Social Security Rights Victoria was originally known as Welfare Rights Unit Inc. The following is a history of the organisation prepared for the Unit’s 20th anniversary in 2007.
The Welfare Rights Unit (WRU) was founded in 1987 to meet the need for a community legal service that specialised in the impact of social security legislation.
Since 1987 the WRU has developed and maintained its role as Victoria’s peak provider of independent social security legal advice, education and advocacy, achieving significant victories and weathering the occasional storm.
In the beginning
In 1979, the Brotherhood of St Laurence saw a need for a specialist service to help people to deal with social security matters and established the Unemployment Rights Service. As the Brotherhood could only provide funding for one worker, the service was assisted by students from the then Phillip Institute of Technology (now RMIT Bundoora). Funding for the service was discontinued in 1984 but it was clear that the need for assistance was greater than could be met by the Brotherhood and its associates.
A framing report Welfare Rights: A Model for Victoria was written by Charles Livingstone. The report clearly identified the need for a specialised legal service in Victoria with a focus not just on casework but community education and policy work.
After the release of the report, a steering committee was set up to seek funds to run the Unit. In mid 1986, the Victoria Law Foundation agreed to provide initial funding for the purchase of office equipment. Later that year, Community Services Victoria, the predecessor to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), agreed to provide establishment funding. The Unit established an office in Smith Street, Fitzroy, which was officially opened by the Minister for Community Services, Ms Carolyn Hogg on Monday 23 March 1987.
“[A priority is to] … give ordinary Victorians a fair go in the legal system. This is particularly important for members of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups” Premier Steve Bracks, 2004
Social Security law is very specialised and includes the Social Security Act 1991, the Social Security Administration Act 1999, the (A New Tax System) Family Assistance Act 1999 and the (A New Tax System) Family Assistance Administration Act 1999. These Acts have created a legislative program second only to the taxation laws in their complexity and size.
People in receipt of income support payments are severely disadvantaged in the maze that constitutes our Social Security system.
The relative disadvantage of many of our clients can be explained by several factors.
• Income support recipients are amongst the most disadvantaged Victorians, with low rates of education and high rates of economic disadvantage, family dysfunction and health problems. Consequently, few Centrelink clients have the skills to advocate for themselves.
• Centrelink is a confusing and frightening organisation to many people. People are unwilling to ‘make waves’ with Centrelink, fearful that the income they rely on will be put at risk. This is particularly notable amongst young people and people who have migrated to Australia from countries with repressive governments.
• The great disparity in resources available to income support recipients and Centrelink and the Department of Employment (DOE).
• Fear of punishment arising from Centrelink campaigns that cast all income support recipients as potential ‘frauds’ and ‘welfare cheats’.
For many clients it is enough to be able to obtain independent advice about their situation before they act. Others need more help. Each year the Unit helps more than 1,000 people and undertakes numerous community legal education activities. Clients range from private solicitors and staff of other community legal centres, through to everyday Victorians with no understanding of the system, their rights or responsibilities.
The ups and downs: Securing the unit’s future
The Welfare Rights Unit’s early years were characterised by financial uncertainty. Whilst the Unit received funding from both the then Legal Aid Commission (now VLA) and the Eradication of Poverty program of the then Community Services Victoria (now the Department of Human Services) the funding was only on a year-to-year basis.
The Unit faced closure on at least two occasions. Following the election of the Liberal Government, the Unit lost most of its funding and struggled to survive on a mixture of money from charitable trusts and ad hoc project work. In 1992, the Unit secured basic funding from the Federal Government following a review of the Social Security system. The funding was conditional on aggrieved clients agreeing to seek internal review of decisions before taking their complaint further.
Despite no significant increase in income since 1992, the Unit has continued to provide a comprehensive, professional service to Victorians across the State.
The Unit sees its role in the community working on three levels
- individual assistance (casework)
- community based information (community legal education) and
- advocacy on system change both as a Unit and as part of the NWRN
Since the Unit’s establishment, the number of people assisted every year has increased substantially. Between 1988 and 2005/2006, the number of Victorians assisted has increased by 236%.
Faced with high levels of unmet need and the increasing complexity of the cases we are seeing, the Unit has in recent years devoted greater resources to casework. This has resulted in limiting other important activities such as the production of self-help manuals and other community legal and grassroots education.
The Unit has also had a continuous program of publications from simple information (often now distributed via electronic means) to full-length books such as Blood from Stone: an advocate’s guide to defending social security prosecutions published by the Unit in 2003.
The Unit also produces a quarterly newsletter Red Tape which considers social security law and Centrelink practice issues from the point of view of income support recipients. The newsletter is distributed to Centrelink clients and organisations across Australia. This publication has been in production in an on-going form for all but one of the Unit’s twenty years of existence. It is now available in hard-copy, electronic and downloadable forms.
Over the years the Unit has produced (often in conjunction with other community organisations) the following publications:
1988 Myths and Realities: Investigations by Social Security Officers (with the Federation of Community Legal Centres)
1989 The Welfare Rights Kit / ”Direct deposit campaign”;
1998/9 WRITS (Welfare Rights Information and Training Service) project
1991 Love, lust and the DSS (de facto relationships publication) “Social Security Phone-In” (and report) with the Federation of Community Legal Centres and the Council for Single Mothers and their Children; the Welfare Rights Book (updated version of 1989’s ‘kit’)
1992 Guide to defending social security overpayments
1994/5 Bent over backwards (disability payments guide); Too sick for work phone-in report
1995/6 Unit advice pamphlets translated into a number of community languages
2003/4 Blood from Stone
The Unit has also contributed social security chapters to the Rural Law Handbook (now The Rural Law Handbook on-line) for the Victorian Law Foundation; the Law Handbook (published by Fitzroy Legal Service) the Drug Users’ Handbook (published by Fitzroy Legal Service) and the Legal Practitioner’s Guide. Similar work has been undertaken for the Chronic Illness Alliance and the Hepatitis C Council in providing content for their websites.
 Vinson, T. (2007), Dropping off the edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia, Jesuit Social Services/Catholic Social Services Australia
 Refer to Dearn, L. (2001), Negotiating the maze: An analysis of employment assistance for young people, Brotherhood of St Laurence ,and Refugee Council of Australia (2002), Submission To The Minister For Citizenship And Multicultural Affairs In The Context Of The Review Of Settlement Services For Migrants And Humanitarian Program Entrants, www.refugeecouncil.org.au/docs/resources/reports/2002_smnt_serv_review.pdf, page 17.