Wednesday, 31 May 2023
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023; Second Reading
I don't know what we just heard from the member for Deakin, honestly, talking about there being no housing plan from this government. We have a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund in the Senate that his party is opposing. The member for Deakin, in concert with the member for Brisbane and other members of the Greens, are opposing in the Senate a $10 billion fund that will fund 30,000 homes for vulnerable Australians over five years, including 4,000 for women and children escaping domestic violence. He comes in here as a former housing and homelessness minister and talks about this government's record on housing, when we have a $10 billion fund in the wings ready to go; the green button is ready to go. We can press go any time the Senate passes that legislation. The reason it's being held up in the Senate is because of the member for Deakin's party and the member for Brisbane's party. We have a very comprehensive housing plan so for the member for Deakin—one of the most hopeless housing and homelessness ministers this country has ever seen, who allowed the housing shortage in this country to build up on his watch—to give lectures is just beyond the pale.
Cost-of-living pressures are absolutely affecting every Australian, and the ripples are felt everywhere as we attempt to recover from a global pandemic that paused the world, decimated supply chains and damaged business. We are also dealing with a trillion-dollar debt left over to us by the former Liberal government. As prices continue to rise, families are forced to make difficult decisions and cut their budgets in order to make ends meet. In the face of soaring expenses, many families can find ways to navigate these challenging times. They become more conscious of their spending, they adopt practical strategies and they make sacrifices to ease the burden of rising costs. People make compromises in their everyday lives. They re-evaluate lifestyle choices and make conscious decisions to prioritise needs over wants.
But for millions of households on low incomes, compromise can mean spending less on food, limiting energy use, downsizing homes or leaving study to return to work. It can mean taking on second or third jobs to make ends meet. These are the choices that people on low incomes make every day—pay the rent or buy food. They are not choices people should have to make.
Regional and rural Australians in particular who find themselves in financial hardship do not always have the luxury of choice in these matters, and we need to support them in any way we can. I'm proud to be a member of an electorate that has some excellent neighbourhood houses and other groups in my that do food bags and food hampers for people in need. We are seeing a change in the demographics of people coming through who need those services. It used to be people who were unemployed or people with mental illness or addiction issues who required the services. Increasingly, it is people on low incomes who need those services to supplement because prices are rising.
We are seeing that change going on not only as a result of worldwide inflation that we have but also as a result of the economic conditions we inherited from the former government. We saw 10 years of deskilling our young people. Those opposite ripped billions of dollars out of the skilling budget and we need time to build those skills up again. This government has taken the challenges facing our most vulnerable head-on in our 2023-24 budget, when the Treasurer announced $14.6 billion dollars of targeted cost-of-living relief, investing in Medicare, cheaper child care and medicines, supporting people with the power bills and increasing social security payments.
The member for Deakin, in his risible contribution, made out that somehow—again, sowing division—people who are waged will resent offering this support to people who need it. But I remind the member for Deakin that most people who are unemployed have been employed previously. You're only a couple of pay cheques away from requiring hardship yourself. And the great Australian ethos is that you look after your mates, you look after people who need a hand up. That's what social security does, and we make no apologies for wanting to do that and strengthening the social security net.
In our budget we targeted our most vulnerable people, to help them through these difficult times, without adding to inflation which would devastate even more Australians. We're very conscious of the impacts of inflation, and our budget was a reasoned and carefully considered response to the times we're in. We've made practical, measured changes that benefit people who need it and sets us up for a better future. Now, we've got nine years of mess to clean up. Those over there deskilled the economy, they ripped services out—I mean, robodebt: you'd need a 15-minute speech just to talk about the shocking impact of robodebt on people's lives. So, there is nine years worth of mess to clean up. But we won't let that get in the way of helping Australians who need our support.
The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023 implements the income support measures in the government's cost-of-living package that was announced in the budget. As I said, Australians can find themselves financially vulnerable at any point in their lives. None of us are immune to requiring a hand up at some stage. This bill introduces amendments to strengthen the safety net that is there for all Australians when they need support. The measures in the bill will provide additional assistance to around two million income support recipients. With the amendments in this bill, the rates of JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy, Abstudy, disability support, and youth and special benefit will increase by $40 a fortnight from 20 September 2023—$40 a fortnight, or $20 a week. It's a modest increase, no doubt, but this increase will assist people who are on some of the lowest incomes in Australia and who rely on a safety net for support.
I see that the member for Brisbane is about to get to his feet—after my speech, perhaps. No doubt he'll be calling for more. I respect his point of view in wanting there to be more for people on low incomes, but our budget response was carefully considered, with a lot of issues to weigh up, and we think this is the targeted, measured approach that we needed. More than one million Australians rely on these payments to live on. Whether they are out of work or have chosen to study to enhance their career prospects, they need support in these tough times. We're seeing record lows in employment at the moment—a remarkable achievement when we look back just a few years to the aftermath of the pandemic. But we're still seeing people struggling to get by.
