House debates

Wednesday, 31 May 2023


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

10:21 am

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

This omnibus social services bill includes a range of measures that the government announced in the budget. We have considered each of the proposals put forward by the government, and in essence we can say that we will be supporting the expanded eligibility for assistance for single parents, we will support the expansion to the higher rate of JobSeeker for those aged 55 as opposed to 60 at present. We will support the increase in Commonwealth rental assistance of 15 per cent, as announced. But we will call on the government to support the coalition's policy in relation to JobSeeker as announced in the Leader of the Opposition's budget-in-reply speech in relation to the government's announcement to increase working-age payments such as JobSeeker by $40 a fortnight. I will largely confine my remarks to that aspect of this bill and will be moving an amendment in relation to that aspect of the bill in a moment.

At the moment, we have historically low unemployment rates, we have 438,000 formal job vacancies and, I suspect, many hundreds of thousands of informal job vacancies. We have a small- and medium-business sector—indeed all businesses, let's be frank—who are crying out for workers, crying out for employees. I expect there are few people in this chamber and, indeed, few people in Australia more broadly who can walk down any shopping strip and not see signs in the windows advertising for staff, asking people to apply within for a job. The tightness of the labour market is very clear to everybody, and the human toll of that is quite significant because we have millions of Australians who get up every single day, work hard and pay their taxes to fund our social welfare system, and who are working harder. Under this government, their cost of living is skyrocketing. The average mortgage holder is paying an extra $22,000 a year more, spending thousands of dollars more on grocery bills and thousands of dollars more on power prices. These are the people who ultimately fund our social welfare system—the millions of Australians who get up every day and are very happy to pay their taxes and are very happy to contribute to our social welfare system—but they do expect that people avail themselves of the opportunity to work where there are jobs available. I think it's without question that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs available today.

That is why in the opposition leader's budget-in-reply speech, we outlined a far preferable way of providing additional support to people on JobSeeker. Our approach has been to increase the income threshold before which the very punitive taper rates of JobSeeker payments kick in, from $150 to $300 a fortnight, giving those people more opportunities to work, which we know is wonderful for the economy, we know is crucially vital for small and medium businesses who are looking for more employees and looking for people to do more hours but, more importantly, is the best thing for that JobSeeker recipient. Encouraging a JobSeeker recipient by giving them that financial incentive to take up hours of work that we know are available or to take up even further hours of work if they are already working is a far better way in this economic environment of providing support to those JobSeeker recipients as opposed to simply increasing the amount of JobSeeker that they receive for no work, with no requirement or incentive to do additional work or even to do some work. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes:

(a) while in Government, the Coalition through disciplined economic management was able to deliver the largest permanent increase to the JobSeeker income support payment;

(b) this increase saw a $50 per fortnight increase in JobSeeker with the income free area increased to $150 per fortnight to support job seekers as they secure employment and re-enter the workforce;

(c) throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic the Coalition Government provided $32 billion in emergency support payments;

(d) JobSeeker payment is not meant to be a wage replacement and creating jobs and getting people back into work is the best way to improve the living standards of people and their families;

(e) every taxpayer dollar spent is a dollar that someone else earned;

(f) there are over 840,000 JobSeeker recipients of which more than 75 per cent had no reported earnings, that is, no part-time work; and

(g) the failure of this year's Budget to reduce barriers to work and get Australians to fill over 438,000 job vacancies; and

(2) calls on the Government to scrap the $40 per fortnight increase to the base rate of working age pensions and implement the Coalition's policy to increase the income free area to $300 a fortnight to allow job seekers to earn more and still retain the full JobSeeker allowance".

It goes without saying that removing what I think most people acknowledge can be very punitive taper rates in our welfare system, particularly for JobSeeker, and by increasing the income threshold from $150 to $300 a fortnight achieves each of the objectives that I suspect all fair-minded people would be after. Firstly, it helps alleviate labour shortages that are currently being faced throughout the economy. As I said, there are 438,000 formal job vacancies, and we all know there'd be hundreds of thousands of informal job vacancies—that sign in a window that's not formally captured or reported. It helps those businesses.

I know of businesses like this right now. In Melbourne there is a restaurant and cafe which operates from morning to night, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The small-business owners of this cafe-restaurant have never, since they started the business 20 years ago, had to work both ends of the day: opening up the cafe at six o'clock in the morning, getting that started, and then closing it after dinner, late in the evening. But they are doing both ends of the day now because, for the first time in a very long time, they're unable to find an employee who will do the hours they now have to make up. They have said to me, 'We'll do this for as long as we can, but we're not sure we can do it for long. Physically, we're not sure how long we can do this for.'

Our amendment not only helps them by encouraging more people to do more hours or, as I pointed out, encouraging the 75 per cent of JobSeeker recipients who had no reported earnings to actually do some hours without it eating into their JobSeeker payment. It helps that small business as well. It helps that family. It helps those people who are creating jobs and creating wealth for our country. It also means that people are getting the vital skills that they need for meaningful long-term employment. We all know that the longer you're out of the workforce, the harder it is to re-enter it. Again, it should be plainly obvious to everybody in this House that the coalition's approach of incentivising work, not incentivising welfare, is the best approach for those people.

It's ultimately best for the JobSeeker recipient too. It's not just about the economic dividend, the improvement that it provides to our economy more broadly, which I know we often focus on in this chamber. Think about the individuals on JobSeeker. Surely nobody believes that encouraging people into work, removing the barriers to employment, is anything other than a policy designed to help those individuals on JobSeeker. We all know the dignity of work and the dignity of having a mission. For that reason, our approach is far superior, and we will continue to encourage the government to adopt this policy. I give credit to the government; they partially adopted the policy that we announced in our budget reply in October, in relation to senior Australians being able to work further hours. They did it begrudgingly, but in the end they saw the absolute commonsense in our proposal. The logic and commonsense in this proposal are just as profound as in that one.

In defence of people who are doing part-time hours on JobSeeker, the taper rate of what you lose for every marginal extra dollar you earn over the $150 threshold is punitive. People are making decisions, asking themselves, 'Do I do those extra hours even though I'm going to lose a huge portion of that in a reduced Jobseeker payment which I would otherwise receive?' That's what I mean when I'm talking about removing barriers. I think, undoubtedly, the best way to help facilitate people into meaningful work is to help them make that first step. How do you make them make that first step? You remove the barrier, the financial disincentive, of doing that extra hour, taking that job or taking on that part-time work. The evidence is clear: where you can facilitate someone who is unemployed into part-time work it is often a pathway into meaningful part-time or full-time work. That's an outstanding dividend for that person, for our economy and for our welfare bill. It's a trifecta.

Compare that with what the Labor Party is proposing. The Labor Party's proposing, in this bill, $9½ billion of spending over the forward estimates, undoubtedly putting even more pressure on inflation. Every dollar the government spends, at a time when the Reserve Bank is trying to effectively remove money from the economy, just means that the government and the RBA are working at cross-purposes to one another. It means the risk that inflation stays higher for longer, which means mortgages stay higher for longer. The perverse part of this proposal from the government in relation to JobSeeker is that the people who get up and work every day and happily pay their taxes—work their guts out—not only are having their living standards go backwards at a rate of knots but also are going to fund increased spending from this government that is likely to have the impact of higher inflation for longer. That is going to impact their living standards even further. So, not only do they pay for social welfare out of one pocket but they get smashed on the other side as well, with higher cost-of-living expenses.

The coalition's strong view is that we need to respect those people who get up every single day and work hard. Many of them, quite rightly, say to me that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs available right now—hundreds of thousands. So, there is widespread support for our approach to removing these disincentives to work and encouraging people to work. Sure, it's a fairness objective as much as anything. It's good for the person themself. But we can't keep expecting hardworking Australians to be funding our social welfare system if the government's not going to help them and encourage those jobseekers to re-enter the workforce. That's what this proposal does. We encourage the government, either here or in the Senate, to have a rethink, to reflect on this far superior proposal.

The wonderful thing about this amendment, too, is that if a jobseeker avails themself of this opportunity then they will be financially better off. A jobseeker who increases their earnings, under the coalition's proposal, from $150 to $300 a fortnight—obviously earning that extra $150 without impacting their JobSeeker payment—will be $150 better off, compared with $40 better off under the Labor Party. So they will be personally better off as well, and that's without taking into account the other benefits I've spoken about—of re-entering the workforce, of engaging in the workforce: what it does for your self-esteem, for your morale, for your life, by being engaged in work.

Again, most fair-minded Australians would say that when there are hundreds of thousands of jobs available then able-bodied people who are able to work should be working; they should be taking up those jobs. Then the question is: how do you encourage them or remove the barriers for them to do that? Well, it's very clear: you provide them with an incentive to work; you remove the barriers, rather than what the government is proposing, which is simply to increase the payment and ask hardworking Australians to fund just a little bit more—just a little bit more of your tax, a little bit more from you, while your cost of living is skyrocketing, while in material terms you're poorer now than you were 12 months ago, when the Labor government was elected. When the cost of the absolute basics of life—mortgage, food and energy—is skyrocketing, this government's asking those people to pay a bit more, rather than the alternative which we are proposing here again today, which is to encourage those people who are not in work to find and take up the abundant jobs that are available and to do it not just for themselves but also for the broader economy.

I'll reiterate our position in relation to each of the other measures contained in the schedules. We will support, and we do continue to support, the change for eligibility for assistance to single parents. I think it's worthwhile noting, though—and it's very important that I mention it in this context—the quite disgraceful things that the government has said and that the government, sadly, is going to do in relation to the ParentsNext program. In an astonishing attack on what I consider some of our most vulnerable people, the government confirmed that it will abolish the ParentsNext program. This is a program that keeps young parents, who are overwhelmingly women, connected to the workforce. This will clearly punish some of our most vulnerable people and reduce and remove a very successful way of keeping them connected to work. It's a vital program to help them maintain that connection whilst facilitating their parental responsibilities, and it shows to Australians that this government has no understanding of mutual obligation, or maybe they do have an understanding but they have an ideological opposition to mutual obligation.

For a parent who is out of the workforce for many, many years, it's to some extent cruel for the government to say, 'We're going to remove the ParentsNext program which helps keep you connected and job ready, but once your child turns 14'—so they're potentially out of the workforce for that long—'all the mutual obligation kicks in again, and you're expected after 14 years of being out of the workforce to get straight back into it.' That is essentially the expectation of removing ParentsNext. Even though this is an increase from eight to14 years, it's an extraordinarily long time in a policy sense to say that someone who is potentially out of the workforce for that long is going to be job ready once their child turns 14: 'Bang! I'm ready to go, even though I haven't been in the workforce for that long.' So it's quite shameful, ideologically, that the government has abolished the ParentsNext program.

I would be very keen to hear from the minister what the government proposes to do to keep people connected to the workforce and to be job ready when their child does hit those milestones. When they are able to work and they do want to work, what practical and tangible assistance will be provided instead of the ParentsNext program? Abolishing this program, we all know, is ideological, but even the government, through their ideological lens, must accept that they have to do something to help parents, whilst managing their parental responsibilities, also to remain connected to the workforce. The point in time will come when, under our mutual obligation system, they will be expected to re-enter the workforce. The government is thinking that, magically, after many, many years of being out of the workforce, people are going to be ready to jump back in. Undoubtedly some will be, but many will not. Without the ParentsNext program, I fear that that situation will get worse for those parents.

To sum up, we will support the expansion of the higher rate of JobSeeker to those aged 55. We will support the increase to Commonwealth rental assistance. We are, to some extent, drawn to the position of supporting Labor's increase to CRA because of how badly they have managed the housing portfolio and how desperate the situation is out there now. We have a government with no housing agenda. We have a government that is seeking to bring in 1½ million migrants over the next five years, with absolutely no plan for where those people will live. The situation right now is absolutely dire, and the government isn't even saying: 'Things won't get worse. We've got no plans to make things better, but it will at least plateau at this level.' Instead, they are saying, 'We'll bring in 1½ million people with absolutely no idea where those people will live.' That is, it's going to get a whole lot worse.

