by Dafyd Martindale
When I was a boy, it was drummed into me that I should be proud to be Australian because our country had outlawed starvation.
After the horrors of the Great Depression when men threw themselves off The Gap so their wives could get a widow’s pension, we created a national welfare system that finally put a safety net under everyone.
We were free to try to rise as high as we could, and encouraged to do so.
But if we were struck down by bad luck, illness or unexpected tragedy along the way, we could only fall so far.
Australia had effectively banned destitution and starvation, and good riddance to both.
But in the past few decades we’ve seen a creeping meanness come back into vogue amongst some of our politicians, and it has quietly opened the door for the dark twins of destitution and starvation to stalk our land once more.
What made me think of it this week is an item in the Federal Budget that seems to have escaped wide public attention: our Government has begun to privatise Centrelink by stealth.
What many people don’t know is that in the period the current Government has been in office, 5000 jobs have been cut from the Department Of Human Services, which oversees Centrelink, Medicare, job seeker and child support services amongst other things.
Now a further 1200 jobs are slated to be cut from Centrelink, along with several hundred more from an efficiency dividend.
Even worse, the Government has quietly slipped in ‘a trial’ of outsourcing 250 jobs to a commercial call centre, potentially giving a private business – possibly located offshore – access to people’s most personal and private information.
As current clients already know, getting through to a Centrelink office is a nightmare.
But with the new round of cuts, this is only going to get worse.
Now, while I’m not critical of anyone who is unlucky enough to work for Centrelink and enforce its inhumane policies (think: robo-debt, the DSP saga, age pension claims being delayed, or stripping people of all benefits if they fail to clear a sufficient number of hurdles), I certainly am critical of the politicians who have allowed the current system to come about.
I’m even more critical of the cuts the latest Budget has introduced to an organisation already critically under-staffed, yet tasked with the vitally important job of looking after our most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens.
And I think attacking “soft targets” like the unemployed and pensioners by making the system even more tortuous is a disgrace.
Our Government’s focus on getting the Budget back to surplus in the shortest possible time seems to have made them forget the market exists to serve the needs of society – not the other way around.
We need a welfare system that is humane, compassionate and well-resourced.
And our children deserve a future that has those things as firmly embedded in the nation’s bedrock as they were when many of us were children.