Senate debates

Friday, 28 June 2013


Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill 2013; Second Reading

12:51 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill 2013. The Greens will be supporting this legislation. However, we are deeply disappointed that this legislation does not go further. The individual measures in this bill have been welcomed by the community and the Australian Greens. However, as I said, it remains a disappointing demonstration of the government's failure to fully grasp the real needs of people trying to survive on Newstart or Youth Allowance. They just fail to understand that people are struggling to survive on Newstart, and this government is the one that dumped the next lot of single parents onto Newstart. And, listening to the coalition just then, you would think they were the nice, gentle, loving, kind people who liked single parents! They started this—you started it in 2005 when you started talking about Welfare to Work, and 2006 was when those changes came in that dumped single parents onto Newstart. Those single parents are the very ones who are already having to go to emergency relief organisations because they are trying to survive on Newstart. Of course, it is not only the single parents; people talk about single parents, but you have to remember it is their families, hundreds of thousands of people, living in poverty. So do not come in here and pretend that you despise the government for moving the next lot of single parents onto Newstart; they are just continuing the job you started. Both the old parties voted to dump the next lot of single parents onto Newstart in January. They combined against the Greens to dump them onto it.

All these measures in the bills had their genesis in recommendations that have been generated by and result from inquiries that have been undertaken—for example, by the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee. But these measures are too little in their response to those recommendations, and they are too little in their response to the challenges that are facing Australians who are struggling to survive on income support payments such as Newstart.

This legislation has been subject to a short inquiry and a short period of public consultation. In that time, over 500 individuals wrote to me about this legislation and the need for stronger action, and I will be seeking leave to table these letters that they wrote which I have previously circulated to the whips.

I would like to share just a few of the stories and accounts that are contained in those letters. Karen writes: 'I do not buy anything anymore. My son even had shoes that were a size too small and he refused to tell me as he knew I had no money to buy new shoes.' And Katrina wrote: 'On Parenting Payment I was able to get by as long as I was creatively frugal. Now all I can do is pay the rent and decide each week if we are going to eat or if I should make a part payment on my electricity bill. I do not have money for extras my son needs for school.' These are heart-wrenching accounts of the reality of life on Newstart. That is what this government joined with the coalition on and with the coalition's support has condemned hundreds and hundreds of single parents and their children to. These letters demonstrate to the Australian Greens that there is significant ongoing community support for the solutions proposed by us during the earlier inquiries and also support for the Australian Greens private senators' bills. These bills both increase Newstart and provide extra supplement supports for single parents.

This bill, the government's bill, contains three distinct measures that are intended to improve income management, but the Australian Greens note that each of these measures will only benefit some of those struggling to keep a roof over their heads and pay the bills on an income support payment that is more than $130 below the poverty line. Two of these measures, the pensioner education supplement and the retention of the pensioner card for those who are moved off parenting payment single but are now ineligible for Newstart, are restricted to single principal carers only. The other measure will benefit those who are already earning a small amount through casual work. Full-time students, older Australians, those with a partial disability, those living with episodic mental illness, those who lack work experience and those who have multiple barriers to employment will all be left behind by this legislation.

The extension of eligibility for the pensioner education supplement and the pensioner concession card will offset some of the impacts of the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) legislation, which was examined by the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee in August 2012, but we must note that they actually returned the education supplement to those who lost it under that regime. In other words, under that previous bill, the government took it away and now is kindly restoring it.

However, because of this inappropriate measure being put in place in the first place, and a failure by the government to understand what impact this legislation would have on single parents, this measure comes too late for many, many single parents: those who have had to drop their study because they were not able to access this and those who have had to drop their study because they were put onto Newstart and no longer could afford to make ends meet. It does not help those people and it does not come in until March next year. So much for the government caring for those parents that they know us struggling to make ends meet on Newstart. So much for their care for those parents they are encouraging to get more work and improve their skills and qualifications. What do the government care? They callously took away access to that supplement from those parents who are trying to improve their qualifications and get an education so they can better support their family and find work into the future.

While the Australian Greens consider that introducing these measures is still better, of course, than nothing, and better late than never, there is no doubt that the implementation of the Fair Incentives to Work legislation was devastating and is devastating to those who are affected. The impact of the $60-a-week drop in the base rate of income in the shift from parenting payment single to Newstart was compounded by the loss of the pensioner education supplement and also the pensioner concession cards for those who are dumped off income support altogether. The government claims this was to increase the number of people in work, but single parents have the highest rate of engagement with employment. In fact, we all know this was about the government saving a few dollars off the backs of single parents and their children.

The government has not been monitoring this impact, so it does not know what impact this appalling policy has had. We know, the Greens know, from the letters, the emails, the phone calls and text messages about this policy that we receive. We know the terrible human toll this has taken. Unfortunately, the Australian Greens are aware of a number of individuals who were studying and have had to leave those studies because they cannot afford the course fees or because they need to take on extra work to support their families. This measure restores a measure, as I said, that was previously in place.

The rationale for improving the income-free area seems to rely on the assumption that most individuals have access to short-term work but refuse to take it up without better financial incentives. Does this government think that a whole $19 a week, or one extra hour of work a week, will do that?

They have rocks in their heads if they think that is the only thing stopping single parents and those on Newstart from being able to access work.