We saw in the budget in October the government with their Rudd-esque announcement of a million new homes over five years. They didn't really want to mention that a million new homes had been built over the previous five years. That was business as usual, to be frank. Everybody knows—every economist, the HIA and the MBA—that they will now fail to meet that target. There won't be a million homes built. It will be significantly less than that. So we are drawn to supporting the increase to Commonwealth rental assistance, perversely, because of how badly housing policy has been mismanaged by this government. So we are brought to the table in supporting this measure because—whether you are a renter, whether you are a prospective first home buyer or whether you are struggling with a mortgage at the moment even though you were promised cheaper mortgages by the Prime Minister before the election—every single one of those groups is struggling so badly. Let's be frank. The increase to Commonwealth rental assistance will help a relatively small number of people. It'll be very few people around the country. But we are drawn to supporting this measure because the Labor Party has trashed the housing portfolio so badly in just 12 months that we can't in good conscience oppose this. So we will support that aspect of the bill as well.

We are asking that the government reconsider their approach, that they adopt the far superior proposal from the coalition, which has respect for taxpayers, which will reduce inflationary pressures in the economy and which will remove the disincentives for people to work either more hours or at all. That will help hundreds of thousands of businesses around the country, businesses that are struggling, people who are literally working themselves to the bone, by giving them additional sources of employees.

Finally, we call on the government to support our proposal, as opposed to theirs, because it will materially improve the lives of those jobseekers. Not only will they have more money at the end of every fortnight; they will re-engage in the workforce in a way that we know is the best thing for their lives, morale and self-esteem and financially, quite frankly. It's a trifecta of good outcomes for the economy, small businesses and the individual, as opposed to Labor's very lazy approach to JobSeeker.

In this chamber, if the government does not adopt our approach and stubbornly refuses to adopt the more superior approach of removing disincentives to work and giving people the ability to earn more money, we will not stand in the way of the bill and will therefore support it. But that doesn't mean that we won't be encouraging the government at every opportunity here and also in the other place to take up what is an eminently sensible idea. The hallmark of a good government is when you take up ideas, even when they are not your own but you know they are good. It shows a maturity when you can say, 'Okay, it wasn't our idea, but clearly what the opposition here has proposed is superior for everybody.' If the government decides to do that, I will be very grateful and I will give them great credit for adopting another policy that we are proposing that makes so much sense.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

10:51 am

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

11:06 am

Photo of Stephen BatesStephen Bates (Brisbane, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move, as an amendment to the second reading amendment moved by the member for Deakin:

That all words after "second reading" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"the House calls on the government to ensure no one is left behind and lift all income support payments above the poverty line".

Australia is in the midst of a housing crisis that is leaving more people in poverty than ever before. Inflation and the cost of living have soared while household incomes have not even shifted. Students, young people, disabled people, renters and entire communities are being asked to choose between turning on the heater and buying groceries. Meanwhile, the Labor government have shown, through their latest budget, that they care more about the approval of corporate CEOs in board rooms across the country than they do about the people facing hunger and homelessness. The Labor Party's budget has left people behind in the midst of a housing crisis, leaving people in poverty, and they won't even acknowledge that they're doing it.

We know from evidence to the poverty inquiry, chaired by my colleague Senator Rice, and from the voices we've heard directly in communities across the country that poverty compounds disadvantage. There are impacts on young people, on students, on LGBTIQA+ communities, on disabled people, on single parents, on older people and on a number of other groups. As the Greens spokesperson on students and young people, I want to talk particularly about the impacts of the housing crisis and poverty on those groups. The latest data which was compiled by the Australian Council of Social Services shows that the average rate of poverty in 2019-2020 was 17 per cent among children and 14 per cent among young people 15 to 24 years of age. More than one in six children in this country live in poverty. Those figures were prepared before the latest inflation surges. They show that we were already in a crisis, and everyone knows—we can feel—that it has gotten worse.

I want to particularly mention the powerful report prepared by the National Union of Students, Locked out of Youth Allowance:Student Poverty + Centrelink in Australia. Eighty-six per cent of students said that not being able to access youth allowance negatively impacted their financial stability, 38 per cent said it impacted their housing stability and 65 per cent said it negatively impacted their mental health. That report also includes direct evidence from people forced to rely on inadequate payments or with no access to them at all. Jesse, who's 23, said:

One day a friend and I were having a chat about how much Youth Allowance and other payments from work we were receiving—and we realised we were living way under the poverty line. That's when it really hit me that this isn't the way I should be living right now.

Darcy, who's 23, said:

Receiving the COVID supplement was the first time in my life I experienced financial stability. Which was a real revelation for me—it's actually this easy to not suffer.

Sarah, 23, said:

Receiving the COVID supplement in 2020 meant that I didn't have to stress so much about work and losing my job. My grades actually went up a lot during that period, because I was able to focus more on my degree.

Another student said, if they had received Youth Allowance payments:

I would have probably, as a disabled person, been able to work less and focus more on my education. I ended up having to study part time and take time off in order to work and pay rent.

Darcy said:

The scariest part of it was that I needed to get verification from my parents that it was unreasonable for me to live at home. Which is a ridiculous barrier that people face in accessing Youth Allowance, often when it's not safe for people to live at home it's difficult to get that proof and people usually won't even have a relationship with their parents.

QUT Student Guild President Zoe Davidson was quoted in the ABC about the crisis students are facing:

They are working multiple jobs well beyond their means and ability to just afford rent, food, and then on top of it as well paying back these [HECS-HELP] loans.

Young people are facing a crisis and this budget effectively gives them nothing.

The challenges young people face on inadequate payments are compounded by the housing crisis, and recent research from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute highlights just how devastating this housing crisis is for young people. Their report notes:

For teenagers and young adults (aged 12 to 24), high housing costs have extra impacts, including issues of not being able to escape family violence or being able to stabilise life paths, as well as simply having the space to establish an identity independent from their family of origin.

The 2021 Census shows that young adults aged 19 to 24 years have the highest rate of homelessness of any age group, with 91 people of every 10,000 Australians aged 19-24 (and 53 of every 10,000 Australians aged 12-18) being homeless. Nearly one in four of all people experiencing homelessness (23%) is aged 12 to 24 years.

It's particularly devastating because we know that this is something the government could act on. The Greens have been calling on the government to coordinate and implement a freeze on rent increases for a long time now, but we have seen no action, despite recent polling showing 60 per cent of people in this country support that approach. I am disappointed. I feel betrayed that Labor has left people behind in this budget. I feel particularly betrayed, given all the statements that the Prime Minister and other Labor leaders have made before the election about not leaving people behind. There was a time when the Labor Party used to talk about giving a helping hand to people who needed it. They said it was the light on the hill that they were striving for. In fact, former prime minister Ben Chifley said in a speech:

We have a great objective—the light on the hill—which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.

To paraphrase that statement, I ask a question to the members opposite: if you spent an entire election campaign saying no one would be left behind, and now you're in government just to continue the status quo, and give tax cuts and exceptions to billionaires but only $2.85 a day to people living below the poverty line, what was the point?

I thank and congratulate Labor MPs and all the MPs in this parliament who had the courage to at least sign the open letter calling for the government to substantially increase Jobseeker, Youth Allowance and related income support payments so as to not leave people in need behind. That includes the member for Canberra, the member for Higgins, the member for Boothby, the member for Jagajaga, the member for Wills, the newly elected member for Aston, the member for Chisholm and the member for Hindmarsh. I also thank the member for Bass for her advocacy to increase the rate of income support. Similarly, I thank those members of the crossbench who have advocated for action and called for the government to do more. But, particularly to those Labor MPs, I would say that as well as your voices, people on income support need your votes. There will be votes in this parliament about the rate of income support today and into the future. We have a second reading amendment calling for the increase to income support payments. Actions speak louder than words—and that is true in this place as well.

The Greens were the only party to have our entire federal party room sign on to that open letter, and we were the only party that had a clear election platform before the election with a commitment to lift all income support payments above the poverty line. Sadly, we know this could all be so different. We can actually write budgets and policies that value human lives. The Labor Party's failure to act really underlines the central issue here—that poverty is a political choice. That's borne out by the choices the Labor government has made since it has come into government. The stage 3 tax cuts will now cost $313 billion over a decade. The AUKUS submarines will cost up to $368 billion over their lifetime. And the Labor Party has chosen to give the gas giants $94.5 billion, bypassing any meaningful changes to genuinely tax fossil fuel corporations. Now, these are all political choices, made at the same time that the Labor Party is telling everyone out there that all they'll get is $2.85 a day while they're left behind on income support payments which are well below the poverty line.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak later.

11:15 am

Photo of Kate ThwaitesKate Thwaites (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to be speaking in support of this bill from our government, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023, which will be delivering much-needed support to Australians at a time of need. The measures in this bill are good measures that will make a real difference in people's lives. These are changes that are made in recognition of the fact that our government understands that the cost-of-living pressures being felt by many in our community are real, and that those cost-of-living pressures are particularly being felt by people on lower incomes.

I do hope that that is something that those across the parliament can appreciate, and that they can support our government to get this cost-of-living relief into people's pockets as soon as possible, to support additional assistance to around two million Australians who receive income support, and to make sure that that safety net that our country expects is there, and which Australians understand is there for all of us if we need it, is an adequate safety net.

I was pleased to see, in this morning's news, that it seems those opposite will—despite the amendments they're putting forward—ultimately support this bill. That is an important move, because of course we do know that those opposite do not have a wonderful track record when it comes to supporting those in need. Plenty of people remember—indeed, they cannot forget—the first budget of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government in 2014. That was a cruel budget that seemingly wanted to make life harder for many Australians, including those who needed support the most. It included cuts to family tax benefit B. It included severe proposals impacting people under 30 on youth allowance and on what was then Newstart. It had changes to indexation arrangements for pensioners, a proposal to increase the pension age to 70 and cuts to the senior supplement. It was their first budget, and it was rightly described as a 'horror budget'.

In contrast, our government's first full-year budget could not be more different. It could not be more clear where our priorities are. They're about making sure that we are providing well-targeted cost-of-living relief to Australians, and making sure that that safety net—which is a part of our system and something that all Australians expect and that any single one of us might need to rely on at some point—is there and that it is adequate. I do hope that, as I said, this can be supported across the parliament.

The budget handed down in early May featured, as its centrepiece, a $14.6 billion cost-of-living package, which includes not only the income support measures in this bill but also a range of other measures that I know will make a real difference in people's lives, including people in my community. That includes our Energy Price Relief Plan, which is targeted support totalling $1.5 billion for bill relief for five million households across the country, including almost $380 million in my home state of Victoria. It also includes important measures to relieve cost-of-living pressures, in our history-making tripling of the bulk-billing incentive—focusing again on keeping those costs in health care down.

So the combined effects of our efforts across single parenting payment, JobSeeker, youth allowance and rent assistance, as well as these investments in health and energy relief, will mean that this is really the first budget in a decade that has included the needs of Australians—particularly, vulnerable Australians—at its centre, and that, for the first time in a decade, a government has looked at Australians doing it tough and thought, 'Well, that is something we need to address in our budget.' As I said it is a marked change, a marked contrast to the first budget we got from those opposite, and it does show the values of our government. It does show that our government understands that we are a better country when we have a strong safety net in place. That is something to be proud of and something that, as a member of the Albanese government, I am proud of.

