Disability pension cuts misguided

| July 4, 2014

An Interim report of the McClure welfare review proposes moving thousands of people off the Disability Support Pension if they have some capacity to work. Marie Sheahan says tackling discrimination of disabled people in the workforce should be prioritised over pension cuts.

Many people would support a system aimed at increasing employment opportunities if it genuinely addressed some of the factors that operate to exclude people with disabilities from having equal opportunities for work participation. However the proposed system outlined in the McClure Interim report fails to address economic and cultural issues excluding people with disabilities. It also poses new risks for this group. Questions about vested interests in the initial consultations and the constitution of the reference group are warranted.

Disability discrimination

People with disabilities experience discrimination on a daily basis. Because discrimination grievances have largely been mediated rather than prosecuted in Australian law, a culture of discrimination has not been robustly challenged. The progress that has been made has been largely won through the Human Rights Commission. The recent departure of the Disability Commissioner, a powerful advocate for people with disabilities, and the failure to replace him with a dedicated Commissioner will no doubt slow what progress has been made.

Structure of economy

The functioning of the economy is premised on competition and efficiency. This has led to the production of many short term, casual and unstable jobs. People with disabilities, in addition to negotiating the complexity of life with a disability, will be required to manage such uncertainty in the pursuit of work.

While many people with disability would bring requisite capabilities and skills to the workplace, this is not universal in an economy premised on competitiveness and competition. Many others may bring a diversity of qualities to the workplace. However they may not have requisite capabilities that translate into efficiency. This is due to many factors associated with the diversity and complexity of disability. It may relate to the innate nature of the disability where individuals have compromised intellectual and/or motor skills. It may be due to the side-effects of medication or it may relate to very subtle cognitive deficits. None of this is to say that people with disabilities cannot and do not make exemplary employees on grounds other than efficiency. However the highly competitive nature of the economy does not accommodate workers who, through no fault of their own, may be less efficient than their peers.

This individualistic approach to employment for people with disabilities can be contrasted to many countries in the EU which have a quota-levy system designed to encourage the provision of employment opportunities by employers and to penalise large employers who do not meet quotas.


The area of disability is complex and diverse with people often experiencing a multiplicity of vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by poverty. The proposals will leave many who are unable to find work in deeper poverty and disadvantage. There are multiple unaddressed risks that will emerge from the proposed changes. One such example is the risk of those with episodic illness foregoing medical treatment as they lose access to income and the ability to seek medical support and purchase medication. The proposed changes will undoubtedly be elevating the anxiety of significant numbers of people with episodic disabilities, possibly placing them at risk of psychosis where this is an existing vulnerability.

A final note

It is worth mentioning shortcomings with the constitution of the reference group and the bodies consulted in the development of the interim paper. The reference group consists of three individuals: Patrick McClure, former CEO of Mission Australia, Sally Sinclair, the CEO of National Employment Services Association, and Wesley Aird, an eminent Indigenous man with experience of working with the mining industry to secure work for Indigenous people.

All of these people are undoubtedly leaders in their field. Nevertheless none of them are widely connected to the disability community. The 30 organisations that were consulted include a handful of disability specific organisations. Representatives of business were included which is a good thing, given the cultural and structural reforms that will be necessary for Australia to move in any way towards addressing employment exclusion for people with disabilities. Worryingly, they include two right wing think tanks, the IPA and CIS. They also include representatives of organisations that may stand to benefit from contracts to develop the private and not for profit infrastructure for managing the new system.