House debates

Wednesday, 31 May 2023


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023; Second Reading

4:45 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Deakin moved as an amendment that the words after 'that' be substituted with a view to submitting other words. The honourable member for Brisbane moved to that amendment that all words after 'second reading' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for North Sydney has now moved a further amendment. The question is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for North Sydney be disagreed to.

4:46 pm

Photo of Dai LeDai Le (Fowler, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

This year's budget promised untold cost-of-living relief, with a proposed $14.6 billion cost-of-living relief package. But the reality behind the headlines is that these measures are far too modest and perhaps far too late. Look closely at the so-called relief package that has been offered to our socially and economically disenfranchised communities, to students and the unemployed. It is all too clear that it is not a safety net for all who fall outside the periphery. One of my constituents—Cam—contacted me last year when I was first elected. He implored me to advocate for an increase to JobSeeker and other Centrelink payments immediately, especially during this extreme cost-of-living crisis we have right now.

As I said, that was a year ago. I can't imagine the struggles Cam would have faced in the last few months. Cam said, 'The only thing about $45 a day is definitely so mean and just unsustainable for these people on JobSeeker. Don't forget they were also taxpayers for this country before they became unemployed.' While I support the government's move to increase JobSeeker and other income support payments to assist those most vulnerable in our community, I question how a $2.85 a day increase can go towards assisting families in Fowler on JobSeeker, the age pension, the disability support pension, as well as young people studying and looking for jobs when everything has gone up so much.

Fowler has the sixth-highest number of residents on JobSeeker across the country, so many of my residents would have received this small benefit. I also want to make it clear that people who have come to rely on these social services are not and shouldn't be painted with the brush of being dole bludgers, because we often don't know the reasons why people end up on that path. There are myriad reasons why people rely on JobSeeker. For example, some people may have lost their jobs during Covid. I know a lot of my community members lost their jobs during Covid and have struggled to get back into the workforce.

Some may also be from a migrant or refugee background and are struggling to integrate into our society. In fact, the Refugee Council of Australia has conducted a lot of research over the years which provided insights into why there are barriers for refugees and migrants to gaining meaningful employment. Studies found that refugees were often forced to choose between learning English and looking for work, and there was a severe lack of support and services for those who wanted to create their resumes or practise skills for a job interview. Put yourselves in their shoes: if you were an engineer, a doctor or nurse in your homeland, you would hope to be able give back to the country which welcomed you with open arms, but you couldn't because your qualification wouldn't be recognised. It is a constant battle to get your qualifications accepted. With the red tape, the burden of learning a new language, many have given up on their dreams of practising in their field again and are placed into work for the dole placements, putting them into positions that don't match their expertise and qualifications. This is not a dignified way to live for anyone.

I have strongly advocated with the government to address our workforce shortages since I set foot here in the House. I have met with various ministers, asking the government to create pathways for these migrants by recognising their prior qualifications so that they can rejoin the workforce.

My community is struggling with the cost-of-living increase in grocery bills, the price of petrol, rents and electricity bills, which have gone up again. Many Australians will be seeing an increase of at least $100 per quarter in their next energy bills this coming winter. I'm not sure how a $2.85-a-day increase in payments for some of the most disenfranchised in our community—those on JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy, Abstudy, special benefit or the disability support pension—can be claimed as fixing the cost-of-living crisis for people. Does the government really believe that they should be absolved of their responsibility to tackle the cost-of-living crisis by their announcement to increase social service support by an extra $2.85 a day. That's what the $40 a fortnight equates to. At the end of the day, it comes down to what we value as a society and how we look after people who need help the most.

For a student who lives in my community in Fowler, $2.85 isn't enough money to pay for a return trip to the city. Did you know that the return trip from my area to the city is about $12 to $14, depending on the time of travel? For kids who want to go to the city to work, to do an apprenticeship or to study, it's just not feasible. That $2.85 per day is not enough to provide the basic needs. People are desperate to put food on the table, and you'd be surprised to know that $2.85 isn't enough to buy a five-pack of two-minute noodles for students—advertised in a well-known supermarket chain this week for $5. And $2.85 will not be enough to cover the 7.1 per cent indexation that students will have to face from tomorrow, as their HECS debt will increase their student loans burden—the highest rate increase in 30 years.

