Australian welfare reform needs a Newstart

We were greeted with the news this week that Centrelink staff have been ordered to make phone calls to more than 80,000 single parents to apologise after advising them to destroy their pensioner concession cards.

This is the latest disaster in Labor’s approach to welfare reform. The government announced last year that it would be moving long term single parents from the parenting payment to the unemployment benefit when their youngest child turned 12.

A few weeks later, in an effort to balance the budget, Mr Swan cut the age to eight.

Worse still, the government simultaneously slashed funds for training, hitting people with a double whammy.

Faced with mounting criticism, the Families Minister, Jenny Macklin, said a week ago that she could survive on the dole.

Ms Macklin has since apologized for making an insensitive comment, but not, it seems, for her office trying to cover-up the comment by claiming in the transcript distributed to the media that the remark was inaudible.

As an aside, it is remarkable that the media have not pursued the cover-up, which goes to trust in the government. There is a tacit understanding between public figures and the media that transcripts distributed to the press gallery will be accurate.

This is all the more important as media resources decline, and there are fewer reporters to cover stories. More than ever, the media now rely on the transcripts of interviews prepared by the politician’s staff. Sometimes comments on tape are inaudible, but this was not the case with Ms Macklin’s omitted remarks.

To add insult to injury, Centrelink advised single parents that they should destroy their pensioner concession cards. Like Ms Mackin, the Human Services Minister, Kim Carr, has now issued an apology.

Missing from this saga is any sense of a carefully considered approach to welfare reform.

Take unemployment benefits. Significantly, the benefit is named Newstart. It is designed to be a temporary payment while a person finds a job or another job.

It was never intended to be a permanent payment.

This is borne out by the use of it. Around 30 per cent of Newstart recipients move off income support within three months and more than 70 per cent of Newstart recipients move off it within 12 months.

Mr Swan’s decision and Ms Macklin’s comments reignited a campaign to increase Newstart by $50 per week for all recipients. This would cost billions of dollars a year.

There has been no discussion by the government about the purpose of the payment, or the need for measures to ensure that people capable of working are ready and able to work.

As the head of Mission Australia, Toby Hall, has said, there is a need for a new national discussion about welfare, including measures to get people into work, along the lines of the Howard government inquiry headed by his predecessor, Patrick McClure.

Instead of careful consideration of welfare reform, including any unintended consequences, Labor has bungled both the policy and the implementation of it.

No wonder Australians are pining for good, competent government.

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