Wednesday, 31 May 2023
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023; Second Reading
When I reflect on my own life, I know it is invariably my parents, my elders, and some extraordinarily strong and determined women who have shaped the person that I am. In this context, I rise to welcome many of the measures in the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023 and recognise that they are indeed the result of many years of advocacy and resilience. I welcome the expanded qualification for the parenting payment (single) to single principal carers whose youngest child is aged under 14 years, lifted from eight years. This $1.9 billion investment is a huge win for single parents and I am grateful that, where my electorate and I advocated for reform, this time it was successful.
Recently, the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce, established under the current government, argued to restore access to the parenting payment (single) to all single parents until their youngest child turns 16, noting the high number of single mothers falling into poverty. On behalf of the people of North Sydney, I added our voice to these calls. In March this year I co-hosted a panel discussion on women's economic security, safety, and certainty in Australia and, hearing from experts in the area, it became apparent just how stark the reality of economic insecurity is for single mothers in Australia. I learned that 95 per cent of parenting payment (single) recipients are women. After receiving a distressing call from a North Sydney mother who, along with her three young children, was facing homelessness after fleeing a domestic violence situation, I was pushed to take even stronger action.
The issues of domestic violence, housing unavailability and unaffordability, the cost-of-living crisis, and the weaknesses of the current parenting payment (single) program are linked and have created a serious threat to vulnerable women and children in Australia. Not only is domestic violence occurring at extraordinarily high rates in our country but crisis centres for women and children are also overflowing, and the housing and cost-of-living crises are preventing single mothers from finding as a place to live. In the story of the mother I previously mentioned, she was eligible for the New South Wales government income support, but with payments topping out at $450 a week to cover rent, and a rider being that wherever she went she had to ensure there was a bedroom for every single child, this was not going to be anywhere near enough to cover the cost of the rental for her family. For, you see, in Sydney right now there is no way you will find a four-bedroom home for less than around $1,000 a week. Before it is suggested that she should simply move somewhere cheaper, she couldn't change her location because the interim custody orders mandated her children stay in their current schools. The decision she faced was: leave and live in poverty or stay and continue to face abuse, praying it would not escalate. I ask you, Deputy Speaker, what choice would you make?
Herein lies the rub. The truth is parenting payments and other financial supports aren't adequate for people fleeing violent situations, the majority of whom are single women—mothers. Through conversations with family support services in North Sydney it became apparent that this woman's story is not uncommon. There is literally nowhere for mothers and children fleeing domestic violence to go. Crisis services are pushed to their absolute limits and government support payments are not sufficient. I've worked hard to raise the profile of economic security and safety for single mothers in Australia, and alongside the member for Goldstein and my crossbench colleagues I called on the government to expand the qualification of the parenting payment (single) as a positive first step in response to the current challenges. I therefore welcome the provisions in this bill. With that said, parents and families are doing it tough right now, and while I welcome the changes to eligibility—which will see 57,000 single carers receive a higher basic payment to help them with the cost of raising children—I am concerned for the many who will fall through the cracks during a pivotal transition period. For this reason I am today moving an amendment to the bill which would bring forward the implementation date of the eligibility changes for parenting payment (single).
As it currently stands, the commencement date for these changes will see many families fall through administrative cracks. With the current start date of 20 September 2023, an estimated 8,145 parenting payment (single) recipients with a youngest child turning eight between May and September will see their payments reduced by $100 a week, or nearly $2,000 for the entire period. Not only will these parents be subject to a much lower JobSeeker payment; they will also face stricter income tests and income limits. This means that if a single parent has a part-time job under the current parenting payment (single) they may have to change their roster and hours of work to avoid losing money for the next few months and then change back again in September. Life as a parent and a worker is hard enough. We don't need further complication.
I don't think this is an efficient or fair way of implementing the change, and therefore I'm encouraging the minister to consider changing the commencement date or implementing an interim measure for these parents to retain the parenting payment (single) income test and income limits. The government is prone to grabbing a good headline. And don't get me wrong: I loved this particular headline, too. But my role here on the crossbench is to ensure that the headline is backed by substance and detail. I suspect that the minister will respond to my amendment by saying Services Australia needs time to adjust IT systems and publicise the new payment settings. But I would argue that COVID-19 and other times of crisis have shown us that where there is political will there is always a way.