The government is probably thinking that we should feel grateful that there is some relief. But the government announced a budget surplus and spending in such areas as AUKUS, which amounted to $368 billion over 24 years. That equates to more than $40 million a day, an unfathomable figure compared to $2.85 a day for cost-of-living relief. Forty million dollars a day versus $2.85 a day: I ask you to put those two figures into perspective before we can crow about how much we're doing to assist those in need in our community.

The community of Fowler have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country and some of the lowest incomes. Many people on JobSeeker payment understand that it's not meant to replace a wage you earn, and they would rather be working or running a small business to earn an income. Being productive and having an income brings with it freedom and dignity which a government support payment cannot match. With over 840,000 people on JobSeeker, of which more than 75 per cent had no reported earnings, this means that our government has failed to reduce the barriers for these people to get back into the workforce when many workplaces and industries are crying out for workers.

As I have mentioned previously while debating the workforce incentive scheme, the government should not only incentivise pensioners to go back into the workforce but extend a similar scheme to those on JobSeeker so they can work part time but not be penalised and lose out on their small JobSeeker payment. I therefore support the opposition's call for the government to increase the income-free area to $300 a fortnight, to allow jobseekers to earn more and still retain the full JobSeeker allowance. Just imagine the potential revenue from people going back to the workforce part time. Yes, I applaud any measure which has the potential to help families put food on the table and send their kids to school. I'm glad to know that the government has acted on the advice of the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee and the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce in the implementation of this budget and the cost-of-living measures, but they simply aren't enough.

I welcome the highest single rate of JobSeeker payments to single recipients aged 55 and over after nine continuous months on payment. This change means recipients aged from 55 to 59 will receive an increase of at least $92.10 per fortnight, or $46.05 per week. But the fact remains that anyone over the age of 55 who is unemployed for more than nine months with a family and children to support knows only too well how far an extra $46.05 a week will go on a weekly budget, especially when you put that amount of money in the context of housing, which we all know is one of the biggest problems we face in this country.

According to the Reserve Bank, rent inflation for apartments with new tenants was 24 per cent over the year up to February 2023. This has led to greater demand for rental properties, causing price volatility, with rent increase becoming more common and, on average, larger. In my electorate of Fowler over 42 per cent of people rent their homes, and of that number more than 45 per cent spent over 30 per cent of their total income on rent. Rents are steadily increasing and rentals are becoming increasingly difficult to secure. As you can imagine, in an area like Fowler the demand for rentals is high, and with prices on the rise I have been calling on the government to help out our most socially disadvantaged by providing greater Commonwealth rental assistance. Since I came to parliament I have asked for an increase in Commonwealth rental assistance. So, I was relieved when the government announced in the budget an increase in the maximum rate of Commonwealth rental assistance of 15 per cent, the largest increase in 30 years. This will enable approximately 1.1 million households to see an average increase in rental assistance of around $24 per fortnight.

While I welcome this increase, this small amount will not plug the huge rental increase for renters. I'm glad the government has made provisions to support single parents by $176.90 per fortnight, or $88.45 per week, until their child reaches 14 years of age. As I understand it, this is reversing what the Gillard government had implemented, and I thank the Minister for Social Services for acknowledging where previous governments got it wrong and for righting some of the wrongs of the past. It's a step in the right direction, but it's a long way from solving the deeper issues that many single parents face every day. This so-called safety net is filled with holes, and we need safeguards to protect our people. It's just not enough in an area where just over 20 per cent of our community earn a total household income of $650 a week. It's hard to imagine how they will make ends meet over the cold winter months. For these people, turning on the heat to stay warm will simply not be an option this winter.

