On Q&A in February, disability support pension recipient Daniel Turner questioned Eric Abetz about planned changes — and came out disturbed by what he'd heard.
It is 10:30pm on 17 February 2014 and the ABC Q&A episode being filmed the ABC Studios at Ultimo is coming to an end when Tony Jones throws to me to ask the question I’d been waiting to ask all show:
My question is to Eric Abetz.
I'm currently on a Disability Support Pension for various disabilities I have. I don't want to be on a DSP. I want — I'd much rather be in work and earning my own wage. I've applied for a number of jobs but, because of my disabilities, I'm limited to applying to only sit-down jobs or desk jobs.
Could you share [sic] more light on the Government's plans for the review in the Disability Support Pension, just to put me at ease to know that I won't be or my income won't be totally pulled out from under me?
In this question, I am looking for reassurance for me and all the other DSP recipients out there that they are not going to have to fight to hold on to their only source of income support. As we have seen with the 2014-15 Federal budget, those of us who are under 35 will have to fight to continue to receive our payments.
But more on that later, first I’d like to go through Employment Minister Eric Abetz' answer.
To begin, he set up his answer:
Yeah. What the Government has said is and, in general terms, what we need in this country is to ensure that the social services that we provide, provide a safety net and not a hammock and, as a result, we do have to be careful to ensure that money goes to those that actually need it, deserve it and require it, rather than those who may think that it's a lifestyle choice.
I can’t really say I’m surprised by this opening and don’t particularly have a problem with it overall, but what I do have a problem with is the use of the word “hammock” and the fact that he thinks that some people on the DSP believe it to be a “lifestyle choice”.
Now, perhaps the word hammock was purely co-incidental and was used in reference to the DSP being a safety net. I think I need to point out here that I did not have a problem with this at the time — not until I watched Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews in the week leading up to the Budget say that the days of young people sitting on the couch and collecting a welfare cheque are over. Then it hit me that the use of the word hammock may be part of the government’s narrative.
I’ll come back to Kevin Andrews shortly.
Now, I have no doubt that there are people out there that have somehow manipulated the system and are able to claim the DSP when they are not genuine recipients — however, I have no doubt this is a tiny minority.
The vast majority of DSP recipients would work if they could work because, for many, the DSP is simply not enough to survive on when you take into account doctor’s bills, food, clothes and medication. Many people on the DSP do not have the luxury of going to the shop and get a block of chocolate — nor as Joe Hockey suggested in relation to the GP co-payment, have 2 middies of beer or a pack of cigarettes. For the vast majority of recipients, it is not a lifestyle choice, it is a matter of choosing between their medicines and the electricity bill.
Let’s continue with Abetz’s answer:
Clearly in your circumstances that you have outlined, the little that I have gleaned, clearly you are a person that is aspirational. You are willing to work. You want to work and you, I hope as a result of this program tonight, somebody might be out there saying I'll give that bloke a job and an opportunity and that is what I would call on all employers to do, is to have a look at the opportunity to assist the disability community and our nation.
He’s right. I do want to work and so do many, many people in the disabled community. In fact, I held a job at McDonalds for two years until I got arthritis in my back and was forced to leave because I couldn’t stand for long periods. This was not something of choice, it wasn’t something I could control, but it was something I had to deal with.
Host Tony Jones then asked a follow up question:
A quick question, just to follow up Eric Abetz. You mentioned a safety net, not a hammock. Now, how many of the people who are on Disability Support Pensions do you believe are in a hammock?”
Eric Abetz on ABC Q&A, 17 February 2014.
This is a fair question, and one that he should have been able to answer:
I cannot specify that and that is why each and every case has to be determined on its merits and should be so determined...
He cannot specify how many are in a hammock? So, why did he make the claim, then?
However, if I might say with respect, that there has been a huge growth and the questioner, I would definitely not categorise in this situation, but there has been a huge growth in the Disability Support Pension in this nation unrelated to other socio-economic factors and so one would have to ask: why has there been this growth?
And I think, in fairness to the Australian taxpayer, it's not us that funds it as a Government, it is our fellow Australians that fund it ... and, in fairness, we need robustness of the system.
I was surprised by this answer, so I put my hand up to ask him to clarify:
Yeah. I just want to know on what basis do you say that there has been a growth unrelated to the socio-economic factors?
Right. The circumstances and the statistics that have been put to me on many an occasion and to the Government indicates that the growth in the Disability Support Pension is unrelated to the other factors that you might suspect would see that change and so what regrettably happens is that some people that are on unemployment benefit are able to shift to the Disability Support Pension in circumstances where that may not necessarily be appropriate and the best use of Australian taxpayers' money.
So, let's just remember whenever anybody is on welfare or, indeed, my salary as a parliamentarian, I am very, very conscious of the fact that it is my fellow Australians paying the money for that particular benefit and that is something we, as a Government, need to keep front of mind whenever we analyse these payments.
I assume he is talking about those people who are somehow able to manipulate the system — the people who are in the small minority, as I mentioned earlier.
