Tony Abbott wants to
reform tax and welfare so that it pays to work.
His recent speech did not go into detail, but he wants to replace the
existing system of pensions and allowances for working-age adults with a
single payment, and to change income tax to avoid penalising people who
move from welfare into employment.
The case for reforming the welfare system is overwhelming. In 1965,
only 3 per cent of working-age adults relied wholly on welfare; today it
is about 14 per cent. In the mid-60s there were 22 workers for every
working-age person dependent on welfare benefits; today there are just
five. This system is unfair and unsustainable.
Tony Abbott and Senator Vanstone think part of the answer lies in
abolishing the distinction between pensions and allowances. The present
system, they say, is too rigid and claimants in similar circumstances get
treated very differently according to how they are classified. Workers
classified as 'unemployed', for example, are subject to mutual obligation
requirements while those classified as 'disabled' are not.
But the solution to this is not to abolish the distinction; it is to
improve the way people are classified.
Blending pensions and allowances into a single payment would massively
increase welfare spending, for allowances are currently less generous than
pensions and the commitment is to increase them.
Removing the distinction between people deemed capable of supporting
themselves and those who are not also sends out the wrong signals, for we
need to emphasise that support for the former group is strictly temporary.
When the Americans reformed their welfare system in 1996 they named their
new, time-limited, benefit "Temporary Assistance for Needy
Families" precisely for this reason.
Some working-age people cannot earn an income, and they should receive
generous, and unconditional, pensions. They include people with severe
disabilities and those with full-time caring responsibilities. This group
must be distinguished from claimants who are capable of supporting
themselves and whose situation is therefore transitional.
The problem with the present system is that we define incapacity too
broadly. Twenty years ago, there were 230,000 disability pensioners; today
there are more than 600,000. This number should be halved. Similarly,
single parents with very young children should not be expected to work
(surveys find that most Australians are willing to support them until
their children start school), but under current arrangements, they can
stay on a pension until their children reach 15. Again, we need to tighten
up rather than abolish the pension altogether.
Unlike those who cannot work, people who are capable of working but who
do not have a job should receive temporary and conditional assistance.
Half of all jobseekers find work within eight weeks but attention needs to
be paid to those (about a third of the total) who have been out of work
for a year or more. The Americans have shown that time limits coupled with
a rigorous work requirement can dramatically cut the numbers on welfare.
What about tax reform?
In his speech, Tony Abbott was rightly sceptical about Earned Income
Tax Credits. Overseas experience is that they are expensive and
susceptible to fraud. Furthermore, they have disturbing disincentive
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.