Disability is not a protection against bastardry

Published in Disability Abstracts 1998 and
Green Left Weekly
4th March 1998 p.15

Sectional interests can gain interim advantage over other less powerful sectional interests.  Disability lobby groups can succeed in getting government to advance the interests of those with a disability over the unemployed and perhaps lone parents in the short term.  The aged might gain a sectional advantaged over the young or those with a disability for a few years.  The mental health lobby might in some instances succeed in expanding services to their constituency at the expense of those with an intellectual disability.  But these are pyrrhic victories.  Such victories lay the foundations for counter attacks by competing interests.  Such advances for one group over the interests of others subjects the ‘victors’ to a siege mentality as they have to wage a rear guard action to defend their small gains against the predatory attacks of the very people who should be their greatest allies in the fight for social justice.  Governments fully understand and are delighted when sections of the welfare industry compete amongst each other because they know that the effort wasted on gaining sectional advantage deflect the citizenry from the major struggle to redistribute from the rich to poor

You’ve got to be blind not to see it

In Australia, since 1908, the Commonwealth Government has paid mean tested pensions to widows, the elderly and people experiencing severe disablement.  Asian Australians were excluded from receipt until the 1940s.  Indigenous Australians had to wait until the 1960s before they were considered suitable to receive such payments.  The ideological justification for making such payments was that the recipients were in need through no fault of their own.  Recipients were required to demonstrate they were in impecunious circumstances  and worthy.  Since the second decade of this century one category of disability pensioners – those who were blind were entitled to a pension even if they had substantial income and assets.  When I first became aware of this anomaly I assume that the preferential treatment the blind received at the hands of the Commonwealth was probably because determining degree of loss of sight was less contested than was determinations of other forms of disability, I also assumed that because by simply closing their eyes politicians could gain an understanding of what it was like to lose one’s sight, and finally I assumed that legislators considered the blind more disabled than quadriplegics.  But, after reading Social Security researcher Allan Jordan’s excellent 1984 report entitled Permanent Incapacity: Invalid Pension in Australia I found that the Government paid blind pensioners irrespective of means precisely because it thought those who had been assessed as having lost 85% of their sight were more likely to obtain employment than were others who determined to be 85% incapacitated from other causes.

So in Australia blind citizens received a basic income paid to them as a right once they were assessed as blind. Widows, the elderly and other citizens who were considered by Commonwealth Medical Officers to be 85% incapacitated were provided with a guaranteed minimum income.  The difference being that the blind received the total amount of the pension irrespective of their relationships with others, their income and their assets. Whereas widows, the aged and other people with a permanent disability had their pension substantially reduced in relation to income and assets and the wealth of partners was also a factor used to decrease the amount of pension income they received.


In the aftermath of the Second World War a range of benefits were introduced designed to cover short term unemployment, sickness and other eventualities not covered by pensions.  Beneficiaries were subjected to greater surveillance than pensioners and paid at a lower rate. The unemployed had to pass a test. to establish they were fit, available and willing to work. In the five years I worked for Social Security I encountered many people who had a permanent disability but not of sufficient severity to have them adjudged permanently incapacitated.  They were not able to obtain work and often failed the work test.  Many of these people received no income support ; they were not sick temporarily, they were not fit, and they were not incapacitated within the meaning of the Social Services Act.  They had no support group, they were often described as malingerers or lazy they did not fit any pattern and apart from welfare relief agencies and shelters they received no support.  In a society bases on solidarity and mutual respect it would not have been possible to consign them to the scrap heap.  These were people with disadvantage and disability, yet in the absence of a basic income they often received no income support.  In the main they received no help from the disability movement.

Basic Income

I believe the income support regime provided for blind pensioners was the appropriate approach not just for the visually impaired but for all citizens.  Clearly the basic income which the blind received had no poverty trap, it accrued less stigma, did not interfere in the development of personal relationships, encouraged the blind to increase earned income and to accrue assets.  If it is appropriate to install such an income support mechanism for a group of people whom a Commonwealth Medical Officer determined were 85% incapacitated for work then surely it would be an even more rational policy to implement an identical scheme for unemployment beneficiaries who had to show they were fit available and willing to work.  As Keith Windschuttle in 1981, in his seminal work Unemployment pointed out governments did not do this because of their fear that the unemployed were work shy.  A lynch pin of the ideology of the economic fundamentalism which has infected every Australian Cabinet since Whitlam is that, if the desire is to increase productivity then, the rich have to be rewarded and the poor compelled.

Even if governments were constrained by their compulsive desire to believe that lone parents, the sick, the aged and the unemployed are so determined to live at or below the poverty line that they would avoid work once a basic income was in place it seems strange that they were willing to provide a basic income for blind disability pensioners but not every other disability pensioner.  If the argument for paying blind pensioners a basic income because it gave them an incentive to work then there is even a more compelling argument to provide that same incentive to other disability pensioners whom governments believed would encounter greater difficulties obtaining work.

The failure of the trade union movement and the organisations of the workless to unite and build into the social wage a basic income as the central plank demonstrates how easy it is for the powerful to deflect sections of the working class into pursuing sectional interests.  The aristocracy of the workers, understanding the disproportionate rewards which the rich got through tax subsidies on superannuation set out to joint the gravy train rather than derail it and replace it by a basic income for all irrespective of circumstance.  The welfare and disability lobby groups were busy protecting their sectional interests in what was left of the Australian welfare state from the ravages of the economic fundamentalists.  They too failed to understand that the main government game of shifting wealth from the less well off to the rich and the super rich was under way.

Instead of having a society in which the workers and the workless, the able bodied and those with a disability, where men and women , indigenous and non-indigenous, migrant and Australian born are united and harmonious, we have a society about to be torn apart by a race election, one which pretends the repression of asylum seekers is not occurring, where many workers reckon the unemployed are dole bludgers, where the clash between patriarchy and feminism is daily played out and where the able bodied are indifferent to difficulties of their fellow citizens with a disability.  What we have now is a society in which 8% are regarded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as unemployed, a further 5-10 % are discouraged unemployed, over a third of the full time work force is working in excess of 50 hours per week, half the work force concerned their jobs are insecure, nearly every under 21 year old receiving unemployment benefit is forced forced to survive on an income well below the poverty line.  Young disability pensioners are also forced to live on an income well below the poverty line.  Until the end of the 1980s young disability pensioners received an income above the poverty line.  Then Brian Howe, as Minister for Social Security, decided to distort social justice by reducing the income of 16 year old disability pensioners to 44% of the poverty line to bring them into line with the starvation rates paid to the young unemployed.  Having a severe disability is certainly no protection against bastardry.

Brian Howe may have well been right that many young people in Australia who were adjudge by some eligibility tester at the CES to be eligible for an unemployment benefit payment may not have had very different income support requirements from another young person who received a disability support pension but even if this were the case then the just action would have been to raise the young unemployment beneficiary to the poverty line not to drive the young disability pensioner into poverty.  Australian governments have been extraordinarily successful during the 1980s and 90s diverting money from the poor to the rich and super rich.  The main vehicles for the transfer of funds are tax cuts provided to higher income earners or through share imputation.  Governments can forego collecting as much tax from the rich as a direct result of austerity measures imposed on the welfare and disability clients.  Governments get away with pandering to the rich because our sector is divided amongst itself and alienated from the wider working class.  If we learn nothing else from Lenin we need to understand that at least in relation to income support “The struggle for one is the struggle for all.”