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Mission Australia discusses the Welfare Reform Report which recommends measures to deal with disability pensions.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: It might become known as the ‘bad-back budget’ as the Howard government seeks to move up to 200,000 people off the disability support pension and into work or onto the dole. The federal Treasurer argues the largest category receiving disability support is made by of those with bad backs, and they should be encouraged to get rehabilitation and do part-time work.


But welfare and disability support groups are strongly critical of this crackdown, arguing the disadvantage to being forced to bear the brunt of increased spending on security and border protection; the view shared by Labor and the Democrats who are vowing to oppose the measures. Cathy Van Extel is with us again from Canberra.


Cathy, you’d have to say by far the most contentious aspect of the budget is these measures for disability support, or should we say lack of it now?


CATHY VAN EXTEL: It depends on your point of view on that one, Vivian, but it’s also probably the hardest politically for the government to sell. We’re already seeing individual stories of people with disabilities explaining their own tragic personal circumstances and how the measures will make their lives even more difficult, and those stories are only going to continue. So the government is arguing that the numbers of people on disability support are growing dramatically and the concern is that there are some people who are using it to take advantage of the more generous support that it provides.


The government doesn’t want to be seen as being heartless on the disadvantaged, and you could argue that’s why we’re hearing about bad backs. The challenge for the government is to convince the community that genuinely disabled people who really can’t find work aren’t going to be worse off under these measures. There is a concern that is being held, as you mentioned, by welfare groups. It’s also held by the author of the Welfare Reform Report, which recommended measures to deal with disability pensions. Patrick McClure is the CEO of Mission Australia, and he joins us this morning. Thank you for your time today.


PATRICK McCLURE: Good morning.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Your report recommended that the 30-hour threshold for disability pensions should be changed. The government is looking at restricting it to people who are unable to work at least 15 hours. Is that fair?


PATRICK McCLURE: The report had 65 recommendations and this was just one of them, and it needs to be really seen in context. When you look at the issue of disability support pension, as you rightly point out, there are 650,000 people on it, and so it’s a substantial outlay of income support payments. What the McClure report recommended—and we also welcome in this budget—is better assessment of individuals as they apply for a disability support pension. So it means that not only having a medical assessment, which is done by GPs and in a medical setting, the capacity for individuals to work is also looked at. So given a person’s condition, would they be available or able to participate in part-time work or full-time work, training, rehabilitation measures and so on. And so that better assessment at the beginning is, I believe, a good step forward as we move ahead.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: What about halving the 30-hour threshold?


PATRICK McCLURE: Where I have concerns is this modification of eligibility criteria, so one of the modifications is that they’re going to reduce the hours worked from 30 to 15. Another is that there is going to be a range of different interventions that people, not only employment ones but rehabilitation that people will be required to participate in. And there’ll be a special emphasis on people who are over 55, so that they can keep them in the work force.


But when you look, again, at our report, what we said was by all means, looking at the reduction of working hours, but we said you also have to take into account the cost of disability because for many people, particularly those with a manifest, that is a serious disability, there is a lot of cost associated with it, and then on top of that we said for those that are seeking work we should be looking at a participation supplement, that is money that would be available for them to cover the costs of transport if they lived in rural or remote areas or outlying suburbs of the capital cities, for transport; taking into account clothing expenses and all of the other expenses associated with looking for work.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So has the government in this budget then wielded the stick but not provided the carrot?


PATRICK McCLURE: That’s exactly right. It just doesn’t have the balance and it’s not the spirit of our report which was that there was no aim to disadvantage people who were on a disability support pension. By all means, we said, let’s do a better assessment of people coming into the system because obviously the increase in numbers of people on disability support pension is of concern, and how sustainable that is into the future is a question, so better assessment at the beginning. But if we are going to look at modifying the eligibility criteria let’s make sure, if people are put onto a Newstart allowance which would disadvantage them by $26 a week, because it’s a lower payment. They also miss out on the pensioner concession card and there’s an income test that they are subject to.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: They’ll also be paying extra for pharmaceutical benefits.


PATRICK McCLURE: That’s exactly right. So what we’re saying is that—and this was the spirit of the report—let’s take into account cost of disability, so that would be an additional payment available to them, and also this participation supplement which was to assist them in their job search.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: The government has allocated extra money for rehabilitation skill support positions, something like $73,000. There is some concern though, with estimates of 200,000 people to be moved across to either work or to the dole that people are going to fall through the gaps. Do you share that concern?


PATRICK McCLURE: It’s a real concern. We can be very glib and say: Let’s get people 55 and over into work. But Mission Australia is a major provider in the Job Network. This is a very disadvantaged group, the 55 and over, and they do need special interventions, they need to be skilled up into the new jobs in an ever-changing labour market. There are special interventions needed for people with disabilities in the same way that there is special interventions needed for people that are mature. And so just to glibly say: Look, we’ll place them into what are mainstream programs. I think doesn’t take into account the special circumstances that these groups have. So yes, there is a concern. We welcome again the 73,000 extra places, but as you say it’s probably not enough.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Patrick McClure, thank you for your time this morning.


PATRICK McCLURE: My pleasure.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Patrick McClure, Mission Australia’s Chief Executive Officer, who chaired the independent reference group on welfare reform, and he was speaking with Cathy Van Extel in Canberra.