What is this, a welfare state?

By | 2011/11/11

It’s long been acknowledged that an unfortunate national trait in Australia is “tall poppy syndrome”; that’s where if someone becomes popular, or successful, it’s almost seen as a bad thing. This can lead to savage personal attacks on celebrities, politicians, etc., for no other real reason than “they’re more successful than I”.

Unfortunately, a growing trait that is less discussed is the “kick a poor bastard while he’s down” one. This is a festering, pestilent rancorous trait that comes from the bogan attitudes spewed with vitriolic disdain from shock jocks, imitation current affairs shows, and tabloid journalism.

I hate to sound crass, but it’s effectively about the Americanisation of Australia’s social welfare system. It spews from the notion of a fair go for everyone means everyone pulls their weight, which sounds logical, until you realise that it’s a trojan horse for rolling back welfare advances as an appeal to narcissistic bogan greed and problem simplification.

It appeals to dark and selfish thoughts like:

I pay my taxes, I don’t want to support bludgers.

Why should someone get paid for not working?

The radio and TV tells me that people fake injuries all the time.

If I can’t see an injury it mustn’t be serious.

Everyone should be required to contribute.

People who are out of work should do any work they can get in preference to benefits.

Immigrants shouldn’t get benefits.

And here’s what really gets my goat: it’s a betrayal of core, human, moral values. It’s a betrayal of us cooperatively forming a better society by helping everyone reach their potential, and ensuring those who need the most help get it.

It’s an affirmation of that insidious stockmarket attitude of the 80’s, “Greed is good”.

In simple, it’s about creating a mean society. A society where paranoia and suspicion take priority over respect and pity. Yes, pity. Pity is not a swear word. Pity doesn’t mean infinite handouts or molly-coddling, but it does mean sympathy. If we let the idiots and the greedy dominate the welfare argument, we become a society without sympathy.

When we become too mean, people suffer. Penny-wise, pound-foolish as the saying goes – bitching and scrimping and demanding money be kept away from bludgers, a degeneration of welfare harms and hinders rather than helps. In Even conservatives say the dole is too low:

“THE right-wing economist handpicked by former prime minister John Howard to set the minimum wage has declared the dole is too low and warned that giving people so little to survive on is causing desperation and depression.”

(Misha Schubert, The Age, 16 October 2011.)

The dole, as it currently stands in Australia, according to the above article, is $245 a week. Advocates, including that economist cited above, are arguing for a $50 a week increase, which will be a bottom line impact of around $1 billion AU per year on our budget. However, that’s still less than the current $375 per week for the disability pension, or $590 per week as the minimum wage. How many of those people who run around screaming about dole bludgers, for instance, could happily survive on $245 per week? We’re told, by the way, in that article:

“When your living standards are going down like that, people get desperate and depressed. The system is out of kilter. And if they stay on it long enough, they get depression and then they’re moved on to the DSP [disability support pension]”.

In other words, treat people mean enough and it’ll come back and bite you on the arse.

Tellingly, the simple truth about the inequity of welfare payments and potential increases was summed up with the following:

“If you start to build up the case [for a $50 per week dole increase], if you can get someone like me on side, you can just tell the shock jocks to piss off. They’d spend $245 on a meal. And the thing about that is you can confront them. Most people would say, gosh, that can’t be right, it’s so low.”

Actually, most people when confronted with that sort of truth – $245 a week – wouldn’t settle for “gosh”.

Yet, elements of the media are obsessed with spoon feeding the ignorant with stories that increase their ratings by providing people with an excuse for self-aggrandising feelings of what they feel is righteous anger. Dole bludgers, welfare cheats. People claiming depression yet they’re filmed outside in a park smiling. People claiming serious injuries but they’re shown carrying a shopping bag.

Sadly, we’ve seen the logical conclusion to this, where one of Australia’s supposed “current affairs” programmes exposed a person who had been supposedly doing dodgy VCR repairs, hounded him … and he committed suicide. Supposedly such little things are food for fodder for the masses; we’re told these are the “important” issues.