Just yesterday my office received a call from a constituent from the next electorate. She lives just outside my area, but she was so angry and frustrated, and was adamant about venting, that my office listened to her grievances. Her name is Angela, and she told us she lived with her son. She was terribly upset at us—yes us, the politicians of this country. She told my staffer in no uncertain terms that it is a disgrace for us all to sit here in parliament playing a blame game on the cost-of-living crisis. Instead, she needs help. She says she doesn't need to watch this blame game when she has just received a $580 energy bill. She asked my staffer to explain how that could be possible when it's just her and her son living at home. She wanted to know why this was happening to her. She was desperate, but she was grateful she had enough money to go and buy a loaf of bread that she could eat with her son. While I've listened to stories like this, I've felt so hopeless that I couldn't provide people like Angela with immediate support to help with her electricity bill.

These are not just stories; they are real people. They are Australians like you and me and everyone here today. The ones who are struggling the most need more than a few dollars a week. I believe it is up to us to deliver solutions to a country that is drowning in disillusionment. We have a responsibility to ensure that our people are safe, warm and fed. Right now, many are not.

4:58 pm

Photo of Bert Van ManenBert Van Manen (Forde, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a pleasure to rise to speak on the Social Services and Other legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023. As outlined by the shadow minister, the opposition will be supporting the majority of the provisions in this bill, including expanding the eligibility for assistance for single parents, the higher rate of JobSeeker for those over 55 and the increase in Commonwealth rent assistance. But we call on the government to support the coalition's superior policy to increase the amount jobseekers can earn before it impacts on their payment, and that's the amendment and the contribution that I want to focus on this afternoon.

When in government the coalition, through disciplined economic management, was able to deliver one of the largest permanent increases to the JobSeeker income support payment. While in opposition, Labor criticised the coalition government in the face of this increase to JobSeeker at that time.

In the last 30 years, no government has done more for Australians doing it tough than the former coalition government through a range of measures over our time in government. In contrast, while in opposition Labor continually called for the government to increase the rate of JobSeeker, going to the 2019 election pledging to review welfare payments, yet on the eve of last year's election Labor dumped that policy and stakeholders rightly condemned the Labor Party for backflipping on reviewing the payment.

It remains disappointing to see that the government clearly has no plan to address the issues facing those Australians within our welfare system and no plan to provide real relief through the cost-of-living crisis. We've just heard from the member for Fowler a particular story, and I can say that those stories equally apply across my electorate of Forde.

I think it's important in this debate to focus on the coalition's record whilst we were in government. Through the height of the pandemic we provided $32 billion in emergency support payments, and, on top of that, we delivered one of the largest increases to unemployment benefits since 1986. We saw the unemployment rate hit a record 50-year low, and it has had a three in front of it for more than a year. From 1 April 2021, the coalition increased working-age payment rates, including JobSeeker, by $50, and permanently increased the income-free areas to $150 per fortnight to support jobseekers as they secured employment and re-entered the workforce.

Every dollar we spend is a dollar someone else has earned, so it is incumbent on us to ensure that spending on our social security safety net is sustainable into the future and goes to those who need it most. We should be proud in this country of the social security safety net that we have. Few other countries provide the strong safety net available in Australia, and the JobSeeker payment is not meant as a salary or wage replacement but is meant as a payment to tide people over between one job and the next.

As we stand here, the labour market remains very tight with over 438,000 job vacancies, and there are over 840,000 JobSeeker recipients of which more than 75 per cent have no reported earnings. That is, no part-time work. As we've seen many times in this place, Labor continues to fail jobseekers, business, communities and taxpayers across the country by doing nothing to alleviate the entrenched disadvantage and to further incentivise jobseekers to take up employment opportunities.

As I go around my electorate and speak to business, from small to medium to large, they are all looking to bring more staff on board. Frequently they complain to me about what they call people just coming in and 'ticking a box' to meet their mutual obligation requirements. These people actually don't have a genuine desire to find a job and work. Yet the opportunity is there for those people to actually take a job and start to build their lives. We all know that creating jobs and getting people back into work is the best way to improve the living standards of people and their families. The value of employment is evident across so many aspects of the lives of everyday Australians. It integrates individuals into broader networks, which they would otherwise not be exposed to. Particularly on a social and community level, it enables them to participate more fully in society. It empowers an individual in their own personal life, delivering a financial independence and freedom that comes with it while assisting with mental and physical health. In direct contrast, the longer impact of sustained unemployment is also well documented. It is not just the individual that suffers but society as a whole, as we're not seeing these people's true potential being realised.

