CANBERRA: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
The fallacy behind the disability crackdown
, June 1, 2002
Virtually no one seems to have cottoned on to the fact that one of the main repercussions from the key welfare reform measure announced by Treasurer Peter Costello in his recent Budget will be a lengthening of the dole queue.
Most of the outcry over the Government's proposal to tackle the burgeoning Disability Support Pension has been on the harm the changes will have on beneficiaries.
In the usual outcry about any attack on welfare, critics have described the changes as unfair, heartless and mean. Whether or not that is the case, the decision to finally take a good hard look at Disability Support Pensioners, who have grown in number to more than 600,000 beneficiaries, will ultimately focus attention on the real level of unemployment in Australia.Eligibility
What the Government is proposing is to pare back eligibility for the Disability Support Pension from the present measure which is an incapacity to work 30 hours a week to an incapacity to work just 15 hours a week.
In other words, if you have a long-term disability but you are still capable of doing 15 or more hours part-time work a week, you will no longer qualify for the Disability Pension.
Instead you will have to go on Newstart Allowance (formerly known as Unemployment Benefits), and take part in the quite rigorous job searching requirements the Government now makes on the unemployed. Newstart also pays less, and is therefore less costly for the Government.
The Government is selling its proposal as a measure which will "improve esteem and self-reliance" of those on Disability Support.
It is also riding on public perceptions, which in many cases are well-founded, that there are people on this generous pension who are rorting the system.
Indeed, for a small minority, the "bad back" syndrome is part of the Australian way of life and there are thousands of system rorters who may or may not be flushed out.
However, the Government is not really telling the whole truth about the Disability Support Pension phenomenon which has doubled since 1990. To give some idea of how the disability pension has blown out you only have to look at the official unemployment level which stood at 628,900 in April. The two figures are almost level-pegging.
The reason for this extraordinary rise in Australians who are physically or mentally incapable of working has not been because of an explosion of industrial accidents or an epidemic of debilitating illnesses.
It is simply that tens of thousands of people, who are the most difficult types for whom to find jobs, have simply been shifted off the dole queues and onto Disability Support.
It has been a favoured tactic, particularly of the new private employment agencies, to shift those in the "too hard basket", particularly the long-term unemployed, off their books by having them declared mentally or physically incapacitated.
In fact, many of the "symptoms" attributed to these people are common to any group of people who have been out of work for many months. Typically these people suffer depression and other mental illnesses, heavy drinking and substance abuse, severe lack of motivation, and extreme choosiness about the type of work they want.
Consider the extraordinary statistic that for the plus-45-year-old blue collar male (who incidentally has been the hardest hit by "reforms" to the Australian economy) the average time it now takes to find a job after being laid off is 75 weeks!
Many of the mental and physical problems listed above tend to markedly improve once a person gets a job, which is why the Government is at least on the right track by trying to encourage people on Disability Support to find real work.
To this end it is creating 73,000 new training and work program places to help with the transition. However, the Government is going to discover soon that for a substantial number of disability pensioners there will not be any work available for them.
The factory and manual jobs which once soaked up a large proportion of the Australian workforce simply do not exist; and the bid to shift people from Disability Support to Newstart or Mature Age Allowance, for those aged over 60 and not yet eligible for the Old Age Pension, will lengthen the dole queue.
The fact is governments of both persuasions have attempted to disguise the true level of unemployment in Australia for many years. These methods range from absurd measurements of what unemployment means (if you work a couple of hours a week you are not unemployed) to having young people on a perpetual training and education treadmill to prepare them for employment.
The Government should be congratulated for raising the issue, but it needs to think a lot harder and deeper about tackling unemployment in Australia - both the official and the unofficial figures.