Except, they’re not. People doing bad repairs? People cheating welfare? These aren’t the “real” issues. If current affairs programmes were serious about their work they’d spend time documenting and investigating institutions that have been covering up child abuse for decades. But you see, those institutions have lawyers, and what Australians typically see as current affairs programmes are actually just bully shows. And bullies don’t like picking on anyone who can give them a bloody nose back.

Yet, I digress.

Someone reading this, who disagrees with me, is likely to be champing at the bit to point out that there are welfare cheats and there are people who claim to have injuries but don’t really, etc.

And I’d fully agree with them. If you take any system at all that is designed to work as a safety net, then I, as a non-gambling man, would lay odds that someone will find a loop hole and abuse it. Systems are there to be used, but they’re also going to be abused.

The mean spirited approach to welfare consists of the following ‘logic’:

  1. People abuse welfare.
  2. To prevent people abusing welfare we’ll:
    • Minimise the amount of money paid;
    • Maximise the effort of the people claiming welfare to get that welfare;
    • Assume that everyone claiming welfare is potentially cheating.

It’s actually contrary to our entire justice system – innocent until proven guilty – for welfare, you’re guilty until proven innocent.

My simple response to the issue of welfare cheats is this: so what?

Acknowledging that a safety net is going to be abused doesn’t mean giving people free reign to abuse it. It means simply accepting that no matter what is done, someone will find a loop hole. So we have better checks in place, and appropriate punishments for cheats, but we don’t continually accuse the innocent, when they’re already down on their luck and struggling, of being guilty.

Now, what right do I have to say this?

Well, I’m a high tax payer. I’m in the highest tax bracket in Australia, and I have been for several years now. My yearly tax contribution is more than the entire income of someone on a minimum wage for a year. So I, as a high paying tax payer am saying: open the system up, and treat people with the respect they deserve.

For what it’s worth, I’ve received this mean spirited treatment first hand. In 2006, the company I was working for collapsed in a screaming heap. Administrators were called in and all staff were laid off on the spot. From the time the shit hit the fan in a visible way to the time that I lost my job, there were around 3 business days warning.

Having just spent 3+ years working 80 hour weeks in a combined manager/engineer role, having invested so much of myself in my role, with profound feelings of anxiety and panic, I walked into a centrelink office after travelling home from being laid off … and was treated like a sack of shit by some po-faced front-desk worker who felt her job was to be cerberus to the government’s coffers. Someone who took all the effort in the world to point out why I wouldn’t get anything to start with because I didn’t have the right paperwork from the administrators to prove that I wasn’t cheating.

I was unemployed for 4 weeks, and in that time got one payment from centrelink. One measly payment that wasn’t even the full dole amount.

That’s not welfare, that’s public blood sport.

So when I hear someone mouthing shite from tabloid journalism, shock jocks or supposed ‘current affairs’ programmes about how people are defrauding the welfare system, that they’re all cheaters and liars and don’t deserve a cent of that person’s taxpayer money, guess what I think?

You poor bastard: I hope you never need to use welfare.

Australia is meant to be about mateship and helping people when they’re down, but the attacks on the welfare system are a direct attack on that spirit. If you want to see where Australia is headed, have a look at America: those poor bastards can’t even get universal healthcare in place, because people selfishly say “why is it my problem if my neighbour – or worse, someone I don’t even know – gets sick?” Those poor bastards lose their jobs and are given a timeframe to get a new job or they become cast off by the system.

[For follow up reading, I suggest you look at “Paula’s Benefits” over at Bipolar Bear’s Blog].

3 thoughts on “What is this, a welfare state?

  1. Paul Uttley

    Wow! What a brilliant commentary! This article should be in the mainstream media and discussed by so called ‘ones in the know’who have no answers to something so simply elegant.

  2. Ian Milliss

    Have to agree, one of those brilliant blog posts that demonstrates how shameful the mainstream media is.

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