JobSeeker - 16/03/2021

16 March 2021



I rise today to speak about the government's increase to the JobSeeker payment—the permanent increase of $50 per fortnight. Labor will support this increase because, otherwise, the almost two million people relying on this payment would not get that paltry increase of $3.50 per day. But I want to be extremely clear that this increase is completely inadequate. It is an insult to people trying to survive on this payment, particularly as we're in a global pandemic and a recession. People cannot find jobs, people are trying to get by on this payment, and the government is just pulling the rug out from under them. Let's not forget that this is a government whose social services minister said that increasing the JobSeeker payment, or the Newstart payment as it was then, would just go into the hands of drug dealers. This is a government that constantly peddles myths about people receiving social security and the system itself. This is a government that says, 'Oh, they get other supplements.' Yes. They get the energy supplement—65c per day. I'm not sure what the government thinks that is going to help with. They may get rent assistance, which, by definition, they only get if they're paying rent, and it doesn't cover their rent. So all these supplements that the government speaks about are not making a difference for people's lives.

The devastating thing is that in this pandemic, in responding to COVID-19, the government actually did acknowledge two things when they delivered the coronavirus supplement and effectively doubled the JobSeeker payment to people out of work. They acknowledged, firstly, that people cannot live on $40 per day—I would add that they cannot live on $43.50 per day either. They acknowledged that, and they also acknowledged that a decent unemployment benefit, a social safety net, has an important role not only in lifting people out of poverty but in stimulating the economy at a time when we needed it most. They delivered that and, at a time of peak unemployment, in our worst recession in many, many years, we actually saw the rate of poverty in Australia decrease.

Between the introduction of JobKeeper—the wage subsidy that Labor argued for and the government introduced—and the increase to JobSeeker, we saw a decrease in poverty overall. We saw people protected from poverty. We actually saw, as a result of that doubling, that the rate of poverty among people receiving the JobSeeker payment reduced from around 80 per cent to around 25 per cent—and that is research from the ANU that I'm quoting there. It didn't alleviate poverty completely among jobseekers, I'll note that, but it decreased it significantly. Here the government had a real opportunity to use that to reset and actually deliver a decent social safety net for Australians. We had the opportunity to actually be like the society that we claim to be, an egalitarian society where people look after one another and people get a fair go. Instead, this is a government that wants to push people into destitution.

What does poverty mean? What I talked about there, where we actually lifted people out of poverty, that is the poverty rate as calculated as a proportion of the median income. It is a relative number based on the distribution of incomes of our entire community. But what does it mean to the people actually living on these payments? As someone at the Early Morning Centre here in Canberra once said to me, 'Poverty is trying to choose between baby food and tampons.' Let that sink in. I think the people on the other side of this chamber obviously don't speak to people in their electorates, or they're just callous and they're ignoring it. That's what poverty is. On the other hand, when they introduced this coronavirus supplement, we heard people receiving JobSeeker speaking of living with some dignity for the first time in a long time and having some of the things that so many of us take for granted every day—things like being able to put petrol in the car or even afford a bus fare, getting a haircut, buying their children a school uniform so they can fit in at school and not feel ostracised because they're living in poverty, heating their homes and getting shoes without holes in them. These are the sorts of things that we in this place take for granted. This government could have continued that, and they are taking it away. It is an absolute disgrace.

The other parts of this announcement—which, I note, are not in legislation and will be done by the minister through regulation—are the mutual obligation changes, which are just punitive. They're all just part of this government's agenda to really demonise people. What a joke to have a 'dob in a dole bludger' hotline for employers. Employers don't even want this. They don't have time to do that. The government want people to apply for 20 jobs a fortnight. I ask this government: where are these jobs? How about a plan for jobs? We're in a recession. We've also had the Reserve Bank governor say that a decent unemployment benefit is part of stimulating the economy. People on low incomes spend the majority of their income because they have to, and that money would be going back into our economies, back into our small businesses. This decision, this pathetic increase, is driven by ideology, not economics and certainly not the proper modelling that should have been done to set this payment.

