The Australian welfare system has always been needlessly cruel. Now it’s punishing half the country | Tom Hawking | Opinion

Like a lot of people, I called Centrelink on Monday. After 11 attempts to get through, I was greeted with a message directing me to the MyGov website. Navigating that site eventually revealed that to register, I’d need a Customer Reference Number, which could only be obtained … by phone. Welcome to the 12 Tasks of Centrelink.

Judging by the lengthy message imploring callers not to abuse staff to which you’re forced to listen before you’re admitted into the oubliette that is Centrelink’s phone queue at the moment, there are a lot of people out there who are angry and bewildered at the current situation. This, of course, is hardly surprising: the unprecedented economic effects of coronavirus mean that there are a lot of people turning to the government to help for the first time, and they’re clearly not impressed by the system they’re being required to navigate.

Anyone more used to dealing with that system, however, will find the maddeningly circular experience of trying to get any sense out of Centrelink all too familiar … which, of course, is the whole point.

Over the last 30 years or so, successive governments have done their best to one-up each other in making benefits ever more difficult to access. Every passing year seems to bring a new requirement: the diaries that need to be filled out to “prove” you’re looking for work, with their implication that those claiming benefits are liars; the demerit point system, whereby applicants are punished unilaterally and without right of appeal – and, in many cases, unfairly – at the discretion of private service provider; the “mutual obligation” system with its ever-moving goalposts, questionable courses and pointless make-work.

How did we come to this? Like many other systems, the Australian welfare system has its roots in the post-war consensus and welfare state, and the understanding that the provision of state support is preferable to a situation where loss of employment can result in homelessness and destitution. And as in many other countries, as that consensus has crumbled under 40 years of free-market rhetoric and neoliberal economic policy, the support system has slowly devolved from a well-intentioned safety net into an ever-constricting noose.

Under the particular combination of social and economic conservatism that took hold in Australia during the John Howard years (and in many other western democracies over the period that basically began with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan), a need for state assistance is treated less as an economic crisis than it is as a moral failure on the claimant’s part. For decades now, the unemployed have been among the favourite political punching bags of politicians and ideologues alike, perhaps because the very existence of both these groups seems to undermine the promise of free market rhetoric: those who advocate for unrestrained capitalism do so on the basis that the market will inevitably elevate and enrich those who work hard enough. Those who remain poor and/or unemployed, therefore, must, by definition, not be trying hard enough.

Thus is born the mythology of the dole bludger: the idler who refuses to work, and in doing so, “steals” the tax dollars of those who do work hard and, in doing so, pay to subsidise his/her laziness. The simple act of asking for help is rendered in criminal terms (and, not coincidentally, in a manner strikingly similar to how asking for refugee is portrayed). With this in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that work for the dole programs quite literally treat the unemployed in the same way as criminals. And in the same way that harsher prison sentences do little to reduce crime, the irony of punitive welfare programs is that, far from “encouraging” people back into work, they instead have the effect of locking people into the welfare system.

The government has hastened to make it clear that those seeking Covid-19-related help will be spared some of the worst depredations of the system. But what makes those who lost their jobs during a pandemic any more trustworthy than those who lost their job for any other reason? Why are the former spared the indignity of being treated as scrounging chancers? As with many of the other “necessary” social indignities that have been magically “set aside” for Covid-19, the fact these measures can be so easily discarded only goes to show how unnecessary they were in the first place.

If anything positive comes of the Covid-19 crisis, it’ll be to remind Australians that any of us can fall through the cracks and end up as the person that needs help. Perhaps those who have never dealt with Centrelink before will have more empathy with those who have to deal with it on a regular basis, and come to understand that unemployment is not a choice or a way of life; it’s a state that can befall any of us, and one that the vast majority of people want to escape as soon as possible.

In the meantime, faced with a PR disaster, the government is now presented with the challenge of wringing efficiency and helpfulness out of a system designed to provide neither. It’s hard not to take a degree of pleasure out of watching them flail about trying to do so, but it’s also maddening to compare the standards to which the unemployed are held, and the ineptitude with which governments get away: welfare recipients are punished for going to the doctor instead of attending an appointment, and yet Stuart Robert escapes with a casual “my bad” for his complete failure to prepare for the single greatest challenge in living memory to face his department.

We’re told constantly that the unemployed are a drain on society, that we “can’t afford” to increase welfare payments, that we’re “owed” huge sums by fraudulent claimants, and so on. This week has shown what we already knew: that this needlessly cruel system – with its artificial scarcity, its hoarding of resources by the privileged few, and its ceaseless demonisation of those left out – is not a natural state of being. It is imposed on us, and that imposition can be suspended in an emergency. The only question, then, is what constitutes an emergency: who matters, who is important, and who needs to be at risk for the referee to step in and the ghastly game to be stopped.

In 2016 filmmaker Ken Loach described the UK’s benefits system as “a Kafka-esque, Catch-22 situation designed to frustrate and humiliate the claimant to such an extent that they drop out of the system and stop pursuing their right to ask for support if necessary”. His words could just as easily apply to the Australian system, which is also designed to be punitive and humiliating. Right now, it’s punishing and humiliating half the country.

Tom Hawking is a freelance writer based in Melbourne

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