Budget 2014: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

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When I first saw the image below doing the rounds I thought it was quite apt, but the more I read about the federal budget the more I’m beginning to think that might be being a bit unkind to Joffrey.

Joffrey saying "nice budget"

To be fair, there was no funding announced for seal-clubbing or kicking puppies, but the Federal Government has managed to sink the slipper into just about every other marginalised group they could think of. From potentially forcing battered women onto the streets to using the budget fine print to notify a legally blind person that they’ve lost their job, the budget is certainly Joffrey-esque. However, while he’d enjoy doing it, I think even Joffrey would at least say it to the person’s face.

I digress, from here on this budget summary will try to just stick to the ramifications for people with disabilities.

The Good:

1. The NDIS remains untouched.

Some would cynically say “for now” but there was an even better bit of news, apparently there’s an extra $44 million slated for the NDIS, due to an incorrectly applied “efficiency dividend” in the previous estimates. I never thought I’d say this, but here’s a high five for the bean-counters!

2. All disability discrimination is due to end on July 4, 2014.

Apparently the Federal Government is so confident of this they’ve abolished the position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner. I don’t know whether this means people with disabilities will magically turn able-bodied, or inaccessible transport and premises will magically turn accessible, but frankly (call me a cynic) I have my doubts.

Numerous groups have urged the Government to reconsider its position and the outgoing Disability Discrimination Commissioner has stated he really doesn’t think this is a great idea. It makes little sense from an economic perspective as you could save the same money abolishing the recently appointed human rights commissioner (aka the “Freedom Commisioner”) who doesn’t seem to do much other than making the occasional talkback radio racial faux pas (mp3, fast forward to about the 1hr 9 minute mark) and protecting people who don’t really need it.

I tell you what, it’s a good thing all disability discrimination is going to end on July 4 however. Otherwise I’d have to move this item into the “bad” section.

3. More? You want More?

(No seriously, there is no more. I was struggling after the first point about the NDIS)

The Bad:

1. The DSP Contiki Club Compulsory Participation Plan!

I thought if I made the title sound more fun it would be less frightening. I think I failed. If you’re under 35 and on the DSP now be you’ll be required to participate in compulsory activities if you’re assessed as being capable of working more than 8 hours a week. The Government website states these “compulsory participation requirements” may include, but are not limited to:

  • Work for the Dole (yes, you read that correctly)
  • job search
  • work experience
  • education or training
  • connection with a Disability Employment Service or Job Services Australia.

I can foresee a lot of under 35’s registering with Disability Employment Services in a fruitless effort of endlessly revising their resume and applying for non-existent jobs just to keep the DSP they’re frankly already entitled to.

There have been reassurances that people with a “severe disability” will be exempt from this measure but frankly I’m wary of what the Federal Government means by that. Case in point: I’m a C5/6 quadriplegic with a bad back and I also currently suffer severe sleep apnea-induced narcolepsy. Whether I want to or not, I frequently fall asleep mid-afternoon for hours at a time.

That’s right, I’m a narcoleptic quadriplegic (the phrase itself makes me giggle). Despite this diagnosis I was recently assessed as capable of working 8-14 hours with a “long-term goal” of 15-22 hours! I can only assume that to be safely considered unable to work 8 hours a week you need to be in a coma.

Squadrons of independent assessors (that’s code for “not on your side”) will be scrutinising you very soon.

2. Youth Allowance, not Newstart for people under 25

I mention this because some people with disabilities are already on Newstart and more will be moved onto this payment. The age at which you’re considered “grown up” has moved from 22 to 25 and people with disabilities aren’t exempt. I hadn’t realised there was a special secret “under 25s” discount for wheelchairs, catheters and colostomy bags…

3. Students with disabilities lose the Pensioner Education Supplement

Also gone is the Education Entry Payment. This will make it that much harder to successfully complete study for those under 35s wishing to keep their Disability Support Pension by completing “approved study”. Studying costs money and has many out-of-pocket expenses, the Pensioner Education Supplement is designed to help with that.

The National Welfare Rights Network has analysis¬†stating 41,000 people will lose PES payments, with 45% of students (or 18,742) being DSP recipients who will be up to $1622 a year worse off. These are the very people who need to “skill up” if they hope to get employment.

And the Government wonders why disability employment rates are so low? Golly, I wonder why…

4. The scrapping of a promised disability loading for schoolkids with disabilities

This was a bipartisan commitment as part of the Gonksi reforms prior to the 2013 Election. That has now been abandoned and parents of kids with disability are decidedly not happy (we assume the kids are unhappy also). Without this loading it’s likely many children with disabilities will continue to miss opportunities for an equal education.

5. Reduced DSP portability for overseas travelers.

The maximum time someone on the DSP can be overseas in any one year period has been reduced from six weeks to four. Given all the other social support (I’m trying to use that phrase since “welfare” is now a dirty word) cuts, I’m frankly amazed anyone on the DSP can afford a weekend away, let alone a trip overseas.

