted that “When I came to Mission Australia, the budget was relatively small at only $40 million; now it’s $160 million”. When McClure left, the annual budget had increased to $250 million. MA’s annual budget for 2008/9 was over $308 million — of which almost 90% was derived from sucking on the Government teat. (By way of contrast, total revenue for The Salvation Army for the same period was $295.3 million, of which approximately half was derived from the corporate nanny state.)
MA’s expanding budget has been made possible by the continued privatisation of government services (especially in the housing and employment sectors), of which MA — along with other Christian charities/businesses such as The Salvation Army — have been massive beneficiaries. Further, in 2009, MA — the tax-exempt business, inspired by Christian values — answered the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ by buying a failed national childcare centre network. Thus in December 2009, GoodStart, a consortium of businesses/charities including Mission Australia and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, bought ABC Learning. The purchase was assisted by tens of millions of dollars in corporate welfare payments.
The Government will be forking out more money, a $15 million loan, to help the GoodStart consortium fund the acquisition while NAB is also providing new funding.
This is on top of the $58 million allocated by the Government to keep the unprofitable centres – which were sold earlier this year – afloat.
The Government has set aside another $50 million to pay redundancies, and other entitlements, owed to former ABC Learning employees.
The acquisition of ABC Learning by the consortium of Australian charities/businesses was further investigated by Adele Horin in ‘Racing to the rescue’ (The Age, May 15, 2010):
It was an audacious bid aimed at forging a bold new direction in childcare. Adele Horin recounts how a group of charities pulled off the deal of the decade to buy ABC Learning.
Toby (Profile: Toby Hall, Lucinda Schmidt, The Age, October 10, 2007) last sat down to a big fat slice of the Government cake when the KRudd Government replaced the HoWARd Government’s ‘Job Network’ with ‘Job Services Australia’.
What Toby’s analysis boils down to is a call for Government to support the enactment by MA of stricter disciplinary measures upon its clients. In brief, the suspension of their welfare payments should they fail to meet the corporation’s ‘activity tests’. In prosaic terms, Toby is asking for a bigger stick with which to beat the unemployed. From MA’s perspective, this makes good business sense; it also constitutes a further re-alignment of the provision of state welfare along business lines. It’s in this context that what prompted Toby to mash his keyboard becomes clearer:
Recently Mission Australia was asked to report on our experiences of job seekers complying with their obligations to look for work while receiving income support.
These obligations are known as a job seeker’s ‘activity test’.
Our frontline staff told us that a significant number of job seekers were using multiple occurrences of illness as a reason for not looking for work but failing to provide the required medical certificates to support their claims.
And if that wasn’t enough, in a large number of cases where we brought such behaviour to Centrelink’s attention for action the matter was overturned.
In the six months between July and December 2009, Mission Australia submitted more than 20,000 reports to Centrelink – known as Participation Reports – for issues of job seekers not living up to their obligations.
According to our figures, Centrelink overturned 45 per cent of these.
Now, on some occasions, having our reports overturned is to be expected.
But 45 per cent?
(MA’s ‘Submission to Independent Review the Job Seeker Compliance Framework, July 2010’, is downloadable as an RTF.)
Hall prefaces his remarks by asserting that:
There is no doubt that a fair Australia must have an adequate safety net that provides unemployed, sick, disabled and vulnerable people with the support they need.
Although he provides no reason why there should be ‘no doubt’, presumably, on some level, Toby understands that, without an income of some sort, most people find it very difficult to eat — and therefore to live. In other words, in the absence of ‘an adequate safety net’, many people may starve to death.
Some might argue — and have, in fact, quite vociferously — that if death results from unprofitability, however unfortunate this outcome might be for those who undergo it, it is in fact right and proper, and to the benefit of society as a whole. “In essence a sharp message to say ‘This is a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously’.”
Beyond this, two things.
First, while the concern of a New Zealand-born businessman for a fair Australia — a businessman who made the first of several fortunes as an accountant with Salomon Brothers in London — may be considered praiseworthy (and I’d be happy to wager a small amount on Toby receiving official recognition of this concern at some point in the not-too-distant future), it does nothing to explain the evolution of the welfare state, or the reasons behind its foundation. Secondly, Australia exists as part of a global economic system, and that system cheerfully, and daily, condemns tens of thousands of children, as well their parents, to death — as either a direct or indirect result of poverty. Which is to say, wealth. Whatever the merits of A Fair Australia, in The Real World, global capitalism ensures global misery.
- Salomon Brothers, Hall’s previous employer, was the subject of a book-length treatment, Liar’s Poker (1989), by another of its former employees, Michael Lewis. (See also his account of ‘The End’ (sic) of ‘The era that defined Wall Street’, November 11, 2008.)
As for the rest: Toby expresses concern for the enervating effects of ‘passive welfare’ (citing a “report released last week by the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine”) and, following Noel Pearson, the exemplary case of Aboriginal welfare dependency. Or:
Take the Disability Support Pension for example.
Between 1996 and 2007 the number of people receiving the Disability Support Pension (DSP) actually increased from 500,000 to more than 700,000.
Growth in the number of DSP recipients was greater than in any other pension category in the decade to 2007.
It’s estimated that 20 per cent of this total – 140,000 people – are thought to be capable of work.
We can’t let this situation go on.
A few points.
First, the population in 1996 was 17.9 million; 10 years later, it was approximately 19.6 million. According to these figures, the number of people living in luxury on the DSP increased during this period from 2.8% to 3.6% of the general population. Secondly:
The Howard government also consistently raised concern about the increasing number of Australians in receipt of the Disability Support Pension – up from around 300,000 in 1990 to around 700,000 in 2004. Some commentators attributed this increase to liberalised eligibility criteria that expanded beyond solely medical impairment to include job availability, while others argued that it primarily reflected a growth in the number of people with disabilities and limited job opportunities for older males (Parliamentary Library, 2005). Similar concerns were expressed about the sharp rise in the number of single parents receiving parenting payments over the past 20 years totalling, in 2006, approximately 450,000 out of a total population of more than 21 million.
