Election 2013 Issues: Australians, one and all?

Electorally, we are assumed to live in an economy, not a society which protects its most vulnerable members. Flickr/Viewminder

Welcome to the The Conversation’s Election 2013 State of the Nation essays. These articles by leading experts in their field provide an in-depth look at the key policy challenges affecting Australia as the nation heads to the polls. Today, we examine social inclusion, equality and addressing Indigenous disadvantage.

Politics and policy during elections offer a compressed vision of what the contenders for power decide will win votes and what they hope to achieve.

Voters have been told for years that the role of government is primarily to make economic work for GDP growth. But the constant debates on surpluses, deficits, spending and cuts leaves little space for debating social policy directions and values of equity, fairness and social cohesion.

While economic growth and engagement are important, both individually and as a society, making these the basis for policy decisions likely to cause serious harm to our social ethos and, more specifically, to those who lose out.

Electorally, we are assumed to live in an economy not a society. Even general policies tend to be discussed and justified via their economic contribution: better education funding = more jobs; more help with disability = more able to find paid work. Even when a policy could be seen as making a social contribution (such as the government’s out-of-school care package) the justification is often only economic (to make it easier for more women to find jobs, which will boost the economy).

When asked about what’s important to them, most people value social well-being: relationships, community, dignity, belonging, respect, being valued and feeling useful. And as the World Health Organisation notes, social factors have an important impact on health and well-being.

So why do these issues fail to raise much political interest in contenders for government?

Neither major party has issued policies that indicate they have future visions of a healthy, inclusive, optimistic society. Their push to identify most voters as self-interested consumers commodifies and coarsens election choices. It leaves little space for discussion of what else matters and legitimises targeting those not seen as economic contributors.

The current election agenda and gaps suggest this election will be the first where major parties compete to be seen as tougher on some of our most vulnerable groups, such as Indigenous Australians and sole parents.

Neither major party seems to have a vision for a healthy, inclusive, optimistic society. Image from shutterstock.com

Reviewing existing policies

Alongside implementing new policies, it’s important to take stock and assess what works and what doesn’t, and abandon poor social policies. There is ample social data that could inform policies for reducing inequalities of groups that have lost out.

But despite the government claiming to practice evidence-based policy making, it has regularly failed to use its own data. We hear little, for example, about the Social Inclusion program, set up in the early Rudd days and the Closing the Gap program to redress Indigenous disadvantage. The latter prompted many reports, via the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, but there is little evidence these are read, let alone used.

As a result, a number of poor social policies have been introduced, continued or expanded:

  • Widespread cuts to sole parent payments, including most who had jobs, that fail to recognise parenting time demands and create serious poverty
  • Low levels of Newstart payments, despite wide evidence of its inadequacy for job seekers
  • Changed criteria for the Disability Support Pension reduce the numbers that are eligible for the higher payment
  • The Northern Territory intervention, started by Howard but adopted by the ALP as Stronger Futures
  • Income management, which is now spreading widely to a range of welfare recipients
  • Closing the Gap programs that fail because they don’t meet basic criteria for what works.

The imposition of ever more punitive conditions on welfare recipients are excused as being for their own good – getting sole parents, people with disabilities, and other disadvantaged Australians into paid work. These controls are increasing as more categories of payment recipients are being put on compulsorily income management, which restricts where they spend at least half of their benefits incomes.

All of these welfare recipients face external barriers in finding paid work, particularly in a time when nearly 700,000 Australians are “looking for work”. This number alone grossly exceeds the number of advertised job vacancies by a factor of at least five to one. Add in the levels of skill and recent experience required by employers, geography, transport, age, language skills, minor visible disabilities and the needs of children, and most will be rejected by employers.

Punitive measures aren’t helping to get more welfare recipients into work. Flickr/amandabhslater

The official assumption that there are enough jobs out there for all becomes ever less credible. Add in to the picture the 300,000-plus recipients of the inadequate Newstart allowance of around $497 per fortnight who are exempted from job seeking and the logic of poverty pay becomes even more absurd.

The Greens and some lobby groups of sole parents have been trying to raise these issues but the major parties ignore them despite none delivering good outcomes.

So which social issues should be on the election agenda?

Sole parents and Newstart

There is a campaign by sole parents and some supporting groups to put all sole parents with dependent children back onto the parenting payments. This would not only increase the payment rate, it would also allow parents to do more part-time work before their payments are reduced.

The 2006 “welfare to work” reforms placed sole parents who entered the welfare system on Newstart if the youngest child was aged eight years or older. This was extended by the Gillard government in January this year, moving all sole parents with children aged over eight from parenting payments to the lower-paying Newstart.

This occurred despite the lack of evidence that these 2006 changes improved the rates of employment. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed no related changes in finding jobs between 2005 to 2011, and a recent report showed sole parents’ income had dropped over the same period. As most of those transferred in January were already in paid work, the government’s claim that the cuts would push them into paid work doesn’t stack up.

The data and experiences suggest that parents of children under 16 should be returned to parenting payments, as this encourages more part time work than Newstart.

Compulsory income management

This program was part of the original NT emergency response, and is often ignored as it is assumed to be targeted at Indigenous people. It has, however, already been extended to other welfare recipients in the NT and to six other (pilot) sites, including Bankstown and Shepparton, despite the absence of evidence that it has worked in the NT.

The stage-one report stated the data offered little significant evidence of benefits. The research, led by the Social Policy Research Centre, also expressed concern about the possible damage the program could have on recipient self esteem and a sense of agency, as Centrelink controlled how they spent at least half their income.

As well as the Northern Territory, income management schemes are run in Bankstown and Shepparton. AAP Image/POOL/Alan Porritt

Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin ignored these findings and has since announced further categories of payments including ex-prisoners and young people at school. These moves suggest the government will increasingly take control over the spending of payments of any group they consider needs order and discipline.

The compulsory program should be terminated, with those who find it useful being transferred to Centrepay (where customers can pay bills as regular deductions from their Centrelink payments) or a voluntary version. Any recipient of payments who is proven to have money problems should be individually case managed. This would also save money as A$1 billion-plus has already been spent or allocated.

Closing the Gap

Here the major parties’ rhetoric often assume problems come from deficits in people and Aboriginal communities so the programs fail to recognise external cultural and structural factors that damage their communities. The gap is not just vertical, but also horizontal because, as non-Indigenous Australians, we fail to acknowledge what we need to learn from them.

Starting bottom up and engaging local people in partnership, rather than deciding in Canberra, would improve outcomes. The question is how more autonomy and local decision making can link into wider results that offer better options to all, including us.

Conclusion

Australia as a unified nation does not mean imposing a one-size-fits-all model on very diverse populations; it does mean offering a fair go to all who share this country.

This must start by addressing these serious deficits in the election policy agendas of both major parties and make sure these issues are not ignored. The over-emphasising of primarily economic needs, interspersed with increased social control of those who fail to fit in, will not create the necessary resilient ties we need to nurture unity in this nation state.

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