05 July 2018

Disability welfare reform must start at the top

Yet another terrible story of a seriously ill person being told by Centrelink that they don't qualify for the disability support pension.

Single father Robert Laughlin is battling stage 3 bowel cancer. He's currently in a Melbourne hospital, unable to speak or move much, and being fed via tube; obviously unable to work or look for work. Centrelink have denied his Disability Support Pension application, forcing him on to the lower rate Newstart unemployment payment, with its "mutual obligation" requirements to report to Centrelink offices and apply for 20 jobs a fortnight. His family are rightly and justifiably furious. 



Unfortunately Centrelink have come back with their standard response to these issues: “We recognise medical conditions can have a significant impact on people’s lives; however, we do not have any discretion to grant payments outside the very clear criteria set down in legislation.”

This problem comes up again and again. In order to qualify for the disability support pension, a person's condition must be treated, permanent, fully diagnosed and stabilised. And even that isn't enough; you still need to be assessed by Centrelink health assessors, who can override the recommendations of your own treating physicians if they do not believe that your condition is sufficiently grave to disqualify you from any kind of work.

So, there's probably not much point speaking to Centrelink themselves about this. If it's a problem with the legislation, we need to change the legislation. We need to be putting pressure on the government. Either the criteria for Disability Support Pension needs to change, or we need a new payment that covers people in situations where their illness may not be stable or permanent, but they are still unable to work.

And the assessment of ability to work must be realistic, not based on the wishful thinking of conservatives that anyone can get a job if they just try hard enough. (Someone on Twitter said - and I wish I could find it so I could give them credit - that telling an unemployed person "the best form of welfare is a job" is like telling a drowning person "the best solution for drowning is fresh air").

Getting the current government to make life a little bit easier for those facing difficulty with it, however, will be like teaching a cat to waterski by giving it written instructions. The current Minister for Human Services is Michael Keenan. No, I'd never heard of him either. But the top two stories on his ministerial website laud the praises of charging interest on welfare debt repayments and a crack down on welfare cheats in Mount Druitt, so I'm guessing the guy isn't operating off a basis of compassion, or for that matter evidence. Nevertheless, there's a contact form on his website, so I'll be firing off a message today. (I'm always cordial when I do this, FWIW). I'd also recommend contacting your MP. Let's make this an election issue. If Labor and the Greens supported this, the Liberals would probably have to as well to avoid looking like dickheads.

There's an argument heard against increasing the rate of Newstart allowance: it's only meant to be a temporary payment. It's meant to tide you over during gaps in employment; it doesn't need to be livable because it's not meant to be a payment you live on. But changes to the disability support pension mean that for many people it is an allowance they live on for extended periods; they have no reasonable prospect of work, but are not deemed ill enough - or their condition is deteriorating, and not therefore stable - to receive the disability payment. It's a ridiculous, heartbreaking and ultimately untenable situation. Ordinary people know this; now we need to get our politicians to know it as well.