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'Punitive' approach to poor overshadows positive Budget moves: Anglican agency

Treasurer Scott Morrison's 2017 Federal Budget receives a mixed scorecard from Anglican agencies

"I can assure Australian taxpayers that unemployed people know -- better than anyone -- that securing stable work is the pathway to building a good life in our country," the Brotherhood of St Laurence's Mr Tony Nicholson says. "They are certainly not 'dole bludgers'; they are hungry for work and opportunity."

By Mark Brolly

May 11 2017 

Two leading Anglican agencies have criticised the Federal Government’s Budget crackdown on welfare, with one describing the approach as “punitive”, while Church-based agencies have lamented further cuts in Australia’s foreign aid.

But there was praise for Budget commitments on disability, housing and employment programs in the Coalition Government’s first Budget since its return to office at last July’s election.

The Budget also committed an initial $33.4 million to meet the Commonwealth Redress Scheme’s establishment costs and confirm continuing access to support services for survivors of child sexual abuse.

Anglicare Victoria’s CEO, Mr Paul McDonald, said tough welfare measures in the Budget would punish the poor and further disadvantage vulnerable families and children.

Mr McDonald said instead of trying to cut welfare spending through a demerit system, the Budget should have invested in lifting vulnerable young people and their families out of poverty, unemployment and homelessness.

“Welfare payments in Australia are so low that people on Government benefits are shut out of the private rental market and trapped in poverty,” he said. “Anglicare’s recent Housing Affordability Statement showed that even renting in a share house was beyond the reach of Victorians on Newstart or Youth Allowances.”

Mr McDonald said the Budget’s welfare measures overshadowed positive moves on disability and housing, including a new national homelessness and housing agreement and $375 million over three years for homelessness services.

“Instead of taking the opportunity to invest in people and increase welfare payments so people can pay modest rents and cover basic costs of living, the Government has taken a punitive approach.”

He said plans to halve payments for missed appointments, and then cut off welfare for a month for further breaches could have very serious consequences.

“The impact of having no income for a month will lead to extreme financial and mental stress and put people already under extreme hardship at further risk of becoming involved in criminal activity or inappropriate lending practices.

“Not providing disability payments for drug or alcohol related injuries, and random drug testing trials are other examples of government abandoning our society’s most vulnerable.”

Mr McDonald said funding for social impact investments focused on priority groups such as care leavers was another positive, although the Budget had missed the opportunity to put Commonwealth support behind lifting the age of young people leaving state care.

“Each year, around 3000 Australians leave state before they turn 18 and are at risk of being homeless, unemployed, a new parent or imprisoned within 12 months,” he said. “Raising the age to 21 across Australia would give them the support they need to make a better start to adult life.”

The Brotherhood of St Laurence said there were mixed messages in the Budget, alluding to Treasurer Scott Morrison’s citing principles of fairness and opportunity.

The Fitzroy-based agency said the fairness test was met when substantial action was taken to build the capacity of disadvantaged job seekers to fully participate the modern economy and opportunities, in turn, were created to help them transition into work. On this test, there were mixed messages in the Budget.

A Brotherhood response to the Budget on 9 May said the integrity of the welfare system was important, but this did not necessarily mean that people were taking “an easy ride”.

“We are concerned about the proposed new Jobseeker Compliance Framework arrangements announced tonight and the withdrawal of income support for vulnerable people that would follow in a new tiered demerit system,” the statement said.

Brotherhood Executive Director Mr Tony Nicholson said: “We know from our experience working with highly disadvantaged people that the challenges they face are much more complex than is being portrayed.

“The risk is that the proposed demerit system, devoid of administrative discretion and not accounting for a full understanding of individual circumstances, will cause increasing levels of homelessness through reduced and cancelled payments. For example, we know that about half the homeless people sleeping rough on our streets are unemployed and rely on unemployment benefits. Payment rates are very low so they can't cover spiralling rents in our cities, let alone look for work and comply with Centrelink job search requirements.”

Mr Nicholson said he also was puzzled by the rationale for the proposed trial of American-style random drug testing for new welfare recipients, saying that in his experience any drug use was readily identified and dealt with appropriately as part of the task of preparing people for work. On the other hand, incorporating drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs into job plans as a valid step towards employment was welcome.

He noted several new changes to the operation of the welfare system, including expansion of the activity test for job seekers from 30 to the age they become eligible for the Age Pension and a merged Job Seeker Payment to replace several current payments.

“The system as a whole has been struggling with Centrelink's automated debt recovery mechanism,” Mr Nicholson said. “I hope it will be able to cope with these new demands and that they will prove effective in assisting people into work.

