You may have heard of the new welfare-related legislation the Australian government is trying to pass: the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021.
The Antipoverty Centre has begun to strongly oppose it in recent months, launching the #RejectTheMOsBill campaign. There are many good reasons why welfare campaigners are opposing it: if you're a jobseeker, a pensioner, or a parent receiving parenting payments, it has some scary implications.
After robodebt, the hope was that the Australian government would carefully consider the implications of automated decision-making when drafting legislation.
But this bill plunges us straight back into government algorithms potentially wielding power over welfare recipients' lives. It would enable people on welfare to be streamed into an Employment Plan via "technological processes". Using data from a questionnaire, an algorithm determines the employment pathway into which participants are streamed, which in turn decides their mutual obligations.
Yes, you read that right. The government is going to decide the method by which they will punish people for being poor and unemployed by ... forcing them to take a quiz to decide what form of punishment they will receive. Of course, failure to complete the quiz, and the accompanying unachievable mutual obligations, potentially results in having welfare payments permanently cut off.
The "technological process" uses data such as education, skill, age, disability, illness, mental health, physical ability, the state of the labour market, transport, family and caring obligations, travel time and the financial cost of taking the job, to place people in "streams". We won't know how this data is weighted in deciding participants' mutual obligations.
The legislation is also light on details when it comes to what form the technological process will take (Gozer the Gozerian v the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, hmmm?), probably because the algorithm is most likely yet to be created; the build will probably be outsourced; and the resulting code will almost certainly be kept commercial-in-confidence to shield the government's decision-making processes from public oversight.
Think of it as a technological black box, a Sorting Hat of despair. There are no details of any oversight or safeguards on the use of the "technological process" - the government simply says a human will have to sign off on the job plans - and no privacy and security protections listed either. Considering the data-harvesting aspects of the legislation, this is highly concerning.
For instance, the "technological process" will be able to decide that people must seek and accept paid work; undertake training or study; undertake voluntary work; participate in Work for the Dole; and be forced to turn up to interviews with a Jobactive provider. Failure to comply may result in having welfare payments suspended, or cancelled completely.
If a person is receiving a Parenting Payment, the new legislation may obligate them to undertake study, and complete requirements relating to the health and education of their child. So not only does the new legislation contain a significant lack of transparency and oversight - an issue that was implicated in the robodebt saga - it also appears to be a significant widening of the reviled ParentsNext program for everyone receiving parenting payments.
For those lucky enough never to have heard of ParentsNext, some parents receiving Parenting Payments have been forced to complete tasks to have their mutual obligations ticked off by Services Australia. These tasks can include taking children to swimming lessons, or attending book reading sessions or playgroups at set times dictated by the government.
People forced onto the ParentsNext program have been overwhelmingly Indigenous. Shockingly, over one-third of participants had their payments suspended at some point or another, leaving people for up to 28 days at a time without payments. More than 1000 parents on ParentsNext had their payments cancelled completely, leaving them - and their children - without any form of financial support at all. Rather than ending the ParentsNext program, the government is rolling out the main aspects of it nationwide via this new legislation.
Jobactive providers - who will be in charge of deciding what health and education-related mutual obligations parents must complete under this newly proposed edict - are not trained in community healthcare and are not qualified in child and maternal healthcare. So if a Jobactive agent makes an unreasonable requirement a "child health issue"' for your employment plan? You either have to comply or lose parenting payments. Sure, you can appeal, but who knows how many months you'll spend without a parenting payment before your case gets a hearing?
There are lots of other terrible potential scenarios this legislation could bring about. For instance, if you've told an employment service provider you'd be willing to undertake work away from home, and then you're offered permanent full-time work in a new location, the government can decide you have to move house and take the job. Don't want to move house? Too bad. Computer says no. You either move for a potentially minimum-wage job, far away from your friends and family, or you're cut off from your payments.
The algorithm could also decide that work a parent previously applied for is suitable, even if it turns out it does not meet the requirements of their employment plan because the parent can't access childcare or the workplace is far from home. The legislation would be able to force participants to take any job available, even if they're overqualified and the work is for the minimum wage.
If an unemployed person on JobSeeker with a medical condition (but not a "severe" medical condition) feels they are unable to travel to undertake a minimum-wage job, for example, the algorithm can cut them off. Think The Grapes of Wrath meets Australia's current farm labour shortage. Anyone with a moderately chronic health condition knows how fast their wellbeing can deteriorate if they even slightly overdo it. And you know the government is itching to turn welfare recipients into indentured farm labour, especially with the current lack of foreign farm workers available.
People with alcohol and other drug (AOD) issues will also have to complete mutual obligations, unless they are in a formal six-week treatment plan agreed to by their Jobactive provider. There are currently six-month waiting lists for places in most public rehabilitation units across Australia.
There's not a lot of wriggle room in the legislation for people to argue that their inability to complete mutual obligations is the result of systemic failures of public governance. The legislation doesn't take into account the lack of childcare, huge waitlists for AOD rehabs or the lack of disability supports, mental health services or other social supports. People may very well end up needing to approach the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to challenge their mutual obligations.
What the government is proposing with this bill is an invisible, amoral, nightmare. As the ongoing saga of robodebt has shown us, it is not a stretch to say that if it passes, it could cost lives. The government cannot be trusted to give a crap about the wellbeing of welfare recipients.
Transparency and oversight are essential. The bill must not be allowed to pass.
- If you'd like to learn more about the campaign to stop this legislation, read more at the Antipoverty Centre Media Hub: apcentre.substack.com/p/no-merit-in-amendments-alp-and-crossbench
- You can also Tweet, Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok your protest on the #RejectTheMOsBill hashtag.
- Asher Wolf is a freelance journalist and digital rights activist.