Thursday, 18 June 2020
Pensions and Benefits
Australian workers and people living in this country should be very proud of what Australia puts forward as our social safety net. It is a safety net borne out of a Labor legacy, through the leadership of the Fisher Labor government, with the age pension, and, of course, in 1944, the bringing in of social security and unemployment payments. Perhaps Australia's war experience, and the very fact that these were borne out of difficult times, makes this an even more important part of our story. We do understand the randomness of misfortune. As Australia transitioned to peacetime after World War II, Australians sought to re-enter the workforce. We understood that the loss of a job and being unable to find one can often be beyond an individual's control. Three-quarters of a century later, and recent events have again reminded us of this important randomness. We are reminded of the importance of a social security system. In a matter of weeks—in fact, about 100 days—millions of Australians lost their jobs and were unable to work. People in this chamber and the other one would know of such people amongst their friends or in their families and social networks. The base rate of the jobseeker payment was inadequate before the pandemic, and it will remain inadequate after it unless the government acts to permanently increase it. Labor has been calling for an increase for some time, as have business, civil society groups and many experts, including people who are ex-Treasury officials. The government's introduction of a coronavirus supplement was an implicit acknowledgement by the government that the rate of the jobseeker payment is way too low—something we, along with organisations like ACOSS, have been saying for a long time.
Almost two million Australians are now receiving unemployment support, many more than what was anticipated—remarkably—by this government. The base rate of the jobseeker payment is so low that it presents a barrier to finding employment. I remind people that it was something like $550 a fortnight. Even members of the government had been putting forward very forcefully that the rate was too low. Many on this payment are unable to afford internet bills, transport costs or clothing. The payment was acting as a barrier to finding employment, yet that was the very reason it was put in place. Essentially, people looking for work or attending job interviews found it almost impossible, and navigating the system was just as difficult. We do not want to see people in this country forced into impossible choices between paying for food, rent, clothes, medical supplies, children or utility costs. We do not want to see vulnerable Australians trapped in the endless cycle of poverty because they are forced to make these impossible decisions.
Another core function of our social safety net is to stabilise our economy during periods of weak growth. An increase to the jobseeker payment would provide a much-needed boost to the economy. Snapping back the jobseeker and JobKeeper programs will be a disaster for the economy and will prove extremely difficult for the Australian economy at a time when we all want the economy to go forward and make enormous adjustments. Income support recipients are more likely to spend and less likely to save. We know that. This means more money is spent on local businesses and in the local economy—shops, corner stores, supermarkets, petrol stations and many other places. It means local businesses will have more money to spend on wages and jobs.
We look forward to further detail from the government as to what is going to change and by how much. We reiterate that many Australians are anxious about their future, and they want to know what's going to happen in September. Australians need to be assured that, when circumstances change for them, an adequate and inclusive social safety net will be there for them.