I didn’t think much of this at the time, but looking back over the Government’s language in the lead up to the budget, his answer seems to have well and truly played into the government’s narrative that the DSP is unsustainable and young people are just sitting on the couch collecting welfare cheques.
In fairness to Eric Abetz, I contacted him via email in the early hours of the 20 May to provide me with the documents that has been shown to him that showed people transferring from the Unemployment benefit to the DSP in inappropriate situations. I’m yet to get a response, but I’m not surprised as requests of ministers from both sides, Labor or Liberal can take up to five weeks. (When I receive a response, I will ask the editor to update this article.)
Let’s now fast forward to 15 March 2014. I make my way to the Gosford CBD to participate in the March In March protest and then speak at the rally following the march.
When it’s my turn to speak, I get the piece of paper that I have my notes on, out of my pocket.
I start off by holding up the sign I was carrying above my head during the March:
'ABBOTT GIVES TO THE RICH AND TAXES THE POOR!'
Now, that slogan as a result of this budget hasn’t just stayed a slogan, it’s reality. Joe Hockey giving an extra $8.8 billion to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) when they didn’t ask for it, giving Rupert Murdoch $880m in tax back, the endless mining subsidises that Gina Rinehart and other mining magnates benefit from, proposing to end the mining tax, the endless tax concessions that the rich get and of course, the six figure pensions that he, and other politicians are in line for when they retire.
Meanwhile, families, pensioners and the disabled have to pay extra in fuel excise, have to pay $7 every time you go to the doctor, get a blood test, get an x-ray and anything that you previously paid nothing for. They will have to pay extra for medications and of course, the cuts to pensions and unemployment benefits.
I mentioned the Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews earlier in this article, now it’s time to examine what he has said. We need to remember that this is the man who was responsible for authoring a bill to override the Northern Territory Euthanasia Laws. He was also the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations during the Howard Government and the WorkChoices debacle.
I watched in outrage on Kevin Andrews’ in a press conference in Melbourne on the 10 May.
In that press conference, he stated:
“The days of easy welfare for young people is over. We want a fair system, but we don’t think it’s fair that young people can just sit on the couch at home and pick up a welfare cheque.”
This comes back to what Eric Abetz said about the hammock.
This implies that young people on the DSP are just bludgers. This is simply not the case.
I accept that there will be people, a small minority of people, who rort the system — but the vast majority of recipients are genuine recipients and lets be under no illusion that it is “easy” to get on the DSP.
For starters, you have to have at least one “permanent” medical condition, it needs to be either a physical, intellectual or psychiatric disability and it must be fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised. This means you cannot get the DSP if your condition isn’t likely to significantly improve within two years. If you meet all this, you are then assessed against the impairment tables and you must get at least 20 points to qualify for the DSP. The condition must have a “severe” impact on day-to-day functioning and you can only get the DSP if you cannot work 15 hours or more.
So, it is not easy to get on the DSP. It’s not “easy welfare” as Kevin Andrews likes to call it. The vast majority of people on the DSP aren’t sitting at home on the couch and picking up a welfare cheque.
When I first applied for the DSP back in 2010, I was 16 and I had to apply up to three times until I was seen as a genuine recipient. I know people who are more disabled than me that have had the same problem.
I’ll say again: it’s not easy getting on the DSP, it’s quite hard.
I’d now like to talk about the now infamous front page of the Daily Telegraph on 22 May 2014, which was subsequently featured on the ABC’s Media Watch and has since been referred to the Australian Press Council.
The headline was 'Slackers and Slouch Hats' the article stated that the number of DSP recipients outnumber Australia’s war wounded by 44,000. This argument is not a new one from the Telegraph. They also made the same comparison on the 2 June 2011.
The article in May seemed to focus mainly on the mentally disabled. It seems that, in the Telegraph’s view, if you have an invisible illness, you shouldn’t qualify for government assistance; that if you have an invisible illness, you are a slacker and should get to work instead of making it all up.
I’ll repeat, it isn’t easy to get the DSP and many genuine recipients are denied. Many disabled – and particularly mentally disabled people – feel ostracised from the community and front pages from a major Sydney newspaper explain why.
But that front page didn’t just offend the disabled in my view — it trivialised the sacrifice that so many brave diggers have made for the betterment of this country. It used that sacrifice to seek to make a political point and that is something, in my view, that is never appropriate.
The rhetoric coming from Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews and the Daily Telegraph all thing from the same hymn sheet. It’s saying that people on the DSP are simply lazy and need to get a job.
This is simply not true and they know it.
It’s not “easy welfare” because it’s not easy to get on the DSP and most DSP recipients don’t want to be on the DSP — they want to be active and contributing members of society.
We’ve heard a lot about the Budget, but behind that talk there is real people — real people that these changes are going to hurt and real people that this rhetoric hurts.
The Greens, Labor and Palmer United should unite to block these unfair changes and send a message to the government to stop this unfair attack on the most vulnerable in society.
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