On Q&A in February, disability support pension
recipient Daniel Turner questioned Eric Abetz about planned changes —
and came out disturbed by what he'd heard.
It is 10:30pm on 17 February 2014 and the ABC Q&A episode
being filmed the ABC Studios at Ultimo is coming to an end when Tony
Jones throws to me to ask the question I’d been waiting to ask all show:
My question is to Eric Abetz.
I'm currently on a Disability Support Pension for various
disabilities I have. I don't want to be on a DSP. I want — I'd much
rather be in work and earning my own wage. I've applied for a number of
jobs but, because of my disabilities, I'm limited to applying to only
sit-down jobs or desk jobs.
Could you share [sic] more light on the Government's plans for
the review in the Disability Support Pension, just to put me at ease to
know that I won't be or my income won't be totally pulled out from under
In this question, I am looking for reassurance for me and all the
other DSP recipients out there that they are not going to have to fight
to hold on to their only source of income support. As we have seen with
the 2014-15 Federal budget, those of us who are under 35 will have to
fight to continue to receive our payments.
But more on that later, first I’d like to go through Employment Minister Eric Abetz' answer.
To begin, he set up his answer:
Yeah. What the Government has said is and, in general terms, what
we need in this country is to ensure that the social services that we
provide, provide a safety net and not a hammock and, as a result, we do
have to be careful to ensure that money goes to those that actually need
it, deserve it and require it, rather than those who may think that
it's a lifestyle choice.
I can’t really say I’m surprised by this opening and don’t
particularly have a problem with it overall, but what I do have a
problem with is the use of the word “hammock” and the fact that he thinks that some people on the DSP believe it to be a “lifestyle choice”.
Now, perhaps the word hammock was purely co-incidental and was used
in reference to the DSP being a safety net. I think I need to point out
here that I did not have a problem with this at the time — not until I
watched Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews in the week leading up to the Budget say that
the days of young people sitting on the couch and collecting a welfare
cheque are over. Then it hit me that the use of the word hammock may be
part of the government’s narrative.
I’ll come back to Kevin Andrews shortly.
Now, I have no doubt that there are people out there that have
somehow manipulated the system and are able to claim the DSP when they
are not genuine recipients — however, I have no doubt this is a tiny
The vast majority of DSP recipients would work if they could work
because, for many, the DSP is simply not enough to survive on when you
take into account doctor’s bills, food, clothes and medication. Many
people on the DSP do not have the luxury of going to the shop and get a
block of chocolate — nor as Joe Hockey suggested in relation to the GP
co-payment, have 2 middies of beer or a pack of cigarettes. For the vast
majority of recipients, it is not a lifestyle choice, it is a matter of
choosing between their medicines and the electricity bill.
Let’s continue with Abetz’s answer:
Clearly in your circumstances that you have outlined, the little
that I have gleaned, clearly you are a person that is aspirational. You
are willing to work. You want to work and you, I hope as a result of
this program tonight, somebody might be out there saying I'll give that
bloke a job and an opportunity and that is what I would call on all
employers to do, is to have a look at the opportunity to assist the
disability community and our nation.
He’s right. I do want to work and so do many, many people in the
disabled community. In fact, I held a job at McDonalds for two years
until I got arthritis in my back and was forced to leave because I
couldn’t stand for long periods. This was not something of choice, it
wasn’t something I could control, but it was something I had to deal
Host Tony Jones then asked a follow up question:
A quick question, just to follow up Eric Abetz. You mentioned a
safety net, not a hammock. Now, how many of the people who are on
Disability Support Pensions do you believe are in a hammock?”
Eric Abetz on ABC Q&A, 17 February 2014.
This is a fair question, and one that he should have been able to answer:
I cannot specify that and that is why each and every case has to be determined on its merits and should be so determined...
He cannot specify how many are in a hammock? So, why did he make the claim, then?
However, if I might say with respect, that there has been a huge
growth and the questioner, I would definitely not categorise in this
situation, but there has been a huge growth in the Disability Support
Pension in this nation unrelated to other socio-economic factors and so
one would have to ask: why has there been this growth?
And I think, in fairness to the Australian taxpayer, it's not us
that funds it as a Government, it is our fellow Australians that fund it
... and, in fairness, we need robustness of the system.
I was surprised by this answer, so I put my hand up to ask him to clarify:
Yeah. I just want to know on what basis do you say that there has been a growth unrelated to the socio-economic factors?
Right. The circumstances and the statistics that have been put to
me on many an occasion and to the Government indicates that the growth
in the Disability Support Pension is unrelated to the other factors that
you might suspect would see that change and so what regrettably happens
is that some people that are on unemployment benefit are able to shift
to the Disability Support Pension in circumstances where that may not
necessarily be appropriate and the best use of Australian taxpayers'
So, let's just remember whenever anybody is on welfare or,
indeed, my salary as a parliamentarian, I am very, very conscious of the
fact that it is my fellow Australians paying the money for that
particular benefit and that is something we, as a Government, need to
keep front of mind whenever we analyse these payments.
