Monday, 28 May 2012
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(1) resolves that Newstart payments are too low and should increase by $50 per week; and
(2) calls on the government to find an appropriate savings measure to fund this increase.
When a newspaper reported yesterday that this motion was being debated today, I received an email from someone who said: 'As a long-term two-year underemployed 60-year-old who can now only manage to get a few hours per week casual work since my full-time position with a major telco company reached its use-by date—then that position was handed over to a younger person who was paid less, this being a typical private enterprise workplace practice—I wish you every success with your motion to lift the dole by $50 per week. There are many thousands of us underemployed 55-pluses who are trying to live on the miserable Newstart allowance. We are not dole bludgers, just victims of the casualisation of the Australian workforce. Thank you.' They then signed off the email.
One of the key reasons that more and more Australians are backing the Greens is that they realise we are now the party that is about looking after people. Many people feel the old parties have given up this core value, and nothing could illustrate this better than their failure to provide an adequate welfare safety net. An adequate safety net should allow people to live with dignity, even when facing some of the toughest times in their lives. When people lose their jobs, we have an obligation to help them. When people lose their jobs, they need an adequate safety net to catch them. Our safety net is meant to be Newstart, but Newstart is too low. It is woefully, horribly, utterly too low. The single rate for Newstart recipients is $244 a week. That is less than half the minimum wage—45 per cent—and it is more than $130 under the poverty line. After paying their rent, recipients can be left with just $17 a day—$17 a day for all other expenses including utilities, transport, food, personal care and job-seeking costs. That $17 must also be used to save for other major expenses such as maintaining a car, replacing whitegoods or surviving a health crisis.
Newstart is just not enough to support people while they try to find a job. It affects their ability to search for work, particularly if they already face other barriers such as age, disability or education, as many long-term recipients of Newstart do. Unfortunately, more than 60 per cent of the people who find themselves on Newstart are on it for more than 12 months. Trying to live on such a small income for an extended period of time dramatically impacts on these people. Their world often becomes a cycle of stress, debt, low self-esteem and social isolation that gets harder and harder to break out of. We are condemning the unemployed to poverty. Half of all people on emergency food relief are on Newstart, and nearly half of households on Newstart have not been able to pay a utility bill in the past 12 months. Forty per cent of people on Newstart cannot access essential dental treatment. The situation is unacceptable.
The Greens want to increase Newstart by $50 a week to help address this crisis and, if this motion was passed, it would mean parliament shares our policy. The complacency of the old parties in leaving people to languish in poverty or trapping them in debt is unacceptable. In detail, the Greens would raise Newstart and other allowances by $50 per week, as recommended by the peak welfare body the Australian Council of Social Service. We would also index all allowances to the higher of either average male wages or the consumer price index, in line with pension payments.
Increasing all allowances by $50 right now would cost approximately $1.2 billion in the first year according to costings that have been provided by ACOSS. The Greens have a number of revenue-raising measures that would allow for this important reform including abolishing the billions of dollars worth of subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry, maintaining the 30 per cent tax rate for big business or a more comprehensive mining tax. The recent budget did not address the issues for the most vulnerable Australians. In fact, it seeks to drive more people, including single parents, on to Newstart. The benefits of the boom cannot be said to be equally shared unless we direct those benefits to the most vulnerable in our community. We can and should guarantee them an adequate income and the support they need to overcome their multiple barriers to employment.
This country cannot call itself a just country if we do not do that. I note that last year even Ian Harper, the economist hand-picked by former Prime Minister John Howard to set the minimum wage, declared that the dole is too low. Judith Sloan also argued at the tax summit last year that the dole was no longer adequate. Jennifer Westacott, the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, noted that entrenching Newstart recipients 'into poverty is not a pathway back into employment'. In recent weeks, some government backbenchers have backed the Greens' call for an increase. With this motion we now have the opportunity to use this parliament to drive this important reform. I hope that when we come to a vote next sitting Thursday people will join me in supporting people not poverty. A crucial measure of whether a society is just, democratic and sustainable is whether it guarantees an adequate income safety net for all its citizens. It is time we did so and I commend the motion to the House.