Slam after slam for people with disabilities in Australia’s new Budget

The Australian Federal Budget is out, and it’s being feted in the media as a sober, sensible fiscally reasonable budget in which there are no really big winners or losers. “No frills, no thrills, no spills”, says the ABC.

Except for people with disabilities. What has received a little bit of coverage is the fact that there is no improvement in funding for public mental health, despite lots of rhetoric in that direction from Rudd and his cronies. There is apparently nothing toward practical improvement for Indigenous health, and $380M in cuts for disability pensions.

$380M in cuts for disability pensions.

Applicants for the Centrelink disability pension who are considered “borderline” will be routinely denied, put onto Newstart (unemployment payment), compelled to stand in line every fortnight and job-search on an ongoing basis, and sent to “up to 18 months” of mandatory job training.

Let me guess – “borderline” means “the probably currently-nondisabled official making the assessment will decide that they can’t see the disability concerned”. I expect this to disproportionately affect people with mental health issues, fatigue based disabilities, autoimmune problems, chronic pain, and so forth.

And let me guess again: if PWD are too sick to get to their training courses but can’t “prove” that to some random douchebag’s satisfaction, they’ll get breached (decreed as being in breach of Centrelink requirements) and, in the absence of substantial family support and the ability to organise themselves through a litany of appeals and assessments, end up on the streets.

This combination of further increases in the already huge pension obstacles for people with “less clear” disabilities, along with no improvements in mental health and Indigenous health programmes, is, in my opinon, a recipe for a huge increase in homelessness.

But Treasurer Wayne Swan is spinning this as being for PWD’s own good.

The Sydney Morning Herald explains further:

New applicants will first undergo a ”job capacity assessment”, as they have always done. But the government is reviewing the impairment tables to make it a tougher assessment and harder to get to first base. After that unless people are manifestly incapable of any paid work, or clearly incapable of working even 15 hours a week, they will be put on the Newstart Allowance. Then they will be sent on a training course, either with a special disability employment agency or a regular one. The training is meant to increase the numbers who can work at least 15 hours a week, thus disqualifying them from the pension.

Efforts to curb the growth in the numbers going on the pension would be admirable, given people mostly stay on the pension for life. But the move is not admirable in the absence of an increase in the level of Newstart Allowance, or a loosening of its income test, which exacts harsh punishment on those who get a little work.

On the disability pension a single person can live a frugal life on $350 a week. On Newstart a single person is plunged into poverty on $231 a week. How many of the 25,407 people who might once have qualified for a disability pension will end up, not in work, but unemployed and in poverty?

The comments at the Herald, enragingly but unsurprisingly, are full of people flailing around about how people on disability pensions are big bludging fakey fakers.

Another slam for taxpaying people with disabilities is the change in the tax offset for medical expenses. There will be a big jump in the offset threshold and indexing after that, expected to take away from PWD almost much again as the funding cuts for disability pensions.

Lastly, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Australia’s mostly very good pharmaceutical subsidy and safety net programme, will be “reformed” to the tune of $2 billion in government savings – but we’re not told how.

In other news, there are huge boosts in funding for elite sports and for ‘border security’. So crips will be paying for Olympians and for the harassment and prolonged detention of immigrants – while many can’t afford wheelchairs, homes, or medication.

This budget, just to make my disgust even more perfectly clear, is coming from a nominally LABOR government.

On twitter I summed the budget up thus:

@ilauredhel Aust’s priorities: $237 M boost for elite sport; $1.2 B boost for ‘border security’; $380M CUT for disability pensions #budget

I’m still gaping. At the budget itself, and at the nodding, satisfied happiness of most of the political media at there being supposedly “no big losers”.

11 Comments

  1. I don’t quite have the words to describe how this is making my gut twist. This is the sort of crap I expected from the Howard government; while I never expected the Rudd government to be ideal, I did not expect them to do something quite as bad as this.

    Many people I care about are going to be hurt by this policy.