“I can assure Australian taxpayers that unemployed people know – better than anyone – that securing stable work is the pathway to building a good life in our country. They are certainly not ‘dole bludgers’; they are hungry for work and opportunity.”

Mr Nicholson said he was encouraged by several measures in the employment portfolio, including the $263 million expansion of the ParentsNext program and the $55.7 million Indigenous Employment package. Establishing a new Career Transition Assistance Program also was a positive measure that would help disadvantaged mature people displaced by the globalised modern economy.

“Poverty and disadvantage that persist in our otherwise prosperous country not only hurt the people directly affected, they are bad for the economy, and also hurt us all,” he said. “We need to invest in our most disadvantaged people to build an inclusive Australia, one that complies with a foundational principle of our society: a fair go for all.”

Melbourne Anglican aged-care provider Benetas said the Budget left older Australians in the dark about the future of aged care and there was no reason why the funding gap that had been closed for the National Disability Insurance Scheme could not be closed also for older Australians.

Benetas said that while the Budget provided some funding for residential care and home support in the short term, and introduced minor initiatives to improve service delivery, much more was needed to deal with the long-term needs of Australia’s ageing population.

Ms Ellen Flint, Benetas’ acting CEO, said the organisation was grateful no further cuts had been made to aged care, but the Government needed to look beyond this.

“It’s wonderful the Government has closed the funding gap for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and there’s no reason why we can’t do this for older Australians”, Ms Flint said.

She said aged care had endured a series of savage cuts in recent years, including changes to the Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI) and the dementia services fund. Last year, funding to the sector had been reduced by $1.2 billion.

The sector had been subject to a relentless cycle of reviews in recent months, including the Aged Care Legislated Review, the review into alternatives to the Aged Care Funding Instrument, the Senate Inquiry into the Future of Australia’s Aged Care Workforce and further rounds of consultation on the Aged Care Roadmap. But Australians were still no closer to understanding the Government’s vision for aged care.

“Fifteen percent of Australia’s population (or 3.4 million Australians) is aged 65 years and older, and this figure will increase to almost 30 per cent by 2064,” Ms Flint said.

“Why aren’t we fully funding aged care? Where is the model to guarantee services for older Australians well into the future?

“We know the Federal Government can deliver evidence-based, innovative funding solutions, we’ve seen it with the NDIS and in agreements made with the pharmaceutical industry.

“We now call on the Government to provide a positive and coherent vision for aged care, which by necessity must include a sustainable funding strategy to ensure stability for providers and affordable, quality aged care for consumers.”

Anglicare Australia’s Executive Director, Ms Kasy Chambers, said this year’s Budget had been a lost opportunity to tackle inequality.

“Instead, we’ve gotten another Budget that pits Australians against each other,” Ms Chambers said.

“Support payments for job seekers, pensioners and people with disabilities have become a poverty trap. They’re so low that paying rent means you can’t then afford to buy food, clothing, transport or go to the doctor.

“This Budget has frozen those payments at dangerously low levels, ignoring calls from the business and community sectors to increase them as a matter of urgency.

“Australians on low incomes are struggling to make ends meet. But instead of offering relief, people who need help from the Government are being scapegoated, with the Budget targeting Centrelink recipients with a demerit scheme and expanding the cashless welfare trial.

“And anyone who has had much to do with Centrelink will see the irony in the demerit system. Cuts to Centrelink and its staff have led to rampant mistakes to the point where nobody could have confidence in its accuracy when doling out ‘demerit points’.

“Why should we assume the worst of people trying to navigate their way through byzantine Centrelink procedures that its own staff can’t work out?

“We’re also disappointed to see another attempt to cut family tax benefits. These families were already experiencing financial stress. It is not fair to ask them to shoulder the burden of balancing the Budget.”

Ms Chambers welcomed positive aspects of the Budget on housing and the NDIS.

“There are promising signs on housing in this Budget. The Government has committed to raising money from the right places and funding measures that make a good start on making housing more affordable and tackling homelessness. For example, the bond aggregator for community housing is good news.

“The onus is now on all levels of government to work together to negotiate an agreement that delivers a desperately needed funding increase.

“We’re also pleased the see a commitment to fully fund the NDIS through the Medicare Levy.

“There is a lesson for the Government for the NDIS – Australians are willing to come together and support each other.

“Punishing people won’t achieve anything. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.”

Anglicare Australia has produced Budget Fast Facts covering details of the 2017 Budget and commentary on measures covering areas such as families, Indigenous people, tax, superannuation and mental health.