Some of the costs of long-term unemployment may include social exclusion; reduction in freedoms due to not having the finances or ability to get out and about; loss of learned skills; psychological harm, such as depression and anxiety; ill health and reduced life expectancy; loss of motivation; undermining of family relationships; inequality across racial and gender lines; loss of social responsibility, values and participation; and loss of national output and income. All of those things that I've just listed should give pause for thought as to why there should be encouragement and support systems in place to get people who are unemployed into work, particularly when we see the mismatch of so many vacancies and so many people on JobSeeker.

It goes to show that, by unnecessarily prolonging an individual's unemployment, those who are already our most financially disadvantaged are further burdened through greater social—or societal—mental and physical imposts. This is why the Leader of the Opposition announced increasing the amount that can be earned before benefits are reduced, incentivising jobseekers to take up employment opportunities. Increasing the amount that can be earned supports jobseekers and the many small-to-medium businesses that are crying out for workers and have been left stranded by the Albanese government.

The coalition also recognises the crucial role single parents have in the lives of their children. As I said earlier, we'll support expanding eligibility for assistance for single parents, which the government under former prime minister Julia Gillard previously cut. This is an important payment that will help single parents and children when they need it most, during those formative years.

The coalition also understands the unique challenges older Australians face when seeking to re-enter the workforce. Sadly, I have had more than one discussion with a constituent over 55—or even over 50—who is looking to get back into the workforce about the difficulty and resistance they get from employers when seeking to do so. I would take this opportunity to ask employers out there this question: Why are you not taking advantage of employing older Australians, who have a tremendous set of life skills, a tremendous set of work skills and a tremendous work ethic, and want to genuinely contribute to our community by working? It is an enormous untapped resource. I think if our business community could take it on board it would benefit all of us.

At a time of increasing rents, with the government's housing policy in tatters, the coalition will support the increase to Commonwealth rent assistance. Increasing how much people can earn before their benefits are reduced also incentivises jobseekers to take up opportunities. In conclusion, the coalition has a proven track record in delivering support to those on JobSeeker throughout the pandemic, while still getting people back into work. Our alternative approach to these amendments will only further support low-income Australians. I commend the member for Deakin's amendments to the House.

5:09 pm

Photo of Bridget ArcherBridget Archer (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

How do you realise aspiration if you're never given the opportunity? This was a comment made to me a few weeks ago by a bright, intelligent young man who believes that the dream of an equal playing field of opportunity is increasingly narrowing in 2023. Lifting our communities out of poverty should be beyond political lines, as it benefits all of us in the long run, but, as we know, the discussion surrounding how this can and should be done, particularly in regard to income support, has long been a political football. This area of complex policy, which has real-life consequences for our communities, too often gets distilled down to simplistic rhetoric on both sides. I want to acknowledge and thank my co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Ending Poverty, the member for Canberra, for working with me as we seriously look to a bipartisan approach on matters relating to poverty and how parliamentarians can meaningfully work together to create change.

Delivering the goal of lifting individuals and communities out of poverty requires the delivery of a wide range of supports and services, and, yes, providing adequate income support plays a significant role. However, as I've said several times before, we can't and won't move the dial on long-term unemployment or intergenerational unemployment if we don't have wider reform. But more on that later. To the matter at hand, as someone who's lobbied my own side while in government for an increase in JobSeeker, I of course support the $40-a-fortnight increase proposed by the government, which also extends to recipients of youth allowance, partnered parenting payment, Austudy and youth disability support pension. I also support the increase in rent assistance and the proposed expansion in eligibility for the higher rate of JobSeeker payment to recipients aged 55 years and over who have been on payments for nine or more continuous months.

While I do support the coalition's policy to increase the earning threshold to $300 a fortnight before the rate of income support is impacted, I will not be supporting the second reading amendment put forward by the member for Deakin, as it calls for the scrapping of the $40 increase. Yes, a job is the best way to improve the living standards of individuals and their families, but I'd say it's a little hard to look for a job if you're starving, cold or can't afford transport. In my view, $40 a fortnight, while a step in the right direction, is not enough and falls short of the coalition's increase of $50 a fortnight in 2021. Whilst I note the government has a fine line to walk between addressing the cost-of-living challenges and addressing inflation, I don't believe that providing this minimal increase to income support, which still falls chronically below the poverty line, is the right approach, nor is it living Labor's own values, particularly as they've promised time and again not to leave any Australian behind.

