Thursday, 29 October 2020
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I'm pleased to be able to stand up in this place and support this legislation but also, most importantly, to support the amendment moved by the member for Barton, the shadow minister. I'm referring now to the amendment which in substance wants us to look at the bill, understand the implications for people who are unemployed, and know that before Christmas we'll have 1.8 million people who will require income support because they're unemployed. We need to extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement at least until March, in line with JobKeeper. Most importantly, as the shadow minister has said, we need to create an obligation on the minister to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment.
I've heard most of the contributions to this debate, and they've been very eloquent, ranging across the issues and the impact upon those people on income support who require additional income support in this nation, as the previous speaker just said. But we in this place need to understand what it means to live in a rural or remote part of this country, where there is a small area labour market with virtually no jobs to speak of and where you are dependent—absolutely, totally—on income support from the government. We need to understand that the additional income people have received as a result of the supplement to JobSeeker has meant that in many remote communities people have food on the table. In remote communities, many people live well below the poverty line, and to have the additional income into communities has meant, among other things, a substantial increase in the amount of food—good food—being sold by shops. Food sales at a major store in Maningrida, which is on the north-east Arnhem Land coast and has a population of around 3½ thousand people, increased by 50 per cent. Other retailers in remote communities saw food purchases increase by as much as 200 per cent.
There's a message here. There were some disruptive elements in relation to the additional income in some quarters, but most importantly, if you actually want to close the gap, you've got to make sure that people are healthy, and for people to be healthy they've got to have a decent amount of nutrition and a proper diet. To have that, they need to be able to purchase it, or catch it, but most probably go to a store, lay the money on the counter and purchase items which are nutritious. Where you've got a population which is comparatively young—in fact, extremely young by comparison to the general population—it's really important, as I'm sure members would appreciate, to ensure that young children in particular are well nourished.
Closing the gap means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but to me it's very simple. It means giving people a healthy start in life to make sure they can live in a healthy and safe household, have the nutrition they require, get access to a good education and then to training and job opportunities thereafter and, importantly, live in save and secure housing. Of course, that doesn't happen for most people in the remote communities of this country. Housing is overcrowded, unemployment is chronic and income support prior to the COVID supplementary payment was not nearly enough for people to survive properly. We know that in parts of northern Australia, in one area in particular—I can talk about Arnhem Land—around a third of the people who should be eligible to be on income support through the CDP are not getting income support. They've been alienated by the system. What that means is that they rely on the support of their families not only for income but, most importantly, as I've just described, for food. So the supplement has been very important in ensuring that these people have access to decent food.
I have some understanding of it, but it is really difficult for those who have not visited these communities or who do not know how these communities work to understand why it is important, so absolutely important, to increase the JobSeeker payment. It's just absurd to be contemplating going back to $40 a day—how could that possibly be? Yet that's where we're heading. What we need to contemplate, and I've mentioned this in this chamber before, is the absurdity of the current Community Development Program. It needs to be replaced by something which is more workable and which is not a welfare scheme but a work scheme, such as the old CDEP, the Community Development Employment Program, about which I've spoken often, which is part-time work for part-time pay based on 15 hours of work a week.
We in this place have an obligation—I don't think we understand or appreciate how big that obligation is—to look after the most disadvantaged people in this country, the most disenfranchised people in this country, the people who are most on the margins in this country. We need to be able to fix it. We could fix it if we had a mind to fix it, but this government clearly does not have a mind to. There is a sense of frustration that exists in remote parts of this country because of the poor outcomes being accepted by this government. Instead of changing policy direction and understanding the importance of community based decision-making and community based control, they want to impose things. This sense of frustration is something which bedevils many people in this community.
I finally want to complete my contribution by saying I don't think there's any comprehension at all by most people in this place around what small area labour markets actually look like, what it is to understand how discrete they might be in various parts of this country and how the relationship between these small area labour markets and the broader labour market is so distant. There is a lot to be done in this space. The most important things that can be done in the first instance are as the member for Barton, the shadow minister, has described: provide an obligation on this minister to announce a permanent increase in the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. When they do that, when they are contemplating what that might look like, look at the special needs of those Australians who live in rural, regional and remote places in this country, but most particularly the most disadvantaged of all, Aboriginal people who live in remote communities in the Northern Territory and elsewhere in northern Australia.