It is generally quite difficult to obtain a disability support pension in Australia. It requires job capacity and impairment tests, and many who are significantly impaired still miss out. But there is another problem that has been neglected in most of the debate about the issue. Pensioners generally are assessed differently if they have a partner. The consequence is a perverse incentive for pensioners not to enter into a partner relationship or marry. With the Disability Support Pension, there may be a loss of income of around $200 a fortnight as a consequence of entering a partner relationship or getting married. If the partner has a high income that is one thing, but many such couples are both on low incomes or welfare. Also, if a person's partner has a higher income, there is a problem with reinforcing dependence – while inhibiting the independence of disability and other pensioners. When this is combined with other government measures, such as running a trial of the Indue Cashless Debit Card, or attempting to claw back money from the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it becomes clear we have a government which is trying to implement an austerity aimed at the most vulnerable.
The bottom line is that these arrangements condemn hundreds of thousands of disabled Australians to likely isolation and loneliness, where they must fear the financial consequences of having relationships.
At the same time, Medicare is under attack. Labor MP in Bendigo, Victoria, Lisa Chesters has observed how recent cuts to Medicare will "radically alter the cost of hundreds of orthopaedic, cardiac and general surgery items." As Chesters explained: "Patients now face the prospect of life-changing surgeries being cancelled at the last minute or being landed with huge bills they didn't expect." And yet these matters have received very little attention in the mainstream media.
We need a Labor Opposition which defends Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). But we also need a Labor opposition which goes beyond the strictly defensive and comes up with innovative and ground-breaking measures to extend the social wage and the welfare state, along with legislated wage increases for those on low incomes.
This would inevitably involve tax reform. Ideally, Labor should be aiming to reform progressive tax to the tune of 5% of GDP over 10 years, or at least three terms of Federal Government. This would bring us closer to OECD average levels of tax and social expenditure. Rolling back unfair means testing of pensions – including disability pensions – would empower hundreds of thousands of women and men and give them greater independence. It would also empower those people to enter into relationships without fear of destitution. Eligibility tests should also be relaxed so those incapable of full time work are not threatened with exclusion.
The 'LIFE' (Living Incomes for Everyone) campaign is demanding a minimum $550 a week for all. This would mean a great deal to job-seekers living in poverty, especially if combined with other measures like investment in public housing, although ideally disability pensions specifically should increase by at least $150/fortnight in any case – rising to about $1100/fortnight.
No-one should be in the position of having to say they 'cannot afford to enter into a relationship'. The NDIS, despite its faults, was a big step forward for disabled Australians. Instead of panicking over the cost, we need to accept that providing services for these people meets what is perhaps the most defensible socialist principle: that each should contribute what they can, and receive what they need. This principle needs to become a society-wide 'common sense' so that it is accepted even by many conservatives as, for instance, occurred with the issue of marriage equality. But ironically, there is no real 'marriage equality' for all, if some need fear being thrown into poverty and dependence should they enter a marriage-type relationship.
Progressives need to agitate to make this a real issue in the upcoming Federal election. The advocacy of Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten was crucial for the initial implementation of the NDIS. The NDIS is not perfect, but is a vast improvement on the vacuum that existed before. Now progressives need additional policy champions within the ALP – as well as small 'l' liberals and 'compassionate conservatives' in the LNP – to agitate and take the reform process further.
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