Kevin Andrews chose Easter to reveal that thousands of Australians were likely to face reassessments of pensions – a worrying announcement for vulnerable people
Readers will no doubt be familiar with the Kinder Surprise phenomenon. A marketing wunderkinds slant on the Easter egg, the Kinder Surprise is often placed strategically in check outs within toddler reach, and the attraction more often lies with the plastic toy inside it, rather than the promised calcium-rich chocolate hit.
This year, people with disabilities were startled by our very own Easter surprise, which was delivered by the federal minister for social services, Kevin Andrews.
Rather than presenting us with a Star Wars twist-head toy or even a message of goodwill, Andrews chose Easter to reveal that thousands of Australians with disability and their families were likely to face retrospective reassessments of pensions come the federal budget in a few weeks’ time.
People with disability were not the only ones to be spluttering over their chocolate – family GPs were also in for a surprise by the revelation that they were seen as compromised by their relationships to patients and at risk of doing something that’s “not valid” when assessing whether patients were fit to work. The proposal, cautiously backed by the Australian Medical Association, was less than welcomed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Liz Marles, who riposted that GPs were quite capable of diagnosing people accurately and professionally.
The reality is that for many people, renewed testing means a possibility of being tossed onto Newstart, a much lower payment which comes with a regime of activity testing.
When the various supplements and benefits are stacked up, Newstart is around $160 per week less than the disability support pension, meaning that already vulnerable people are likely to be faced with invidious choices: between paying the rent, electricity, medication or food, as well as, in the absence of full rollout of the NDIS, having to choose between equipment and essential disability supports.
There are worrying parallels with the dire situation faced by people with disability in the UK. Tens of thousands of sick and disabled people were wrongly assessed as fit for work by the private company Atos, which was meant to provide independent work capacity assessments. The personal consequences of these decisions has been rammed home by reports of people with Parkinson's disease being assessed as "work ready". Even more disturbing were reports of suicide by people who lost their benefits.
Australia is not the UK and we don’t need to be, yet our debate has also gotten off to a bad start with a focus on psychosocial disability. Assessing the work capacity of a person with a psychosocial disability is notoriously difficult, mainly because the situation is so changeable. When a person with manic depression is well, or even in a manic state, they can seem highly employable – even exceptional. When they are sick they are debilitated, sometimes with little notice.
I question the judgment of government in choosing to drop another holiday bombshell on people with disability, who are now spending Easter worrying about whether they will have an income rather than spending quality time with loved ones and families (you might remember that in the lead up to Christmas, we were treated to Yuletide headlines promising to "bust bludgers" and crack down on "disability cheats"). These bombshells come in the absence of serious work – like the interim report of the McClure review – or indications that government is engaging with a meaningful program of broader reforms capable of addressing the many systemic and attitudinal barriers that keep too many people with disability out of the workforce.
A fresh start on jobs using the ideas presented by People with Disability Australia, rather than attacks on people on the disability support pension, would be a more appropriate discussion to have as we ponder the themes of reflection, redemption and renewal that should mark Easter in the Christian calendar.
SOURCE: The Gaurdian