November 20, 2007 What sort of country do we want to be?
A quick rant on bureaucracy
Given that I have a child with special needs, and given that his father has fucked off overseas, and has never paid child support (oh, sorry I lie, he does pay $20 a month which covers my bank fees), the Government gives me some financial support to acknowledge the fact that, as a single mum, I’m kinda rooted prospects wise.
So I’ve taken that assistance and have finished a degree, I am halfway through a second and I have, by hard work, luck, support, privilege and bloody mindedness found a job which is not casual, which is reasonably flexible, which pays reasonably well (any work means you lose almost all of your benefits mind you).
Recently the Government decided to make changes to the Welfare system (in general, let’s save the truly evil changes to Welfare legislation regarding Indigenous families being cut off for another post).
Now…dig this…the Government will give you 8 grand if you have kids. The Government WANTS more kids in the country – not Asylum Seekers children mind you, nor kids raised by same sex parents, nor kids raised by one parent (when the courts decided that it was in fact discrimination to refuse to allow same sex couples or single women to access IVF treatment, the Government granted special dispensation for the Catholic Church -!!!- to go before the Court as an ‘interested party’ to argue against such access marking an alarming collapse of the boundaries of separating religion and politics). The Government wants women to stay at home, they are big on marriage and have devised and implemented tax breaks which reward marriage and raising children within marriage, tax breaks which work when the woman stays home and does her job. The Government doesn’t (or didn’t until they realized they were going *down* this election – please, please, pleae) support paid maternity leave. So they want more kids, but only within the context of heterosexual marriage. They argue they are being supportive of women’s choices (their choice to stay at home and look after their family, not so much their choice to have kids and a career, or a career and no kids)…but even if we believed them, this doesn’t stand up in the face of the new laws for Welfare.
Under these new laws, parents raising a child on their own must undertake at least fifteen hours of paid work a week once their child turns six – study does not count. When the laws were introduced it was on the premise that those already on the benefits would not be affected….this turned out not to be true, and was a major factor in my decision not to start Honours, and to instead go find ‘real work’. (With a Bachelor of Arts and a High Distinction average, with my lecturers and tutors telling me I could succeed in postgraduate studies and beyond, I got a job first in a pharmacy, then making sandwhiches in a deli.)
Now there are two issues here: the political and the personal. Politically I am infuriated that parents who are trying to do their best for their child have their ability to make choices about how best to parent said children taken away from them or at the least drastically limited by the requirement of finding fifteen hours work a week. If study counted towards this “Activity Requirement” that would be one thing. But it doesn’t. We don’t want single mums getting uppity ideas now. So work….fifteen hours huh? Well with a six year old you probably don’t want to be working full time if you don’t have the support of a partner to work with you around school drop offs, pick ups, cooking, cleaning, time with your child etc. So part-time? A-ha-hah-hah…good one! Permanent part-time work in Howards new ‘work choices’ environment? No, casual is what you’ll be looking at.
As a veteran of casual work let me say it goes like this: “Sure you can have exactly fifteen hours working around your kids hours at school…though…you work quite well. Could you stay back tonight? And tomorrow night? What’s that?? No?? Well I can totally let you go if you’d prefer…oh good. Thanks. Also, it’d work better for me if you could do these hours, and perhaps take on an extra day. But mmm…business is slow this week, I don’t need you til Thursday. Oh I’m sorry to hear you kid is in the hospital. But gee I’m glad I don’t have to pay you sick leave.” Oh yeah – under the new legislation? You aren’t allowed to leave a job for any reason that the Government doesn’t approve of, and issues of ‘unfair’ requirements or family commitments don’t count as reasonable. If you leave a job your payments can be suspended for eight weeks. That is enough time to be evicted. For your child to go without medicine while sick. Not to mention what this kind of stress does to a parent.
So politically I think it is appalling to punish people for parenting a child on their own, and really, to punish their children. Could we for once step aside from the moralistic bullshit finger wagging of A Current Affairs et al and ask the question “But what sort of society do wewanna be?” Do we want to be a society who brands single parents as welfare milkers popping out babies for cash? Do we want to then put children of single parents at risk by creating real risks of extreme poverty? Do we want to put these kids at risk by putting their parents under such strain that inevitably there will be negative repercussions on their parent’s physical and mental health? Or do we want to say we live in a democracy, and as such there are some families who will need our support. If we support them properly they will take part in supporting others? Just a thought, just throwing it out there…I really think we’ve lost sight of the question of “What sort of country do we want to be” right across the board in contemporary Australain politics and society and I think that our failure to keep that question in mind will haunt us for a long time to come.
Now…the political aspect is appalling, and I hope like hell that Labor has a plan to help single parents gain access to education and childcare to help them build real prospects, rather than dangling financial ruin over their heads to scare them into casual jobs floorsweeping while their kids stay home alone.
But the initial point of this blog was just the supreme, bungling idiocy that is welfare bureaucracy. Even if you accepted the premise that it’s ok to do this to people (punish them for not being married, punish their kids for having one parent) take a moment to ponder the ridiculousness of the following:
About once a fortnight I get a call saying I MUST attend a day long seminar at the Centrelink office (45 minutes away on public transport). If I do not, my payments will be cut.