With the amendments in this bill, the rates of JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy, Abstudy, disability support pension and special benefit will increase by $40 per fortnight from 20 September this year. This is an increase targeted at people on some of the lowest incomes in Australia, who, as I said, have the greatest reliance on our safety net for support. While these payments are automatically indexed to reflect changes in the cost of living, we know that times are tough for many income support recipients, who are facing financial hardship to a degree that they haven't in the past. I, like many members in this House, have heard stories from people who are making very difficult choices about whether they can afford food, whether they can afford electricity or whether they can afford their medications. Those are very real concerns for many people in our country, and those are the concerns that our government is addressing through this bill and through this budget.

The measures our government is introducing will provide additional support to 1.1 million people, including 12,220 people in my community of Jagajaga. With this increase and the indexation changes over the last 12 months, in the past year the base rate of the JobSeeker payment will have increased from $642 to $733, which is a 14 per cent increase. This is over $90 more in people's pockets each fortnight to help them deal with cost-of-living pressures, and it equates to over $2,300 in additional support each year.

Of course, we are a government who also wants to support people into work. We know that the JobSeeker payment, the safety net that is there, is important, but it is also really important for people to be able to get a job. We also know that that's not always simple. We know that for some people there are barriers to work, and being able to get and hold a job is not as easy for some as it is for other people in our community. Over the past years with the pandemic, I think we've all seen how life can be precarious and how things that have seemed certain, and support that has been there, can sometimes be taken away quite suddenly. We could all find ourselves in a position where we are actually looking to the safety net and to payments such as JobSeeker for support. That is why these measures are very important. It is why it's important that our country has this solid safety net in place and that we are supporting vulnerable Australians who need it most.

In addition to this, eligible 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, and that assistance will continue moving forward. Our government is also expanding eligibility for the existing higher rate of JobSeeker for single recipients aged 55 and over who have been on income support for nine or more continuous months. The higher rate is already an existing feature in our social security system and it currently applies from age 60. The increased level of support for these recipients, the majority of whom are women, is our government's acknowledgement that older Australians do face additional barriers to work, such as age discrimination or poor health.

Over the past 10 years we have seen the proportion of mature-age recipients of JobSeeker payments significantly increase. The evidence has shown us that 81 per cent of people aged 55 or over stay on the payment for more than a year and over half of them are on the payment for five years or more, so there does seem to be a difference in this group of recipients. These changes expand access to around 52,000 Australians aged 55 to 59, who will receive an increase of $92 per fortnight, including 640 locals in my community. That will mean less pressure on the budgets of those individuals. It will deliver much-needed relief for them.

Our government also knows that single parents can find it very tough to balance caring responsibilities and full-time work, study or looking for work. The balancing act for those people doesn't end when their child turns eight. The demands of parenting don't just go away as children get older, but they do evolve. We know that as children get progressively older single parents are generally in a better position to take on more paid work. By the age of 14, kids have typically settled into high school and, hopefully, need less parental supervision. With the changes in this bill, we are expanding eligibility for parenting payment (single) to parents with a youngest child under 14. Some 57,000 single parents will be better off by at least $176 per fortnight, including 735 single parents in Jagajaga.

We know that the rising cost of rent is one of the biggest issues that Australians are facing at the moment, so another measure included in this bill and in our budget is our 15 per cent boost to the maximum rates of rent assistance. We are providing additional support to renters with the largest increase to Commonwealth rent assistance in more than 30 years. 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 pension, family tax benefit and veterans payments. In my community, 6,590 households will benefit from these changes. With this 15 per cent increase since May 2022, the maximum amount of rent assistance for JobSeeker payment recipients who are single and living on their own will have increased from $145 to $180—a 24 per cent increase. This is $35 more each fortnight to help people on low incomes pay their rent. As a package, this is a substantial investment in making sure that Australians are able to keep up with some of the cost-of-living pressures and making sure that our safety net is adequate.

In the lead-up to any budget, there is always a balancing act. There is always a lot of work going on to try and make sure that you get that balancing act right. That is absolutely what our government has tried to do in this budget. We are making sure that we are providing the cost-of-living relief that so many Australians need, while also making sure that we're not adding to some of the pressures in our economy. We do know that inflation is a genuine issue at the moment, and we do have to make sure that our budgets are being crafted in a way that ensures that we as a government are not adding to those inflationary pressures. We recognise that this is important work. It is the work that the people elected us to do; it is the work that people rely on Labor governments to do. They do trust us to provide the safety net that should be there for our country.

Our government is doing this in a measured and considered way. We did establish the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee and the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce. Both of these have provided really solid advice to the government, and they will continue to do so for upcoming budgets and more broadly, of course, on relevant issues across government. I know that our government will continue to consider the advice that those groups give us, and we will consider these payments from budget to budget, as we would for all areas of government. Labor governments do believe in a strong social safety net which is there for all Australians, if they need it. Our government is demonstrating with this bill that we understand that cost-of-living pressures are real. We understand that too many people in our country at the moment are having to make difficult choices that they shouldn't have to. We don't want people left in a position where they are deciding whether they can have a meal or whether they can turn the heater or the lights on tonight.

Our government is giving targeted support to make sure that those people who are vulnerable in our community and those people who are doing it the toughest get the support they need. We are doing this as part of a broader budget which will also support all Australians with things like energy relief, support for health care and support for our GPs. We do recognise that now is a time of need in our communities and that, as a government, we have a responsibility to try and help people meet that need. The measures in this bill, such as the increases to payments including JobSeeker, youth allowance, disability support pension, parenting payment and rent assistance, coupled with the wider cost-of-living measures that are included in our budget do bring together what is really the first budget in at least a decade to put vulnerable Australians and those in need front and centre. I know that these changes to payments together with the tripling of the bulk-billing incentive and the energy relief plan will make a difference to people in my community and to communities across the country.

I again highlight the difference from the approach we saw from those opposite over nearly a decade. As I said, they came into government and in their first budget, in fact, proposed some very serious changes to many of these payments which would have severely impacted many people's lives. We saw over a decade a lack of interest in supporting those Australians who do need it most, and a lack of understanding of the very real consequences of some of the decisions in this place and how they play out in people's lives.

Our government does understand that these are decisions that have real impacts on people's lives, and that all Australians benefit when as a community we support each other and all Australians benefit when we have a strong safety net in place. At a time of high cost-of-living pressures, our government is doing all it can to make sure that we support those who need it most and support people right across our community.

11:30 am

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Imagine having the power to lift people out of poverty but not using it, because that's what Labor is doing. We are a wealthy country, where the gas corporations are making record profits, the supermarkets are making huge profits and the banks are making huge profits, all off the back of people's pain. Meanwhile, one in eight people in this country live in poverty, and one in six children in this country live in poverty. That is an absolute shame in a wealthy country like ours—that one in six children are living in poverty.

What that means is that there are people like Abigail, who told the Senate inquiry, 'There were some fortnights where I had to decide whether I was buying myself groceries or paying electricity bills.' Joe told the Senate inquiry, 'I am 58 years old. I have been waiting for a total hip replacement for 14 months. I get $683.40 a fortnight on JobSeeker. It should be more than that, but Centrelink have not recognised my new lease that I have uploaded three times.' He said, 'I'm going to lose this tooth because I can't afford to see a dentist.'

After hearing the stories of people living in poverty, with those one in six children in this country living in poverty, having promised to leave no-one behind, what does this government do? Labor is leaving millions behind, leaving people in poverty, while giving tax cuts to politicians in this place and to billionaires. The best Labor say they can do for people who are struggling to make ends meet is give them $2.85 a day so that they've still got less than $50 a day to live on. Meanwhile, Labor finds $313 billion to give billionaires and politicians $9,000 a year in a tax cut—$2.85 a day that keeps people below the poverty line, for those who are doing it toughest, but $9,000 a year for the very wealthy and for every politician in this place. Billionaires like Clive Palmer, and politicians do not need $9,000 a year while people are skipping meals in order to pay the rent. That is the choice that Labor is making.

We just heard from previous speakers that Labor had to make tough choices in this budget. Labor are not making tough choices; they are making bad choices. Labor are not making tough choices; they're making everyone else make tough choices. There are things that they could do right now—right now—to address the massive cost-of-living crisis that people are facing. We could lift income support payments above the poverty line so that, in a wealthy country like ours, no-one goes without. We could freeze rents, which are growing six times faster than wages. We could get dental and mental health into Medicare so that people like Joe don't have to put off going to the dentist to get their teeth fixed and the problem gets worse and worse and worse. We could do all of those things in a wealthy country like ours, and we could make good choices and not make everyday people make tough choices, if we stop giving $313 billion in tax cuts to politicians and billionaires.

We know that with JobSeeker, an income support payment—and Labor's budget forecasts unemployment to rise; therefore, Labor's banking in a rise in unemployment and the number of people who are going to have to rely on this—in the second half of last year 62 per cent of people on this payment were eating less or skipping meals. And we know that many had difficulty getting medication or medical care because of the increased cost of living; 96 per cent said their inability to cover the cost of living harmed their physical and mental health. That's what it means for people to live below the poverty line.

This increase of $2.85 a day from Labor keeps people below the poverty line. We know that one of the biggest pressures on people who are doing it tough—which is a growing number of people in this country—is housing. I think people accept that Labor, a year into government, have not caused the housing crisis, but they want them to step in, to intervene and take action to fix it. Instead, what do we have from this government? The single-biggest expenditure on housing in this government's budget is tax breaks for wealthy property investors who've already got two, three, four or five homes so they can go and buy their sixth, seventh and eighth. This government is spending $7 billion a year to push house prices up and out of the reach of first-home buyers. How does that happen? Well, a first-home buyer goes to an auction and bids on the basis of the savings they've got, but there's someone standing next to them who's already got three houses and knows that if they keep bidding the price up they can come back to the government—the public purse—and get a tax break for writing it off in the form of negative gearing and capital gains tax deductions. This pushes prices up, out of the reach of first-home buyers.

So, this government's spending $7 billion a year on that. And I'm not talking about people who've got one investment property, because that's what they've got for their retirement. I'm talking about people who've got three or more properties to their name. Why do they need a handout—$7 billion a year? And in n the middle of this housing crisis the government says, 'Oh, well, it's okay, because we're going to lift rent assistance.' Well, for the 1.1 million people who get rent assistance—and they could get as little a $1.12 a day—rents in capital cities have been growing 10 times faster than that. And we know that no places in capital cities are affordable to rent for people who are living on these low incomes. If you're looking for a place for yourself, you just can't afford it. This increase will not help them. A small increase to rent assistance that is outpaced 10 times by the rise in capital cities will leave people behind. Meanwhile, 5½ million renters in this country who don't get rent assistance get nothing.

That is why the government needs to step in, take control and organise a national rent freeze. Otherwise, we are going to see more and more people struggling to keep a roof over their head. Already this government is putting housing prices out of reach of first-home buyers, so that for so many people owning your own home has become completely out of reach, and parents are looking at their kids and thinking, how are my kids ever going to own a home? But now even renting, near where your family is or where you work or where you study, is becoming a dream. And this bill and this budget do nothing for them. Labor is leaving renters behind.

What's worse, Labor come along and say: 'We can find $313 billion for tax cuts for Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and every politician in this place, but I'm sorry, we can't afford to lift you out of poverty. And we can find $7 billion a year to give tax breaks to wealthy property moguls, but I'm sorry that you can't afford to pay the rent. There's nothing we can do for you.' Then they turn around to the big gas corporations and say, 'We could be bringing in an extra $9 billion a year from you to do things like fund dental under Medicare, fund a rent freeze and wipe student debt,' but instead they write laws that let them off the hook, and they go out and beg the coalition to say, 'Please come and support our weak gas tax laws, because we'd much rather that everyday people bear the burden of dealing with the inflation crisis than ask the big gas corporations to pay their fair share.'

