Interview: Union for the Dispossessed
Unions: Joel's Law
National Focus: Spring Carnival
Bad Boss: Fina and Fiends
Industrial: The Price of War
Economics: Who's Got What
History: Containing Discontent
Review: An Honourable Wally
Poetry: The Colours of Discontent
Governing the Corporates
Union for the Dispossessed
Interview with Peter Lewis
The Welfare Rights Centre is celebrating 20 years of operations this year. Can you give an overview of what your brief is?
Our job is very similar to trade unions. We are basically a representative of and advocate for unemployed people and people on social security generally. So anyone on an aged pension through to disability pensions, unemployment payments, disability allowances, carer payments, anyone on family tax benefit.
The interesting thing that has happened over 20 years is the way that the interests of workers and the interests of people on low incomes, on pensions and benefits, have crossed over. They used to be separate worlds. There used to be the world of people who were unemployed or on social security and the world on people in a job, whether or not they were on a low income. Increasingly - and I certainly know this as a former union secretary coming over into this field, is that increasingly workers get their income from a range of sources. Award income is the primary source, but increasingly there is supplementation through the social security system, and in instances through child endowment, family tax benefits, family allowance, and all those things.
But there are many other ways in which the two cross over more - workers comp for instance; when a person is dismissed, where are they going to get their income while the union is getting them back into work. Increasingly people who are in casual work, so that they are in and out of the social security system. They might be on some social security, some casual work. The two systems have crossed over and linked up much, much more, and the policy challenges in that have been quite extreme - as it has been for the trade union movement and for Welfare Rights.
To give a quick summary of the question that you asked: Our job is to provide information and advice and representation to people on social security or trying to get on to social security, or who have been kicked off social security, or have been breached and penalized in the system. Same sort of thing Welfare Rights - rights for people on welfare - same as unions try to do for their members in work.
While you say the protection is similar, it is almost like the two groups are now on different sides of the political wedge. Have you seen over the 20 years of the Centre a real shifting between the interests of the working people and people you represent?
I have seen big changes. Certainly there was a great divide. It was a great divide. I came out of the trade union movement and I spent a year helping with APHEDA in between and then came across to the community welfare sector, and the two worlds didn't intersect at all really. I thought I represented the low income workers, but when I came over here and saw what low incomes really were and I even saw that we didn't perhaps look after our members enough when they were on compo- we put them off to our solicitors. We could run a case for them but it might take two months. What do they do in the meantime? What happens when they get ill?
So I realized that there needed to be a much greater coming together. In the Welfare Rights Centre there is a trade union program where we are helping to look after their members when they are in these circumstances, and those unions realize - and in fact more and more unions are realizing - that they are not separate worlds anymore and that the concept that unions need to look at if they are looking after their members is the concept of "total family income", because inside a family there are many sources of income. There is award wages obviously, or enterprise bargaining or whatever it is - that the union is protecting. But then there is the child getting the Family Allowance, there is the grown up child getting the Youth Allowance perhaps, there is the grandparents on Aged Pension - could all be part of the same family unit - increasingly so. And indeed, somebody might be off work so they need some Social Security Allowance or some Newstart Allowance.
I have seen a big change in us realising that there is room to be looking after people as they move in and out of the labour market. The biggest change in addition to that is the casualisation and the part-time factor. That has been a massive change over recent years and it means that people are in and out of both systems. There are various policy challenges to integrate them and intellectual challenges I guess for the union movement and for us in the welfare sector - community sector - these have been quite profound.
What are some practical examples of how you are working in cooperation with unions?
Well, the seven unions for instance in our program sign up with an annual retainer, whereby they refer their members directly to us. So a member comes to them and they are checked immediately. Are you getting full award pay? What about your social security? What about your family payments?
Often members will turn up at the union and they have got a family payment debt - an overpayment because of this stupid system of having to estimate your total family income twelve months in advance. We are talking here about $150 to $300, perhaps $400 a fortnight - that's a significant part of a family's income. The reason it is so significant nowadays is because of the Hawke promise about "no child will live in poverty" - OK we haven't achieved that, but it wasn't that he did nothing. The Government put a lot of money into Family Allowanace, and so it has increased and now it is a part of the family income. So we will look after that side and unions will refer their members to us and we will go through with them to see whether they are getting all the family tax benefits, whether or not a kid's got a problem because the Youth Allowance has a parental income test, a parental means test and some assets taken into it as well - like if somebody is getting some Fringe Benefits Tax.