  2. Beppie: Exactly. Labor seem to me to have become completely caught up in conservative dogwhistle games, not giving a shit about who they trample in the process. “So long as we keep Workchoices at bay, you’ll love us, right? Right?”, and all the pronouncements about “working families” being the only Australians worth a damn, and the “crackdown” on asylum seekers with all the racist dehumanising rhetoric that that involves, and all the nonsensical focus on internet censorship. I don’t recognise this government at all.

  3. The PBS changes, at least, seem to be mostly about getting pharmacies to use more generics – the Pharmacy Guild is always quick to attack anything that would take money out of the PBS, as opposed to “savings” which is usually about keeping prices down via generics and manufacturer negotiation. The people who lose out there are, at the moment, women who need more modern or stronger oral contraceptives (everything from Diane to Yaz) and women who need HRT. On the whole, though, it doesn’t look bad for the PBS.

    I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I am one of the people who was on Newstart while actually disabled and I think there’s going to be a lot more of me very soon. It will save them money in pensions – the disability pension is slightly less pitiful – and even more when they can just boot people off. And their carers, too. I bet all those savings are immediately used up in administration costs, though.

    The Medicare threshold has been a political football for ages, so I’m not surprised by that one at all. I keep wondering if the implentation of this threshold is encouraging the growing “gap” fees (I’m having a lot of tests right now, so it’s very much on my mind!) on all kinds of things, on the basis that they’re not denying you treatment – if you’re really sick, the government will help!

  4. Lilacsigil – the net medical expenses tax offset isn’t the same as the Medicare Safety Net, which has mostly served to pump up obstetric fees. The NME Offset is the small 20% tax deduction you can claim at tax return time for out of pocket costs over a certain threshold (currently $1500).

  5. Thank you – I hadn’t even heard of that. Good thing you told me, because I should be able to claim that this year.

  6. This really does bother me. I’m worried we’re both (my partner and I) going to be back on Newstart and that made me so sick.
    Because of the changes to the way they are selling codeine now I just spent three times as much for half as many pills. So where I used to pay $10, I now pay $60 (for only one of my many meds). With that and our rent going up to be very nearly half our income per fortnight (and we’re in a tiny Nissan Hut with tin walls and no insulation) I’m not sure how we’re meant to survive on what we’re getting now let alone Newstart.

    And I’m not sure either of us has the energy, drive and health to go through all the appealing and stuff again.

  7. Right now I’m thinking of myself, and I’m thinking: is there a risk I’m going to get kicked off the pension? I thought there were changes making those already on the pension have to prove themselves even more stringently, as well as new applicants? Spent far too long being alternatively grateful/guilty to get the pension, as well as really frightened I’ll get kicked off. This is a fresh worry. This government… centrist/populist. I don’t trust em at all.

  8. lilacsigil – no worries. This is one of the many ways my tax therapist saves me money every year!

    calyx: Right now the way they’re talking looks to be about new pensions, but that is no guarantee, and I totally agree about the direction this government has taken. Unsurprising, maybe, but really disappointing.

  9. Fuck. I hadn’t taken a look at the budget yet, but this is simply appalling. I remember how hard I had to fight to get on to DSP in the first place. I’m an autistic woman with a history of severe anxiety and depression as well as an auto-immune illness, mild heart and respiratory problems, and medication-induced osteopaenia, and when I applied I was told that I was too young and smart to not work (!) I had to appeal twice, and in the end tell the douchebag who told me that I was “just a little slow socially but would eventually catch up to everyone else” and compared my auto-immune illness to having the ‘flu that I’d keep appealing until I got it. I got it in the end, and only because I both refused to go away and because I study part-time and argued that I couldn’t work and study without metaphorically falling over in a heap, and I was flat-out told that he wouldn’t approve the renewal in two years time because he expected me to finish my studies by then (I don’t expect I will have, but the implication was that even if I haven’t, it wouldn’t be re-approved because I should have been able to finish in that time just like ‘anybody else’ could).

