Michael Pascoe: Coalition had more bullets for the ‘undeserving’ poor

Serena Wilson’s statement highlights  the Coalition’s attitude about the ‘undeserving poor’, Michael Pascoe writes.

Serena Wilson’s statement highlights the Coalition’s attitude about the ‘undeserving poor’, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: Twitter/Stranger

Serena Wilson was a rare creature at the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme in November – she put her hand up, admitted she failed in her duty, said she was ashamed she did not do more to try to stop the illegal monster.

She made an act of contrition we’ve not heard from other key perpetrators. A pleasant change. Hell will freeze before a politician fesses up.

And now Ms Wilson has made a supplementary statement that is as damning of the Coalition and its facilitators as anything the commission has heard.

Importantly, it is an insight into the mentality of successive Coalition ministers and their staffers wanting to target the “undeserving” poor – ministers and their staff not interested in the plight of human beings who were their ministerial responsibility.

“The Coalition government took a different attitude to the social security system or, as they preferred to call it, the ‘welfare’ system, from the previous government,” Ms Wilson says in her statement.

“They had a strong view of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. From the 2014 budget through to the 2018 budget, the vast majority of my work involved identifying savings options to cut social security expenditure.

“I had built a career trying to improve lifetime wellbeing and address the needs of disadvantaged people, but (in my opinion) there was little empathy for, or understanding of, those needs within the Coalition government and ministerial staff.”

Commissioner Catherine Holmes is unlikely to ignore the inhumanity. Photo: AAP/Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme

The royal commission is primarily tasked with the illegality of robodebt so that’s where the focus has been. The inhumanity of it has come through in the testimony of victims. The dead have spoken through the survivors.

It is easy to sense Commissioner Catherine Holmes won’t ignore the outrageous inhumanity when she delivers her findings. In the meantime, the commission continues to chase the bureaucratic failures, omissions and malfeasance.

But the greater crime remains even if robodebt had been “legal”. The monstrous targeting of the poor, the soulless bureaucratic machine grinding the bones of the disadvantaged at the behest of the privileged.

Ms Wilson has provided the commission with a list of Coalition proposals to further screw those relying on our social safety net – that vital thing that maintains our society. Society dodged a bullet in the Coalition not being able to fulfil all its aims.

“In some respects it appeared that social security and payments for working-aged people were seen by the government principally as a lever for behavioural change,” Ms Wilson states.

Coalition hit list

Among the proposals, Ms Wilson lists:

  • Applying a six-month waiting period to job seekers under 30 and only paying six months income support in any 12-month period as an incentive for full-time study or obtaining employment
  • Taking unpaid state fines out of income support payments
  • Compulsorily deducting rents
  • Mandating school attendance of children in respect of whom Family Tax Benefit was received
  • Denying income support to people who had outstanding warrants
  • Requiring parents receiving income support to undertake compulsory parenting- or child-focused activities
  • Reducing childcare assistance and family tax benefit to parents whose children did not have up-to-date immunisations
  • Trialling drug testing of new claimants for income support and requiring those who tested positive to undertake rehabilitation and treatment
  • Restricting overseas travel for people on income support (including for age pensioners)
  • Mandating the post-secondary courses that students should pursue.

“Whilst some of these individual measures could be seen as having social benefits – for example, increasing childhood immunisation – a number of them were quite punitive in their conception and likely impact,” Ms Wilson states.

‘Drag on the budget’

“At times, social security was regarded as a drag on the budget and the economy. Other than for age pensioners and carers, it was rarely accepted as an entitlement for people who could not otherwise support themselves and needed assistance to address challenges and barriers to employment.

“I felt this pressure in my day-to-day work activities and I felt quite constrained in the last years of my APS career, but I remained committed to fulfilling my obligations as a public servant to assist the government to implement its social security policies.”

The cumulative odour of those Coalition proposals reek of the cheap politics of bashing “dole bludgers”, concentrating on feeding the prejudices and feigned outrage of broadcast shock jocks and Murdoch tabloids.

Remember that fraud is actually a relatively minor part of our social security spending, unlike, say, the many billions the wealthy are gifted in tax breaks and lurks.

All indications are that the culture of “undeserving poor” versus “deserving rich” is undiminished in Coalition ranks, nurtured in the echo chambers they inhabit.

Good heavens, Stuart Robert is still a Coalition frontbencher, its financial services spokesman no less. He is someone who, among other things, feels no shame about misleading the public over the robodebt scandal.

And there’s no sharper example of Coalition priorities than Peter Dutton’s pledge to fight for the unnecessary and excessive tax privileges of the top 0.5 per cent, those deserving “aspirational” Australians.

But that’s another story.

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