Social Justice Update – January 2015

Message from the CEO

I would like to begin the first e-newsletter of the year by wishing the supporters, members and volunteers of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia a very Happy New Year and remind you that whilst our struggle for a society free of poverty and homelessness is enormous, so too is our hope.  

We have returned to a changed landscape in 2015 with a new Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison following a Cabinet re-shuffle late last year. The Minister’s portfolio includes homelessness and housing. We urge the new Minister to overturn a shock funding decision made over the Christmas break, to cut funds to Homelessness Australia, Shelter Australia and the Community Housing Federation of Australia by June 2015. These peak bodies play an important advocacy role and without them the voice of people experiencing homelessness will be severely diminished.

I also take this opportunity to express our concerns over the cuts the Federal Government has made in the recent funding rounds conducted by Department of Social Services ($271 million over the next four years). This is not the time to be making cuts to social expenditure; the issues of homelessness, disadvantage and subsequent demands on the community sector are not going away. Now is the time for investment in support services, education and training so that we can build strong supports for people who are currently forced to live below the poverty line because they are homeless or have been unable to find work.


Appeal created for bushfire victims in South Australia

The Vinnies SA Bushfire Appeal was launched on 8 January, 2015 in response to the horrific bushfires in that state in early January. Funds raised from the Appeal will be used to provide a range of mid- to long-term assistance for people affected by the bushfires. State President, Brian Spencer, said: “Part of our long-term assistance will include financial support, budget counselling, assistance with bills, food vouchers, and other material assistance such as furniture and clothing to support those affected by this tragic event which is still unfolding today.” Best&Less, IGA and Foodland have also come on board enabling people who visits their stores in South Australia to make a cash donation towards the Vinnies SA Bushfire Appeal at any checkout. IGA and Foodland have also kindly provided Vinnies with $10,000 in gift cards which they will distribute to people affected by the fires.


Centrelink changes – a mixed bag

  • Vinnies welcomed the Restart wage subsidy for people with disability, mature-age workers and their respective employers, which commenced on 7 December, 2014. Under the Federal Government program, employers receive up to $10,000 if they hire someone over 50 years and that person remains in the position for a time period of two years. For more information about Restart see the Department of Employment website.

 

  • Less welcome were Centrelink changes to have taken effect on 1 January, 2015 regarding compliance measures for recipients of payments. The changes will see people who miss appointments have their payments suspended until they attend the next appointment. From July 1st people who miss an appointment will incur a financial penalty and their payments will not be backdated. Vinnies opposed this policy following the 2014-15 Federal Budget on the basis it is not evidence-based policy and unfairly penalises people with disabilities. In the submission we state: “By suspending the payment automatically, and only providing back pay when a reason is provided, the amendment makes the presumption that the job-seeker has done the wrong thing. We find this approach offensive”. Similarly offensive to both doctors and people with disability is the change that will see only government-contracted doctors assess new claims for the disability support pension from January 1st. The evidence shows that Centrelink fraud is only committed by well under one per cent of people accessing the service:  as such, the real issue is how best to empower those receiving income support, rather than incorrectly stigmatising this group.

 

  • As per usual, the start of the year saw income support payments increased in line with the Consumer Price Index. In this media release Minister Scott Morrison said “the increase payments for carers, students and young people with disability to keep pace with rising living costs”. Vinnies has consistently advised governments that this method of indexing unemployment benefits means that an already inadequate payment is becoming even more inadequate in the face of actual changes in the cost of living and that a fairer method of indexation would see the unemployment benefit being linked to the movement in wages.  Vinnies maintains that the current rate of the Newstart Allowance is so low that it acts as a deterrent rather than as a pathway to employment.

Two-tiered health system avoided

Vinnies is concerned with all areas of health, but primarily on the health of the most disadvantaged. This month we were relieved to learn changes to the Medicare rebate that would have seen a $20 fee imposed on people accessing consultations six minute or less have been scrapped. The impact of future changes to the Medicare system on individuals and families living on low incomes remains a major concern. Vinnies CEO, Dr John Falzon said: “We note the revised GP Co-payment exempts low income earners, but we fear tinkering with the universal health system Australians now enjoy for the sake of making Budget savings will only serve to create a two-tiered health system where inequity thrives.” Public health research already shows that social inequalities are highly correlated with and causative of health problems. This is referred to as the social determinants of health, which are the social problems Vinnies is already working to address, such as housing, income insecurity, poor access to education and disadvantage. Visit the Health Matters section on our website for more information.
 


People driven to the brink on Manus Island

The recent protests at Manus Island detention centre where asylum seekers are detained are another reminder of the mental and physical health toll exacted on people by Australia’s cruel offshore and mandatory detention policies. Vinnies is opposed to the immigrations policies recently implemented by the Federal Government such as the reintroduction of TPVs and the signing of the so-called Cambodian deal. National President Anthony Thornton said: “Both measures are regressive and completely lacking in compassion when one considers that it is only a small number of people, who use their human right under the Refugee Convention to come to Australia and seek asylum here. We are fortunate enough to be a wealthy country, with the ability to welcome many of the people who seek safety here, and in turn we benefit enormously from their skills, perspectives and experiences.” The enormous economic and social benefits that we have gained from immigration were well-demonstrated in the work of the late Professor Graeme Hugo, of whose passing we were sad to learn last week.