Tomorrow students and people who have a HECS debt will face a massive increase on their HECS debt because Labor blocked the Greens' bill to freeze the indexation on HECS repayments. Labor said it is okay to make students and former students pay more in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Where students and recent graduates are finding it hard to get into the housing market, finding it hard to make ends meet, Labor actively says, 'We're going to put students and former students into even more debt.' That is Labor's answer. This will hurt people.

This failure to make the big corporations and billionaires pay their fair share and instead to shift the burden, as Labor is doing, onto everyday people in this country by allowing rents to keep going up and by lifting student debt is going to hurt people. We have a chance to not make the bad choices that this government is making but to make good choices that will tackle rising inequality in this country and stop Australia becoming a US style society where the gap between the haves and have-nots grows.

Labor needs to stop bringing a bucket of water to a house fire. The rental crisis and the housing crisis are now hurting people. They are hurting people to the point where people are having to choose between food and rent. And Labor says their magic silver bullet to it all—

Hon. Members:

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I hear interjections from the opposite—is to leave people in rental stress now and to say their housing bill, which won't see a single home built if at all until after the next election, is somehow going to solve it. Renters are in trouble now. Labor is leaving them behind now. They are saying 'pass this tick-a-box bill because something might happen after the election, if our $10 billion gamble on the stock market returns money', which, by the way, it didn't last year. There would have been zero spent under Labor's approach last year.

Labor have ignored renters, Labor have ignored the rental crisis and they have nothing for renters now. I have in Melbourne people who are spending 60 to 70 per cent of their incomes on rent. Now we hear the Reserve Bank governor has apparently just told estimates that next year rents are going to go up by another 10 per cent. What is Labor's plan? Nothing. It is to wash their hands and say, 'We will leave it up to the market. There is nothing we can do about it.' If this approach of bringing a bucket of water to a house fire and ignoring renters and ignoring the cost-of-living crisis and instead giving tax cuts to politicians and billionaires—leaving the big corporations, supermarkets and banks off the hook—continues, people are going to fall behind and they will fall behind for a generation. They may never get out.

This is the chance to lift people out of poverty. This is the chance to make the reforms that will ensure this country is a fair society, where no-one is left behind. There are the numbers in this parliament to pass legislation through the Senate to ensure we can fund a rent freeze, get dental into Medicare and stop giving tax cuts to politicians and billionaires. We can do the things now that people are expecting us to do. The only obstacle in this parliament to making progressive reforms, like getting dental into Medicare or freezing rents, is Labor's ambition.

To the people who are doing it tough at the moment and who are worrying about whether the next rent increase is going to see them evicted, who are worried about whether they can pay for the next meal, put food on the table or whether they will have to skip it in order to pay the rent, the Greens are fighting for you. More can be done to lift people out of poverty if we have the courage in the middle of one of the biggest profit booms we have seen from the big banks, the big corporations, the supermarkets and the energy companies, to make them pay their fair share of tax. Now is the time to say there are better things to spend $313 billion of public money on than giving Clive Palmer a tax cut when one in six children in this country live in poverty. Labor cannot justify the continued handouts to people of the very wealthy, the politicians and the billionaires, who frankly don't need them. Now is the time to have the guts to take on the big corporations and the billionaires and make them pay their fair share so that in a wealthy country like Australia everyone can live a good life and no-one has to go without.

11:45 am

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very proud to rise today to speak in support of this bill, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023. I am very proud because this bill really is significant in Labor's ongoing commitment to improve our social safety net, which of course forms the backbone of our nation's welfare system. We're doing that because we know people are doing it tough and we know there are massive increases in the cost of living. We speak to people every day who are in this situation. That's why, through this bill and our budget, we have addressed many of those issues. We understand how important it is. Labor hears what the community says and acts. By implementing the income support measures outlined in our government's $14.6 billion cost-of-living package, what this bill aims to do is assist the lives of those millions of Australians who we know are having a really difficult time.

We did this through our budget and through our budget measures. It was a responsible budget. Despite inheriting that trillion dollars of debt from the previous government, we have rightly provided very much needed cost-of-living initiatives. We were able to provide over $14 billion of cost-of-living initiatives, and they have made a difference and will be making a difference to the lives of so many people, particularly in tripling the bulk-billing rebates for GPs so many more people can access a doctor. It's such an important issue. I know in my electorate, where we have a large number of senior Australians, it makes such a difference as they regularly have to access their doctor and have difficulties. We have addressed that major cost-of-living concern.

Another initiative provides cheaper child care. It's such an important initiative for so many reasons—for the children to access child care and for the parents, predominantly women, to be able to go back and engage in the workforce, which is very good for our economy as well. There have been many calls for all these measures.

Other initiatives provide cheaper medicines, which are so vitally important, and assistance with power bills. Then, of course, there are all of the measures in this bill as well. This is a whole suite of measures to assist with cost-of-living issues at the moment.

We can only have these measures in place and deliver that funding with responsible economic management. We have to have that to deliver those funds to make sure we can increase these social safety nets. Yes, budgets are about making tough choices, but we know it's important to deliver this support for the most vulnerable Australians. Remember, many of these measures had not been addressed over the past decade with the previous government, because it takes a Labor government to be able to balance the budget whilst also providing support for vulnerable Australians.

There are many aspects of this bill that are very important in terms of strengthening the social safety net. Indeed, as I have said, one of the Labor Party's core values lies in providing that support for the most vulnerable in our community. Our social safety net, along with Medicare, stands as a strong foundation for our society, all built by us, by Labor governments. It offers very important assistance to those who are facing financial hardships or unforeseen challenges in their lives. It should be there for people when they need it, and it's therefore our responsibility as a government to strengthen this vital support system whenever we can. We have made sure we have done that through our responsible budget measures.

The amendments proposed in this bill are both comprehensive and wide-ranging, addressing key areas of concern within our social safety net. One of the central provisions of the bill is the increase in working-age and student payments. Again, this is a major issue that I speak to many people about in my electorate of Richmond on the New South Wales North Coast. It is one that they have raised with me on many occasions, as is the need to increase it. We brought up this issue many times when we were in opposition, and we didn't see any support from the now opposition when they were in government in terms of these measures. What we have seen in this budget are changes to payments such as JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment partnered, Austudy, Abstudy, disability support pension, and youth and special benefit. What those changes will mean is a $40 per fortnight increase, commencing from 20 September 2023.

I know that these measures and these increases are ones that many Australians have called for for a very long period of time. We have made these increases within the context of our budget framework, and within our economic framework as well—our responsible budget. These increases are targeted at helping those Australians who are doing it tough. Indeed, whilst these increases are modest, they are important for those individuals and families who rely on these important payments. Importantly, these increases are specifically targeted at individuals who are facing financial adversity. They acknowledge the real struggles faced by countless Australians who are on the lowest incomes. It's also important to note the automatic indexation of these payments, which will reflect changes in the cost of living.

By providing these increases, I think we really do send a message to the Australian community about the values of our government. We have listened to them about needing to increase those supports. This increase will provide essential assistance to approximately 1.1 million people, offering more assistance for them. In my electorate of Richmond alone, this increase will support more than 7,000 people who need it the most across that entire range of payments that I listed. When we look at the impact of this increase in numbers, combined with the indexation changes over the past year, the base rate of the JobSeeker payment will have had a 14 per cent increase since May 2022. This translates to over $90 more in the pockets of recipients every fortnight, resulting in over $2,300 of additional support each year. This boost in that income is for those individuals and families needing assistance with the rising cost of living.

Another really important aspect of this bill in our budget was extending the eligibility for the higher single rate of JobSeeker for older Australians. This bill extends that eligibility for the higher single rate of JobSeeker to single recipients aged 55 and over who have been on income support for nine or more continuous months. This expansion recognises the very unique challenges faced by older Australians in the workforce, including age discrimination and, often, health related obstacles. This is particularly the case for older women. This extension is also an acknowledgement of their many valuable skills, their knowledge and their experience whilst looking to address some of the additional barriers they encounter when seeking employment. With this extension, approximately 52,000 Australians aged 55 to 59 will receive an increase of $92.10 per fortnight, providing greater financial support to them. In my electorate, this higher rate, which already applies to those aged 60 and over, will now support an additional 370 people aged between 55 and 59.

Another important aspect of this bill is expanding eligibility for the parenting payment single. This is very important. We know that single parents face immense challenges as they balance caring responsibilities with work or study commitments. They're often unable to get to those study commitments or work commitments because of the nature of parenting, and these challenges don't disappear when their child turns eight. In fact, as children grow older, the demands of parenting can alter, but those challenges are ever present, and ever time consuming as well. By expanding the eligibility for the parenting payment single to parents with a youngest child who is under 14, this does give those parents greater capacity to take on more paid work, to perhaps pursue other opportunities for professional development and to work towards a better future for themselves and their children. This change will positively impact over 50,000 single parents, providing then with at least an extra $176.90 per fortnight. I am really proud to be part of a government that is delivering this much-needed boost. This will be making a huge difference for those 450 eligible single parents in my electorate on the New South Wales North Coast. I think that this increase recognises those very unique challenges that single parents have.

A really important aspect of this bill is increasing Commonwealth rent assistance, an issue where many people in the community have called for an increase, because housing affordability is such a huge issue that affects countless Australians across the nation. Again, in my area, housing, homelessness and rent are an absolute crisis, particularly with our devastating floods that we had last year. They have added to the situation, making it extremely difficult. We also understand that rising rents are placing a huge burden on individuals and families struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

We have a whole suite of measures that we are putting forward in terms of addressing the housing situation. In this case, this bill acknowledges the pressing need for support in the rental market and it includes a significant increase in Commonwealth rent assistance—indeed, the largest increase in over 30 years. For those who have already reached the maximum amount of assistance, we're proposing a 15 per cent increase in their payment. This injection of support amounts to an average increase of approximately $24 per fortnight for over 1.1 million households. That boost will provide assistance for many of those individuals and families who we know are struggling to meet their rental obligations.

In my electorate, more than 6,000 people will benefit from this increase. I know how important it is. Many people have raised with me the fact that there hasn't been an increase in rent assistance for such a long period of time. When we examine the impact of this increase, we see that, since May 2022, the maximum amount of rent assistance for JobSeeker payment recipients who are single and living on their own will have increased by 24 per cent, which is a marked increase in that assistance. It does represent an additional $35 every fortnight, assisting many of those people who are doing it tough.

As we know, one of the biggest issues is addressing the housing, homelessness and rent crisis, and this government has a suite of measures. In fact, we have some in the Senate right now, and I implore those opposite—the Liberals, Nationals and Greens—to stop locking our $10 billion housing bill that will provide social and affordable housing for Australians who desperately need it, providing 4,000 homes for women and children fleeing domestic violence. I implore those opposite to think about those people that need these homes the most and actually pass the bill. It is disgraceful that many of them—particularly the Greens—are adamant about blocking it when there are desperate people who need to access affordable housing right now.

In conclusion, as a Labor government we make no apologies at all for being committed to our absolute belief in the strength and importance of providing all of the strong safety nets that people need. We do that in the context of responsible budget management. We can do both. We need to have the responsible budget management to provide the funds for of these increases which were never made under the previous government. I think this bill highlights our values as a Labor government to provide a range of measures to assist those millions of Australians who really are doing it tough in the current climate. We understand that because every day in our communities we speak to these people about the difficulties they face. This is what Labor governments stand for. We have a proud history of delivering major reforms that assist many Australians, particularly those vulnerable Australians that need assistance. In this case, that's exactly what the Albanese-Labor government delivering on.

I do want to recognise impacts that this bill will have on the lives of millions of Australians and, indeed, tens of thousands in my electorate, as I've outlined throughout this speech. Many will be assisted, particularly with those increases in JobSeeker and those other payments, particularly with the increase in rental assistance, providing greater support for older Australians too. Right across the board, we are addressing so many of these concerns about which nothing has happened for so long, but this is what Labor governments do. We address many of these issues in the context of responsible economic management.

