The news that the Federal Government has registered the welfare arm of Hillsong Church as the state’s – and possibly the country’s – biggest charitable provider of financial counselling services to indigent unemployed people has raised alarm bells in some quarters.
Hillsong Emerge is strongly associated with the evangelical church, famous for its prosperity gospel. The welfare arm is best known for sending cheerful teams of young volunteers, clad in distinctive orange T-shirts, into disadvantaged neighbourhoods to mow lawns and do odd jobs, and if the occasion arises, to bring people to the church. But it does professional counselling, drugs and alcohol included, and employment programs, too, some of which have been funded by state and federal government contracts.
The dominance of Hillsong Emerge is due to the refusal of all the major charities so far to have anything to do with the Federal Government’s new scheme. Their boycott is fuelled by a belief that the scheme is morally unjustifiable. It will strip an estimated 18,000 people a year of their unemployment benefits for eight weeks for infringing job search rules, and then turn around and offer financial counselling – and the chance to get some money back from Centrelink for essentials – to an estimated 4000 of those deemed highly vulnerable.
The major charities have been willing partners in the Federal Government’s rewriting of the welfare and job search landscape to date. But even those to the right of Genghis Khan have baulked at having to do the Government’s dirty work this time round.
Most think the policy of stripping vulnerable people of all support for eight weeks is going too far. It is not a new idea; a version dates back at least to the Labor government’s days. But over many years, in response to great pressure, and compelling evidence of the policy’s disastrous impact, the Government has softened the rules, and the number of people affected has fallen. (The improved job market has also helped.) Last year 3800 people lost payment for eight weeks, a fraction of the numbers in 2000 and 2001. Increasingly the evidence showed that much smaller financial penalties over shorter periods, and keeping people involved with Centrelink, were more effective strategies.
But all that progress has been turned on its head with the new welfare-to-work regime that began on July 1. The number likely to suffer the ultimate penalty will soar again, according to the Government’s own estimates. And this time a new group will be caught – single mothers with dependant children and people with disabilities now compelled to look for jobs, and subject for the first time to financial penalties for breaking the job search rules.
It was the ghastly prospect of these vulnerable groups, including children, and people with serious medical conditions, ending up on the streets that prompted the Government’s idea of financial case management for the most vulnerable. Give them a touch of the lash, but then refer those who meet the “exceptionally vulnerable” test to a charity for a financial assessment. The charity, paid $650 for each referred client, could apply to Centrelink on the client’s behalf for some money to pay for food, rent and electricity.
The executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Tony Nicholson, put it this way: “First they suffer an eight-week suspension of payment, and to add insult to injury they have to justify to some case manager their expenditure on their meagre income.” Numbers are also expected to rise as a result of the Government’s unfathomable decision to toughen the rules, introducing a “one strike and you’re out policy”. In the past, it took three serious infringements of the rules before the ultimate penalty was imposed.
Now people will suffer an eight-week payment suspension the first time they break one of four key rules. Those who quit a job, refuse a “suitable” job offer, or are dismissed for misconduct will get no government income to tide them over. As well, long-term unemployed people who fail to take up or complete full-time Work for the Dole programs for 10 months will similarly be penalised.
Now that the unemployment rate is below 5 per cent, welfare agencies say those still jobless are likely to be the most marginalised, and the most likely to fall foul of the rules. Last month Melbourne City Mission released a survey of 186 clients which found more than half had had unemployment payments suspended or reduced for rule infringements, and 72 per cent of the most disadvantaged – the homeless or those living in insecure housing – had been penalised. Almost half of those breached by Centrelink had been unable to pay for basic necessities, and 13 per cent had resorted to illegal activities, such as fare evasion and stealing food.
The nation’s charities have been agonising about whether to put their hand up to go on Centrelink’s register of financial case managers. They have grappled with a huge moral dilemma. After all, the charities already pick up the pieces for those who lose their benefits. They furnish the indigent unemployed with food and electricity vouchers, and other things paid for partly by federal contributions to Emergency Relief programs. They will still dispense charity to the increased numbers who will not qualify for financial case management.
But most have decided not to become a paid agent of the Government in a program that will cost $25.7 million over four years simply to administer. Centrelink, now faced with having to do the financial case management itself, has importuned every agency, small and large, to come on board. In Hillsong Emerge, it found a willing partner.