While this bill delivers a huge win for eligible single mothers, there remain huge holes in the social security safety net for women and families fleeing domestic violence. The $723 million worth of funding allocated in the budget for women's safety falls well short of the $1 billion that peak bodies in this space indicated would be needed to fully address women's safety in Australia. The most recent data shows that, of the single mothers in Australia who are currently accessing single parenting payments, three out of five had experienced violence. The $326.7 million over four years for the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children includes minimal extension of fleeing-violence payment. Without this, the reality is that women who are fleeing domestic violence are vulnerable and have to choose between living with violence and living in poverty. With crisis shelters overflowing and housing still unaffordable, this choice is being made every day in Australia.
Expanding eligibility for the higher rate of JobSeeker payment to recipients aged 55 and over who have been on a payment for nine or more continuous months is an important improvement. Older Australians are finding it harder to get back into work, often because of age discrimination or poor health, with statistics showing that 81 per cent of people aged 55 and over are on the payment for more than a year. Alarmingly, women over 55 are at the highest risk of homelessness in Australia. We will not lift Australians out of poverty until we show the bravery required to move beyond bandaid solutions and meet the challenges of the future head on. Ultimately we are also facing an era when the oldest generations risk failing to deliver the same opportunities that they were given to those younger than themselves. Unless we are prepared to face a review of the way our economy works in its entirety, young people are going to bear a secondary burden, because we're not adequately supporting their parents and their grandparents. I will go as far as saying that real support for young Australians was the missing piece in the recent federal budget.
Increasing the maximum rates of Commonwealth rent assistance by 15 per cent means that just 1.1 million households who are paying high enough rent will benefit from an increase of up to $31 a fortnight. I acknowledge that this is the largest increase to Commonwealth rental assistance in more than 30 years. And whilst I'm sure any increase is going to be welcomed, 15 per cent is inadequate in the face of massive rent rises. In Sydney, the median rent has increased by 24 per cent just in the past 12 months, and the sad reality is that if you're looking in my electorate you'll be paying upwards of $1,000 a week for a house and more than $650 a week for a unit. The build-to-rent incentives will eventually reduce pressure on the rental market. However, they will not help people who are currently homeless and need immediate relief. Nor will they ultimately get people into their own homes as, while the assets to rent are being built, there is no rent-to-own support.
A North Sydney constituent recently shared with me that: 'The present housing crisis places me—like hundreds and thousands of Australians—at imminent risk of homelessness, at the age of 73.' This long-time resident with a successful career should never be in a vulnerable position like this—a position that a 15 per cent rental assistance increase is unlikely to address.
High rents and unaffordable housing are also driving essential workers out of my electorate. When I met with midwives in the electorate of North Sydney recently, I learnt that staff shortages are exacerbated by staff moving away to find more affordable rentals.
The desperation felt by Australians both young and old in the current environment is something I feel very deeply. The measures implemented through this bill show me that the government does recognise the challenges faced by many, and I thank them for that. But I can't stand here earnestly, with the desperate stories of constituents in North Sydney echoing in my mind, and accept this bill as it stands. The bill offers a welcome starting point. But I urge the government to consider a system-wide review of Australia's revenue, to ensure more can be provided for Australia's most vulnerable.
Tackling intergenerational inequity and poverty requires a whole-of-system approach addressing activity, productivity and wages, and it will require the government to do some heavy lifting. Instead, we've been given a budget that has done little to offend but even less to drive a future-focused economy through reform.
I move the amendment circulated in my name:
That all words after "the House" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
(1) welcomes the changes to eligibility for parenting payment (single) which will see 57,000 single carers receive a higher basic payment to help with the costs of raising children;
(2) notes that with the current start date of 20 September 2023, over 8000 families whose children turn eight in the interim period will lose over $200 a fortnight, and face tighter income and work tests; and
(3) in light of the growing cost of living challenges, especially those faced by single parents, calls on the Government to bring forward the start date to 1 July 2023.