It may be read at http://www.anglicare.asn.au/docs/default-source/default-document-library/2017-budget-fast-facts.pdf

Melbourne-based aid and development agency Anglican Overseas Aid and the Australian Church’s national mission agency, Anglican Board of Mission, both expressed dismay at further cuts to Australia’s aid budget.

In a Facebook post, AOA – which was founded in 1988 by Melbourne’s then Archbishop, Dr David Penman – said that at a time when the world was witnessing the worst famine in East Africa since the 1980s and Tropical Cyclone Donna had ravaged parts of our neighbour, Vanuatu, “our Government has chosen to further renege on its responsibility to do our fair share”.

“Seven of the top 10 most vulnerable nations in the world to natural disasters are in the Pacific – our next-door neighbours,” the post said. “Vanuatu is on top of this list, where Cyclone Donna was hitting part of the country as the Budget was being prepared over the past week.

“Australian aid has saved lives and will continue to do so. The gains our partners have been able to make through aid have been very impressive.

“We believe true Australian values include giving a helping hand to those more disadvantaged than ourselves. We find Anglicans in Australia to be very generous, and we would urge our Government to provide leadership that inspires a more compassionate approach.

“We ask you to pray for those living in poverty around the world, and to contact your local MP to voice your concern if you disagree with the Government’s decision.”

The post suggested emailing MPs using a tool from Campaign for Australian Aid, http://bit.ly/2phIHzR http://australianaid.org/action/budget2017/ or call your local MP at http://budget.australianaid.org/.

ABM said Australia's aid budget, already at historic lows, was cut again in this year’s Budget.

“ABM advocates for an increase in the Australian aid budget, in line with OECD commitments, to allocate 0.7% of Gross National Income to foreign aid,” it said in a statement posted on its website. “Australia's contribution to Foreign Aid currently stands at 0.22% of Gross National Income. This compares unfavourably to other countries such as the United Kingdom, whose current contribution to foreign aid stands at 0.71%.”

The statement referred to a Budget response issued by the CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, Mr Marc Purcell, which said a further cut to foreign aid of more than $300 million over four years came on the back of cuts worth $11.3 billion over the past four years. 

“The aid budget is bouncing along the bottom and does not add up to a vision of what role we want to play in the world,” Mr Purcell said.

“We have reached a fork in the road where we need to determine what our long-term response will be to growing suffering and vast discrepancies of wealth and opportunity – turn inwards or offer a generous hand?

“As a nation who believes in giving others a fair-go, we think this Government should commit to rebuilding the aid budget and rebuild bridges with other nations to tackle the common global challenges we see.”

  • The Commonwealth Redress Scheme for survivors of child sexual abuse is to begin in 2018.

Minister for Social Services Mr Christian Porter and the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, said in a joint media release on Budget day that the Government had listened to survivors and accepted the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that each jurisdiction and all individual institutions must make amends and take responsibility for wrongdoing.

“A national scheme with states, territories and non-government institutions able to join on a ‘responsible entity pays’ basis was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission and is the best way to ensure fairness and justice for all survivors,” they said.

“The Scheme will provide survivors with a monetary payment, psychological counselling and, if requested, a direct personal acknowledgement and response from the responsible institution.

“From March 2018, a dedicated telephone helpline and website will be available to provide information to survivors and their families about the Scheme. These services will also connect survivors with legal and community support services that are currently provided through the Royal Commission and which will continue to be funded to support the Scheme.

“From July 2018, applications for redress will be open to survivors of abuse in Commonwealth institutions. The redress will include individual payments of up to $150,000. Applications will be assessed by an expert panel against a range of factors and criteria, based on advice from the Independent Advisory Council.

“We continue to encourage the states, territories and non-government institutions to maximise the impact of the Scheme by optingâ��in on a ‘responsible entity pays’ basis, which will ensure the best possible redress scheme for survivors.”

Mr Porter and Senator Brandis said the Government had been working with the Independent Advisory Council since its establishment late last year on the design and implementation of the scheme, which will end on 30 June 2028.

They are to provide a detailed briefing to state and territory Attorneys-General later this month on the detail of the opt-in scheme and there would be a similar briefing for non-government organisations, such as the Church.

“This will allow states, territories and non-government institutions to make informed decisions about joining the Scheme, thereby providing simple and effective access to redress for survivors,” they said.

“The nation must be united in supporting survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. Each state, territory and non-government institution must take responsibility for providing redress to those harmed in their care.

“The Turnbull Government will continue working with state and territory governments, law enforcement agencies, the community sector and researchers to keep children safe.”