DUNCAN STORRAR: The insidious consequences of disability pension cuts

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(Image by Michael Coghlan/Flickr.)

Duncan Storrar explains the cruel cycle of poverty and devastation being inflicted on the mentally and physically ill by ongoing welfare cuts.

THIS STORY is to explain to people who don't live with mental illness, the security a home can bring.


Jerome closes the door to his small one bedroom flat for the last time.

He has been living here for the last seven years and has made it his home. Jerome has severe social problems, stemming from his horrible childhood.

Three years ago, Jerome lost his Disability Support Pension (DSP) when he accepted a part-time job. The security of his home was bringing stability to his life. When the work ran out, he went back to Centrelink, only to learn that as he had been working, this now made him ineligible for the pension.

Now on Newstart instead of the DSP, Jerome's income is reduced by $140.20 per week to $272.95 per week. This is well below the poverty line ($426.30 per week) and he has never had to live on this amount before.

Since then, Jerome slowly spiralled out of control. The last straw was having his power cut off, which caused him to have a breakdown. He hasn’t paid rent for three months and today is the day he must leave. Behind the door he has just closed, is everything he has collected during the years of stability: a TV and a bed. He found an owner for his dog a week ago and he is walking off to join the thousands of rough sleepers in Australia, using his last cheque to travel to Queensland, likely never be heard from again.

From DSP to Newstart

This is a scenario that plays out daily. It’s the real consequence of government cuts to the Disability Support Pension.

On top of his Newstart payments, Jerome would now need to access a range of services such as Launch Housing, food banks, temporary accommodation, mental health care and extended hospital care — being homeless makes you sick.

For marginal savings – around $7,000 a year in Jerome's case – to social security payments, the government will now spend up to $25,000 a year on social services.

Since the Gillard Government's changes to the disability pension, we have been denying and taking people off the DSP. Then the Abbott Government created a totally out of control situation and the cuts continue with the Turnbull Government's latest "reforms" passing the Senate today (21 March). The current welfare policies make our community’s most vulnerable people susceptible to homelessness, despair, depression and suicide.

I’m mainly speaking of people that have psychological problems from schizophrenia to complex post-traumatic stress disorders —basically, our country’s most vulnerable people. For these people, it is almost impossible to get the pension. Doctors refuse to do reports for Centrelink, these days, as it’s a waste of their time and an insult to have their training ignored.

Many people no longer eligible for a disability pension just cannot get by on the much lower Newstart payment.

You can see the damage that this does as our homelessness rates rise with increased crime rates (prisons have become where people get mental health care now) and in some cases, people who have been drug-free for years going back to drugs.

Centrelink are denying pensions to people with stage four cancer. I have a friend with this problem: because he is not yet completely disabled (he can wipe his own arse) he can work, they say. He is dying and on top of that, he was abused as a child in state care.

For three weeks now, I have been trying to get figures on how many people have been removed from the disability support pension in the last six years, but can only get about five per cent of all the pension reviews. This figure doesn’t include people moving in and out of work, like Jerome, who was refused the pension after losing his job.

Bipartisan cruelty

Both Labor and Coalition politicians support these welfare "savings". 

They see denying 60,000 people welfares as a good thing and praise the savings to the government coffers. What they don’t mention is that they are just transferring the cost to the States. The Herald-Lateral Economics Index of Australia's Wellbeing states that in 2005, the cost of mental health was $160 billion — in 2016, it had risen to $203 billion.

A very large part of this increase is the added stress to the 60,000 people denied the pension since the crackdowns started — although “crackdown” sounds like we are at fault, I should say, "total meanness" by our government, instead. 

So-called “mutual obligations” for people on the Newstart disability stream are more onerous than the normal Newstart, as we have to attend job network providers twice as often as other streams — twice a month instead of one. The workers at these places have no training in trauma and have no understanding of mental illness.

Ending up in this system has become a major anxiety trigger for me: I have personally lost four friends who were taken off the pension, couldn’t cope and have topped themselves. This must stop.

Disability and institutional abuse

Now here is where all this gets evil. Of the people taken off the DSP, many in this group were on a pension due to mental illness resulting from institutional abuse. But the Department of Social Security (DSS) thinks being abused as a child isn’t a good enough reason to be on the pension. I have personally been told by staff at the dole office, “It happened when [I] was a child — get over it”.

I have spent the last four weeks attending Senate hearings in Canberra and Melbourne regarding a redress scheme for survivors of institutional abuse. From sitting through these hearings, I have learned there are additional rules becoming attached to this scheme, written by DSS. So, what that means is, that the same people who think institutional abuse isn’t a reason to get the pension, will be writing the rules setting amounts for people who get redress for the abuse they have suffered. Can people who have been abused really have faith in redress when they have already been driven to abject poverty and homelessness through the decisions the DSS makes about whether they can receive a pension or not?

In short, the true cost of saving a few thousand dollars per person denied the pension is millions added to the States' mental health bills and additional deaths and suicides from the stress such "mutual obligations" bring to the mentally ill. That is the true cost of the pension savings the Turnbull and Morrison are trumpeting. The blood on their hands runs thick and can’t be washed off.

Duncan Storrar is an anti-poverty advocate and has started an advocacy service for children in care and their families. You can follow Duncan on Twitter @indica2007.

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