By supporting this bill, we will have power to make a genuine difference in the lives of millions of Australians, to assist them at a time of greatest need, when we do have many cost-of-living pressures, and ensuring that those most vulnerable Australians are actually getting greater support. We are very proud in the context of our budget to have had such a major package—more than $10 billion—in terms of cost-of-living relief, whether that's accessing GPs, cheaper medicines, providing support for power bills or cheaper child care, and all of these social net significant changes will assist millions of Australians. I commend the bill to the House.

12:00 pm

Photo of Kylea TinkKylea Tink (North Sydney, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Zoe DanielZoe Daniel (Goldstein, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment.

12:12 pm

Photo of Anne StanleyAnne Stanley (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make my contribution to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023. Australians right now are experiencing the economic after-effects of both the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine, with high inflation eroding their wages and fuelling the rising cost of essentials. On 9 May, the Treasurer, the Hon. Dr Jim Chalmers, delivered a strong Labor budget with strong Labor values. It delivers responsible and practical cost-of-living relief that many Australians need now. It's helping to tackle inflation whilst also easing the pressure on households.

The Albanese government has a $14.6 billion plan, and this legislation will implement the measures that will strengthen our social safety net. It is important, at a time of high inflation, that those on lower incomes are provided with some additional relief, because we know that, whilst inflation affects everyone, it disproportionately impacts those on lower incomes, as they are forced to spend more on necessities.

This legislation makes meaningful changes to strengthen the social safety net that many Australians rely on today and many may need in the future. From 20 September this year, there will be an increase to the rates for JobSeeker, youth allowance, Austudy, Abstudy and other payments by $40 a fortnight. Across Australia, 1.1 million people will benefit, and, in my community, more than 12,000 will see an increase to their fortnightly payments. This increase brings the base rate of JobSeeker to $733.10 per fortnight. This doesn't include the regular indexation that will also apply from 20 September. I know the difference that this will make to many who are feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis, especially those in my community who are often forced to travel out of the electorate for work, education and health care—and these things create additional barriers for those on social security payments.

Further measures in this bill include lowering the eligibility age for the highest single rate of JobSeeker from 60 to 55 and over, because we know that older Australians who find themselves unemployed are the ones who are less likely to be able to find work again and this is due to several reasons, including health and age discrimination. Last year, there were more than 171,000 Australians aged between 55 and 64 who were unemployed but would have preferred to work. It's an unfortunate reality that older Australians are more likely to remain on JobSeeker payments, with more than half still on the payments after five years. We know the fastest growing group to experience homelessness in Australia are women over 55. This change is in recognition of the difficult challenges that many older Australians face, and it will benefit over 55,000 Australians.

Another change will be to extend the eligibility of parenting payment single till the youngest child turns 14. Currently, single parents on this payment are moved to the JobSeeker payment when their youngest child turns eight. But we know that caring responsibilities do not end then, and neither do the pressures of finding employment and ensuring your financial security. This change will help single parents focus on their children until they are in a much stronger position to take on full-time work and study responsibilities. This is another way in which the Albanese government is tackling gender inequality, because we know that the majority of single parents are women and they are the ones who will benefit most from these changes. Across the country, more than 50,000 single parents will benefit.

With these two measures, more than a thousand will benefit in my community.

The Albanese government also knows that having access to safe, secure and affordable housing is critical to economic, social, mental and physical wellbeing, and therefore it is necessary for the wellbeing of our nation. Australians are acutely aware of the crisis in affordable housing and rent, and, while the Albanese government have long-term policies to help more Australians buy their first home and to boost housing supply, we know that Australians need support now, and that is one of the things this legislation does. It increases Commonwealth rent assistance by 15 per cent, plus the usual indexation from 20 September. The other thing that would help the housing crisis, of course, would be the passage of the housing bill that we have sent to the Senate, and I urge those opposite to reconsider their position and help that go through so that we can start the process of providing more housing for our community.

This is the largest increase in 30 years, and more than 9,000 households in my community and 1.1 million nationwide will benefit from the changes that this rent support will give them. With this increase, the maximum amount of rent assistance for someone on a JobSeeker payment who is single and living alone will have increased by 24 per cent since May 2022.

The Albanese government is also aware of the tough economic conditions facing Australians, and the May budget is a direct response to support those who need it most, because that is what Labor governments do—and this legislation delivers on that plan. But of course we know that there is more to do, and we will be introducing further legislation in the House to continue our plan to help Australians. I commend the Minister for Social Services for introducing this bill and for the work she has done to ensure that Australia's safety net is strong for all Australians that need it. I commend the bill to the House.

12:18 pm

Photo of Zoe DanielZoe Daniel (Goldstein, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Women's economic equality is one of my key priorities—one of the reasons why I decided to contest the seat of Goldstein. I've spoken about it many times in this place and I will continue to do so because women don't have true equality yet. Women's economic participation across their lifetime is less valued, less secure and less safe, which leads to lower incomes, less job security, job segregation, lower super balances and a higher likelihood of poverty. In fact, women comprise more than 60 per cent of all those relying on the lowest income support payments: JobSeeker, student and parenting payments.

Economic security is the only way out. We must enable women's workforce participation across all sectors. As lawmakers we must intentionally focus on empowering all women and girls to have equal opportunities and pathways to secure jobs. Women must be at the starting line if they're to have any hope of thriving socially and economically, and many are a long way back. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023 will help get vulnerable women, who are most impacted by cost-of-living pressures, to the starting line—but not much further.

The bill implements, or partially implements, two of the six urgent and targeted Women's Economic Equality Taskforce recommendations. From 20 September 2023, single parents—95-plus per cent of whom are women—will have access to the parenting payment single until their youngest child turns 14. This is a critical policy shift. Under the current rules, the payment stops the day the youngest child of a single parent turns eight and reverts to the lower JobSeeker benefit. As Terese Edwards from the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children told me pre budget: 'We do not celebrate our child's eighth birthday. Some of us become homeless and some return to the place of abuse, but we all struggle. We skip meals, limit heating and cooling, and miss medical appointments, but it's not enough. We can't stop the hardship despite our skills, talents and determination.'

The government's decision to increase the threshold to 14 is long overdue. It is a huge relief to single mothers, many of whom have been forced to choose between poverty and violence—a dire and dangerous choice that no woman should have to make. According to The Choice, the report released by Anne Summers, single mothers with children under 18 were three times more likely than the general population to have had violent partners and, of the single mothers living in Australia, 60 per cent had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a previous partner. The changes to the single parent payment will mean an increase of about $176 a fortnight for 57,000 single parents. It means a lot, and it could save lives. I've been advocating for the single parent payment to return to the previous threshold of 16, but this is a good compromise and, hopefully, a stepping stone on the way to 16.

Housing insecurity is another part of society that disproportionately affects women. Women or girls made up more than six in 10 clients of homelessness services in 2021-22. Australian women aged over 50 are at greater risk of financial and housing insecurity than older men. This has been linked to several compounding and systemic factors. Women in this older age group today didn't benefit from compulsory superannuation at the beginning of their working lives. They were more likely to have been paid at a lower rate than their male counterparts, more likely to be concentrated in low-paid care sectors and likely to have taken time out of the paid workforce to have children and fulfil caring roles. This is the cycle that holds women back. It's deeply entrenched and hard to shift.

The 15 per cent increase in Commonwealth rent assistance is welcome, but, with renters at the mercy of escalating rental housing prices, vacancies as tight as one per cent and inflation very high, there may be less there than meets the eye. The JobSeeker payment is also skinny. The government ignored the recommendation of its own Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee to return JobSeeker to 90 per cent of the pension, where it once was, or around $70 a day. Instead it opted to increase payments by $40 per fortnight. That's less than $3 a day, effectively increasing it from $50 to $53—less than the price of a sandwich or a train ticket. This measure also extends to youth allowance, parenting payment partnered, Austudy, Abstudy, special benefit and disability support pension youth, which will provide some relief to young people and First Nations people. The expanding eligibility for the higher rate of JobSeeker payment to recipients aged 55 and over will go some way to helping older women break the poverty cycle—but only some way.

The strengthening the safety net bill comes as CHOICE survey data reveals Australian households are more concerned about the cost of living now than at any other point in the last seven years of data collection. In a national survey of more than 1,000 people conducted in March and April this year, a record 93 per cent of households said they had seen their household bills and expenses go up over the last 12 months. The cost of food and groceries was the highest concern for 85 per cent of households surveyed, followed by the cost of fuel and household energy bills.

CHOICE survey data also shows the rising cost of housing is hitting both renters and mortgage holders hard. Back in January 2021, 46 per cent of mortgage holders and just over half of renters—51 per cent—said that the cost of housing was a concern. This year, the level of concern has jumped to 78 per cent of mortgage holders and 72 per cent of renters. There is no escaping the level of discomfort in communities across the country.

The $14.6 billion cost-of-living relief package was the centrepiece of the May budget. In handing it down, the Treasurer said that the budget struck the balance of spending restraint to reduce inflation and 'doing what we can to help people struggling to make ends meet'. We do have $1 trillion of debt. We do have a structural budget problem. We do have tax and revenue systems that are not fit for 21st century purpose. Again, I'm going to say that we need broad tax reform. There've been only tweaks and no major reform since the introduction of the GST in 2000. Politics killed any consideration of the Henry tax review, written in 2009. A decade and a half on, we need another clear-headed, broad-based review.

We do need to be sure that, when we spend taxpayers' money, it's prudently allocated. But there are occasions when it's wise to spend now to avoid the risk of much greater spending in the future. We will not get the return to productivity our future prosperity requires unless we enable more women to return to the workforce. We will not get that return to productivity if many of the jobless are consigned to poverty because the rate of JobSeeker is so low that people can't afford to clothe themselves to make themselves presentable for job interviews or if they can't afford the bus ticket to get to an interview. The same goes for the single mothers who have faced the same dilemma when the single parent payment has cut out when their youngest child has turned just eight.

It is the case that the changes in this legislation don't go far enough, but they are a step in the right direction. More women and more young people will now be enabled to find work. That should make for a more productive workforce, and that, in turn, should make for a more prosperous future, and that's why I'm supporting this bill.

12:27 pm

Photo of Sam RaeSam Rae (Hawke, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The measure of any good government is the impact it has on the quality of life of its constituency. While this may sound like a simple proposition, there are many levers that government must carefully balance in order to deliver this positive impact. Since being elected in May last year, the Albanese Labor government has had a clear focus on addressing the cost-of-living pressures facing so many Australians, including those in my electorate and in my community.

We started last year by legislating cheaper child care for Australian families. This will have a profound impact on 6,800 families in Hawke alone. We commenced an expansion of the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave scheme that will deliver six months leave for parents by 2026. At the start of this year, we reduced the cost of medicines by $12.50 per script and we'll soon further reduce the price as we allow Australians to purchase two months worth of medication for the price of a single script. We have also modernised workplace relations laws to help get wages moving again. We know that those opposite spent a decade in government exercising a policy of deliberate intent to suppress wage growth in our country. It was a decade of Liberal wage suppression that we have got straight onto addressing. We've also shielded families from the worst of the energy price hikes by intervening in coal and gas prices in order to keep energy prices down, to reduce their growth and to try to control their growth for families, households and businesses, protecting jobs along the way.

The recent budget handed down by the Treasurer seeks to continue this agenda of responsible relief, repair and restraint. It seeks to steer us through global economic turbulence while addressing the deep structural problems caused by a decade of Liberal economic mismanagement. Most importantly, it seeks to deliver the financial support and relief that Australians need as the cost of living rises in our communities. The Albanese Labor government's strengthening of the social safety net is about protecting and supporting some of our most vulnerable Australians.