I'm acutely aware of the struggles facing the many in my community of northern Tasmania who are struggling to make ends meet as they choose between paying their rent or putting food on the table—or worse, trying to find a place to live. I do acknowledge that these challenges are not confined only to those who receive income support, as I see a rise in working northern Tasmanians who are struggling to afford the basics. When back in my community recently, I caught up with several local charity organisations that are witnessing an unprecedented demand for their services, particularly from households where one or even both parents are working and are still struggling to keep up with rising costs. Stephen Brown from Launceston's City Mission recently told the local media that the demand for fresh food and clothing is at its highest in 10 years and that the charity is seeing up to 25 new clients seeking help each week. Kirsten Ritchie, who runs Strike It Out, which offers food supplies, clothing, sleeping bags and tents to northern Tasmanians in need, said she was seeing 40 new families and individuals a month asking for help. While the organisation originally started as a support service to help the local homeless population, the cost-of-living increases have led to a demand which she has not seen before.

It's so easy to fall into putting anyone on JobSeeker into the 'other' category, and although I've been on income support at several stages in my life, both as a single parent and on what was then known as Newstart, I don't believe that my own views on this matter are formed just from my own lived experience. I want the discourse on how we discuss income support and other social support services to evolve and lead to better outcomes. I was particularly struck by the words of David Cross, the CEO of the Blueprint Institute. When discussing their report on productivity, he said:

Too many in mainstream parties of government have become numb to the existence of a permanent underclass in Australia.

While I do accept that there is a portion of society that is not looking to engage in work, this is an incredibly small minority of jobseekers. In my time as the federal member for Bass, 99 per cent of individuals I've engaged with who are unemployed want to work. Like many communities across Australia, we're dealing with a high number of job vacancies but not with suitable people to fill them, demonstrating a clear gap.

There are a number of government funded organisations and programs that exist to assist someone to obtain a job, but when we talk about making someone job ready, what does this really mean? For a start, we need to be building up jobseekers, particularly the long-term unemployed, to be ready beyond having the necessary skills to fulfil a job. There must be a commitment to looking at what other barriers may exist that stand in the way of somebody looking for, accepting or staying in a job.

As I've said previously, we can't be expected to fix every challenge faced by an individual when they are looking for work. But when the majority of our population who need and want employment are bumping into one or more roadblocks, I believe that as parliamentarians we have a responsibility to work together to address some of the broader issues. Accessibility around transport as well as mobile phone and internet issues are major challenges, as is child care, for parents, in both single and two-parent families. And I will keep pushing for more reform around trauma informed policies to assist jobseekers, particularly where there may be intergenerational unemployment and poverty. Having more Australians engaged in meaningful employment is a long-term win for the future of our country. But it can't be done by continuing the status quo in how governments interact with jobseekers or with disadvantaged individuals or communities. To again quote David Cross, 'equality of opportunity is critical to boosting productivity and is one of the foundations of classic liberalism'.

I also wholeheartedly support the proposal to expand the parenting payment to single principal carers whose youngest child is aged under 14 years—up from eight years—a reversal in policy from the Gillard era. While this applies to single parents of any gender, we of course know that statistically single parents are overwhelmingly women, and it is women who are disproportionately represented when we look at poverty statistics, particularly later in life, when single women over 60 are the households that are most likely to live in poverty. I agree with the member for Mayo that there is a need to provide support for women as they look to re-enter the workforce after caring for children. It can be incredibly daunting to look for and gain a job if a woman has spent considerable time out of paid work. So, further work is needed to assist with the transition.

