Machine Gunning the Welfare Life Boat: Pages 7 to 9. (Part 3 of 7.)

Clearly, there is considerable effort to deliberately avoid Transparency when it comes to the “uncomfortable” humanitarian consequences of Breaching/Compliance Measures.

The simple reality is that the Social Security (Administration) Act has deliberately deprived people of the protection of the courts and this made welfare recipients extremely vulnerable to exploitation; so vulnerable that, over the years millions have been exploited and thousands have died.

T.o.R. 2. (a) 4. “…no show, no pay”.

This is Centrelink’s powerful compliance measure. It is also the most dangerous and destructive for this Compliance Measures made “exceptionally vulnerable” people even more exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation by the unscrupulous and the predatory. Here are some examples of how easily compliance measures provisions have been “hi-jacked”:

  1. Sexual predators surf the Internet. What about the sexual predators who surfed the Job Network using job vacancies to reel in their victims? Unsuspecting victims would be automatically breached if they did not attend a job interview with one of these predators!
  2. …11% of breaching victims were forced to survive by actions such as “Survivor Sex”.
  3. The Scorecard. This highly insensitive term is used in Chapter 3 of the Centrelink 2001-02 Annual Report. The ‘Scorecard’ may be a throwback to the mid 1990s when, I became aware that some CES staff were engaging in the vocational sport of Breaching Competitions. The winner won a bottle of booze at the Friday night happy hour.(Limit $60)
  4. Administrative Convenience Breaching. On one occasion when “un-breaching” a client who was meeting their job search obligations, I asked why some of my clients had been breached. I was informed that ‘If we write a letter to attend an interview they sometimes won’t come but if we breach them, they always come’!
  5. Breaching for profit. In 1998 when I was a Job Network recruitment consultant, I became aware that Breaching could be misused for financial gain. Agencies with a FLEX 3 “Intensive Assistance” contract could sign up a FLEX 3 – long term unemployed client, and then collect the government’s up-front payments for providing job skills training assistance. With up-front payments of up to $3,000, the profit was not in training the client and placing them in a job. The profit was in taking the up-front payment and then finding a “legitimate” excuse to breach the client so that another victim, client, could be signed up.
  6. Cheap Labour. In good faith, I once referred two of my long term unemployed Job Club clients to a vacancy listed in the CES’s job vacancies database. Both women came back extremely distraught. The “employer” had ‘offered’ them work at $2 per hour, well below the minimum wage in 1996, and had threatened to contact the CES and have them breached for refusing a job if they did not accept the position. I contacted the CES and reported this employer’s actions to the CES. The job vacancy was removed, but a day later it was again re-listed! There was simply no systemic protection, only breaching for non-compliance.
  7. Sound Economic Management. On June 27th, 2000, an ALP MP, Cheryl Kernot, issued a press release that provided detailed information about the Howard Government’s implementation of Breaching Quotas. Although the Howard Government denied any knowledge of Breaching Quotas, some Centrelink staff testified at the Independent Pearce Inquiry that they were being forced to meet breaching quotas. In a conversation with a Customer Service Officer at the Elizabeth office of Centrelink, I asked about how people could be breached and was informed that being 10 minutes late meant a 13 week breach. In an ABC interview in 2002, the government again denied any knowledge of this activity.

Breaching Quota activity had to be denied for to acknowledge it was to admit to defrauding hundreds of thousands of At-risk Aussie Battlers of legitimate welfare entitlements. Even worse, to admit to this activity was to accept responsibility for both the humanitarian consequences and the legal consequences of this activity, e.g. the deaths of welfare recipients.

T.o.R. 2. (g) “…the effectiveness of training…for Centrelink staff”.

The current commitment to “Compliance Measures”, especially the continued harsh willingness to impose an 8 week non-payment penalty upon the “exceptional vulnerable” raises the serious question of the underlying corporate ethos set by management within Centrelink. It is widely recognized that bureaucracies have both formal and informal structures and agendas. Where formal and informal agendas are in conflict, overt goals in training programs may be subsumed and rendered ineffective by subvert informal goals and even by the personal goals of those in authority. The overt purpose of Centrelink is to support welfare recipients and yet the humanitarian consequences of compliance measures are totally inconsistent with this most critical of purposes.

In international maritime law, the First Rule of the Sea is to protect the lives of those at risk. The Centrelink annual reports contain clear evidence that Centrelink management, put “obeying orders”, i.e. complying with the Howard Government’s Breaching Quotas policy ahead of obligations such as the Duty of Care owed to welfare recipients and the principle of Safety First in order to protect lives that are “exceptionally vulnerable”. That “exceptionally vulnerable” people were breached by imposing a Compliance Failure” penalty of 13 weeks without welfare payments with absolutely no risk assessment or risk monitoring was blatant Negligence by Act of Omission. The fact that an 8 week non-payment penalty can still be unilaterally applied to “exceptionally vulnerable” people after a risk assessment is undertaken indicates that Centrelink staff lack an appreciation of legal issues such Duty of Care, Tort, Wilful Negligence, Criminal Negligence, Manslaughter and Felony Murder.