I want to draw the House's attention to a couple of comments the member for Deakin made about workforce shortages. Like him, I see in my electorate the posters on windows, and employers are coming to me saying they've got workforce shortages. They're undoubtedly there. But I say to employers: do better. I've heard personal stories, even just yesterday, about workers who are in jobs and their employers are not treating them as well as they could, so that they've got good employees on the books, willing to do the work. Employers are still putting them on casual contracts, still not doing the right thing by them. Look after the staff you've got and I think you'll have a better chance of getting the staff you need. I know from personal experience, from people very close to me—young people very close to me—that they've responded to some of those job advertisements on shop windows and have heard nothing back, from the same people who are crying out saying they desperately need staff. Young people are going through the exercise of applying for the jobs, and then they hear nothing back, and when they try to follow it up, they hear that their application's been lost or the employer will back to them at some stage. Do a bit better. Treat people with more respect, treat people with more dignity when they actually apply for these jobs, and I think you'll probably do a bit better.
We are very proudly the party for the working people. We want to help people get back to work so they can support themselves. It's in our DNA. We are the party of higher wages, better working conditions and full employment. It's what we're here for. We know that, for some, our safety net is their lifeline to support them through difficult times as they ready themselves to get back to work.
Financial payments are automatically indexed annually to reflect changes in cost of living, but many income support recipients are facing financial hardship with prices of food, rent and energy all increasing at the same time, and they're just the measures that the budget sought to address.
It must be said that, again, those opposite come in here every question time talking about the impact of higher energy costs on businesses and on people, yet they sat there in December and voted against the government's energy bill relief bill. How they can do that in good conscience and then come here and lecture us about the impacts of higher energy prices, which we know are fuelled by international conditions, when they voted against a measure that is having a material effect on those prices themselves. They have no credibility on this matter at all. They just want to say 'no' and play the politics every single time.
With the $40 increase of indexation changes over the past 12 months since May 2022, the base rate of JobSeeker payment has increased by 14 per cent. This is more than $90 more in people's pockets each fortnight to help them deal with cost-of-living pressures and equates to more than $2,300 in additional support each year. Payments, including JobSeeker, parenting payment and Commonwealth rent assistance, will also be indexed on 20 September as usual. This means recipients will receive increases resulting from this bill and from indexation at the same time.
We know that single parents are finding times tough. In particular, juggling family with financial issues, work, study or looking for work is a daunting prospect. Single parents sacrifice a lot in their own lives to give their kids a better start in theirs. We need to support them in the tireless work they do. That's why we are expanding eligibility for single parenting payment to parents with their youngest child under 14, up from eight. This is a good measure. As children get older, the demands of parenting don't go away but they do change. Single parents are in a much stronger position to take on more paid work as their children get older. At the age of 14, kids generally need less parental supervision and single parents find themselves in a better position to find more paid work. More than 57,000 single parents will be better off by more than $170 a fortnight.
We see older Australians, mostly women, struggling to get back into the workforce following bringing up their families or perhaps relationship breakdowns. The increased level of support for these people, the majority of whom are women, acknowledges the additional barriers that older Australians face when they are looking for work such as age discrimination or poor health. Over the past 10 years, the proportion of mature-age recipients on JobSeeker has significantly increased. The evidence shows that 81 per cent aged 55 or over stay on that payment for more than a year and over half stay on it for five years or more. So, we are expanding eligibility for the existing higher rate of JobSeeker to single recipients aged 55 and over who have been on income support for nine or more months. The higher rate is currently already available for people 60 and over. This will benefit more than 52,000 Australians.
We, as a government, recognise that many renters are struggling with recent increases in their fortnightly rent bill, so we are supporting renters with the largest increase to Commonwealth rent assistance in more than 30 years. For those who have reached the maximum amount of rent assistance, we are increasing their payment by 15 per cent. Around 1.1 million households will benefit from an average increase of around $24 per fortnight. This includes recipients of JobSeeker and other working-age payments, student payments, the age pension, disability support, family tax benefit and veteran payments.
With this 15 per cent increase since May 2022, the maximum amount of rent assistance for JobSeeker recipients who are single and living on their own will have increased by 24 per cent. This is $35 more each fortnight to help people on low incomes pay their rent. Sarah, a single parent in my electorate, will receive increases not only to her single parenting payment but also to JobSeeker and rent assistance payments. This means she will, as a result of the Labor government's policies, be at least $200 better off per fortnight. She will be eligible for cheaper childcare rebates and for an energy rebate. She can get herself and her young daughter to bulk-bill doctor's payments, and her regular medications will be cheaper. We're not saying this will remove all the financial pressures that Sarah faces and that other low-income earners are experiencing, but it will certainly help along the way to ensure that our vulnerable are not left behind.
In conclusion, as a Labor government we believe in a strong social safety net which is there for all Australians when they need it. These payment increases benefit single parents, low-income households, students, older jobseekers and renters. These changes, paired with cheaper child care, additional paid parental leave, bulk-billing investment and cheaper medicines, work hand in hand as a package to alleviate the financial strains on people who have fallen on hard times. We will never look down on people needing our support. Our social security system is a safety net that any of us may need at some time in our lifetimes. Under this government, we will not leave anyone behind.
That stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of those opposite, who seem intent, still, on demonising and victimising people requiring income social security and who still want to sow those seeds of division between the waged and unwaged and somehow make people who have jobs resent those who do not. It's not a game we're going to play. We believe every Australian, no matter who they are—no matter their gender, no matter their sexual orientation, no matter their ethnicity—deserves respect and dignity in this country, and we're determined to achieve it.