The Macklin Media Beat Up

CentrelinkWhen Jenny Macklin was asked if she could live on the dole, her best option, in retrospect, would have been to do a Tony Abbott and walked away from the question. There was never going to be a right answer – if she said she couldn’t live on $246 a week, the journalists would have crucified her. If she said she could live on $246 a week, well, you’ve seen the response. The frustrating part of this whole ‘news story’ is that the real story is not about Macklin and how much she earns. The real story is the living conditions of the people who have no choice but to survive on the Newstart Allowance of $246 a week. Instead of asking Macklin hypothetically if she could live on the dole, why not ask the question of someone who really is living on this measly income?

The reason Macklin was asked the question in the first place was not because the Newstart payment has been altered. The policy change is to the Parenting Payment. From 1 July 2006, the Howard government changed welfare arrangements as part of their Welfare to Work reforms. Parents were moved from the Parenting Payment to the Newstart Allowance once their youngest child turned 6 for couples, and 8 for single parents. At the time, those already receiving Parenting Payments were allowed to continue doing so until their youngest child was 16. Now the Labor government has removed this grandparenting so that people who have been receiving Parenting Payments since before 2006, are now in line with the new structure. This equates to around 80,000 single parents receiving up to $60 less per week as of January 1, as they move from Parenting Payment to Newstart.

Unsurprisingly, the media is choosing not to focus on the technicalities behind the change to the Parenting Payment, to say nothing of the pros and cons of the policy. They are instead turning Macklin’s comment that she could live on Newstart into a ‘scandal’. Crowds in the Twitterverse are following the media’s lead and are circulating #Macklin hashtags to voice their outrage at her comment. I’ve written before about the power of Social Media as a tool for activism – but in this case, it seems to be that the outrage is misdirected at Macklin when we should be using our energy to talk about the big picture issue of welfare.

How is welfare funded? What level of payment is fair and reasonable for people to live so they are not below the poverty line? How can 600,000 people, many of them with children, possibly be ‘incentivised’ to find a job when the government is only paying them enough to survive, not enough to live? Are there really jobs for these people? Would it help if training and education were more accessible so that people can improve their chances of getting work? After all, the dole isn’t designed to be a life-long income. But it would seem to me that once you find yourself in a situation where you need this government support, the income is so miniscule that you get trapped in a cycle of poverty, which makes it even harder to find work – physically and emotionally.

We could include in this discussion the difference between the welfare policies of the Labor party and the Liberal National Coalition, which in this case, don’t seem to be very different at all. This might seem less exciting than yelling at Jenny Macklin, but isn’t it important to at least be informed about how we came to have a Newstart allowance at $246 a week, and how we could fund an increase within our current tax revenue structure, and whether either of our major parties are supporting an increase? Might taxes need to be boosted if we are to increase the Newstart allowance? If so, which taxes and who should pay the most?

The problem with big picture issues like welfare is that they aren’t as easy to campaign about as so called ‘scandals’ such as a politician’s answer to a question in a media conference. Macklin is an easy target for outrage – but how many of those who are angry remember that Macklin was instrumental in increasing the Aged Pension in 2009 by $30 a week for single pensioners? Is Macklin really the ‘bad guy’?

If we, as media consumers, expect our mainstream media to lift their game, and to discuss the ‘big issues’ such as taxation, welfare, employment and the gap between rich and poor, we should encourage journalists away from trivial scandals about the cost of Macklin’s lifestyle. Petty articles about Macklin just make it even harder for real discussions about policy to be heard.

The Newstart allowance was $246 on the last day of 2012, and was still $246 on January 1 2013. Where was the outrage about this tiny dole payment before this latest media beat up? It doesn’t matter how Macklin answered the question about whether she could live on this income. It doesn’t matter if you choose now to abuse Macklin on Twitter. What matters is what you plan to do about your outrage about the size of the Newstart allowance. Real activism takes hard work and dedication – join a political party, write letters to your local member, start a petition, talk to people in your community and make sure you are informed about the big picture. If you’re not willing to do any of these things and would prefer to stick with your #Macklin hashtag, your contribution to improving this situation is zero.