When it came to Compassion and plain old fashioned Common Sense, these humane virtues do not appear on the radar when it comes Centrelink’s compliance policies and practices towards welfare recipients who how been overwhelmed by the rolling disaster known as “Unemployment”. In the 2008-09 annual report, the use of the word “compassion” was appropriately used twice to describe the attitude of Centrelink staff when dealing with flood and fire disaster victims. However, when it came to welfare recipients who survive daily on the dole, there was no reference to the use of the word “compassion”. Instead, Centrelink’s annual reports are top-heavy with negatives such as:

  1. “failure” :- used 10 times,;
  2. “compliance” :- used 50 times;
  3. “fraud” :- used 53 times.

Table 14 of the 2001-02 annual report was titled, Client Partnership Outcomes, yet it focussed upon “Compliance” and “Prosecutions”. Instead of a caring, nurturing attitude, these reports reveal that attitude of Centrelink management appears to be based upon Dominating Control and Punishment of the welfare ‘criminals’ who have to rely on the dole to survive. These reports are about Dominance triumphing over Tolerance. Assistant Secretary Skill’s letter is unique in that in the many years that I have been lobbying for welfare justice, it is the only written response that does not contain a return address, either on the Centrelink stationary or on the Centrelink envelope. The head office is not in the White Pages and it cannot be readily found on Centrelink’s web site. It appears that that Centrelink management does not want to have any direct contact with the people that they serve.

Does the negative ethos so manifestly exhibited by Centrelink’s senior management subtly impinge upon training programs? Even worse, does this ethos demean or demoralize welfare recipients? This dictatorial “Do as we say or else…” welfare management approach is, in practical terms, no different from the dogmatic demands imposed upon western societies by hard line religious groups such as Al Qeada and J.I. Given the unacceptable death toll and appalling suffering inflicted upon 3 million at-risk people by compliance measures it is pertinent to ask “Who are the real terrorists”.

Centrelink’s training programs are skewed away from critical areas that would make it far more difficult for Centrelink management to effectively maintain this heavy-handed, dictatorial approach to welfare management.

Caveat: Training that is focused upon program delivery is of a high standard. Front-line Customer Service Offices who deliver services and provide advice to welfare recipients generally do an excellent job. When my step-father died, I took my elderly mother to Centrelink to sort out the processes required when notifying Centrelink of his death. I was most impressed with the compassion and caring efficiency with which this was undertaken.

The real issue with training programs is with what is not taught.

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child. Article 3 of that convention focuses upon the best interests of children. It requires that all adults make decisions that are in the best interests of the child; i.e. that when adults make decisions, they should think how those decisions will affect children. This principle is particularly targeted at law makers and those responsible for implementing government policies and that means that Centrelink management need to ensure that all staff are fully aware of this obligation.

Whilst Centrelink ‘s ‘reasonable exclusion’ provisions ensure that compliance review teams implement this policy in the case of serious compliance failures, the reality is that this U.N. convention also applies to all of the ‘minor’ penalties such as One Day ‘No show’ No pay’ penalty. As the previously mentioned Abbott/Vanstone definition of welfare payments makes quite clear, every welfare recipient is vulnerable enough to require assistance in meeting BASIC living costs.

  1. Welfare payments are approximately 25% of the average wage and are also about 50% below the poverty line. At this level, the line between “adequate” and “inadequate” is invisibly thin.
  2. A ‘minor’ penalty reduction of 10% of the welfare allowance may effectively represent a massive reduction in a care giver’s capacity to care for the needs of their children.
  3. A number of alarming trends have risen in parallel with the rise in the number compliance penalties imposed by Centrelink. One of these is the need for schools in low socio-economic areas to provide breakfast to a rising number of children from impoverished families.
  4. From the lowliest CSO to the most senior Centrelink managers, there is an international obligation to ensure that each and every time a ‘minor’ compliance penalty is imposed upon a child care provider, that there will be no negative consequences for children. To assume that training can be 100% effective in identifying 100% of the risk ‘envelope’ is absolute hubris.

T.o.R. 2. (i) “the adequacy of resourcing…”

Centrelink staff also lack the required mental health training skills to ensure that ‘minor’ penalties do not have other major consequences, both for the welfare recipient and for any children in their care. For the last 80 years, both official statistics and comprehensive medical studies have identified the major issue of the high prevalence of serious mental health problems amongst the unemployed.

Since the 1930s, suicide rates amongst the unemployed have

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