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A Lifeline representative hugging a member of the public. Photo by UnitingCare.
Photo: UnitingCare

UnitingCare Australia speaks into welfare debate

Debates about welfare often place charities and policy-makers at odds, but UnitingCare Australia sees opportunity in the federal government’s latest review of welfare. Annette Pereira reports.

UnitingCare Australia has long advocated investing more, not less, in people who are disadvantaged.

When the final report of the government’s welfare reform review was handed down earlier this year, there were some unexpected surprises included in the recommendations. In particular, welfare groups were pleased to see the inclusion of an idea they have been raising for a number of years—an independent process for setting welfare payment levels, to make sure that people who rely on welfare are receiving enough money to cover their basic needs and remain connected to the community.

“It was great to see them pick up that idea which we have been pushing for a long time,” says Lin Hatfield Dodds, National Director of UnitingCare Australia.

“The key premise of welfare is that it enables people to live a basic, decent life when they are unable to provide for themselves. For years, Uniting Church agencies have been seeing that the payments people receive—particularly Newstart—are simply inadequate for that purpose. Payment levels have to be fixed,” she says.

Beyond providing for people’s basic needs, welfare is also about giving people the support they need to move towards a more flourishing life, where possible. The report also recommended investing early to support people to move back into employment.

“No one wants to see intergenerational welfare dependency. That is why the rest of the supports that go around welfare payments are so critical. Addressing welfare dependency requires a long-term view and proper investment in people,” says Lin.

UnitingCare Australia believes the challenge now is to help the government focus on the good ideas that were contained in the review, and to move away from other measures like the welfare cuts that were in the 2014 budget.

“Payment cuts won’t change anything. When someone finds themselves relying on welfare, they are normally already overwhelmed with multiple challenges. Stability, support and encouragement are what makes a difference and enables them to move towards independence. This is what we are frequently reminding all sides of parliament.”

The government has welcomed the welfare review report and announced that as a first step it will revamp the out-of-date IT system that manages welfare in Australia. This is necessary before other reforms can occur. But there are no promises yet that other measures in the review will be adopted.

“We will continue to encourage better support for the most vulnerable people. We are hopeful that a better welfare system could be within reach,” says Lin.

UnitingCare Australia’s submission to the review can be found at tinyurl.com/unitingcarewelfaresubmission The full government report is available to the public at tinyurl.com/commonwealthwelfarereport

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