I also believe that if governments can meaningfully engage with parents who are interacting with government services from before a child is born there is a greater chance of creating a healthy future for both the child and the parent that will deliver long-term social and economic benefits to society. This is a view shared by Tasmania's Bernadette Black AM, founder of the BRAVE Foundation, a not-for-profit that equips pregnant and parenting young people with resources, referrals and educational opportunities to facilitate happy, healthy and skilled families over time. Bernadette founded the organisation after becoming a mother at 16 years of age and identifying the lack of support available for teenage parents. Just over 30 years later, Bernadette is spearheading a new section of the foundation, the Social Economic Empowerment Division, or SEED. With an initial focus on expecting and parenting young people, SEED is starting with a blueprint for system navigation for young parents in the short term, with an end goal of wider systemic reform for all parents who engage with necessary government services, creating a one-door place-based location that connects parents to support payments, wellbeing and safety and, importantly, their dreams and aspirations. Bernadette says: 'I remain convinced that the opportunity to flourish is a human right, and as a society we shepherd the environment and conditions that make that happen for families. I know our future depends on families flourishing—all families—regardless of background, age, state, demographic or race. We need healthy, thriving families to live in a safe, healthy and free nation if we can truly call ourselves "the lucky country".'

It's people like Bernadette and policy ideas like those that are being explored through SEED that I believe will play a role in moving the dial on some of the long-term issues we face with poverty, unemployment and trauma in communities across Australia, including in northern Tasmania. I acknowledge that the government is endeavouring to take steps in the right direction, but there is much more to do. I look forward to further discussions on the role governments can play in creating a true safety net for Australians in need.

5:19 pm

Photo of Monique RyanMonique Ryan (Kooyong, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

There are more than 1.1 million people receiving the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance and related payments in this country. I'd like to remind all those in this House that the JobSeeker stipend is only $50 a day. That's about two-thirds of the single rate of the age pension, which has fallen from about 90 per cent of that level in 1999. The youth allowance and Austudy are just $40 a day. We know that 80 per cent of those on JobSeeker will have to rely on that payment for at least 12 months. I challenge any member of this House to tell me how they could propose to live on $40 or $50 a day for 12 months or more. This legislation will provide a $2.85 increase in the support for 90 per cent of those individuals receiving those payments. The remaining 10 per cent of recipients will either be moved on to the parenting payment single, an extra $103 a week, or will receive an extra $46 a week because they're aged between 55 and 60 and have received JobSeeker payment for more than nine months.

We have to ask ourselves: are these changes sufficient? This is an area, as the member for Bass has said, of complex policy, but it's also an area and issue of gender equity. More than 60 per cent of those relying on the lowest income support payments—JobSeeker, student or parenting payments—are women, and 95 per cent of those on the single parenting payment are women. Across their lifetimes, women have lower incomes, less job security, lower superannuation balances and a higher likelihood of poverty. This bill addresses only two of the six urgent and targeted recommendations of the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce. Yes, it's a start, but, really, it's only a start.

The changes to the single parenting payment will mean an increase of about $176 a fortnight for 57,000 single parents. I remind the House that the Supporting Mother's Benefit was introduced by the Whitlam government in 1973. Coverage of children aged less than 16 was almost universal until 1987. It was means tested after that, and then decreased to the age of eight by Julia Gillard in 2012. We have to ask ourselves: what have we lost in the last 50 years? We are still, even today, behind where we were before. It's important to remember that we have not yet regained the ground lost when that threshold for expiration for the single parents' youngest child was 16 years.

As a country, have we become less generous? Do we value our children and our most vulnerable less? While every dollar counts and all of these increases should be passed, how could we, in any conscience, accept anything other than these support recipients deserve more. With the increased support to find in this bill, people receiving the JobSeeker and youth allowance will continue to struggle with the most basic of living costs.

The Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee found that lifting the JobSeeker and related payments to 90 per cent of the pension, by $129 a week, would help people return to the workforce because they would be able to pay for internet access, for sufficient food, for adequate clothing and to get to their job interviews. Not supporting people who want to return to the workforce to do so is a false economy. We have a long way to go before our income support system prevents deprivation and poverty.

The opposition has argued that increasing the JobSeeker rate might discourage workforce participation. It's important to note though, that if the rate of JobSeeker was increased to 90 per cent of the single rate of the age pension, just to $70 a day, as has been recommended by the EIAC, it would still only be just over half of the minimum wage. It's difficult to sustain an argument that an unemployment benefit at that level could possibly discourage workforce participation.

