Oh, it’s not the potion, it’s the magic that I seek… Is it time for a Charter of Rights for welfare recipients?

One thing that the #NotMyDebt hashtag was good at was raising the profile of welfare recipients who felt like they were being treated unjustly.  The media routinely presents people on welfare as being slouchers and parasites, those who steal your hard-earned cash to live a life without work.  And although I disagree with their philosophical commitments, the Australian Unemployed Workers Union has also been performing a similar function, creating a lightning rod for harnessing the energy of people who, by all accounts, are treated badly by capitalism.

Where these platforms — #NotMyDebt in particular — were less helpful was ‘practical’ advice for dealing with Centrelink.  NMD delivered a lot of straight up incorrect information, and a number of the key voices behind that campaign are known vectors of nonsense across a range of policy areas (such as asylum seeker policy).

In this post, I want to move away from the rhetoric of activist groups and specific controversies, and into a broader problem: should we institute a charter of rights for welfare recipients?

Fans and followers of my glorious blog might be aware of my views about human rights and charters of rights.  They’re nonsense and bad.  The Bill of Rights has been more a friend to Klansmen and Nazis than to refugees and ethnic minorities.

But a charter of rights for welfare recipients allows us to reframe this discussion.  We aren’t talking about generally empowering everybody to resist regulation from the State, we are talking about what dignities a person on welfare ought to be able to preserve against interference from the State.  They are rights available only to the most vulnerable, rather than to Klansmen and Nazis.

More precisely, we are talking about how we uphold the dignities of welfare recipients within an administrative — rather than legislative — framework.  That is, we are not constraining the capacity of parliament to legislate with regard to welfare recipients, only as to what their rights are when they engage officials who are administering those legislative requirements.

All well and good at the motherhood utterances, but what would it look like in practice?

First, there would be a right of certainty: except in the matter of fraudulent behaviour (where the person demonstrated an intention to defraud the welfare system), mistakes, errors, or incorrect assessments in favour of the welfare recipient are unable to be recovered after a year.  People who are on welfare — even those who are on welfare for a significant period of time — should not have to live with the possibility of Centrelink discovering their own mistakes from six years ago.  This might look legislative, but it goes to the discretionary powers of officials to distinguish between cases where there is a clear intention to defraud, and those cases where a right of certainty ought to prevail.

Second, there would be a right to delay correction: except in the matter of fraudulent behaviour (where the person demonstrated an intention to defraud the welfare system), people who are required to repay funds due to mistakes, errors, or incorrect assessments in favour of the welfare recipient would be entitled to repay the debt as an income-contingent loan.  Welfare payments are low.  It makes no sense to lower them further in order to recover debts that can arise for reasons other than the fault of the recipient.  Income-contingent loans mean that there is a pathway out of poverty for people who incur these debts. This one does require legislative mechanisms in order to work, but it recasts the way that debts are handled and managed to empower recipients to control the impact of mistakes, errors, or incorrect assessments.

Third, there would be a right to know the grounds of state action: although there is already a common law right to know the grounds on which the State can compel information from you, Centrelink rarely (if ever) complies with this requirement.  And yet it is essential information to establish whether or not a decision-maker is acting lawfully when they issue a notice.  Welfare recipients should be empowered to know that Centrelink is exercising its authority within the statutory parameters.

Fourth, there would be a presumption in favour of the applicant: the Act is often concerned with the Secretary being satisfied that certain factors exist, placing the onus on the applicant to demonstrate information that will ‘satisfy’ the decision-maker.  Far too often, this has resulted in silly outcomes where the decision-maker has not been satisfied due to some absurd reason.  In effect, there is a presumption against the applicant: convince a skeptic.  If the policy purpose of the welfare state is to ensure that members of our community are able to get the support they need to participate in society, then decision-makers should have an obligation to find in favour of an applicant unless rational reasons to the contrary are manifest.

Fifth, there would be a right to mutual convenience: one recurring problem with the administration of the welfare state is the imposition of requirements upon a recipient that are counter-productive to perform.  The most infamous of these is the requirement to attend a meeting scheduled by Centrelink during work hours.  People are caught in a horrible requirement to both attend a Centrelink office and to attend their shift for work.  The onus should be on Centrelink to find flexible ways to achieve the desired outcome, such as providing people with a range of options to attend meetings.

These are five rights which go to shift the balance between the needs of recipients and the way Centrelink administers its obligations under the Act.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

One thought on “Oh, it’s not the potion, it’s the magic that I seek… Is it time for a Charter of Rights for welfare recipients?”

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