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Cost cutting measures target vulnerable Australians

Leadership and compassion are two words that certainly don't associate themselves with the first few months of the Abbott Government. Instead, we're witnessing a concerning trend when it comes to policy decisions that affect vulnerable Australians.

Since the election, the Government has spoken about the expansion of income management, a flawed, unfair and expensive scheme that punishes and stigmatises people on income support. They've scrapped the Social Inclusion Board, which was tasked with advising the government on how best to address the disadvantages that lead to poverty, and there are signs the newly established Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission could follow suit, despite its broad support from the community sector.

The Coalition have also made changes to aged care reforms, scrapping an important wage increase for aged care workers, who are some of our lowest paid people, despite the importance of their work.

The recent announcement of the Commission of Audit into whole-of-government spending is continuing this trend. The Commission is tasked with identifying ways to cut areas of government expense, and we now see the Government floating ideas for cost cutting measures that are likely to target some of our most vulnerable people.

Two of the potential changes include moving some of Centrelink's front office responsibilities to Australia Post, and the potential for the administration of the NDIS to be tendered out to Medibank Private.

These plans are being described by the Government as potential ways to reduce bureaucracy, but with a Commission of Audit focused on cutting costs, it is clear that money saving measures are being considered that would further disadvantage some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

It's particularly disappointing to hear the Treasurer mention the NDIS in the same sentence as "massive new bureaucracy'', and to hear him float the idea of tendering out the scheme's administration to an organisation such as Medibank Private, which Tony Abbott has flagged for future privatisation.

The NDIS has been established as a statutory body by legislation in agreement with the states through a model that ensures the scheme's independence and security. This was a long term process, driven by the community.

Now, with the scheme in its infancy, the Government has a responsibility to implement it effectively, not undermine it by moving back towards the care models of the past. By linking NDIS to an organisation like Medibank Private, the Treasurer is looking backwards, at a medical model for the delivery of services to people with disabilities.

This is contrary to the spirit of the NDIS, which recognises that disability should not be treated as an illness, and that people with disabilities should have control over plans, support and services.

Moving away from the agreed structure of the NDIS, simply as a way to save money, cuts across the cross-partisanship and broad community agreement that went into establishing the scheme.

While the Government are looking to avoid responsibility for the implementation of the NDIS, they're also avoiding any meaningful action when it comes to improving our social security system.

If anything, they are considering a plan that could convolute our already complex system further, by handing off some front office Centrelink duties to Australia Post and allowing the DHS workforce to reduce through ‘natural attrition'.

It is safe to say that anyone who's had contact with Centrelink will be able to tell you stories of conflicting advice, administrative errors, over or under payments, too many forms and long waiting times. This will not improve by moving services to our postal service.

As National Welfare Rights Network have pointed out, 28 per cent of all complaints to the Commonwealth Ombudsman relate to Centrelink, and a further 18% relate to Australia Post. This doesn't bode well for any effort to combine the operations of these two organisations.

Providing support and information to vulnerable people isn't like posting a letter. Even as shop-fronts, Australia Post will still receive requests for information and assistance, including those from people facing complex challenges and who need professional assistance and support.

This proposed change serves only to create new problems and make services harder to access. This was a point raised by the person responsible for the last whole-of-Government audit, who spoke of the ‘many practical complications' that came with any effort to combine services.

These changes won't make people forget about the serious problems with the current social security system. Newstart is inadequate and hundreds of thousands of single parents and their children are living in poverty. The number of people over 50 stuck on Newstart is escalating. These are the problems the Government should be addressing.

Rather than using these changes to avoid their responsibility, the Government should be undertaking a comprehensive review of our social security system, with a view to providing simplified and increased payments and more effective services that provide people with a guaranteed adequate income and support for their individual circumstances.

Over the past four years, Tony Abbott and his MPs have spoken incessantly about leadership, good governance and responsibility. Now that they've won the election, it seems this message has been forgotten, especially when it comes to Australians who are struggling to make ends meet.


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