The Morrison Government's welfare strategy: Bashing the poor

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The Morrison Government’s loathing of people receiving Newstart payments appears to be both infinite and unassuageable.

In the last week alone, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash have stridently advocated for anyone receiving Newstart caught participating in protests against Government policies, to be thrown off the payment. Like rich and controlling mummies and daddies, if they give you money, they own you – mind, body and spirit – and you better do as you’re told or they’ll cut off your funds.

Dutton recommends mandatory gaol terms and, wait for it, public shaming of the protestor’s family. That’s for exercising your right to freedom of assembly, your right to freedom of speech and your right to freedom of association — all of which you apparently relinquish when you apply for Newstart.

Who knew? Is it written in the Centrelink contract?  

The above rights, by the way, while ratified by Australia in an international treaty, are not enshrined in domestic law. Strangely, no Australian government has seen fit to ensure domestic law is compatible with our international treaty obligations in these matters. In failing to ensure this compatibility, successive Australian governments have dishonoured our international obligations and failed to protect our human rights, leaving us vulnerable to being criminalized for merely disagreeing with them.

Presumably, Dutton plans to unleash his black shirts on all protestors and demand we produce evidence that we aren’t on Newstart. Or perhaps any peaceful protestor will be confronted by an armed agent of the state and ordered to produce identity papers, which we will also be forced to carry with us, or risk arrest.

Or, to make it even easier for police, perhaps Newstart recipients will be forced to wear an identifying patch on their clothing or their Indue card around their necks.

We have to be careful what we write these days: what seems at first blush fanciful and deliberately hyperbolic, all too often becomes reality.

This latest punitive Government strategy is underpinned by the highly misleading rationalisation that people out protesting against the hand that doesn’t actually feed them, are stealing time and energy they ought to be dedicating to finding a job. Stealing from whom, you might ask? Why, the state that owns them, because it doles out $40 per day. That’s the value the Coalition Government puts on the bodies of the poor. They buy them for $40 per day, then they own them and if those bodies have the audacity to exercise their human rights, they’ll be deprived of all financial support and thrown in gaol.

The calculated mendacity of this strategy ought to be obvious to anyone. The demands on people receiving Newstart are onerous, time-consuming and powerfully stressful, and must be followed to the letter if they are to receive any money at all. Attempting to create a narrative in which social security recipients enjoy leisurely days they can choose to dedicate to protest –rather than fulfilling Government expectations that they will spend their time looking for work to the exclusion of every other activity – is deliberately intended to further the right-wing fantasy of the idle bludger sat at home, getting stoned and occasionally venturing out to attack the state on its own dime or rather, “taxpayers’ money”.

This narrative is popular with right-wing commentators and middle-class designer-clad participants on talk shows such as ABC TV’s The Drum. It is currently being fiercely contested by social media. 

Perhaps it is time to stop giving platforms to Newstart bashers — in the same way that it’s time to stop giving platforms to climate change deniers. There is no “balance” issue at stake in either matter. At the very least, the well-groomed talking heads pushing the narrative of contempt and loathing for those less financially secure should be forced to provide evidence for their unsubstantiated claims about the natures and habits of people receiving Newstart, and other Government assistance. If they can’t, what are they doing on The Drum and why are they offered a platform to promote their uninformed and bigoted opinions?

Also last week, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston made the extraordinary claim that raising the Newstart payment would only benefit drug dealers and publicans.

The denigration of the poor by the Morrison Government and its supporters shows no sign of easing. Indeed, this past week indicates an escalation in Government propaganda, designed to provoke increasing public hostility and resentment towards the most vulnerable people in our society. There are powerful people both in and outside of government, with platforms provided by various media, whose goal is to humiliate, denigrate and destroy others on the sole basis that they are receiving Newstart.

The circumstances of people receiving social security are highly varied. There are single mothers and some fathers struggling to support their children, who were thrown off slightly more generous family assistance when their youngest child turned eight. There are workers in their 50s and 60s made redundant and unable to find new employment, frequently because of an insidious resistance on the part of employers to engaging older people. There are women without sufficient superannuation, who are also the fastest-growing cohort experiencing homelessness. There are young people couch surfing because they’ve been forced to leave abusive homes.

The despicable stereotyping of Newstart recipients as druggies and alcoholics, who can’t be trusted to manage the meagre amount of money the Government hands out, is utterly sickening. People are struggling to live. How much more suffering do the privileged need to inflict upon them?

Ruston offered no evidence for her disgraceful statement; neither did Dutton and Cash offer any evidence for their appalling assumptions

Contempt for the poor is promoted by Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Pentecostal religion, however, not all the attackers are religious. What we are witnessing in Australia is a hellish marriage between neoliberalism and religion, in which the two unquestioningly support one another against their common enemy — the poor.

The question we must ask the privileged is, what kind of a person are you if you need – yes, that’s need – to savage individuals who are already barely keeping themselves and in many cases their children, alive? And what kind of a Government are you that both encourages and engages in such savaging?

Where wealth is passed off as merit, bad luck is seen as evidence of bad character. This is how ideologues justify punishing the sick and the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw.

Stigmatise those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.

Sarah Kendzior

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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