Our interactions with people who have lived through disasters such as Black Summer, floods and the pandemic have told us that these events can have multiple enduring impacts on people’s lives.
A person’s home may be damaged or destroyed; their job may be affected, or their business closed. They may be concerned about the effects on their loved ones; they may be travel-limited due to road closure or public transport failure; their children’s school may be closed; their neighbour’s house may have been damaged rather than their own.
In other words, they may be experiencing constant stress, even trauma – and this can lead to a reduced capacity to address Centrelink requirements for a considerable period.
Mutual obligations suspension
Although the government has the power to suspend mutual obligations unilaterally and temporarily for disaster affected regions, this approach is often limited to an initial exemption of four weeks and restricted to ‘major declared natural disasters’ on a postcode basis. This often excludes people living in adjacent areas, or areas significantly affected by disaster but not included in the declared postcodes, despite being impacted as individuals and as a community.
If not within the declared zones, individuals must approach Centrelink or their employment service provider, explain the impact of the disaster upon their ability to seek work and seek an individual mutual obligation exemption. The Social Security Guide suggests that if an individual exemption is granted for a natural disaster, a period of two weeks is ‘generally appropriate’.
These short periods of exemptions are inadequate and can contribute to the retraumatising of disaster affected people. Often an entire community is faced with recovering housing, businesses, essential services and infrastructure. This approach of short exemptions requiring multiple extensions places the responsibility on people likely experiencing considerable pressure and exposes them to risk of traumatisation by repeatedly being required to re-tell their story. If they are unable to, they face their income support payments being suspended or cancelled.
Those experiencing vulnerability, trauma, job loss, restricted access to vital support services and a reduced ability to rely on their community, friends and family, shouldn’t have to continuously plead special circumstances and should be granted relief commensurate with the duration of hardship they and their community are facing as a result of disaster.
During 2023 we are working to keep this issue in front of law and policy makers.