OPINION

Deliberately cruel welfare policies our growing national shame

I cannot rationalise the social welfare policies that have been rolled out since the last election.
I cannot rationalise the social welfare policies that have been rolled out since the last election.

I am finding myself rubbing my eyes, as if to clear away the disbelief, every time I see the news. I have to be honest - I'm struggling to come to terms with what we are seeing emerge from government leadership and I just cannot rationalise the social welfare policies that have been rolled out since the last election, in particular.

My naivete refuses to let me believe wholeheartedly that anyone elected to represent the people could deliberately intend to be cruel.

I want to believe that those in positions of power are just not understanding the reality of the situation, or can't empathise with something they've never experienced themselves. Or, perhaps, have been swayed by data that can so easily be stacked to say whatever the author want it to say.

I don't want to be a cynic. But I'm becoming one. As a nation, we continue to be labouring under the belief that people who don't have a job have something wrong with them - that if you don't have any money, it's because you can't manage it; that if you receive welfare payments, you are going to waste income support on drugs, alcohol and gambling.

The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey states that people experiencing unemployment are "3.1 times as likely to have used meth/amphetamines". This oft-quoted line from the report is regularly trotted out to justify the quarantining of income support payments on the basis of preventing social harm. However, what this figure actually refers to is the difference between 1.5 per cent of employed people and 4.6 per cent of people experiencing unemployment. It is not an encompassing statement about drug use across the board and does not equate to people experiencing unemployment being three times more likely to take drugs in general.

Would it surprise you to know that 74.3 per cent of people experiencing unemployment don't use drugs, or that more employed people are "lifetime risky drinkers" or "single occasion risky drinkers (monthly)", according to this same survey? Perhaps it would floor you to realise that one in five Newstart recipients actually have a job? They just don't have enough hours to completely lose their Newstart payment.

In light of this, I can understand why Senator Anne Ruston recently said that the scope of the cashless welfare card needs to have a "broader application than perhaps the social harm reduction that the original policy was designed on", because that initial purpose is such a flimsy basis that it simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

There have been many stories in the media recently about how people are struggling on the cashless welfare card.

How they get behind in their bills because of CWC processes and while waiting for approval for their rental payments to go through, they find themselves in arrears and have even been evicted, increasing the risk of homelessness, financial insecurity, stress and mental health decline.

This government is first making thieves and then punishing them.

I looked into how a person would go about applying for an exemption from the card and the list of criteria was astounding.

According to the exit application and support documentation, to successfully exit the program "you must show reasonable management of your affairs, including financial affairs."

To do this, they will assess your Indue account information including transactions made and transfer history AND cashless debit card hotline information (presumably the recordings of calls "for training purposes"), applications for urgent Centrelink payments, suspensions, protection orders made against you, and even health information including episodes of medical care relating to drug and alcohol issues, to name a few. This breach of personal privacy dumbfounds me. That you are put on the program regardless of whether you actually have a history of drug, alcohol or financial issues, and then are forced to prove yourself capable when the very program stunts your agency and restricts your capacity to pay the bills they require you to in order to exempt you is preposterous.

As a citizen, the current investigations into a national rollout with the big four banks involved to further curb our freedoms are frightening. The rollout itself is terrifying enough, but it makes you wonder what's next? What's the bigger picture, here?

I have no answers, just a growing sense of dread. I think Thomas More must be in office, because it is quite clear that this government is first making thieves and then punishing them. But Utopia, this is not.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au