Welfare payees punished, says UN

A senior United Nations official has slammed the Federal Government’s attitude towards welfare recipients as punitive, saying some Australians are struggling to survive.

Speaking on ABC Radio National yesterday, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, said there was an ideology in Government that some people were intentionally avoiding work.

Questioned about the $160 billion a year spent on social welfare, the Australian-born Mr Alston said it was not “unusual by international standards”.

“What I see is a series of punitive measures that are trying to reduce the number of people who are eligible for social security benefits, make it much more difficult to obtain them, extend the waiting period and so on,” he said.

“Some of that might be seen to be justified if there were major problems. But that is not the case. In fact, it is driven by a broad ideology that there are people who should be working, could be working, but are refusing to. I have not seen the evidence for that.”

Mr Alston said encouraging non-working Australians into employment required “appropriate labour market reforms to provide the safety net than enabled people to focus on getting and staying in employment, rather than turning it into a daily struggle to just survive”.

He added that the punitive measures went well beyond facilitating people to enter employment and could quickly become counterproductive.

Mr Alston has written to the Government a number of times over several years seeking explanations about its welfare policies. This week he wrote again, raising his concerns about the planned rollout of cashless welfare cards.

“What I see in Australia is the mimicking of American approaches, which are premised on resentment of people being on welfare, and an assumption they should be helping themselves,” he said yesterday.

“Whereas in Western Europe you don’t have any pull back on the commitment to a welfare state and that enables people to achieve full realisation that their health and security needs are met.”

Last year, Mr Alston questioned the now-defunct proposal to test recipients for drug use and reduce their payments if they returned positive results.

Yesterday, he said that if it had gone ahead, the testing would have “worsened the situation” for addicted recipients.

“The whole premise was flawed … (it would have driven them) to find often illegal ways of finding money,” he said.

“If you are going to start testing welfare recipients for drug use, it would be a good idea to start testing government ministers, too. We depend much more on them being able to perform their functions fully, efficiently and effectively.”

Do you think politicians should be drug tested? Is the Government mean-spirited in its approach to welfare recipients? Which ideology do you prefer: the American or Western Europe view of a social welfare system?

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Written by Olga Galacho

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