6. The popular disability-specific website, ABC RampUp has been defunded.

What’s disappointing about this is this measure saves the budget such a piddling amount. RampUp, the only disability-specific news and opinion web-portal in the country, had an annual budget of roughly Tony Abbott’s take-home pay ($500K, give or take).¬† RampUp is an invaluable resource for insightful disability-related news and opinion (the QSSS news-blog has linked to many Ramp Up articles and opinion pieces), and certainly gives more “bang for the buck” for people with disabilities than Tony Abbott ever has.

7. Medicare co-payments for fun and profit!

Smokin’ Joe is now on record saying the new $7 GP co-payment is not that much, less than two middies or a third of a packet of cigarettes. However, I like to word it in ways more relatable to the everyday pensioner – it’s probably two good puffs of Hockey’s fine pre-budget cuban cigar.

What’s sad is the long-held conventional wisdom of preventative medicine seems as on the nose with this Government as secular schools and climate change. Rather than treat that pesky cold or tumor in the early stages, they’re apparently easier to diagnose and treat when it’s really taken hold. The Government must realise the potential consequences of their “price signal” approach. Even the Medical Journal of Australia thinks this may cause more untreated preventable conditions¬†needing radical cures in years to come. (Perhaps that’s why they’ve announced the $20Bn medical research fund?)

This measure will hit the poor and those with chronic conditions the hardest, especially those needing ongoing monitoring, such as conditions like MS. And no, having a disability does not exempt you from this co-payment. While concession card holders should be exempt after 10 visits per year, looking mournfully at your GP with big puppy-dog eyes is unlikely to get your co-payment waived. To discourage any communist er, “overly sympathetic” GPs, the Government will penalise doctors who try to circumvent the co-payment. GPs who do so will lose a low gap incentive payment (effectively meaning they’re at least $11.20 worse off).

If you have substantial medical costs over the year there is more bad news, as well as the safety net threshold being increased, the GP co-payments are not counted toward the medicare safety net.

8. Pensioner concession cuts get “hospital passed” to state Governments

There was some confusion when these measures were first announced about actually which pensioners it applied to and exactly what concessions were being cut. The reduced concession announcements were made next to numerous other measures for seniors, creating the initial impression this may just be for some seniors claiming the (relatively easy to get) Commonwealth Seniors Health Card.

Then this article appeared a few days after the budget making it clear the concessions being affected were for travel, electricity, phone and council rates concessions under an existing Commonwealth/State agreement. It’s also for all concession card holders (how could we think that it wasn’t?) The measure claims to save $1.3 billion over four years but it was sneakily done to put the onus on the States to compensate for Commonwealth stinginess lest they look like the bad guys (as the Newman Government discovered the hard way).

In a bit of good news the Newman Government has reversed their earlier decision to only partially cover the gap left by the federal cuts. The cost of this isn’t cheap; Campbell Newman is actually being $54 milllon less stingy than Tony Abbott (so, golf clap, please).

The ugly

1. Disability employment is a low priority for this Federal Government

The sacking of at least two high profile public servants with disabilities while finding the money to appoint a completely pointless “freedom er, human rights commissioner” certainly isn’t a good look. You also have the short-sighted measures the government is taking regarding school and TAFE/University education for people with disabilities

Then you have Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews who clearly doesn’t “get” disability employment. He’s argued that with the current arrangements many people have the capacity to work, but there is little incentive to do so – which is just a fancy way of saying “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” Stella Young has written a eloquent piece arguing it’s discrimination, not “incentive” preventing people with disabilities from getting employment. Why is it that “incentive” for company CEOs is bagfuls of cash but for out-of-work people with disabilities it’s the punitive poverty stick?

However the biggest glaring sign of how little they care is that funding for placing over-50’s in employment has increased while funding for placing people with disability in employment has decreased. Restart, an initiative announced in the 2014 budget, gives employers subsidies of up to $10,000 for employing people 50 and over. WageConnect, an incentive to hire people with disabilities that pays up to $6050, was discontinued on December 6 2013. The current employer subsidy/incentive for someone with a disability is now approximately one third that paid for employing over 50’s.

Simply put, they don’t care that much if you work, as long as you quietly cost the taxpayer as little as possible.

Concluding thoughts, budget emergencies and other fairy tales

I have, dear reader, intentionally avoided the topic of whether you think there is a genuine budget emergency or whether you have a working understanding of real-world economics. The question of how and why we need to “pay off the debt” I leave as an exercise for the reader. However if you want to have have go at playing treasurer (with cigars completely optional), this interactive guide is quite instructive.

When you hear a Government minister saying they “are not doing any of this for fun” just remember this photo and realise that, yes they did it because they could, and many of the smaller targeted cuts they very much enjoyed making.

Let Them Puff Cubans - Joe Hockey and Mathia Corman smoking cigars

They very much look like they are sharing the pain.

There have may be a few meaner and nastier documents than the 2014 budget, but I wager not many. Perhaps Johnathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal, but that was an eloquent work of satire and parody.

Sadly the budget has none of these qualities.

*N.B. This article is solely the opinion of Tony Leggett and does not necessarily reflect the views of QSSS.

PS Steamed Up? Discuss the federal budget further in the Squeaky Wheel forums (you will need to email for a login sorry, the spam-bots are everywhere man!)