A senior gay couple who lost $420 in fortnightly Centrelink payments have called on others affected by the changes to take direct action against prominent Labor MPs.

-˜78ers, James Hunter, 56, and Mark Hewitt, 61, (not their real names), have vowed to organise sit-ins and blockades at the offices of Labor MPs in pink electorate areas to raise awareness of the affects the welfare changes are having on older gay and lesbian couples.

The couple, who have been together 32 years, said they wanted to do the right thing by declaring their relationship, but were uninformed about how much money they would lose. With Hunter earning $34,000 a year from a part-time job, Hewitt, a chronic asthmatic, had his New Start Payments reduced to $30 a week. Without any superannuation and only one major asset, their home, the couple say they are now considering hiding their relationship.

I remember the days in my 20s when I had to deny I was gay. I feel like I’ve just been shafted again and I’m back to where I was at 21, and it hurts so much. It’s gut wrenching, Hunter told Sydney Star Observer.

At this point I think my relationship is worth more than the amount of money they’re taking away from me, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in six months time. I don’t know how sick Mark is going to get, I don’t know if I’m going to get sick.

We decided to declare because Mark was under the impression that if I earned less than $750 a week his benefits wouldn’t be affected, but it’s $753 a fortnight. We were just shell-shocked, we didn’t realise what was going to happen and I’m finding from speaking to other people that it’s the same thing for them.

Mark was devastated when he came back from the Centrelink office. He’s also suffering a sense of shame, that he now has to come to me for support when I’m on such a low wage to begin with -” it’s affecting him, I’m worried about his health, I’m worried about my health.

Hunter said more should have been done to publicise how much couples could earn before their payments were affected.

The Welfare Rights Network petitioned the Rudd Government and Centrelink to better inform welfare recipients of potential changes, and made recommendations in February of this year that a letter be sent to all single recipients of Single Security and Family Assistance payments.

Centrelink rejected the suggestion in writing, stating, As the estimated percentage of customers affected is low, a mailout to all single customers would result in many customers receiving a letter that is not applicable to them. This would create a significant level of unnecessary customer concern and contact demand.

If a customer had genuinely not been exposed to the same-sex reforms information campaign, and had not been sent a letter with notification obligations, Centrelink can take that into consideration in deciding whether the customer would incur a debt.

Hunter said he and other affected couples are angry at the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, saying they sold out pensioners.

I feel like we are just the collateral damage and they don’t really care because it’s only a few of us, he said.

I cannot for the life of me see how the Lobby could not have fought for that more in advance. All they had to do was sit back for six months or a year and fight it … but I think for expediency they just buckled under.

Lobby co-convenor Emily Gray said the organisation did seek a grandfather clause in the legislation.
We argued for both grandfathering and phasing in of the social security changes from when the discussions started in 2006 and have continued until 2009, she said.

There simply was not the option of holding out for six months or more. The timing of the reforms was crucial. Had we held out for six months it is possible the reforms would not have happened.

Overall, discrimination against same-sex couples and their families was removed from 84 pieces of legislation. The GLRL understands the hardship with which some same-sex couples are now faced, but it would have been irresponsible to jeopardise full practical equality for same-sex couples and their families.

Hunter said it is time for older welfare recipients to speak up.

I’d like to encourage some direct action, like sit-ins perhaps at the offices of any of the big Labor ministers, to bring this to a head, he said.

The main thing is that we need to get people to know about this, so if people say they are interested in taking that route, and the feedback is good then I’ll start organising something.

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