We will also look after the members. One of the industry super funds, which is obviously supported by a number of the unions. We look after their members in their three month waiting period before their disability income benefit kicks in as part of their insurance in the industry super. We look after their members to make sure that they get their full entitlements and get them onto Social Security and make sure that when the Super disability benefit kicks in that it gets worked out with the Social Security, because they can be on both.
So it is obvious that there are many, many practical ways, even down to when a worker gets dismissed, or even when they are on strike. It is not possible to get social security when you are on strike but it is possible for your spouse or your partner, and so we will work with the unions to ensure that there is advice in what they may be able to get. So there is a lot of cross-over.
Advocacy seems to be also involved in the broader debate around welfare. This trend towards mutual responsibility and all the linked checks and balances. How much harder has that made your job and the plight of the people you represent?<\b>
Much, much harder, clearly. Over 20 years the social security system has become increasingly harder. It is a very lean system in Australia. Let's get this in perspective. We are a low taxing country, and I know some of the unions have difficulty with this concept, because some of their members feel that they pay a lot of tax. Increasingly of course people are not so upset about tax, rather that we in fact should have better services - particularly, health, education and community services, than get another minor, or small tax cut like the last one. But the fact remains that we are a low taxing country compared with the other 30 OECD countries, we are the sixth lowest, which means that we have got a really tight, targeted, lean social security system which is very efficient in economic terms, but also very lean. And the way we have got that is by targeting, and targeting and targeting and chasing down any dollar and really, really being tight. So it is very tough because the payment levels are really low, around about the poverty line. It is not based on former income like it is in Europe. And because we are targeting constantly, government after government, year after year is looking for more savings, targeting here and there, it has got very tight. It is very, very lean. In fact it is very harsh.
In addition to that we have had the ideological shift towards first, reciprocal obligation. When Simon Crean was Minister for Employment back in 1993 and coming out of the recession and Labor put in place a pretty tough penalty scheme. Under reciprocal obligation which transmogrified into to mutual obligation and was taken up with a vengeance by Tony Abbott, who, as you know has been a master at slagging off at unemployed people in order, in our view, to make unemployed people the problem - the issue - rather than unemployment. He wasn't prepared - the government wasn't prepared to face up to unemployment as the issue, and preferred to demonise unemployed people as the problem.
All of those movements opened up the political ground for this really harsh breaches system and penalizing of people and so we have got 385,000 people being breached in one year. But thanks to our campaign we have brought that back now to half - it is way down. Even though it is way down it is still too high. It is down to about 112,000. So we have really campaigned well to get those down and some of those breaches have been reduced slightly.
Still, all of that means in answer to your question, that it has made it much harder, much tougher. The environment has been very tough on social security during that time.
We have a myth of an egalitarian society. What impact has this had and are we less egalitarian that we were 20 years ago when the Welfare Rights Centre opened?
Well, you are right. It is a myth, because we have much greater inequalities than most Australians realize, and the fact is that over the last 20 years, certainly that has accelerated in the last 10, that the rich are getting richer faster and faster by virtue of executive salaries. Top end salaries are scooting away. And the poor are becoming more numerous. They are not getting poorer thankfully. Our social welfare system, our welfare State has kicked in and underpins. It protects the poor. We don't have an under class - yet. It is emerging in places unfortunately as our poverty gets concentrated into certain regions, and we are developing an under class of people who are locked out and are second and third generation. But we don't have a particular under class yet. We do have more and more people living in poverty today. More and more people are on social security payments. The migrants we brought out here in the 50s we used them up as factory fodder and then we spat 'em out in their 50s with bad backs and the like. You know, the unions' scheme looked after them for many, many years. Well, they are on disability payments.
And should we wonder why there are increased numbers. It is obvious, the whole world of work has changed. To give an example, it is more IT less digging trenches. Now I ask what a social security system is for. If we are not going to intervene in the market and build jobs, create jobs and re-train those people specifically into areas that treat them better and leave that totally to the market, then we are going to expect a few more people on social security.
So we have got more and more people on social security. Our social security rates are very tough and very mean - hence we have got greater inequality. Simple. Plus we have got deregulation of the labour market. Unions may be fighting battles on all fronts there, but to some extent we know that it has been deregulated. There is much more casual and part-time work and hence some income - thankfully we have still got the award system and the minimum wage here. But the minimum wage is still pretty tight. And so you have got a lot more people in that range and the shooting out of immense wealth at the top end and greater inequality - which has really blown this country apart.
Do you get frustrated that there aren't politicians out there arguing the case for welfare and the broader benefits to society for a decent welfare system?
We are very frustrated about that and for a range of reasons. - One, -I can say it here because I am sure a lot of union members who are even members of the Labor Party really get very frustrated with the Labor Party for not being brave enough to take up that territory. Because for too many years they have looked too much alike - there has not been a lot of difference - and they have looked very, very similar - and there is not a lot of difference on some of these policies unfortunately.
The second reason it is so frustrating is because we believe in this sector that there is a big heart in most Australians. You can appeal to the dark corner of every soul like Pauline Hanson did, and like John Howard has done, but you can also "appeal to the better angels" as Abraham Lincoln said , but we don't have politicians that are prepared to do it. But I reckon they are still there and there is a big heart in most people. It is a question of how you put it. It is a question of whether you are prepared to go there and take people to where they don't necessarily want to go, but to shine a light on that path. Because I think most Australians don't want a really unequal country. They don't want millions of people to live in poverty. They would be just as happy to have it explained to them how there are 7 unemployed people for every one job, rather, and that we need to do something about jobs, or that we need to invest in our Medicare or our health structure.
I mean, we have got our debt to GDP ratio in economic terms down to an incredibly low rate. About 3% ratio of debt to GDP. European average: OECD is up around the 50% mark. Now we have got no debt and that is no bad thing in a way. but we are not investing in our physical or social infrastructure. Why are we buying those economic arguments that we have to use our surpluses to retire debt? I'm opening up too much territory there, but the short answer is, yes, it does frustrate me.
Well, I'll go one step further. If I give you the ALP Leadership for five minutes, what is your five point plan for Australia?
It is a delightful invitation and a wonderful hypothetical one, but let's accept the challenge anyway.
The first thing you would do, we would join a number of other European nations and adopt an anti-poverty strategy. A national anti-poverty strategy. That is the first thing I would do- obviously - is go to the people who need government, and government intervention most and they are people living in poverty. We don't have a strategy at the moment, we don't have a plan, we don't have goals, we don't care and a nation chooses the level of poverty that it is prepared to tolerate. We do not have to tolerate what we have got. So first thing, a national anti-poverty plan. That would lead immediately it seems to me, into the next biggest and most important thing, which is employment.
There are at least a million, easily, probably two million jobs that most of know need to be created - could be created sorry - need to be done, in schools, on the railway, in the hospitals, in our health system, in community services, in aged care, in pre-schools. We know that these jobs need to be done. We know that nations can afford them. We know that we would be better off with it, and you would have a stack of people off social security. The cost of it wouldn't even be that great, by the time you actually had them paying taxes and not getting social security. So the second step would probably be about job growth.
The third one would be education because that is breaking the cycle into the future. Investing in our public schools. Many of them are a shambles really, and I don't need to elaborate there.
The fourth area would clearly be in the health area. And it is not just about employment there, it is about actually improving the system so that we are not creating the sorts of obstacles for low income people to seek medical help. I would certainly be getting the private health insurance rebate out of the way. That's $3 billio we would have immediately.
The fifth thing I would do, and it probably would fund a lot of these things, would be to attack the $7 billion to $10 billion in tax rorts, loopholes and shelters that are exploited by companies in sheltering, coming to avoid tax, and we would not only make it a more efficient economy, but a more equitable one, and we would be able to finance most of those things.
Now, somebody said: Oh, great! Five things that would make sure Labor stays out of power. And I don't believe it. I just don't believe that! It would not be easy, that is true, but you have to be prepared to believe in that argument and sell that. And what the hell is the point of being the Labor Party if you are not prepared to sell that argument anyway.
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