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Services Australia spying is one part of the story: here’s why it’s happening

By Jay Coonan

A Canberra Times “exclusive” published yesterday about a Services Australia tender to continue contracting for surveillance operations against welfare recipients highlighted that the news cycle, and journalists, can’t stay up to speed with how punishing the welfare system is.

The misfire, implying these measures are new, results from the complexity of the poverty machine – journalists miss what’s happening, and miss what’s important. And the failure to provide nuanced and well-informed coverage is part of what enables the machine to operate in all its horror.

It’s already common practice for the government to spy on welfare recipients and any expansion of it is reprehensible.

Given the existing disincentives for people to access payments, such as the punishing “mutual” obligations system, spying on people is deranged.

They know it’s a waste of money, but it also serves a larger purpose – to turn the general public against welfare recipients, painting us as fraudsters to ward off the risk that people might develop sympathy for those of us on payments.

In the Canberra Times story, the journalist’s first mistake was relying on the testimony of Services Australia’s Hank Jongen. He’s consistently referred to as a “General Manager” but in reality he’s nothing more than a spin doctor, listed as “agency spokesperson” on their own webpage. However, his responses helpfully reveal what’s wrong with the system and how advocates – if given the space – can expose what’s driving unnecessary spying in breach of our rights.

The only reason the government has for spying on us in the first place is its own illogical, punishing rules.

It’s time to get rid of the partner income test

I’ve personally been hurt by the partner income test – the rule that says your payment must go down if Centrelink deems you in a relationship, regardless of whether finances are shared.[1]Services Australia, JobSeeker Payment income test, servicesaustralia.gov.au/income-test-for-jobseeker-payment, accessed 22 February 2022.

The partner income test is rooted in sexism, a paternalistic throwback to when only unmarried women were eligible for a specific payment and were targeted if found to be seeing someone who was “providing” for them.

While the payment changed as the social security system became more universal in nature, the restriction was left in place to recoup money for the government from people who genuinely need support. It was also expanded to same-sex couples by the Rudd government, recognising them as “defacto”. Not exactly the type of equality LGBTQIA+ folks were in need of.

While people may pool their costs to save on housing, as you would in a sharehouse, the notion that sexual relationships are synonymous with financial codependence is absurd in this day and age.

The only difference between sharing a house with one other person and Services Australia deeming you in a relationship or not is whether they believe you’re having sex – an outmoded notion of what a relationship even is, and certainly not the business of the government.

The guidelines for determining a “defacto” relationship are broad and can capture people who aren’t in a sexual relationship, or even living together.[2]Department of Social Services (DSS), ‘2.2.5.10 Determining a de facto relationship’, Guides to Social Policy Law: Social Security Guide, DSS, … Continue reading

The fact is we’re no longer in an age where being in a relationship – even a safe, long-term, committed one – means finances aren’t kept separate.

Most importantly, the partner income test is very dangerous. Forcing a person off a payment because their partner has a higher income creates dependency. While the government claims it wants to reduce domestic violence, it actively perpetuates it, and will potentially force even more people into these dynamics by using surveillance to further punish – mirroring coercive tactics used in abusive relationships while they’re at it.

The parental income test operates on the same basis, punishing adults until they’re in their early 20s for the crime of having parents who are employed. Financial independence begins before a person leaves the home, and the bureaucracy young people are subjected to in order to prove it is absurd.

Pay-as-you-earn: we need to stop punishing people in work

One excuse given for spying on people is the claim they don’t declare income. At the same time, the government provides an incentive to take underpaid, cash work with its pitiful income free area and taper rates. These mean that once you get a small amount of paid work – only $75 income a week – you lose at least 50 cents of your payment for every extra dollar you earn.[3]Services Australia, JobSeeker Payment income test.

It’s unfathomable that in an age of stagnant wages and with hundreds of thousands of older people unable to find secure employment, that people who are able to get some paid work are punished while still depending on a payment below the poverty line.

Students who work and study at the same time would be able to focus more on their studies and better support themselves and those around them if they could keep more of their employment income while supported by a social security payment.

In a time where there is clearly no political will to increase social security payments, it’s a wonder that politicians then also insist on punishing people who do find work by forcing them to live in continued poverty.

Increasing taper rates would be a simple measure to ensure that a person is earning at least the Henderson poverty line of about $1,200 a fortnight before losing their payment.

Change to these rules is long-overdue, will help ease financial stress on individuals and put more money into the economy at the same time. And it would take away the excuses given for spying on us.

Income free areaGross wagesLower range taper rateUpper range thresholdUpper range taper rate Total reductionNet JobSeeker paymentTotal income$ below poverty line
Mar 202010650050%25060%221.40399.40899.40259.78
Mar 202130050030060%120500.801000.80158.38
Current15050050%25060%199.40421.40921.40237.78
Our proposal40050040040%40580.801080.8078.38
Proposal for changes to the income free area and taper rates developed by Kristin O’Connell and submitted to the inquiry into the March 2021 income support bill on behalf of the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union. The intention of the proposal is to demonstrate that it is possible to enable more people to work enough to be above the poverty line before losing access to their Centrelink payment with minor adjustments to existing policy. All figures are fortnightly and pre-income tax. For the purpose of comparing these scenarios, all figures are calculated using the fortnightly base JobSeeker rate ($620.80) and Henderson poverty line ($1,159.18) for a single person as at April 2021.

There’s no case for surveillance

It is hard to believe that it’s cost effective for the government to pay private investigators to take photos and bug people to “catch them out” for working, or simply living in their home, when they could stop violating our right to privacy and remove these draconian measures altogether.

The government must ensure that it no longer allows people to be spied on by the state. By making these two changes it will guarantee that.

At the same time it will provide greater financial independence and better income security whilst people start a new relationship, settle into a job or study, or just give welfare recipients the confidence to work the amount that is appropriate for their circumstances.

The Henderson poverty line should be the base rate of every payment until the work is done to develop an appropriate measure of poverty for the present day, as part of an unconditional welfare system that is support-centred.

It’s obvious we need to end the partner income test, and increase taper rates and the income free area, but we have a long way to go.

In the meantime, the least politicians can do is stop spying on us.


Want to know more?

For further information about how the government could easily adjust income free areas and taper rates within the existing social security law to make it more fair, see the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union submission (#388) to the Community Affairs Senate Committee inquiry into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021, access via: aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/StrengthenIncomeSupport/Submissions

References

References
1 Services Australia, JobSeeker Payment income test, servicesaustralia.gov.au/income-test-for-jobseeker-payment, accessed 22 February 2022.
2 Department of Social Services (DSS), ‘2.2.5.10 Determining a de facto relationship’, Guides to Social Policy Law: Social Security Guide, DSS, guides.dss.gov.au/social-security-guide/2/2/5/10, accessed 22 February 2022.
3 Services Australia, JobSeeker Payment income test.
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