    • Hi Victoria. I am a new subscriber. I have been searching for a blog that does not generate the hysteria & hate usually seen in MSM blogs.
      The predictable reaction to the Macklin comments are an unfortunate by-product of the “Twitter Generation” To compose & write then post a “Letter to the Editor” used to take at least some thoughtful dissection of a current event or debate. Most often this would lead to commentary that was at least more than a glib reaction given without the use of brain matter. It is far too easy today for people to vent confected anger & bile without the filter of a thoughtful Editor at least culling the worst of the hate mail & those letters which did not contribute at least some use of the grey matter given to the real issue at stake at the time.
      An unfortunate product of our times and I am afraid that it has now become the norm rather than the last resort of our current so called political commentary.
      Keep up the good work. Who knows, perhaps some day the worms may turn!

      • Couldn’t agree more. I’ve just been eviscerated in another so-called left-wing blog because I dared to step outside the approved narrative. I was called a troll and a wanker, no less.

  1. At last. You have put into words what I’ve been trying to say for some time. People should get the facts before they start ‘hyperventilating’ (may I use that word) about this issue. My daughter who was on parenting payment but is now on Newstart isn’t that concerned. Actually, she thinks it only fair that single parents should all be on the same scheme. That is a different issue to “Is Newstart enough”. I think people are confusing the two issues

  2. “… your contribution to improving this situation is zero.”

    Nah, that’s bullshit.

    Our government and opposition are only ever motivated to change policy when there is enough public outrage. These days, the most concentrated source of that outrage is social media. Politicians are well aware of its power and react to it accordingly. They are aware that as soon as social media turns against them on a certain issue, the polls will follow. Contributing to the outrage on social media is actually helping to enacting change, whether it makes you feel superior or not.

  3. Yes, overall a moderate approach, and Macklin’s response is unfortunate – she could have answered that question far better and with honesty acknowledging the pressure many charities and welfare groups are being exposed to due to poor social policy (even if she’s apart of those decisions).
    Not sure if you’re aware but there has been a campaign by ACOSS and many others including a minor political party to improve Newstart payments that has been going for some time.

    The changes to the grandfathered cohort of PPS recipients makes no sense given the undertakings of Labor when in opposition, compounded with the history and research around sole parent families that shows work patterns for sole parent families are conditional on many factors, and no discussion has been made of these complex social-economic problems, nor of the pressures of housing affordability especially in regions subjected to mining booms, or the high number of sole parents that seek to reskill. Maklin could have used that moment to ask the Lib/ LNP State gov’ts that are closing TAFEs or increasing TAFE fees how they plan to cater for the expected increase in financial hardship cases of TAFE as they look to upskill when no work is available. She could have pointed out what measures Labor was taking to improve housing where LNP in Qld had axed tenants advice services, etc etc. Guess she’ll learn.

    As for your advice about joining a political party – given the little differentiation in policy approach, and the ineffectualness of the Greens – yeah, sure I’m trying not to be super-cynical or depressed now.

  4. Another thing about Newstart allowance that most people aren’t aware of: there are approximately 100,000 Australians on Newstart Incapacitated because they’re unable to work due to illness or disability. Contrary to popular belief, the Disability Support Pension is very difficult to get and is becoming increasingly so. If Centrelink judges that you’re able to work 15 hours pw or more, or your doctor is unable to say whether or not you’ll improve within two years, or if your illness is considered to be ‘not stabilised’, then you go onto Newstart. This includes people with illnesses that may end up being be terminal. Often people must be on Newstart for two years with no improvement before being granted the DSP. You don’t have to look for work but you have to provide a doctor’s report at regular intervals.

    What I’m trying to say here is that not only is it unemployed people who are forced to live on such a tiny payment. We’re also forcing many chronically ill people to live a life of extreme poverty, especially so if they have expensive medical costs and treatment.

    This is a real tragedy.

  5. Hi Victoria,
    Is there any reason the parents who are required to pay child support and don’t seem to be forgotten from this debate as well?

    • The child support amount required is so minimal that it hardly ‘supports’ a child’s cornflakes. As a society we perhaps should look at why so many non-custodial parents are not supporting their children?