This bill recognises the disproportionate impact that cost-of-living pressures are having on income support recipients and provides them with an increase in their fortnightly payment above and beyond the usual CPI indexation. This is an important component of the government's broader $14.6 billion cost-of-living package and will provide increased support to around two million Australians. The amendments in this bill will see a $40-per-fortnight increase for the 1.1 million Australians receiving working age and student payments, such as JobSeeker, youth allowance and Austudy, including more than 10,000 people in my own electorate of Hawke. This targeted relief is designed to help the people who are on some of the lowest incomes in our country, and it ensures that they and all Australians can continue to rely on the safety net when they need support when they face economic hardship.

While these payments are already indexed against the CPI, this additional increase recognises the financial hardship faced by so many who are receiving income support, which can in turn create barriers to broader economic participation. With this increase and the indexation changes over the past 12 months, the base rate of JobSeeker has seen increases equivalent to $2,300 in additional support each year.

The changes in this bill will also expand the eligibility into the higher single rate of JobSeeker to single recipients aged 55 and over who have been on income support for nine or more continuous months. This change in eligibility from 60 to 55 years is recognition of the barriers that older Australians are facing when looking for work. Over the past 10 years the proportion of mature-age recipients on JobSeeker payments has significantly increased, and we know that older Australians are likely to continue receiving payments for longer. The evidence shows that 81 per cent of those aged 55 or over stay on the payment for more than a year, and over half for five years or more. This change will expand access to around 52,000 people, who will receive an increase of $92.10 per fortnight.

Another significant change in this bill is the expansion of eligibility for parenting payment (single) to parents with a youngest child under 14. We know that single parents do it incredibly tough, balancing their caring responsibilities with full- or part-time work, study, or looking for work. It is clear that the current eligibility does not reflect the reality facing these single parents. The balancing act doesn't end when a child turns eight. This increase will ensure that single parents are better supported for longer and will leave them and their families in a better position as they seek to take on more paid work as their children get older. With this change, 57,000 single parents will be better off by at least $176.90 each fortnight, including more than 600 single parents in my electorate of Hawke.

This bill will also deliver the largest increase to Commonwealth rent assistance in more than 30 years, providing an additional $2.7 billion over five years from 2022-23 and benefiting around 1.1 million households, including the more than 8,000 households in my community that are currently eligible for maximum Commonwealth rent assistance rates. With this increase, the maximum amount of rent assistance for JobSeeker payment recipients who are single and living on their own will have increased by 24 per cent since May 2022, when the Albanese Labor government were elected.

You see, our government knows that the cost of housing is one of the key pressures facing Australian families and households. We also know that this record increase to the rate of rent assistance is not the whole solution. The Albanese Labor government has committed to building 30,000 new social and affordable homes in the first five years of the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund. Sadly, the hypocrisy and political grandstanding of the team between the Greens and the Liberals is blocking the rollout of that investment. Their persistent use of housing as a political football is preventing the passage of legislation that will provide significant, long-term investment in social and affordable housing in my community and in every community around our country. At every level of government, the Greens' record on housing is clear: hypocrisy, grandstanding, and blocking of meaningful investment and construction of social and affordable housing to increase our much needed housing supply.

We know that despite his florid performances in this House the member for Griffith is proposing a housing development in his very own electorate. And we know that the people who are relying on these homes are being let down by the Greens party and their refusal to support the government's practical approach to moving forward and increasing supply of housing all across our country. I very much hope that this petty politicking will not extend to this legislation.

Like the Housing Australia Future Fund, the 'strengthening the safety net' legislation is part of the Albanese Labor government's plan to address the cost-of-living challenges facing Australians. Labor governments are elected to ensure that, amongst other things, a strong social safety net is there to provide for Australians when they need it. That's why we're increasing the payments available to the approximately two million Australians who need them most and providing the much needed cost-of-living relief that people, families, and employers are crying out for. I know that the Liberals opposite come to this place, to these debates, with the shortest-term views—winning the day, arguing the point, scoring a couple of cheap political hits along the way.

In my community these changes, these interventions, these modest supports provide dignity to the human beings, to the families who rely upon them. This isn't a matter of cheap politicking amongst my neighbours, my friends, my family. This is a matter of providing the best possible life and opportunities for our children. It's about ensuring that those who, for reasons often beyond their own control—health, circumstance, in some cases terrible matters like family violence—aren't left languishing. I know that the Liberals opposite sometimes see the short-term gain of opposing these measures as something of a political opportunity. But I would urge them—I would urge everybody in this House, the Greens included—to understand the true impact that this bill and its meaningful outcomes will have on communities like mine and like their own and all across Australia. This is an opportunity for us to take positive steps to improve the lives of Australians everywhere and ensure that our communities are living happily, healthily, and with dignity.

12:39 pm

Photo of Kate ChaneyKate Chaney (Curtin, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support this Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023 and urge the government t do more to alleviate poverty in Australia. In a country like Australia, we should be able to set our safety net at a level that means people can access the basics of life and live with dignity without destroying incentives to work. We should be able to avoid people living below the poverty line, which is about $68 a day for a single adult. This would still be significantly lower than the minimum wage and would be unlikely to disincentivise people from finding work. Below this level, we are trapping people in poverty. People are unable to pay rent and bills or cover the cost of fresh food. Buying petrol or fixing the car are nearly impossible, as is buying suitable clothing for a job interview or even getting a haircut. It is hard work living in poverty and our system can be punitive. People feel shame, isolation, they lose connection with their communities and find themselves in entrenched disadvantage.

Under this bill, people on JobSeeker will move from $49 a day to $52 a day, well below the poverty line of $68 a day. This will provide a small amount of help to 580,000 women, 318 people under 25, 150,000 First Nations people and 245,000 mature age Australians. This increase is better than nothing but it won't make a significant difference.

The government's own economic inclusion advisory panel found that, on every available indicator, the current rates of JobSeeker and related payments were seriously inadequate. This was true whether they were measured against payments overseas, against the minimum wage, against pensions or against the poverty line. It recommended restoring the relativities of the mid-1990s when unemployment benefits were about 90 per cent of the age pension. This would be an increase from $49 a day to $68 a day, but the change made in this bill is $3 a day instead of the $19 a day recommended by the panel.

Across communities there is also broad support for a substantial increase. ACOSS has issued an open letter calling for a scientific this $19 a day increase. It has been signed by a huge range of MPs, community leaders, economists, prominent leaders and academics. The Business Council of Australia and the Committee for Economic Development of Australia also back this change.

My electorate of Curtin is relatively wealthy, but one of the things that constantly impresses me is that my community is not entirely self-interested. I meet people every day who are worried about others, people who want to live in a country where we treat people should fairly. The data bears this out. Surveys consistently show that a majority of people think that JobSeeker should be higher than it is.

What would it actually costs to pull unemployed people out of poverty? ANU analysis shows that lifting JobSeeker to 90 per cent of the pension rate would cost $5.7 billion a year, which is a four per cent increase in total welfare payments and less than one per cent of total government spending. So it would increase government spending by one per cent and left a million people out of poverty.

I acknowledge that we need to address the structural deficit in the budget. Inflation affects everyone. But in a budget of $680 billion, surely we can find $6 billion so that all Australians can be fed, housed and live with dignity. There are numerous ways to do this and there is broad appetite for a broad Ken Henry style review of our tax system. We could consider taxing passive income. We could increase GST. We could make serious reforms to the PRRT or, in the absence of broader tax reforms, we could reshape the stage 3 tax cuts. Therefore, I support the member for Brisbane in his call on the government to ensure that no-one is left behind and to lift all income support payments above the poverty line. I would also back the opposition's call to increase the income free area to $300 a fortnight to allow jobseekers to earn more and still retain the full JobSeeker allowance. I think work needs to be done to at least cost this option.

In relation to other changes in the bill, I support the increase of $92 a fortnight for single JobSeeker recipients age 55 and over. This drop in eligibility age from 60 to 55 reflects the fact that that older Australians face additional barriers to work and are more likely to stay on JobSeeker for longer.

I support allowing parents to stay on the single parenting payment until their youngest child turns 14 rather than eight years old. I, along with a number of people on the crossbench, have been calling for this change for a number of months. About 57,000 people will benefit from this increased financial support provided each fortnight. More than 90 per cent of the parents who will benefit from this change are single mothers. As a mum, I know that kids don't stop needing you when they turn eight. It will give mums the support they need while they have primary-school-aged kids. Single parents won't be forced to juggle child care and working obligations until their children are older and more self-sufficient.

I also support the increase of 15 per cent to the Commonwealth Rent Assistance. While this will do little to assist most renters in our current housing crisis, at least it's something for the 1.1 million Australians who are on income support or family tax benefits and currently receive Commonwealth Rent Assistance. Rent increases are having a huge impact on a large number of Australians. The ABS showed that almost 95 per cent of new tenants in February 2023 signed leases charging more than the previous tenant paid at the same property and close to 70 per cent of new tenants had their rent increase by more than 10 per cent. With vacancy rates at record lows and no real relief in sight, this is a start for the people who need it most, but it doesn't address the longer term issues in housing. Until we are willing to look at broad reform of our housing sector in Australia, small changes like this will have to do.

Most Australians want to live in a country that gives people a fair go. We should be able to afford to provide a decent safety net that helps people get to their feet rather than trapping them in poverty. These changes make a start and recognise that there are a lot of people struggling with the cost of living at the moment. I urge the government to listen to the voices of the community, business and its own committees and build on this start to give all Australians a fair go.

12:46 pm

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This government has delivered the 2023-24 federal budget, which focuses on tackling our immediate economic challenges whilst also supporting households with cost-of-living pressures—no easy feat. Since we were elected on 21 May 2022, the Albanese Labor government has been working hard and working substantively to deliver the better future and better outcomes that Australians voted for. That includes targeted relief for the most vulnerable Australians, those who need it most. It is good—it's refreshing—to be part of a government that has delivered a budget that lays the foundation for that better future while helping Australians who need it and are under pressure right now.

The budget announced a $14.6 billion cost-of-living package. That's significant. That means around two million income support recipients will be better supported. This bill introduces amendments that will strengthen our social safety net, ensuring all Australians can be supported when they need support. I know many of my constituents and many other people around Australia are doing it tough right now. The cost-of-living pressures are having a serious and adverse impact on the day-to-day lives of many Australians. It's not easy to count every cent just to scrape together enough to pay bills, to find enough to make a trip to the supermarket or to pay the rent. I also know that the loss of a job or being unable to find one is too often beyond an individual's control.

This is why our social security system should also always be accessible and available to those who need it, when they need it. These income support measures will mean additional supports for so many vulnerable Australians. They will help students, older Australians, those with a disability, those experiencing financial hardship, single parents and those struggling to pay rent who are on Rent Assistance. This is such an important start to ensuring that Australian people can get support when they need it most.

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023 and its amendments increase the rate of JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment partnered, Austudy, ABSTUDY, the youth disability support pension and the special benefit. These payments will increase by $40 per fortnight from 20 September this year. That means 1.1 million Australians will get the support they need. That means that we will be supporting people on some of the lowest incomes in Australia who rely on this safety net for their support. With this particular increase in the indexation changes over the last year since May 2022, the base rate of the JobSeeker payment will have increased from $642.70 to $733.10. That's a 14 per cent increase. This means over $90 more in people's pockets each fortnight to help them deal with cost-of-living pressures and equates to over $2,300 in additional support each year. Eligible payments including JobSeeker, parenting payment and Commonwealth rent assistance will also be indexed on 20 September as per normal. This means people will get even more support.

