The consequences of love: Centrelink’s relationship-testing and eugenics

Much has been written about how Australia’s welfare system operates as a way of punishing marginalised, disabled and poor people simply for being poor, creating what is effectively a system of eugenics. However, the aspect of the welfare system that most deserves this label is one of the least talked about. Let’s discuss Centrelink’s relationship-testing.

Upon applying for a welfare payment, Centrelink will ask you for your relationship status. This applies across all benefits, including the disability support pension (DSP). Brendan Coates of the Grattan economic policy programme has said that this is designed to ‘make sure that payments are targeted at those that most need them.’ This, on the surface, seems reasonable, until you examine how this policy functions in practice.

As of May 2022, the rules regarding the DSP state that once a couple’s income hits $320 per fortnight, a welfare recipient’s payment decreases by 50 cents for every subsequent dollar. Given that a DSP payment totals approximately $1,026.50 a fortnight, this means that a recipient will lose over a third of their income upon entering a relationship, regardless of whether their partner even earns an income or not. Once the combined fortnightly income reaches $3,297.60—well below the average household gross income of approximately $4,658 a fortnight—the DSP payment is cut off entirely.

It’s important to factor this information alongside the DSP’s already notorious reputation for being both impossible to get onto and a poverty trap. While the ostensible effects of this testing may be to encourage self-sufficiency for people with disabilities, it’s easy to see how in practice this achieves the opposite effect.

Relationship testing forces DSP recipients into three possible directions. The first is that people on the payment will simply lie about their dating life to preserve their independent income, effectively committing fraud. The second is that recipients will avoid relationships entirely, and thus be deprived of a basic human experience and rendered unable to raise a family. The third and darkest outcome is that disabled people will be forced into financially abusive relationships.

Financial abuse is described by 1800RESPECT as involving a person using money as a method of hurting another person. This can include, but it is not limited to, withholding money or restricting the use of finances. The rules surrounding the DSP don’t just encourage people into financially abusive relationship: they force people into them by preventing the recipient from having an independent income, or punishing them with overpayment debts if they try to which will put even more financial and emotional strain on the relationship.

DSP recipients are required by Centrelink to have more trust and confidence in their partners than anyone else. There is no way a disabled person can be honest with Centrelink and still have a healthy, financially stable relationship.

The effects are clear: disabled people, already among the most vulnerable people in Australia, are forced to choose between their relationships or their independent income. When they opt for the former, they are forced into a situation that domestic violence advocates describe as inherently abusive. However you cut it, it’s clear that the welfare system is structured in such a way to disincentivise people on welfare from seeking partners and families. The most brutal twist of irony is that the large majority of welfare payments, including the DSP, are at or below the poverty line, making sharing assets or mutual aid one of the only ways to make them livable.

This brings us back to the point raised at the start: there is a fascist theory that is structured entirely around the concept of preventing disabled people from seeking partners and families, and it goes by the name of eugenics.

To understand this better, we need to answer a key question: what does Centrelink even regard as a ‘relationship’? It’s only recently that Australia recognised same-sex marriages. Polyamorous relationships are still underrepresented in the media, and some disabled people, like their non-disabled peers, prefer casual hook-ups over committed relationships. How close a bond do you need before Centrelink decides you need to be punished for it?

The answer is complicated. In the past, Centrelink directly asked questions regarding your sex life, but the DSP claim form (SA466) today simply asks about shared accommodation, shared child-caring commitments, and a rather vague question: ‘if you participate in activities jointly with this person, are you considered to be a couple?’. All of this is, clearly, incredibly invasive, and geared to ensure that commitments such as children, splitting rent of a home, or any kind of mutual aid, are turned against people on welfare.

One of the biggest lies that gets thrown around is the idea that disabled people are a burden to society, a cost to the taxpayer, and contribute nothing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The DSP is crucial for Australian society, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic left many Australians unable to work full-time. It not only enables disabled people to live in relative comfort but also focus on their families, hobbies, communities and so on. The DSP enables people who are otherwise often marginalised to engage more actively with wider society and spread awareness of issues affecting their community. These are contributions stifled by the inability of disabled people to legally make healthy families. While many of the benefits of higher welfare are hard to document in numbers, it is also widely known that lower welfare rates have severe negative long-term impacts on the Australian economy, too.

Australia has a long history of eugenics-related policies. Indigenous people know this better than anyone. Transgender people are still forced to undergo sterilisation before their genders are legally recognised in New South Wales. But even by our own low standards, this is a stark breach of the human rights of disabled people.

When New Zealander National MP Alastair Scott was questioned about the cruelty of similar rules impacting disabled people there, he candidly responded that ‘love has consequences’. The implications of this statement in the context of eugenics are dark to say the least. For most of society, love can mean essential personal discovery, give life meaning, and be the foundation of family. But for disabled people, falling in love can be crippling.

There is a long way to go before Australia finally embraces marginalised people properly and sheds its classist baggage. Removing eugenicist policies needs to be a key part of the process. One of the most dominant moments in Australian politics over the last decade was the changing of the marriage act, which made famous the slogan Love Wins. This is a dream still out of reach for many of Australia’s most vulnerable. Let’s turn ‘love has consequences’ on its head.


Image by Clem Onojeghuo

Natalie Feliks

Natalie Feliks is a writer, activist and critic from Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter at @nataliesqrl.

More by Natalie Feliks ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays