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Why have our ministers got it in for the unemployed?

What were they thinking? On Monday three members of cabinet called a press conference to pressure the Senate to cut the dole. That's right, to cut the dole. At just $13,750 per year plus an $8.80 per fortnight energy allowance, it's already so low the Business Council believes it "presents a barrier to employment and risks entrenching poverty." The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the research arm of the world's richest economies, says Australia's unemployment benefit has reached the point where it may no longer be effective in "enabling someone to look for a suitable job".

Even a Coalition-dominated inquiry found a "compelling case" for boosting it.

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Xenophon won't back welfare changes

The government's omnibus savings bill has met with resistance, with Senator Nick Xenophon declaring his party won't vote for the legislation.

But the three ministers wanted to deny the energy supplement to new entrants on the spurious ground that this would merely remove "carbon tax compensation for a carbon tax that no longer exists". It wouldn't. The Newstart cost of living increase was cut 0.7 per cent when the energy supplement came in to avoid double counting. If the energy supplement went but the cut remained, new entrants to Newstart would be worse off than if the whole thing had never happened.

And they wanted to withhold Newstart from newly-unemployed Australians aged 22 to 25, paying them instead the lower $11,375 Youth Allowance. The under 25s would have to wait longer too – five weeks instead of the present one.

Rather than spend time arguing the merits of cutting a benefit already so low it can barely be lived on, Treasurer Scott Morrison, Social Services Minister Christian Porter and Education Minister Simon Birmingham delivered instead what amounted to a threat: if the Senate didn't cut the unemployment benefit, they might not fully fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But not at first. In a burlesque twist, they opened the press conference spruiking the case for an unfunded massive company tax cut.

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When they turned to the National Disability Insurance Scheme their message was that it had to be funded, that those funds would come from cuts to unemployment benefits, and that the Senate had to back them.

An astounded Nick Xenophon, who leads a team of three in the Senate, labelled it blackmail. "As a negotiating tactic, this is as subtle as a sledgehammer," he said. It was "dumb policy and even dumber politics".

Using the disabled as a human shield to defend cuts to other Australians in need is as dumb as it gets. The ministers seemed to think it would work because it was all welfare.

Later that day Porter relented, saying he hadn't really been holding the disabled hostage, and of course he would properly fund the national insurance scheme.

But that he and his colleagues thought the idea was smart at the time says something about their attitude to people they are meant to support.

Back in October Porter became convinced that they were getting more from staying at home than would if they worked.

"We have found these pockets," he told Sydney's 2GB, "and maybe that's being a bit generous, because they are very large pockets, of payment categories and rules that intersect in a way that mean you can earn as much through the welfare system, and I use the word 'earn' advisedly, you can earn as much as you do from working very hard".

It was evidence he pushed his department to find. "We have been asked to put together a cameo of a parenting payment recipient getting over $45k per year," one of his departmental staff explained in an email released to me under the Freedom of Information Act. "Unfortunately this urgent."

The department exceeded expectations. It came up with an unusual case of a single parent with four children aged 13, 10, 7 and 4 managing to pay $400 per week in rent. She would get $52,523.50 per year.

The next morning The Australian quoted the minister under a front page headline that read: "Parental welfare pays more than work". "Thousands of parents claiming government benefits are financially better off not getting a job" it said, which wasn't what the figure showed at all, as the flurry of departmental emails that followed made clear.

"The article is comparing apples and oranges," said one. "It seems like the author hasn't spent too much time thinking about how the payments actually work, and what their intent is."

Most of the $52,523 quoted was the Family Tax Benefit, which would be paid to a parent with that many children even if she did work, meaning she or he would be much better off working than not.

But in the round of media interviews that followed the Social Services Minister passed up the opportunity to correct the false report, and Morrison backed him, saying it was "a crying shame that some Australians would have to take a pay cut to get a job in this country because of the way our welfare system works".

Asked via Freedom of Information to provide material created in the previous four months that supported the minister's claim, the department could not.

Inept in their dealings with the Senate, Porter, Morrison and other ministers might have also misread the public. Many of of us know someone who has needed Newstart. Almost all of us knows someone who's been monstered by Centrelink. Those Freedom of Information requests are just beginning.

Peter Martin is economics editor of The Age.

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