  6. Such an excellent article, articulate and really raises the questions that should be raised, not the rubbish ‘gotcha’ moment the media are focused on.

    I have a number of single mother friends, life is hard enough for them. One tried to get a job in the mines as a truck driver, had to borrow to even move her & her kids to Moranbah, only to find that it was too expensive to live there and there was no before or after school care, so was not viable.

    As I am in a regional area, same thing, no public transport as such so have to live near the school for the kids, not enough employment, and what is there is not viable if there is no before or after school care (as it is very very limited in this area). Some who do have slightly older kids will end up having them at home on their own, as that is considered better as then the kids can at least afford to not look so poverty stricken at school and the only way to do that is for mum to work. Unfortunately that is breeding a whole new range of latchkey kids, all surrounding the local state school and bored, which never ends well.

    It is not just about money, is also about the social aspect.

  7. Hell I have been on the dole lots of times over the past 50 years and all I can say it has always just been enough to survive on, doesn’t matter who was in Government at the time. Although when Howard was in this last time, well it was his first time as PM. I really went backwards trying to survive on the Disability pension, but things have changed a lot since Labour has got in this time around.

    Best way to survive on the dole is don’t smoke or drink any alcohol and if you can use public transport all the better than driving your car. Leave your car at home and walk it is better for you anyway. Save a lot of cash that way. Shoes are cheap as chips these days anyway. So get a life and think for a change instead of complaining. I have swung sledge hammers and split wood in the bush, so as to earn enough to buy some grub with. Picked fruit and veg as well. If any of you think it is tough these days then go back to those real bad times of 1960’s and see how long you would last under Bob Menzies.

    • Maybe the dole has always been just enough for you to survive on because you weren’t paying a lot of rent or a mortgage. For most people, Newstart barely covers rent and utilities – or doesn’t even do that.

    • You say you went backwards trying to live on the DSP, but the DSP is far more generous than Newstart. The payments and the concessions are much better – and the DSP is tax free, while Newstart isn’t.

  8. Setting the dole at the right level is always difficult. Too high and there is no incentive to work and the people paying the bill get too restless and stop paying. Too low and there is too much hardship and incentive to criminal activity to generate income. Somewhere between the two points is a zone where the recipients are not going to be happy but they have sufficient incentive to get work to get off the dole, and while doing so they won’t starve too much. Think about it – if everybody is happy, the system won’t work.

    • Yes, and it is also complicated by Australia’s geographical diversity. It is possible to live on the dole, and it has become a generational lifestyle, in some country towns, but I cannot imagine it being enough to survive in the cities, where jobs and training opportunities might be.

      • That is certainly a good argument for allowances targetted to provide training and assist in moving to where the work is. It certainly doesn;t help the unemployed to remain stuck where there is no work.

        A friend of mine had the experience of a 25 year old son who lived at home in a country town on the dole, made little or no effort to get a job, continually begged $20 loans to buy dope or petrol for his unlicenced (and hence uninsured) car that he insisted on driving, and engaged in regular shouting matches. If the loans were refused, he claimed it was the parents fault he couldn’t get to Centrelink and lost the dole for a few weeks, or couldn’t get to a job interview, or couldn’t get to work on the few occasions he had work. Finally my friend paid him $5,000 to move out and not come back.

        He moved to Perth, got work, enrolled in TAFE training, and has never looked back. The only real incentive was making him move out, get off his backside and take responsibility for feeding and housing himself, and thus working to pay for it.

        This was a drastic solution that is difficult to apply to everyone, but there is a real lesson in there about the moral hazards of dole dependency.

      • I have seen some great success stories where women began working, when Howard made these changes originally. I don’t doubt that these were meant to be punitive but some of these women had their babies very young and had never worked. Several are now working, or studying, or both, and the change in their demeanor is amazing. Work is really good for our self esteem.

  9. I couldnt currently have asked for a much better blog. You happen to be ever present to give excellent tips, going right to the point for easy understanding of your visitors. Youre really a terrific specialist in this subject. Thanks a ton for always being there for folks like me.

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