We know that the labour market is as close to full employment as it has been at any point in the last 50 years. The reality is that many of those people on JobSeeker should probably be on different stipends. They need to be offered more, not less, long-term help and support. We should not be condemning people to what Anne Summers called 'policy induced poverty'.

Similarly, the 15 per cent increase to the Commonwealth rental assistance does not come close to addressing the significant gap in payments and requirements. A single person paying at least $175 a week or more in rent will receive the maximum increase, but that's only $11 a week. Fewer than 40 per cent of people receiving JobSeeker receive rent assistance. Of those who do, the median rent paid is $230 a week. The vast majority of those people pay more than 30 per cent of their income in rent. That means that they are in housing stress. Fewer than five per cent of recipients will be moved out of housing stress as a result of this increase in Rent Assistance.

We know that rentals are becoming more expensive. Vacancies in some centres are as low as one per cent. With interest rates continuing to rise, further hikes in rental prices seem inevitable. At a time when we're all facing increasing cost-of-living stressors, how can we not do our best to alleviate these increased stressors on our most vulnerable? The ability to keep a roof over our heads is important.

As the member for Gippsland has said, all people in our community need assistance. The ability to keep a roof over our heads is absolutely critical for our mental as well as our physical health, and I'm glad that the member for Gippsland agrees. It is the absolute least that we owe to those most in need of support.

I urge the Albanese government to show the generosity that our most vulnerable people deserve and increase income support payments to at least $76 a day. Former secretary of the Department of the Treasury Ken Henry estimated that the cost of following the scientific recommendations of the economic advisory committee on JobSeeker, an amount that he described as 'a rounding in the margin' in the context of a $630 billion budget, was $14 billion. Of course, we need to tend our budget carefully. Of course, we need to find savings where we can. We need tax reform and we need a generational shift in our approach to community housing. But, most of all, we need to work out what matters most to us. Who matters most to us? And we need to prioritise our most vulnerable, for whom relatively minor increases in support would make an absolute world of difference. We should not hesitate to undertake a rounding in the margin for those who are at the margin. We should consider what it really costs to leave those people behind. I commend the bill to the House.

5:26 pm

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to, in summing up this debate, thank all of those who have contributed to this debate on what is an important bill that will make a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable in our community. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023 is an important part of delivering our budget. This bill will implement the income support measures that make up part of the government's $14.6 billion cost-of-living plan to provide broad based support to millions of Australians in different settings and circumstances. This bill strengthens our social safety net and furthers the government's commitment to support those who need it the most.

This bill will increase the rate of working-age and student payments by $40 per fortnight, including the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance, parenting payment partnered, Austudy, ABSTUDY and other related payments. This increase will flow to around 1.1 million Australians, providing important cost-of-living relief. As a result, the base rate of JobSeeker will increase to $733.10 a fortnight. That is before the regular indexation that will also be applied on 20 September.

This bill also extends the eligibility for the highest single rate of JobSeeker payments by reducing the qualifying age from 60 to 55 for those who have been on the payment for nine months or more continuously. This measure means that people who are aged 55 to 59 will be better off by at least $92.10 a fortnight. This change recognises the challenges that many older people can face when they are looking for a job, such as age discrimination and poor health.

The government is also extending the eligibility to parenting payment single to the single principal carer where the youngest child is under 14 years of age. Under existing arrangements, when their youngest child turns eight, single parents who remain on income support move to the JobSeeker payment, which is paid at a lower rate than parenting payment single. As a result, the government's decision to extend eligibility for parenting payment single will support around 57,000 single parents on JobSeeker, who will automatically be transferred to the higher payment once the implementation of this bill is done on 20 September, meaning they'll receive an extra $176.90 per fortnight. Of course, this change recognises that the challenge of balancing care and work as a single parent doesn't end when a child turns eight. The new age limit of 14 for the youngest child will deliver more support until the youngest child has settled into high school and typically requires less direct supervision from their parents.