The bill also expands eligibility for the higher rate of JobSeeker to those aged 55 and over who have been on this support payment for nine or more continuous months. This rate currently applies from age 60, but we are making sure older Australians can be better supported even earlier. We know that most people receiving this payment are women, including that demographic of women over 55. We know that older women face additional barriers when looking for work, such as age discrimination. We also know that poverty is the daily reality for so many Australian women. Many experience housing stress and homelessness. Some don't even have enough superannuation or savings because they have been in caring roles for their families or have been in casual or part-time roles. We want to make sure that older Australian women are given the supports they require. We want to ensure that older Australian women are supported after giving back so much to so many—to their families and to their communities—to ensure that they can live with dignity. The amendments in this bill will mean that 52,000 Australians aged 55 to 59 will receive an increase of $92.10 every fortnight.

The government knows that single parents have a tough time trying to balance caring responsibilities with full-time work, study or even looking for work. It's very tough. I am a parent; many of us here are parents. We know that caring responsibilities will not simply end when a child turns eight. In some respects, it gets harder or more challenging. It becomes a different challenge. In fact, as children get older, the demands on parents actually probably continue to grow in many different ways. Single parents will likely be in a better position to take on more paid work as their children get a bit older. The amendments in this bill mean that more people can be eligible for single-parent parenting payments in cases where they have a child under 14. These changes will help more than 57,000 single parents, who will be better off by at least $176.90 per fortnight.

I know many Australians who are currently struggling with the cost of rent. This government knows that rental stress is front of mind for many Australians right now. Young people might line up at a rental inspection for a couple of hours only to get to look at the property and see that the taps don't work and the rent is $800 a week. There's not much supply. I've spoken to many people in my electorate of Wills who are struggling also with rent increases. Many younger people have told me this is particularly concerning for them. They're working or balancing study and work often, and they're struggling with rent increases. It's also a concern for working Australians: teachers, for example, nurses, ambos, people who work in emergency services and aged-care workers. These are the people who supported our communities so brilliantly and kept the wheels turning during the height of the COVID pandemic.

This government will be providing additional support to renters with the largest increase to the rate of Commonwealth rent assistance in over 30 years. This government is finally providing leadership on a significant issue that affects so many Australians. For those who have reached the maximum amount of rent assistance they can get, we're now increasing their payment by 15 per cent. That means around 1.1 million households will benefit from this and be better off, with around an additional $24 per fortnight. This includes those receiving the JobSeeker payment and other working-age payments, student payments, the age pension, the disability support pension, family tax benefit and veterans payments. This 15 per cent increase since May 2022 means the maximum amount of rent assistance for JobSeeker payment recipients who are single and living on their own will have increased from $145.80 to $180.80. That's a 24 per cent increase. That's $35 more each fortnight to help people on low incomes pay their rent.

Of course, rising power prices are one of the biggest burdens on Australian families and business at the moment. As part of the Albanese government's plan to reduce cost-of-living pressures—as part of that $14.6 billion package—more than five million households and one million small businesses will also be eligible for energy relief rebates from 1 July. This government will be helping households to manage cost-of-living pressure through energy relief rebates of up to $500. This will help ease the pressure on families and small businesses, and it will help reduce electricity bills for eligible households and businesses.

The Albanese government has already—from September last year—boosted social security payments for more than 4.7 million Australians in the largest increase to allowances in 30 years. For my part, as the member for Wills, I will continue to support increased rates for payments such as JobSeeker for my community. As a government, we believe a strong safety net is essential. These supports need to be in place for all Australians if and when they need them. The Albanese government will continue supporting people who are doing it tough. The substance and the detail of this whole package, some of which I've outlined, are real. This will make a difference to people's lives. That's why the government has been so committed to supporting Australians during this difficult time, and we will continue to ensure vulnerable Australians are not forgotten.

12:56 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023. A cost-of-living package of $14.6 million is a very significant sum of money. The government is spending that money in a number of ways. One of the things that I think is most important is that the government is lifting the age threshold, largely for women but also for single parents who, when their youngest child turns eight, right now move onto the JobSeeker rate. That lowers the amount that they can earn prior to losing 50c in the dollar, as well as lowering the actual payment overall. Moving that to the age of 14 is, I think, a very welcome measure, one that many advocacy groups have been calling for for a very long time.

I remember being part of a committee several years ago now that was chaired by the member for Monash. That was a select committee that was looking at intergenerational welfare and intergenerational disadvantage. One of the recommendations that we were looking at and grappling with was how to ensure that families were not living in poverty. So I think that this is a very welcome move by government. I would say, though, that we need to work much earlier with women who are in those circumstances, before the child is 14, to help them get ready to get back into the workforce and perhaps not leave it until the child is aged 14 to do so. We need to ensure that people have the training and have the skills, because many people who are single parents and in the situation where they're not in the workforce are often out of the workforce for a very, very long time. That in itself provides a number of barriers around confidence and the change in skills and technology in the workforce. Even if you were in quite a senior position prior to having a family, re-entering the workforce a decade later is a very different experience. Ensuring that we're helping those single parents, and single mums in particular, to transition back into the workforce is really important.

This bill is also providing an extra $40 per fortnight for people who are on a number of payments, including JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy, Abstudy and the disability support pension youth payment. This is so desperately needed. With respect to JobSeeker, what a lot of the evidence showed us is that, for people who are on that payment long term, it actually starts to become a barrier itself to finding employment. If you have been on that payment for a long period, you generally don't have all of the things that you need—you haven't been able to afford all of the things you need in order to find employment, so it becomes a barrier. Lifting that as well as that 15 per cent increase to Commonwealth rent support is critical, and I really welcome these measures.

It's a challenge, though, because many small businesses in my community have so many vacancies that are just left wanting. I don't know how we manage this in this place, or whether it even is something that the departments need to look more closely at, but we don't seem to make a very good marriage of people who are looking for work and businesses. I think we need to be able to do that much, much better, because how can it be that we have, as of February this year, 438,000 job vacancies? That is such an extraordinary amount of job vacancies. In March this year, if I have my fingers right, 809,740 people were looking for work. We could do a lot better in marrying those two things together.

Another very welcome measure in this legislation is reducing the threshold for the higher payment for JobSeeker from 60 down to 55. I think it's fair to say that older women in particular who are 55 and north of 55 have a very challenging time, particularly if they haven't had a very long work history with great depth to it, in finding employment. Recognising that and then lifting the payment for those 55 and over is the right thing to do and it is a very welcome measure.

We need to make it as easy as possible for people to be supported to go into training—and meaningful training, not just one-day-a-week training but meaningful training. In my electorate we desperately need more aged-care workers—desperately. But they need a Certificate III in aged care, and that is not always easy to achieve. There is a cost to that. There is a huge commitment to do that study, particularly if you haven't been in study for 30-plus years. There is a real cost to that, and I think we can do a much better job of supporting people into those areas and doing a better matchup of the skills that are needed in a region, making sure that those who are seeking employment are able to get the skills needed so that there is a much better connection between the two.

All in all, I support these measures by government. There are some advocates who say that it's not enough, and others who say that it's too much. I think that this finds a very happy medium in between the two. I do think that some of the measures that the coalition has been talking about with respect to lifting the threshold that can be earned before someone loses 50 cents of the dollar in their payment, particularly with JobSeeker, is a very wise thing to do. Otherwise, it can become quite a poverty trap. At the moment, a person can earn, I think, only $150 a fortnight before they start losing 50 cents in the dollar in their payment. Many people are reluctant to take on those extra hours. Perhaps they have only an eight-hour job a fortnight, or less, or slightly more, but they are reluctant to take on extra for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they're worried about losing 50 cents in the dollar and then potentially losing all of the other suite of supports—in particular, the healthcare card—if they earn too much. Secondly, they're really worried about losing their payment altogether and then having to go through the rigmarole of applying for Centrelink again if that job doesn't turn into something that has a long-term prospect.

So I think that we could very much look to increase those threshold payments so that we are really conditioning people back into the workforce and to be working more hours than perhaps they currently are and encouraging aspiration in that regard. I would urge the government, in a bipartisan manner, to look at some of the measures that have been proposed by the opposition and supported by me here today.

1:05 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023. The measures in this bill will make life a little bit easier for our most vulnerable Australians at a time when just getting by is harder and harder to do. These measures include: an increase of $40 per fortnight in working age and student payments; a higher rate of JobSeeker payments for 55- to 59-year-olds; and increases to Commonwealth Rent Assistance and single parenting payment. The $40 increase will apply to the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance, parenting payment partnered, Austudy, ABSTUDY, special benefit, disability support pension and youth payments.

Right now a single person with no kids who is receiving JobSeeker receives around $49 a day. From September, it will be $52.36 a day or $733.10 a fortnight. I support this increase because for families in my electorate counting the dollars and seeing how far they can stretch every cent absolutely helps. We are in a cost-of-living crisis. Groceries, rent and petrol prices keep going up and, in relative terms, families are getting by with much less. Any increase, then, is welcome.

But we do need to be honest with each other and with the Australian public. These payments remain unconscionably low. An increase of $2.86 a day won't fix this. It's almost impossible to live a dignified life on these payments alone. I certainly couldn't do it. The rate of payments is so low that instead of helping people back into work it pushes them down into poverty. A study from the University of New South Wales and the Australian Council of Social Service found 60 per cent of JobSeeker recipients and 34 per cent of youth allowance recipients live in poverty. The local food bank organisation in my electorate, Albury Wodonga Regional FoodShare, says that in their catchment there are 22,230 people living in poverty, and this includes 4,942 children. This is truly shameful

I believe that the goal of our social security system should be to support people who can work to do so and to support people who are unable to work to live a decent life. This is how we should measure the adequacy of our social security system, yet these low payments neither give people unable to work a decent life nor encourage people who can work to do so, because the structural barriers remain so fundamentally high. For those who are unable to work, it condemns them to daily difficult decisions that no-one should have to make, such as choosing between paying the telephone bill or paying the rent or between putting dinner on the table or switching on the heating.

In my regional electorate it is harder to make ends meet on these payments and harder to find a job if you rely on them between periods of employment. If you need a car to get to a job and you don't have one, your employment options are very limited. We have no public transport reliable or frequent enough to use to commute. If you live in the town of Bright and there's a job in Wodonga and you don't have a car, it is pretty simple: you can't take that job. Then there is the shocking lack of child care, with waiting lists extending more than two years in some towns, especially child care for shift workers, which keeps many women of working age right out of the workforce. If you are a single parent receiving JobSeeker and there's a cafe offering a job at lunchtime and you can't find child care then you simply can't take the shift.

In regional Victoria we have a higher than average chronic burden of disease. If we need to see a doctor in Indi, only 12 of our 33 GP practices bulk-bill, and the bulk-billing rate is only 18 per cent, according to research by Cleanbill. So the incentives announced in the budget by the government to increase the amount of bulk-billing by GPs are extremely welcome. I really hope that they do work for the people of Indi, because this is a major cost and a major contributor to the lack of access to GPs and to the chronic disease burden that we experience.

With additional barriers and costs, income supports don't go as far as they should in rural and regional Australia, and that's against the national statistic of the relative value declining from 50 per cent of the minimum wage in 1997 to under 40 per cent immediately before the addition of the coronavirus supplement. Everywhere this government turns, the call is the same. Groups as diverse as ACOSS and the Business Council of Australia, and the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, have called for a substantial increase—not just an increase; a substantial increase. The government's own economic inclusion advisory panel found that the current rates of payment were seriously inadequate, whether measured against payments overseas, the minimum wage, pensions or poverty lines. The panel recommended that:

The Government commit to a substantial increase in the base rates of JobSeeker Payment and related working age payments as a first priority.

And they recommended increasing it to 90 per cent of the age pension to improve adequacy. The $40 increase which this bill sets up falls far below this.

Before the budget, I signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for a substantial increase in payments, along with 12 MPs from the government's own party, including the member for Hunter, the member for Bruce and the member for Dunkley. I'm sure these members were left disappointed, as I was, with what they saw in the budget.

