Since abandoning the partial and temporary income support measures established in 2020, the Morrison Government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, and of the economy, have become increasingly interwoven. The proposed withdrawal of COVID-19 Disaster Payments being arbitrarily linked to vaccination targets, as announced last week, is yet another example of a profound failure to recognise and respond to the realities of Australia’s public health crisis.
The Federal COVID-19 Disaster Payments were only announced after weeks of high-profile political pressure from State Governments. They were deliberately calculated to provide less financial support than the 2020 income subsidy systems, to smaller groups of people. This deliberate shrinking of support allowed the Morrison Government to double down on its premature slashing of the 2020 income subsidy systems in March this year. That system of JobKeeper and increased JobSeeker subsidies were already riddled with omissions, such as assuming that people receiving Disability Support Pension did not require equivalent increases in support despite the massive interruptions to health and support care which the pandemic generated. As seen in recent months, JobKeeper was also readily exploited by businesses keen to take advantage of the system, with this exploitation essentially approved of by the Morrison Government through their relaxed attitude to businesses that were overpaid. While there was no shortage of government money to effectively be handed over to wealthy JobKeeper profiteers, when the latest Delta outbreaks proved that those subsidies were cut too soon, the Morrison Government chose to pass the costs of its mismanagement on to individuals needing support by devising a more limited, partial, exclusionary system.
Cutting the COVID-19 Disaster Payment system when states reach an 80% full vaccination threshold continues this trend of making vulnerable individuals carry the weight of systemic failures. Such an approach is not only harmful and irresponsible: it is completely illogical. The 80% full vaccination rate is simply that, a rate of full vaccination. It’s a number that conceals inequities, including those who are most vulnerable who continue to be less able to access vaccination. The Doherty Institute modelling used as the basis of the 80% threshold for easing restrictions makes no claims and has no relation to, economic activity levels. 80% vaccination has no immediate bearing on actual rates of economic reopening, which will necessarily vary across sectors and regions. 80% vaccination rates do not determine hours of work available, jobs available, the safety of working conditions, or outbreak rates, which can and will occur even at rates of over 80% vaccination.
Yet the Morrison Government has decided that on reaching that vaccination threshold, that is the week that workers’ income subsidies should be cut by $300, regardless of how many hours of work they have lost. In two weeks, that becomes $320, and in the third week, $0. Again, these numbers and time periods are entirely arbitrary, calculated without reference to actual living circumstances, economic need, or the extent to which sectors have been or will be able to recover. As Sally McManus put it on Q&A, if there is any interest in economic recovery, “stop the payments when the jobs come back.”
This false equivalence between vaccination rate and economic strength illustrates both the cruelty and the dysfunction of the Morrison Government’s economic policies. The COVID-19 Disaster Payments were designed not as a meaningful support, nor as a strategic investment, nor as a compassionate act of good faith, or even as an admission of the Government’s failure to safeguard the nation through a timely and thorough vaccination programme. Having been backed into payments it never wanted to provide, however, the Morrison Government are withdrawing it as soon as they can get away with it, rather than as soon as would be actually necessary.
Despite protestations over the cost of these policies, the Morrison Government will readily waste far more money on nuclear grandstanding, and through failing to fully pursue unscrupulous JobKeeper profiteers. More importantly, when the avoidable cumulative impact of poverty and chronic economic strain inevitably hits the healthcare system, and the pools of insecure workers shrink further, the abandonment of these limited pre-emptive supports will be demonstrated as a false economy.
Ultimately there is no escaping the cost of helping those who need it in this pandemic; the question is whether that cost is provided adequately upfront, minimising harm, or whether the choice is made to maximise suffering, allowing people to go without funding for adequate food, heating and cooling, housing, and preventative healthcare, until these people are forced into the acute wings of the healthcare system, at massive economic cost. Far more important than that numerical value, however, are the lives, the wellbeing and the dignity of those who are denied that basic support, who are penalised and blamed for the failings of a Government that refuses responsibility for the catastrophes it has engineered and stoked. Choosing to cut away these already threadbare supports away so early, is senseless further economic violence.