In its 2005 Budget, the Howard government introduced tighter eligibility rules for the Disability Support Pension (DSP) in order to force thousands of recipients with a limited work capacity onto unemployment benefits. From July 2006 onwards, new applicants for DSP were granted the pension only if they were able to work less than 15 hours a week, reduced from 30 hours a week. Those who were ineligible for DSP would instead mainly go onto the Newstart Allowance and be subject to a part-time work test (if they were able to work between 16 and 30 hours a week).
In addition, new applicants for the Parenting Payment (PP) would be transferred to the Newstart Allowance when their youngest child turned six, and become subject to a part-time work test of at least 15 hours per week. Current recipients would stay on PP, but would be required to seek work. The disabled and lone parents affected by the changes faced a major cut in their weekly income given that Newstart would be paid at a lower rate than both DSP and PP (approx.AU$40–50 less per fortnight) with higher withdrawal rates and lower tax rebates, and they would lose pensioner concessions. They would also be forced to comply with mutual obligation requirements, and the government announced, ominously, that charities would be asked to pay the rent and food of single parents who had their payments suspended due to not meeting work requirements so that their children would not suffer (Karvelas, 2006a). Overall, new DSP recipients risked losing up to AU$120 a week, and new PP recipients risked losing up to AU$100 a week when their private earnings reached AU$300 a week (Harding, Ngu Vu & Percival, 2005). These changes would seem to be closely linked to the industrial relations reforms described above, and it was likely that many single parents and disabled claimants would be forced to accept any job available irrespective of the wage being offered. In other words, being employed did not necessarily guarantee a living wage any longer.
~ ‘Retrenching or renovating the Australian welfare state: the paradox of the Howard government’s neo-liberalism’, Philip Mendes, International Journal of Social Welfare, Vo.18, No.1, April 2008 (PDF).
The remainder of St. Toby’s Letter to the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs proceeds along similar lines, and invokes standard neo-liberal rhetoric. More remarkably, perhaps, Toby also expresses pleasure at the thought that, as mechanisms for imposing work upon assumedly recalcitrant bodies become more widespread following an ALP victory, this might result in more bad ‘jobseekers’ gaining less income, and calls for a more general tightening of the screws with regards activity tests/physical jerks, (an expanded bureaucracy to engage in) and more intensive micro-management of micro-budgets (‘income quarantining’) — all as part of an increasingly generalised expansion in the financial and legal capacity of the corporate welfare sector to discipline and punish the undeserving poor.
Leaving aside the many issues which might emerge in critically analysing such an account — and the fact that it’s been produced by and on behalf of a major business in a multi-billion dollar industry which receives massive state subsidies — among the many things Toby fails to note in his epistle is the fact that ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes undermine wages and conditions (see : ‘One Fundamental Value’: Work for the Dole participants’ views about mutual obligation, Hilary Sawer, 2005, PDF); that, along with football, kicking the unemployed is a national sport (see : Dole bludgers, tax payers and the new right: constructing discourses of welfare in 1970s Australia (Verity Archer), February 12, 2010); and is a sport which has provided some small number of yuppie scum, such as Tim Noonan (& Co.), a proven pathway to employment.
There’s a lot of money to be made out of poverty.
Australia: Howard finds the right people for his new “Fair Pay Commission”, Terry Cook, wsws.org, July 11, 2006:
Also bringing “Christian values” to the determination of pay levels is FPC part-time commissioner Patrick McClure. McClure, a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, has made a lucrative career for himself out of charity work. Since 1997 he has been CEO of one of the country’s largest Christian charity organisations, Mission Australia, overseeing an annual budget of $212 million.
The charity’s fortunes grew under McClure’s leadership. In particular, it gained contracts to oversee job provision services after the Howard government closed its own job assistance agencies such as the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES). Significantly, McClure is on the Howard government’s Community Business Partnership Board.
McClure has also been drafted onto government welfare reform committees to provide a “caring face” while slashing welfare and social security rights. He was appointed chairman of the government’s Independent Reference Group on Welfare Reform in 1999-2000 that laid the basis for fundamental attacks on welfare and social security provision.
McClure then served as deputy chair of Howard’s Welfare to Work Consultative Committee, whose recommendations were legislated last November and came into force this month. The measures are designed to drive more than 200,000 benefit claimants, including people on single parent benefits and disability allowances, into cheap labour and work-for-the-dole schemes over the next three years. Under the new provisions, the unemployed could lose payments for eight weeks if they refuse a minimum wage job or commit any of a series of petty offences.
While happy to create conditions of extreme hardship for others, McClure decided long ago that a life of poverty was not for him. He quit the Franciscan order after ten years to follow a more materially-rewarding path. He still insists, however, that Saint Francis of Assisi, the order’s Spartan founder, remains “one of my guiding lights”.
See also : Soul searching about welfare, Background Briefing (ABC), October 1, 2006 | What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?, Tony Judt, The New York Review of Books, December 17, 2009.
Mission Australia First Party (August 7, 2010) | Labour exploitation? No, it’s Asians taking Aussie jobs (and strawberries) (July 24, 2010) | F___ Off I’m On Today Tonight! Or: Reverse racism. (February 16, 2010) | The Dole Army : “If it wasn’t real, it would almost be comical.” (January 3, 2010) | Auschwitz ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign stolen; ALP offers ‘Fair Work Sets You Free’ replacement (December 19, 2009) | How to Make Trouble… // The Dole Army (November 6, 2009).