I am glad the government has committed to assessing the JobSeeker payment and other income support payments before each budget. The government should publish this assessment, so we know on what basis it keeps making this choice that leaves so many in poverty.

I welcome the increase in the JobSeeker payment by $92.10 per fortnight for people aged between 55 and 59, which will benefit 340 people in my electorate. Yet many older people want to keep working, and, with a workforce shortage, we need all hands on deck. I'll be seriously considering the opposition's proposal to raise the income-free area for recipients from $150 to $300, although I don't support the member for Deakin's second-reading amendment in its entirety; there's much in that amendment that I disagree with. However, on this issue, I think we seriously do need to consider raising this opportunity to work.

I think we need to consider raising the income-free threshold to allow people on JobSeeker to work more when they can and want to work more, like many pensioners I hear from in my electorate; they're very interested in this. But we must also increase JobSeeker at the same time. Department of Social Services figures from last year showed more than 350,000 people on unemployment benefits were unable to work full time due to illness or disability. So we must adequately support people where work is just not possible for them or where they need that extra help to get into the workplace in the first instance.

In supporting older people, we cannot forget the extreme financial pressure facing our younger generations. I want to quote directly from Harry, a 23-year-old young man from Indi, from the town of Wangaratta. This is what he said:

Those under 55 are the first generations to be worse off than their parents. We are facing a climate crisis, a cost of living crisis, a housing crisis and are witnessing a real time erosion of the Australian middle class.

Furthermore, younger Australians are the most educated generations ever—yet we are still comparatively underpaid, even before historic increases in net productivity are considered.

Harry went on to say:

We want fair and equitable policies that benefit us all. Not short-sighted legislation that only seems to serve wealthy, asset rich Australians, whilst winding back the benefits that our parents enjoyed.

And whilst I understand—

says Harry—

that those over 55 on JobSeeker do need additional help in our current affordability crisis, this does not mean those under 55 need it any less, or that they are any less deserving of the basic dignity of affordable living.

This bill will increase Commonwealth rent assistance maximum rates by 15 per cent, and, according to the government, this will affect 5,055 households in my electorate. The average increase will be $24 per fortnight. Now, while this may be the largest increase in this payment in 30 years, it is essentially meaningless when compared to the increased cost of rents, especially over the last two years.

In the 2021 census, the median weekly rental in Indi was $270. But today this is a very different picture. Before coming to this chamber, I checked on to see the average cost of renting a place in some of the towns in my electorate. Here are a couple of examples. In Wodonga, it's $430, up 7.5 per cent in 12 months. In Wangaratta, it's $420; and, in the Alpine Shire, it's $505, a staggering increase of 12 per cent in one year alone.

In the more than 35 years that I've lived in Indi, I've never seen a situation in housing like we're seeing today. How can my constituents afford to pay the rent when in some places it has more than doubled in two years? According to the national campaign Everybody's Home, 40.6 per cent of renters in my electorate of Indi are facing rental stress—40.6 per cent—and this is leading to desperate situations. So, unfortunately, while the government's increase is welcome, it really is not going to make a difference to these people.

I want to see the solutions to this housing crisis across our communities in regional Australia—solutions that help those experiencing homelessness, as well as solutions to help essential workers. My regional housing infrastructure fund is one such proposal. Housing is the No. 1 issue I hear about from my constituents now, and I'll keep lobbying the government to adopt the proposal I've put to them to be a national leader where government has previously fallen short.

I also want recognise the increase in payments that are designed to support students, including Abstudy, youth allowance and Austudy. I represent many, many students studying at La Trobe University in Wodonga and Charles Sturt University in Albury, many more undertaking study either online at our country university centres or in other cities and then coming home when they can, and those students who are undertaking studies alongside full-time employment. I know this extra money in their pockets will be appreciated.

Yet, while this supports current students, young people with a HECS debt will tomorrow face indexation of 7.1 per cent on their loans, the highest rate in more than three decades, adding more than $1,000 to the average loan. Many in my region are now looking at their degrees as a lifetime debt burden. One constituent has returned to university to study education—thrilled to hear that. But she's reconsidering whether to continue with her studies, because of the seemingly endless debt that comes with higher education. We desperately need teachers and so many other professions in regional Australia, but the high rate of indexation means that many more people will be looking at university study and seeing only a burden, not an opportunity. Indexation of loans also disproportionately affects women in the workforce who take time out to care for their children. The degree ends up costing them more than those who don't undertake care outside of their work, and this situation simply isn't fair. It's in the government's power to fix it, and I really urge them to do so. The cost of living is biting hard, and the government should be relieving costs on our young people, not adding to them.

Single parents in my electorate are extraordinary, caring and balancing part-time work to make ends meet, and the extension of the maximum single parent payment from when the youngest child is eight to when they are 14 is a no-brainer. I congratulate the government on doing this. This change will benefit 380 single parents in my electorate alone. I wanted to share the perspective of one of these single parents, in Barnawartha. She told the Border Mail recently that, with the rising cost of living, single parents were being forced into the workforce when they had primary care of their children. She's the mother of children with extra needs and has chosen not to work so she can support her kids. When she has to apply for work and do government courses that prevent her from supporting her kids so that she can afford to live, this is an enormous burden. She does this, in spite of having to move back in with her parents so she can reduce the cost of rent. What broke my heart, reading her story, was that she said she's not the worst off; there are many people much worse off than her. So I welcome this payment.

In conclusion, I support this bill because we need to do a lot more to support our vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians. I represent an electorate where 31,000 people aged 15 and over have government benefits as their main source of income, and I know that any increase, however small, will make a difference. People experiencing poverty don't have time to lobby federal parliamentarians or to host fancy breakfasts where they can put their case to government over pastries and coffee. By and large, they don't flood our electorate offices with calls or emails, unlike those for other trending issues of the day. They are too busy just getting by. That's why as their representative I will keep using my platform here to fight for this government to do more and to make the choice to guarantee Australians a safety net—a true safety net—and a real opportunity to lead a decent, honourable, dignified life and contribute to their community in the best way they can.

1:20 pm

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the amendment to the amendment to the amendment to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023—which I suppose gives me an enormous amount of latitude—having read through the three amendments, let alone the great breadth of the bill itself. We are addressing issues of appropriate Commonwealth support, and we all support having in place a safety net that looks after vulnerable Australians—those who might be in temporary difficult circumstances or, from a more permanent point of view, who, appropriately, need support from government. I'd like to particularly touch on the amendment moved by my good friend the member for Deakin. He contributed to the debate on this bill and moved an amendment that reflects some important points that we in the coalition wish to make. We're not standing in the way of changes the government are seeking to put in place from their budget.

Regrettably, we've heard only in the past few hours that year-on-year inflation is now ticking up again—6.8 per cent is the annualised rate for the month of April. We were told that by Christmas inflation would have peaked and that we were now coming off that. The term 'transitory' was used, particularly early on, in this inflationary challenge period. That's now been dropped by the economists and others. We were then told that inflation was peaking. Well, certainly and regrettably, data from the ABS as of today is not suggesting that inflation has peaked and is tracking down; it ticked up in the month of April, annualised, compared with the month of March.

Other speakers have commented particularly on the challenges around the rental crisis that we now have in this nation, and unfortunately other data released just this week around housing commencements reinforces that there is an enormous squeeze going on in the rental market. I mention that in speaking on this bill because the people who will be supported by the changes in this bill are those who are in some of the most vulnerable circumstances and indeed those who are struggling with housing challenges at the moment. The member for Indi, whose comments I was able to listen to, made these points about those challenges in the rental market, and members whose contributions I haven't been able to keep abreast of no doubt made these points as well.

And of course today's inflation news confirms that rents are driving that, amongst other pressures, and also underscores that what was announced in the budget is probably already out of date. So many Australians are finding it even tougher than what was predicted in the budget, and things were pretty tough in the budget as it was—predictions around power prices going up, around the impact on a whole range of household goods. If you've got a mortgage, your mortgage repayments have gone up dramatically. Rents are going up. We've now seen in the ABS data that fuel costs are again driving a serious increase in inflation. These all affect household budgets, and people who can least afford these sorts of movements are feeling them with the most difficulty.

This is also an environment of very low unemployment. That's why, as the member for Deakin foreshadowed in his contribution and as his second reading amendment points out, we in the coalition believe there's never been a more important time to incentivise those who are on unemployment benefits to do all they can to participate in the workforce. That's why we commend the opposition leader, who made this central to his budget reply speech. We indeed believe that the time is opportune, more than ever, to encourage people by increasing to $300 a fortnight the amount of money that can be earned before it impacts on people's unemployment benefits.

I speak to businesses, as all local members do, on a regular basis. The challenges of getting staff at the moment are acute, and they are enduring. This has been a problem for years now. It is not going away, regrettably, because there are businesses that are in a perverse circumstance. The member for Deakin outlined the good example of a cafe and the business owners of that cafe, who he knows well. They relayed the fact that, because of their staff challenges, they have to work such long, taxing hours that, whilst they are enduring that for now, they've got a sustainability question around whether or not they can continue to operate their business with that kind of enormous burden on them personally from having to work such long hours because they simply can't get staff.

The measure that we're talking about in our amendment is an excellent example of encouraging people to work a little more without penalty. Whilst everyone's unique out there, we're very convinced that there is indeed a cohort of people who receive unemployment benefits that will not be jeopardised by triggering that threshold. If we were to double the threshold to $300 a week then there would absolutely be a cohort of people in a position to take on some extra work but who currently don't want to, frankly, because of the impact it would have on their unemployment benefits. They could, therefore, undertake that extra work in a fortnight and not impact their unemployment benefits and other entitlements they receive. This is an opportunity to both acquaint them more comprehensively with the value of work rather than living on entitlements and, equally, provide that additional labour to businesses that need it so badly. We think this is a very obvious opportunity that will address the challenges of getting long-term unemployed into work, because it would be a very unique person that wants a job right now in our economy that can't get any job whatsoever. That would be a very small cohort of people that are unemployed, and, equally, we know that there are more job vacancies than the total number of unemployed at the moment anyway. So anything we can do to increase the amount of hours worked by people is better.

Other speakers have talked about the economic inclusion unit report, about which in the couple minutes I've got left I'd like to briefly make two points. The first is that it's quite remarkable that the government commissioned this report, which came back with recommendations which would see in this bill a much more comprehensive increase to support than what the government have provided for in the budget. That's something that we really need to note, highlight and reflect on, because they have actively chosen to commission a report and completely ignore it.

Now, they were required or they negotiated to commission that report in exchange, as I understand it, for support on certain legislation in the Senate by a crossbench senator, and that crossbench senator can undertake the action that they choose to around whether or not the government honoured their commitment to that senator by ignoring a report that they committed to that senator to undertake. Why you would undertake a report and not consider any of its recommendations is interesting, but that's not for me to explain; that's for the Treasurer and others to explain.

Of course, when the now government were in opposition, their tune was a very different one to the one that they play now. From the now Prime Minister down, it was absolutely the case that they had a very different position on increases to support for those on government assistance, well beyond the CPI increases that we see in legislation like this, and that now is not occurring, which we can see through this bill.

The second thing I'd like to say, particularly to all the pensioners in my electorate and, frankly, pensioners across the nation, is that I completely reject the suggestion that unemployment benefits should be linked to the pension. That is an absolute insult to pensioners. The pension is a vastly different Commonwealth payment to unemployment benefits. Pension is something that has been earned and is deserved by hardworking Australians to support their retirement. Unemployment benefits are a completely different policy objective, and the suggestion that there should be some link between the pension and unemployment benefits I wholeheartedly reject. I think that is insulting to pensioners. The pension that they are paid is something that they are entitled to for the contribution they've made to this nation, to our society and to our economy. While supporting other Australians in need in difficult times is important, there is no correlation between the two.

With those comments, noting the time, I conclude my contribution on the bill.

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

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.