Withdrawing funding from groups which support the most needy is not an answer to the budget problem, writes Mark Skulley.
Now that the silly season has come and gone, it’s time to revisit the Abbott government’s sneaky pre-Christmas announcement that it would cut funding to a range of groups working for people with disabilities and the homeless.
The government announced the cuts knowing there would be complaints, and some immediate media coverage, but this would only run for a few days before fizzling out in the summer holiday daze.
The cuts came on the watch of the then Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews, but they were announced amid the cabinet reshuffle which saw the ambitious Scott Morrison take over the portfolio and keep a lid on questioning.
Some of the political coverage of the cabinet reshuffle was puzzling, with references to Mr Morrison being given a big domestic portfolio which he would work to climb up the leadership totem pole.
But since when has Social Services been an “economic portfolio”? It’s in Australia’s national economic interests to not overspend on welfare, and for it to be well-managed, but the disabled and homeless are two groups who should be looked after.
All portfolios have a human face, but none moreso than Social Services.
So far, the new minister has talked up the need to crack down on welfare rorters and “bludgers”, an angle which has been picked up in the more populist media.
However, let’s look at the groups which lost funding.
They include the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia, Blind Citizens Australia, Brain Injury Australia, Deaf Australia, Deafness Forum of Australia, Down Syndrome Australia, the National Council on Intellectual Disability, Physical Disability Australia and Short Statured People of Australia.
All up, these funding cuts are said to have affected around 140 groups who deal with about 200,000 individuals. These groups and the people fall outside the easy headlines and talk-back chatter about rorters and bludgers.
Social Services Minister Scott Morrison plans further welfare cuts. Photo: AAP
The government has argued, in a vague sort of way, that cuts to welfare spending are needed to help pay for the National Insurance Disability Scheme, which was introduced by Labor.
But the main source of funding for the NDIS was supposed to be an increase in the Medicare levy from 1.5 per cent of taxable income to 2 per cent from July 2014.
For somebody on an average wage of $70,000 a year, this is said to amount to about 96 cents a day.
My feeling is that Australians were prepared to pay for a better deal for disabled people and their carers, even if it cost them more than $1 per day.
The cuts announced just before Christmas also hit groups working with homeless people, including National Shelter, Homelessness Australia and the Community Housing Federation Australia.
This, too, will exacerbate existing problems. According to the most recent data, an estimated 105,000 Australians are homeless while some 254,000 used homeless services in the last year.
The cuts have affected groups and individuals with a lot of expertise and experience at the same the government is attempting to make savings by cracking down on disability pensions.
It raises the question of whether the government is pursuing a false economy – chasing short-term spending cuts which will cost more to fix up down the track.
When will Mr Morrison meet the groups and the individuals they represent to discuss the impact of the funding cuts?
When will the mainstream media hold Mr Morrison and the government to account?