A United Nations special rapporteur has criticised the Turnbull government’s approach to social protection policy, saying its framing of “welfare” appears designed to prejudice the debate against welfare recipients.
Philip Alston also criticised the government’s prohibition on community legal centres using commonwealth funding to lobby for legislative change, saying it has reduced the space for civil society.
Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, made the comments while in Australia to deliver a series of lectures on human rights and social policy.
He told Guardian Australia he had been reading the speeches of Alan Tudge, the minister for human services, and was concerned about the minister’s characterisation of welfare recipients, and his focus on recipients who use drugs and alcohol.
“There’s a lot of punitive language,” he said.
“And these proposals to test sewage from different areas to enable the government to pinpoint where drug abuse is taking place. That’s not going to be linked to a proactive outreach to provide support and health services to those people.
“It’s going to be used to say that these people are abusing their welfare payments in order to get high,” he said.
Labor announced this week that it would oppose the Turnbull government’s plan to drug test new welfare recipients on Newstart and Youth Allowance. The Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, had already ruled out supporting the drug-testing trials three months ago.
When the Coalition announced its controversial plan earlier this year to randomly drug test 5,000 new welfare recipients across the three trial sites, Malcolm Turnbull said he would be doing welfare recipients “a favour”.
Alston said: “It’s encouraging to see a bit of spine in the Labor party’s pushback.”
He also said the government’s use of the “mid-twentieth century language” of welfare ran counter to the tendency internationally to use the more modern language of “social protection.”
He said the social protection policy approach was being increasingly applied and promoted in countries across all economic levels.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has recently adopted the social protection approach in its foreign aid program.
“There is a thing called the ‘social protection floor’ initiative, which the International Labour Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the UN and others, have all supported,” Alston said.
“It is based on a conception of the responsibility of governments to provide a minimum floor of social protection, which means particularly providing assured support for the most vulnerable groups, meaning those who are injured, sick, elderly, and disabled.
“The contrast is with the rhetoric, say, of the federal government which talks very much about ‘welfare’ and tries to move away from assumptions about governmental responsibilities and instead focuses on individual responsibility for those who are trying to claim welfare payments from the state.
“The World Bank doesn’t have a welfarist approach [anymore]. It has historically focused on what they call social safety nets, but in the last year or two they too have claimed that they are fully supportive of the broader approach to social protection,” he said.
The prohibition is found in the government’s National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, which started in 2015 and will expire on 30 June 2020.
Amanda Alford, the National Association of Community Legal Centres’ director of policy and advocacy, said the prohibition had forced centres to try to use other funding streams for advocacy work.
“They have to rely on state and territory funding, or fundraising and philanthropic money, or pro-bono work from lawyers, or the work of volunteers,” Alford said.
“It has had a chilling effect, as well as impacting the amount of policy and advocacy law reform that centres are able to do.”
She said the Productivity Commission recommended in 2014 that the federal government should provide funding to legal assistance services “for strategic advocacy and law reform activities.”
Alston said the prohibition had “overtones” of measures adopted by foreign governments that have wanted to close down the space for civil society.
He also advocated for a universal basic income, calling it a “bold and imaginative solution” to the problem of increasing automation and growing economic insecurity.
“We need re-conceive to relationship between the state and the individual,” he said.
“For me, it would end up looking something like a social protection floor, guaranteed by the government, but we’d do it for both a rights-based reason and because it’s good economic policy.”
Alston spoke to the National Convention on Community Legal Centres on Wednesday, and will deliver the 2017 Australian Human Rights Centre Annual Lecture at the University of New South Wales on Thursday.
This piece by Gareth Hutchens was first seen on ‘The Guardian’ August 10, 2017.