Welfare, environment & asylum seekers: Human rights in the media in June

By Pia White

Media review by Pia White

Weakening of Welfare

Michelle Gratten recently observed: “rarely does the debate over a federal budget continue so long, or range so widely, as is happening this year. Equally rarely is it so badly handled.”

The continued media focus on the budget certainly does seem to reflect the dissatisfaction of the electorate with the Coalition’s harsh measures.

Worth, it seems, is determined by wealth.

Of particular concern recently is the report released by the federal government over the weekend, which proposes a drastic overhaul to the welfare system. The report suggests “streamlining” welfare payments from 75 down to four categories: a family payment, disability payment, age pension and a working-age payment. The disability pension eligibility criteria would be amended so that only those with a permanent impairment preventing them from working would qualify.

In addition, the Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews suggested that the government may introduce measure that would dictate how welfare payments were spent saying “there are certain things which you can spend your money [on] and certain things that you can’t.’

Numerous criticisms have been levelled at the proposition, including that the short, six-week consultation period afforded community groups is inadequate and cautions against “social engineering” by encouraging certain behaviour through welfare compliance.

Defending the proposals, Kevin Andrews described the current system as “unsustainable”. Treasurer Joe Hockey echoed this sentiment in an address to the Sydney Institute. However these statements are undermined by a report from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, which identifies a decrease in the reliance of working-age Australians as well as pensioners on welfare.

Whether or not you accept the government’s insistence that it must address the “budget emergency,” the message it has sent in seeking to do so is clear: Australia’s most vulnerable will shoulder the burden. Support for students, the sick, the poor, the elderly and the unemployed is to be diminished at the same time as the carbon tax is being repealed. Worth, it seems, is determined by wealth.

Clive and the Carbon Tax

Incidentally, climate change and the carbon tax were prominent media fixtures this month.

The Coalition sought to repeal the Gillard government’s carbon tax, as well as abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority. This is following the abolition of the Climate Change Commission last year.

The Coalition passed the carbon tax repeal bill for a second time in the House of Representatives last week, however the bill’s passage through the Senate was uncertain.

It looked more secure after Clive Palmer announced his party will support the repeal in a surprising press conference appearance with former US Vice President, Al Gore. However, Palmer also revealed that incoming Palmer United Party Senators would vote against the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority, and any attempted revisions to the renewable energy target before the next election. A newly configured Senate will vote on the repeal in the coming weeks.

The Coalition’s stance on climate change has faced a lot of criticism, with Greens Senator Scott Ludlam urging Tony Abbot to call a double dissolution after he failed for the second time to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation earlier this month.

And as UNESCO sent a clear message of disagreement with Abbott’s bid to delist areas of old growth forest in Tasmania, it seems that dissatisfaction with Tony Abbott’s environmental policies extends further than just his political opponents.

Asylum Seeker Secrecy

Despite a continued media focus on asylum seeker policies, the government’s secrecy on the issue has remained impenetrable.

The coalition has maintained its policy of silence on boat arrivals by refusing to comment on reports that a boat carrying more than 150 Tamil asylum seekers had been intercepted a few hundred kilometers off the coast of Christmas Island. Scott Morrison defended his silence saying that it was helping to stop the boats and accused the Labor and the Greens “doing the bidding of smugglers” by pressing him for answers.

In choosing when to discuss the issues and when to keep quiet, Scott Morrison is better able to dictate the debate.

Scott Morrison also chose to avoid answering questions about the maximum sums paid by the government as part of “return packages” for asylum seekers. It was reported that people at offshore processing centres were being offered as much as $10,000 to return home. While Morrison was adamant that this has been standard practice for over a decade, he did not reveal how much the payments were, or whether those figures had been substantially increased under the Abbott government.

In choosing when to discuss the issues and when to keep quiet, Scott Morrison is better able to dictate the debate. It is undoubtedly easier to hide behind slogans about stopping the boats if the public is effectively kept in the dark.

Also this week, the High Court of Australia ruled against the government’s cap on the number of protection visas granted to asylum seekers who arrive by boat. The coalition introduced the measure after failing to move provisions for temporary protection visas through the Senate late last year.

The High Court found that the government did not have the power to cap the visas, as it is incompatible with requirements under the current law that a visa be issued within 90 days if all relevant conditions are satisfied.

The court ordered the Immigration Minister to reconsider the visa applications of the two asylum seekers who brought the challenge in accordance with the law. If only the Court could order Scott Morrison to fulfill his responsibilities as Immigration Minister with compassion and respect for human rights.