It is true that "no government can afford to be seen to hurt the most disadvantaged in the community" (Dennis Shanahan, The Australian 20/11/00).
Yet that is precisely what this Government is doing through its unjustifiably harsh social security penalties regime.
Over 300,000 penalties imposed on 200,000 people in the last 12 months constitutes a 250 per cent increase in the last three years.
With penalties of $760 to $1400 for not attending an interview at Centrelink, the Government is achieving annual savings of $170 million at the expense of some of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable unemployed people.
One group badly affected are homeless people who fail to receive Centrelink letters. People with mental illness or episodic psychiatric conditions, young people and Indigenous Australians are also disproportionately caught out by these
extremely harsh penalties.
They are not only having a devastating impact on the penalised individuals but also on the charities and community welfare agencies to whom they turn for help.
So much so that 22 such groups (including the Anglican, Catholic and Uniting Church charities and The Salvation Army) united in November to call on the Government to overhaul its 'mutual obligation' penalty regime. In part, the petition
"We support an active welfare system in which every effort is made to assist unemployed people into work, and to support students with their studies. We also support a system in which people are required to meet basic rules to maintain
their benefit entitlements - but the rules must be fair and comprehensible, they must be fairly applied, and the punishment should fit the infringement.
These three pre-conditions do not exist in the present system. As a result, difficult lives are being made doubly hard by the excessive penalties that are rigorously imposed on those who infringe often complex and unreasonable social
Fair and balanced obligations
The McClure Report on welfare reform also strongly argued for the Government to adopt a new approach to 'mutual obligation'. The McClure Report said that penalties should only be used as a "last resort". ACOSS argues that they should
also be appropriate to those on low incomes.
A properly balanced policy of 'mutual obligation' along the lines that the McClure Report proposed to Government is a long way from the current system of harsh requirements and limited assistance with training and jobs.
A 'mutual obligation' policy that was balanced and fair would see the primary obligation resting with the Government to provide an adequate social security payment as well as opportunities for employment, training and rehabilitation that will
help unemployed people, sole parents and disability pensioners overcome their very real barriers to employment.
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