I call, I explain, slowly and patiently that I work five days a week. They say, “Sure, well, we can reschedule, but you will have to attend one of these seminars”.
I ask “Why? What is it about?”. They say, “It’s about the new changes to Social Security laws”. I say “Oh, I know all about that, as soon as they came in I researched them and contacted Welfare Rights”. They say, “You will still have to attend.” I say I can’t as I am working five days a week. They say, “Ok, we’ll call to reschedule”. (Is your brain bleeding yet? Having flashbacks to the Who’s on First skit?)
About a week later I field a call (at work) from a different staff member. I explain again that no, I can’t really see the point in taking a day off work to travel across town to sit in a crowded room to hear someone explain in little words something I know about already.
They say “Oh but you also have to sign a Participation Agreement” – I say “What for?”, they say, “To say you will look for fifteen hours work a week”…[pause] “I work twice that already on a permanent basis” they say “If you don’t sign this agreement your payments could be cut. So, let me get this straight. I have to take a day off from work to go to an office far away to hear a speech about something I already know about and sign a piece of paper that says I will do *half* of what I am already doing??? Aaaaaand – then they said, “You will also have to start coming to the office each fortnight to tell us what you earned that fortnight”…[long pause]…[in brain]: You fuckers realise what permanent part time means right? Means I get the same amount week in and week out, if I am sick, on holidays, at work, at a funeral, WHATEVER…I. STILL. EARN. THE SAME. AMOUNT. EVERY. FUCKING. FORTNIGHT…so you could save us all some time, talk to my bosses and we don’t have to chat except a couple of times a year…but now you want me to drop down in my hours or take time off work, to come and tell you to your face the amount I’ve earned this fortnight which is, has always been, will always be the SAME???
So seriously I was ready to snap when I fielded another call at work. In the end I was so angry I was about to say “I tell you what, I will write you a fucking essay on the new laws, on the pros and cons and the social implications, comparing and contrasting it with the laws that went before – if at the end of that I get a mark of less than 85%, I will attend, nay I will GIVE the seminar and bake cookies for all who attend”…close to death by aneurism I choke out my issues reminding myself it isn’t this woman’s fault…and she says “Oh, hey, how about I post you out your participation agreement?”[stunned silence]
“Um, yes, that would be great” (it’s only taken 12 months at least fifteen calls to come up with this brainstorm). Then I broach the reporting, carefully, quietly (as if I am talking to a dangerous animal) “Um…since I work five days a week, and I have a child with special needs and I don’t drive…is it possible to keep reporting over the phone?” [since it’s the same fucking amount each fortnight anyway]…she says “Yes, you would be eligible to keep reporting by phone.”
FUCK!!!! I mean, totally I’m doing the crazy happy dance of relief…but really…should it have been that hard??? And really…I am fucking lucky. What of all those people out there working casual work, whose hours change and who are subject to the moods and whims of their bosses, who have to trek across town to do what can be done over the phone (and what do they do with their kids in this time, and what if they work five days, when do they get the time to do it?), or who are harassed by their bosses and quit to have their payments cut. It is pretty hard to save for a rainy day on welfare. Who get sacked unfairly and have no redress if they work for a small company? Whose hourly rate went down when the new laws came in? Whose kids are sick or suspended from school so they lose their job?
What sort of country do we wanna be? What sort of future do we wanna create? Do we really wanna be the country that says *some kids* deserve to be looked after and have a happy experience of childhood, and some don’t because their parents aren’t married? Or do we wanna stop this bullshit of dividing society into deserving and less deserving, stop painting welfare as handouts to bludgers and start looking back to ideas of assistance to ensure adequate care and futures of promise? Do we wanna punish single parents or help them to be the best parents we can? Do we wanna play talkback radio/current affairs scaremongering and hatefests or do we wanna say none of that matters, what matters is the sort of country we want to be and we want to hold our heads high and say we look after people, we look after each other? And this? Just the tip of the iceberg.
What sort of country do we wanna be? One where First Australians are ignored, silenced, reduced to a ‘special category’ rather than given self determination and the chance to be actively included in plannning and shaping the future of Australia. One in which Indigenous health and mortality rates are ignored, or treated as an Indigenous problem rather than a national health crisis? Where our response to concerns raised over Indigenous children’s welbeing is met by slapping some more laws down rather than funding more resources? Or one where we say “We have failed, we will do all we can to redress inequality, to improve access to resources, to listen, to raise health standards by extra service provision, to tailor education to specific needs, to offer scholarships, to heed the Indigenous activists, doctors, lawyers, authors who are asking us to listen and act”? One where we say “Wasn’t me” or where we say “I’m sorry”. One where we lock kids up in the desert for years at a time because their parents brought them here looking for a better life? Or one that says “We can do better than this for fellow human beings”? One who says “Well, fuck the rule of law, David Hicks was definately doing something dodgy”, or one where we fight for the protections offered by following due process? One where deaths in custody get swept under the rug, or one where we have as many inquests as it takes until it stops? We need to stop looking at each other and pointing the finger, stop shouting about special interest groups, and lefties and dole bludgers and queue jumpers and ask ourselves, really, really ask ourselves what sort of country do we want to be?