03 April 2018

The appalling legacy of Jocelyn Newman

Howard government minister, political matriarch, social reformer and Godmother of Centrelink Jocelyn Newman passed away over the weekend at the age of 80.  Don't go to a Centrelink office to express your grief, though; security guards are trained to surround you if you cry. Instead, I thought we'd take a chance to reflect on Ms Newman's terrible legacy.

Campbell Newman being interviewed (cropped)
No, not him.

When I refer to Jocelyn Newman as a social reformer, it is not a compliment. Ms Newman was architect and engineer of Centrelink, the interface of the Australian welfare system. Centrelink was established on Ms Newman's watch in 1997, combining several previous government departments such as the Department of Social Security and the actually useful Commonwealth Employment Service into a one stop shop of human misery. It's worth reflecting that it whilst the Liberal party claims to be for individual choice and small government, it was a Liberal government who created a horrifying byzantine bureaucracy. They labelled it all under the auspices of choice but for Australia's disadvantaged, the "choice" means submitting to the routine humiliations of Centrelink, or resorting to poverty and potential crime. And for all the rhetoric of a single government agencies reducing inefficiency, duplication and waste, the myriad sections of Centrelink are often completely separate from each other, unable to access each other's systems or even contact other departments.

A full account of the miseries Centrelink uses to punish those who require its services would be depressing to write and tedious to read. The mainstream media brings us frequent accounts of Centrelink woes, sometimes ironically, such as in this article from the Daily Telegraph about the Welfare Super Bludger, which is not a really shit new children's superhero but a mythical recipient of Newstart allowance with the article highlighting one putative job seeker who stuffs up. (Apparently the guy misbehaved at 99 job interviews. How does anyone get 99 job interviews in a single year, let alone through employment service providers?!). There's little indication of larger issues, such as the cost of all the monitoring, the fact that people with disabilities are largely forced to rely on Newstart (and comply with "mutual obligation" requirements) instead of receiving the disability support pension let alone basic problem the ratio of jobseekers to jobs. 

It all feeds in to the myth of the welfare bludger, whom everyone seems to know - any facebook post about the low rate of Newstart is flooded with irate commentators describing their neighbour who's been on the dole for years, spending all day playing video games, getting tattoos and going on holidays - triggering endless audits and crackdowns that but never shows up in audits. When there are not enough jobs to go around - especially with the loss of blue collar and unskilled employment - demanding job seekers comply with mutual obligation requirements is a farce. Requiring job seekers to show up at an office for a day a week applying for jobs that don't exist without addressing any of the reasons why they became unemployed serves little purpose other than to punish the job seeker for being unemployed in the first place. It's not at least giving them a chance or getting them out of the house; it is demeaning, humiliating and horrible.

And today we won't even get started on the changes to granting of the disability support pension with insanely restrictive criteria forcing thousands of ill and injured people to deal with the job search system and providers with no understanding of disability - again, all to catch out the mythical bludger:


"The best form of welfare is a job" is the homeopathy of social services. It doesn't work and it makes no sense, but its adherents cling to it with religious fervour and become defensive and angry when challenged.

Jocelyn Newman cannot of course solely be blamed for the sorry state of affairs for Australian job seekers today, just as Centrelink cannot really be blamed for the policies they are forced to enact, like denying dying people the disability support pension. It's takes an entire government, and their mindset of the disadvantaged as a societal evil writ in policies punishing the poor for their very existence, for that. (Not that Labor is ever much better; witness the Gillard Labor government turfing single parents, regardless of training or childcare or anything else, off single parenting payments and onto Newstart).

In truth, it's been decades of bloody minded adherence to neoliberal policies in spite of all evidence that has created the whole welfare hell; but in creating Centrelink, Jocelyn Newman opened up a corporatised, centralised portal to that hell.

It's worth examining how far the current Australian welfare system has strayed from the ideals under which it was established in the days after World War Two: 

"The moment we establish, or perpetuate, the principle that the citizen, in order to get something he needs or wants and to which he has looked forward, must prove his poverty, we convert him into a suppliant to the state for benevolence.

That position is inconsistent with the proper dignity of the citizen in a democratic country. People should be able to obtain these benefits as a matter of right, with no more loss of their own standards of self-respect than would be involved in collecting from an insurance company the proceeds of an endowment policy on which they have been paying premiums for years."


Which raging lefty socialist uttered these words? Why, it was Robert Menzies. Now there's a legacy I'd like to see revived.

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