Editorial

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It has been 10 days since federal Treasurer Joe Hockey revealed a budget deficit for 2013-14 of $47 billion and a probable deficit in coming years of $123 billion.

This massive problem, Mr Hockey said, required immediate action and all options were on the table to address it. The Treasurer did not actually suggest the government's fiscal cost-cutting would equitable, impartial and directed at those best able to bear it, but many observers would have supposed it went without saying. Events since then suggest such hopes may be misplaced.

Shortly after the budget update, the government quietly announced that the introduction of the national disability insurance scheme would be subject to further trials and scrutiny.

"We are determined to deliver the NDIS but it has to be affordable," Mr Hockey said on radio, pointing out that there had been a cost blowout in the pilot program.

The reaction from the disability sector was predicable enough, and there were suggestions the government was distancing itself from its pre-election pledge so it could deliver a slimmed-down version of the scheme set up by the Gillard government.

A few days later, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews warned of reforms to the disability support pension to end what he said was a culture of handouts for people who did not have permanent injuries.

This move appears to be a direct contradiction of the government's pledge made six days before the September 7 election, in which it said it would not change existing pension arrangements.

It now transpires that as far back as March, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was canvassing the introduction of a two-tier system similar to one in Britain, which pays people with disabilities different rates according to whether their conditions are permanent.

It has been reported that Mr Andrews will also consider subjecting welfare recipients under the age of 40 to more regular checks to determine if they are capable of working part time.

Those in the disability sector who argue that disabled people find it difficult to secure ongoing employment, or are harassed and victimised when they do, have reacted to the news with understandable dismay.

It is no easy task for the disabled to find and keep a job, no matter how willing they might be, as recent reports in this newspaper attest. These articles found the experience of many disabled people employed in the public service, which is frequently enjoined by the Public Service Commission to be a model employer, is one of lack of support and, in certain circumstances, outright hostility, both from managers and fellow workers.

Mr Andrews' assertion that a job is the best form of welfare may be correct, but rhetoric alone will not ensure that work is found easily by those disabled people who want it or who are deemed fit to look for it.

The government's enthusiasm for getting more disabled people working is understandable, however. The disability support pension scheme is massive, and growing.

About 820,000 people, or one in 20 working-age Australians, rely on disability payments, and there is no requirement for them to look even for part-time work. That number is expected to hit 1 million in the next decade. Take-up of the pension has accelerated in part, some believe, by the fact that at $800 a fortnight, it is substantially more than the $500-a-fortnight unemployment benefit.

One-third of all disability pension recipients suffer from psychological problems, including depression, and Mr Andrews believes that with advances in treatment, a good proportion could make the transition back to the workforce.

Evaluating fitness to work would require the Department of Human Services to employ more trained assessors, however.

Australia's total welfare bill exceeds $130 billion a year, some of which is clearly aimed at well-off voters.

Of efforts to rein in this middle-class welfare, however, little has so far been heard. Having declared this to be a budget emergency, the Abbott government needs to show that its cuts will be fair and equitable, and not confined to the more vulnerable members of society.