Labor has long been committed to seeing this increase. We have been arguing in this place for a decent permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment, formerly Newstart. At the last election, Labor committed to reviewing the payment. That was always about how much the payment needed to be increased by. There has never been any doubt that it needed to be increased, just as there is no doubt that this increase is inadequate; it falls so far short of all the amounts that people have been calling for for many years. This increase is $25 per week. At the moment, the Australian Council of Social Service is calling for an increase of $25 per day. So you can see that it is well short. They've previously called for increases of $75 per week and $95 per week. It is also well short of that.

As someone who has worked my entire career on social security policy, looking at finding the policy answers to addressing poverty and inequality, I understand there are complexities in setting this rate. It needs to be done right. The government has the resources and the data to do that modelling right now. They should have done it and delivered a proper increase. There are things you need to consider, and anyone who says that we don't need to consider this rate properly is ignoring both the depth of the inadequacies of our social security system and the power of these payments to lift people out of poverty and to stimulate our economy—the important role that they play.

In this country, we do not take the pride that we should in our social security system. It is the most powerful tool that we have to keep people out of poverty. We have child poverty at the moment. We have around a third of sole parents living in poverty, and that rate is only going to be higher when, in only a few days time, this government snaps back—sorry, there'll be a $3-per-day increase from the end of March—or removes the JobKeeper payment and assistance before we are anywhere near getting out of this recession. Instead, they could lift people out of poverty, as they did during COVID.

The government need to look at where this payment should be set to ensure that people have a decent standard of living. That is not necessarily the poverty rate as defined by the OECD poverty line. I completely agree with the statement that people should not be living in poverty. People don't need to be destitute to have an incentive to work. Hello, over there; that is a fact. The incentive to work is all around us. So much of our identity in this country is around our jobs; so much of our society is centred on work. For the people in my electorate who are on unemployment benefits and dreading this reduction to $43 a day at the end of March, there's no doubt that a job is a better alternative to being on social security. I think the people who would argue that most strongly are the people trying to survive on this payment, the people who have been told that $3.50 a day is going to help them with that. The thing that comes to mind is to say that it won't even buy a coffee, but these people aren't buying coffees—they're not buying food. They're trying to survive. They're going to food banks. That has become the social safety net in this country, because our government funded social security system is so inadequate. It is the community sector that is keeping people alive. I'm not overexaggerating this problem; that is exactly what it is.

Coming back to the proper modelling and analysis that needs to happen, it is important that we look at the rate of the unemployment benefit in relation to other payments, like the age pension and the disability support pension. It is important that we look at it in comparison to the minimum wage. It is important that we look at it in comparison to the poverty line. But the most important thing is that we can guarantee that people have a dignified and healthy standard of living in this country. We can do that, in my view, by doing a proper review of JobSeeker and of the social security system. I think it should include what is called a budget standards analysis, where we look at a basket of goods and services that a person in a certain type of situation—a single person, or a family with children—needs to live a decent life.

A lot of this work has been done by Peter Saunders, from UNSW. The work he did for ACOSS in 2017 was the basis for their original call for an increase of $75 a week. The government could update that work and look at all these other factors, with their proper administrative data, of who is receiving these payments, and they could look at the data and work out an amount which would mean that people could live decently—people like Julie Stephen, who presented to the Senate inquiry on this bill on 9 March. I would encourage everyone, particularly people from the other side of this chamber, to read her testimony about what it's like to have an aggressive cancer, to be receiving chemotherapy and to fear what will happen when this payment is reduced at the end of March: how on earth is she going to survive, how is she going to put petrol in her car to get to her treatments and how is she going to buy food? These are the issues facing Australians right now, and we've got people saying that $3.50 is an increase. It is an insult. It is an insult to people living in poverty in this country.

Bob Hawke said in 1987 that no Australian child should be living in poverty by 1990. We all like to have a laugh about that, but he introduced changes to family benefits after that, and poverty among jobless families with children was reduced by 80 per cent by 1994, because these payments are powerful. The No. 1 most powerful and important thing we can do to address disadvantage in this country is to make sure that people have an income they can live on, that they can have housing and that they can participate in their community. We'll support this increase. You couldn't stand in the way of that $3.50 because people are so desperate, but it is not enough.

I just wish that this government would look up from their demonising and ideological crusades and talk to people in their electorates, in this country, who are really suffering. It is really going to come to crunch time on 31 March when this assistance is ripped away from people. God help us. (Time expired)