    And this was before the government pulled this shit in the budget. If it was that hard for me to get on DSP before this budget came through, it’s now going to be impossible for people with my level of disability and even those with worse disabilities (especially invisible disabilities) to get on it. Sure, you can get medical exemptions from seeking work under Newstart, but it still means you need a new medical certificate from your doctor each week to take into Centrelink, and Newstart is a joke. I was only able to survive on it in the months while I was fighting for DSP because I was living at home and only paying token board, which even as a token took over a third of my payments and I had to skip out on a couple of times when multiple specialist appointments coincided in the same payment period. I don’t know how I would have managed if I’d actually been in the rental market. I don’t know what I’ll do in a year and a half when my DSP is up for renewal, either, I’d been hoping that because I’m moving next year and would be using a different Centrelink office, I’d be lucky enough to find someone sensible, but now? Unless by some miracle the government reverses this awful decision, I think I’ll be SOL.

    A good friend of mine had her DSP approval LOST on Centrelink’s system, after she’d been approved, received her pensioner card, and her husband had been approved for carer allowance. She found out when she started getting those stupid Newstart work forms, and went in to see what the problem was, and they told her they had no record of her even putting in an application – despite the fact her husband was still regularly receiving carer’s allowance! As her doctor had gone on long-service leave after she got her approval (but before it got lost) she can’t reapply as they’ve been insisting she has to, and with the new changes to DSP eligibility I’m really concerned for her that as someone else whose disability is ‘invisible’, she’ll be one of the first PWD who get thrown under the bus here.

    I’m waiting with dread to see what they’re doing to the PBS. I hope that lilacsigil is right, that it’s mostly just a move to generic brands, but with the shit they’ve pulled so far I’m not going to trust them an inch.

  10. This irritates the heck out of me. I’ve chronic depression, although most of the time it’s handled by medication. But when it isn’t, it really *isn’t*, and I won’t be functioning on all cylinders at the very least (I’m currently having a rotten time of it at the moment, with the seasonal component of the depression heterodyning with low iron levels, making me listless and disinclined to do anything). What this round of budget hacks and slashes does for me is makes it imperative that I basically go off my meds before applying for any Commonwealth benefit, because unless I present in my full depressive damn-near-suicidal misery, I’m not likely to get any help at all. (This ticks me off, because I don’t like having to go off the meds purely because someone who isn’t qualified to diagnose my depression won’t damn well believe I have it unless I break down in front of them).

    Oh, some new stuff from the ABC:

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/05/14/2899881.htm – Disability groups question pension changes (contains quotes from at least one disabled person who believes the “less disabled people are bludging on DSP” line).

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/05/14/2899834.htm – Budget slammed over mental health cuts (querying the decision to remove Medicare rebates for mental health treatment as provided by social workers and occupational therapists)

    What it all seems to mean in the long run is that people with less “visible” disabilities (such as mental illnesses which are mostly chronic and occasionally acute – *puts up hand and waves*) will have a much harder time getting any kind of actual assistance in dealing with their conditions from anyone associated with the government. It also means we’re less likely to get things like assistance in actually finding work *despite* our disability (such as I had from the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service) and more likely to just be thrown out there on the job market to be knocked back. Yay. Remind me again why I “chose” to be depressed? I keep forgetting…

  11. It sounds like this is only a money saving measure, to refuse DSP claims and shaft people onto Newstart. A small number of people rort the system but it’s like that in any part of life. Where exactly are the jobs going to come from for these people to fill? The trouble is it’s the ones that genuinely need it that will suffer. The government also takes carers for granted. Having jumped through all the hoops to get the carer payment I can only assume this will target them as well. They grant the carers payment for two years then at the end of that you get shafted onto Newstart. You save the government money and resources then get rewarded with $120 a week less plus a harsh income and activity test. The Newstart Allowance is a joke, you can’t even afford to look for work let alone keep a roof over your head. Very poor form from Rudd and Co.