As part of this package, the bill will also increase the maximum rates of Commonwealth rent assistance by 15 per cent. We know that people are struggling with the cost of rent, and renters on income support are at particular risk of rental stress and housing insecurity. Around 1.1 million households who are paying high enough rent to receive the maximum rate will be better off by up to $31 per fortnight depending on their household. This includes recipients of JobSeeker payment and other working-age payments such as student payments, age pension, disability support pension, family tax benefit and veterans payments. Together these changes will provide additional support for around two million Australians who are doing it tough.

All measures are due to commence on 20 September subject to the passage of the legislation. I know in this debate a number of members, particularly of the crossbench and including the member for North Sydney, have raised being able to see these measures commence as soon as possible, and I appreciate that sentiment. The member for North Sydney has moved a second reading amendment to bring forward the start date. The government is not able to bring forward the start date of these payments. It has designed these measures to take effect as soon as practicable. All changes to the social security payments do require amendments to primary legislation. This means the parliament does need to consider these. In addition, Services Australia also needs time to implement the ICT and system changes required to successfully deliver these measures. Services Australia has advised that the lead time required is until 20 September, assuming the bill passes the parliament, to enable all arrangements to be put in place. I understand this includes ITC system build and changes, service delivery changes, technical and business verification, testing quality assurance, customer communication, and staff training, among other things.

Under these measures, nobody will be worse off as a result of the government's measure. This new measure, once legislated and the system is ready to deliver parenting payment single, participants will continue to be administered in accordance with the current provisions. Services Australia will communicate with affected individuals around the change in their circumstances, On 20 September, as a result of the system build, Services Australia will automatically transition single parents who are principle carers with a youngest child under 14 and who are on the JobSeeker payment automatically to parenting payment single.

The member for Deakin has moved a second reading amendment calling on the government to scrap the $40 per fortnight increase to working-age payments like JobSeeker and instead provide additional support for those on the lowest payment. This would deny 1.1 million people an increase in their base rate payment. Alternatively, the member for Deakin said, instead of the $40 a week payment, those opposite would double the income-free area to $300. Firstly, we don't know how much it would cost because the opposition has not put forward any costing arrangements whatsoever. But I think it is important to think about the reality of this. This would deny more than 75 per cent of people on JobSeeker payment who are currently reporting no earnings whatsoever. Then there are those who are earning below the current $150 a fortnight threshold who would, if this change was to go through, receive no extra assistance through a base rate increase of JobSeeker. When we are looking at this measure, this is about supporting people with the cost of living. There is no evidence that what those opposite have put forward would in any way increase workforce participation, because we know that those who are relying on JobSeeker have many barriers to getting into work. It may be health barriers or it may be skills barriers—particularly those foundation skills—which stop them from being able to get to work. We want to be supporting them to get those skills and to find meaningful employment. But our $40 increase provides direct assistance to Australians who do rely on the safety net now and who are doing it tough. I encourage the opposition to rethink their opposition to the $40 and to not pursue their second reading amendment.

In response to the second reading amendment of the member for Brisbane, the member has called on significant additional funding across all income support payments. We believe that the package that we put forward today is a significant package of $9.5 billion in income support. It is the largest set of permanent increases to Commonwealth income support payments in 14 years, excluding the extraordinary COVID support payment. We believe these are responsible changes that have been carefully calibrated to provide additional support to those on the lowest income support payments, and that don't add to inflation. Of course, this cost-of-living relief has to be seen coupled with the power bill relief, the record investment in Medicare bulk-billing, cheaper medicines and our targeted increases, as outlined in this bill, for income support payments. This will make a real difference for many people.

The Albanese government believes in a strong social security safety net. We do not want to demonise people for needing the support, particularly when they find themselves in difficult circumstances. We will always do what we can to support people who are doing it tough and who are in need of assistance. I commend the bills of the House.

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Deakin moved an amendment that all words after that be admitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for Brisbane moved an amendment to that amendment that all words after 'second reading' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for North Sydney has now moved a third amendment. The question before the House is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for North Sydney be disagreed to.

5:45 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question before the House now is on the amendment moved by the member for Brisbane to the amendment moved by the member for Deakin. The question is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Brisbane be disagreed to.

5:52 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Deakin moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question before the House now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Deakin be disagreed to.