I assume he is talking about those people who are somehow able to
manipulate the system — the people who are in the small minority, as I
I didn’t think much of this at the time, but looking back over the
Government’s language in the lead up to the budget, his answer seems to
have well and truly played into the government’s narrative that the DSP
is unsustainable and young people are just sitting on the couch
collecting welfare cheques.
In fairness to Eric Abetz, I contacted him via email in the early
hours of the 20 May to provide me with the documents that has been shown
to him that showed people transferring from the Unemployment benefit to
the DSP in inappropriate situations. I’m yet to get a response, but I’m
not surprised as requests of ministers from both sides, Labor or
Liberal can take up to five weeks. (When I receive a response, I will
ask the editor to update this article.)
Let’s now fast forward to 15 March 2014. I make my way to the Gosford
CBD to participate in the March In March protest and then speak at the
rally following the march.
When it’s my turn to speak, I get the piece of paper that I have my notes on, out of my pocket.
I start off by holding up the sign I was carrying above my head during the March:
'ABBOTT GIVES TO THE RICH AND TAXES THE POOR!'
Now, that slogan as a result of this budget hasn’t just stayed a slogan, it’s reality. Joe Hockey giving an extra $8.8 billion to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) when they didn’t ask for it, giving Rupert Murdoch $880m in tax back, the endless mining subsidises
that Gina Rinehart and other mining magnates benefit from, proposing to
end the mining tax, the endless tax concessions that the rich get and
of course, the six figure pensions that he, and other politicians are in
line for when they retire.
Meanwhile, families, pensioners and the disabled have to pay extra in
fuel excise, have to pay $7 every time you go to the doctor, get a
blood test, get an x-ray and anything that you previously paid nothing
for. They will have to pay extra for medications and of course, the cuts
to pensions and unemployment benefits.
I mentioned the Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews earlier in
this article, now it’s time to examine what he has said. We need to
remember that this is the man who was responsible for authoring a bill
to override the Northern Territory Euthanasia Laws. He was also the
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations during the Howard
Government and the WorkChoices debacle.
I watched in outrage on Kevin Andrews’ in a press conference in Melbourne on the 10 May.
In that press conference, he stated:
“The days of easy welfare for young people is over. We want a
fair system, but we don’t think it’s fair that young people can just sit
on the couch at home and pick up a welfare cheque.”
This comes back to what Eric Abetz said about the hammock.
This implies that young people on the DSP are just bludgers. This is simply not the case.
I accept that there will be people, a small minority of people, who
rort the system — but the vast majority of recipients are genuine
recipients and lets be under no illusion that it is “easy” to get on the
For starters, you have to have at least one “permanent”
medical condition, it needs to be either a physical, intellectual or
psychiatric disability and it must be fully diagnosed, treated and
stabilised. This means you cannot get the DSP if your condition isn’t
likely to significantly improve within two years. If you meet all this,
you are then assessed against the impairment tables and you must get at
least 20 points to qualify for the DSP. The condition must have a “severe” impact on day-to-day functioning and you can only get the DSP if you cannot work 15 hours or more.
So, it is not easy to get on the DSP. It’s not “easy welfare”
as Kevin Andrews likes to call it. The vast majority of people on the
DSP aren’t sitting at home on the couch and picking up a welfare cheque.
When I first applied for the DSP back in 2010, I was 16 and I had to
apply up to three times until I was seen as a genuine recipient. I know
people who are more disabled than me that have had the same problem.
I’ll say again: it’s not easy getting on the DSP, it’s quite hard.
I’d now like to talk about the now infamous front page of the Daily Telegraph on 22 May 2014, which was subsequently featured on the ABC’s Media Watch and has since been referred to the Australian Press Council.
The headline was 'Slackers and Slouch Hats' the article stated
that the number of DSP recipients outnumber Australia’s war wounded by
44,000. This argument is not a new one from the Telegraph. They also
made the same comparison on the 2 June 2011.
The article in May seemed to focus mainly on the mentally disabled.
It seems that, in the Telegraph’s view, if you have an invisible
illness, you shouldn’t qualify for government assistance; that if you
have an invisible illness, you are a slacker and should get to work
instead of making it all up.
I’ll repeat, it isn’t easy to get the DSP and many genuine recipients
are denied. Many disabled – and particularly mentally disabled people –
feel ostracised from the community and front pages from a major Sydney
newspaper explain why.
But that front page didn’t just offend the disabled in my view — it
trivialised the sacrifice that so many brave diggers have made for the
betterment of this country. It used that sacrifice to seek to make a
political point and that is something, in my view, that is never
The rhetoric coming from Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews and the Daily Telegraph all thing from the same hymn sheet. It’s saying that people on the DSP are simply lazy and need to get a job.
This is simply not true and they know it.
It’s not “easy welfare” because it’s not easy to get on the
DSP and most DSP recipients don’t want to be on the DSP — they want to
be active and contributing members of society.
We’ve heard a lot about the Budget, but behind that talk there is
real people — real people that these changes are going to hurt and real
people that this rhetoric hurts.
The Greens, Labor and Palmer United should unite to block these unfair changes and send a message to the government to stop this unfair attack on the most vulnerable in society.
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Inspiration porn and the objectification of disability: Stella Young at TEDxSydney 2014