The Newstart inquiry into the adequacy of the payment demonstrated that those who are worst off under the current income management system are those who face multiple barriers to work and who need assistance to become work-ready. Budget estimates demonstrated that only 43 per cent of all clients were adequately helped into ongoing work for the year ending 12 September. This result dropped to an alarming 25 per cent for stream 4 jobseekers—the most disadvantaged clients. In other words, these job service support programs are not helping the most disadvantage and the people who face the most barriers to work. Why are we not fixing that?

The provision of effective services to help jobseekers across the workforce is critical because the ability to work an extra hour a week will benefit only those who are able to access paid work. Yet the higher income-free area has not been accompanied by concrete improvements to jobseeker services. We are having to rely on the review, and on changes maybe coming in in 2015. This bill will provide no direct assistance to the majority of income recipients who have not been able to find work.

The Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill 2013 has been presented as a response to the recommendations of the adequacy inquiry, but this decision to adjust the income-free area implements only one of the recommendations of that report. The Australian Greens believe there is clear evidence, as set out in our additional comments to this inquiry, that focusing on other aspects of the problem without addressing the basic inadequacy of the payments will simply fail jobseekers. In other words, this measure will not address the root problem, which is the inadequacy of the payment.

Yet the government has chosen to tackle only one of the aspects of that report. It has ignored yet again the need to increase the base rate of these payments. Former OECD economist Peter Whiteford demonstrated to the adequacy inquiry that after paying rent a single person living on Newstart is likely to be left with less than $17 a day from which to cover all other expenses such as their utility, transport, personal care, clothes and, of course, food. We know from a number of recent inquiries that food is what people go without. People frequently go without meals because they cannot afford it, and parents go without meals so that they can feed their children.

With soaring rents in many capital cities and very low availability rates of affordable housing, the reality is that most people survive on even less than $17 per day, and simply cannot make ends meet. It is clear that many face hard choices, as is demonstrated in these letters. They face these hard choices every single day and make significant personal sacrifices of skipping meals, of going without. One long-term jobseeker and work for the dole participant summed this up in his letter: 'You get a break for lunch. I don't know why, because nobody eats. Nobody can afford to.'

The Australian Greens have already tabled in this place two private senator's bills, which I referred to earlier, which would better deliver immediate and lasting relief for all those who are affected by these policies. These bills provide a comprehensive and immediate solution to the pressure that those surviving on Newstart, including single parents, are experiencing. The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Caring for People on Newstart) Bill 2013 increases the basic rate of Newstart by $50 a week and introduces appropriate indexation that is linked to wages as well as to CPI.

The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Caring for Single Parents) Bill 2013 would further improve the situation for single parents by returning their income and the income test to a rate that is comparable to the parenting payment single, thereby undoing the income impacts of the fair incentives to work legislation—in other words, the legislation that dumped them onto Newstart. The important point there is that it would return the income-free area to what it was on parenting payment single, not the measly $17 a week that is contained in this bill. That is because it does not address the fundamental problems that are facing those trying to survive on Newstart.

The government may try to hoodwink the community that this will address the situation; it simply does not. They have report after report and they have no excuse to think that this is going to address the situation. As I said, report after report—reports from emergency relief organisations—all clearly demonstrate that the base rate of Newstart is inadequate, that those single parents who have been dumped across the board from January this year and those who have been dumped since 2006 onto Newstart are living in poverty. That is a whole next generation of children living in poverty. They are going without enough to eat and without the basic requirements. They are being forced out of their accommodation.

The Salvation Army report that was released not long ago as part of their Red Shield appeal clearly demonstrated the increase in the number of people accessing emergency relief. That clearly indicates that people are not able to find accommodation; they are homeless, they are couch surfing. That is what we are condemning these single parents to—those single parents who are trying to bring up our next generation. All the research shows that those children who are growing up in poverty and disadvantage are going to suffer, and that potentially has implications for their whole lives. That is what this policy fosters and that is what this bill fails to address. It does not address the basic issue, which is the inadequacy of the payments. We know that children are going to school hungry. We know that parents are going hungry. Why are we condemning those parents and those children to poverty?

We know that by increasing their base rate of income that we will help overcome one of the many barriers to work. And also, as I articulated earlier, we know that single parents are the cohort of people on income support who in fact have the highest work participation rates. This puts the complete lie to the fact that the government says that this is about encouraging people into work. It is not. It is about the government trying to save a penny or two on the backs of single parents.

Even though the measures contained in this bill do not form an adequate response to the challenges that Newstart participants face, the Australian Greens will support the package of these measures because, as I said, something is better than nothing. However, the Australian Greens remain committed to continuing to work towards the most comprehensive solutions that will lift people out of poverty and into secure, appropriate work. This does not do it. I have been campaigning on this since the day the Howard government announced that it would bring in welfare to work. And I will not cease campaigning on this until we have an increase in Newstart, until we have reversed those appalling, despicable cuts to single parents and until we can assure those single parents and their children that they will not be condemned to living in poverty in one of the wealthiest nations in on this planet. We will campaign on this to ensure that we achieve better outcomes for our most vulnerable Australians. It is simply inexcusable that in this country we are forcing the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged people into living in unending poverty.

As I said, we will support these measures but we will never stop campaigning for those most vulnerable Australians. With that in mind, I have circulated a second reading amendment on sheet 7430, and move:

At the end of the motion, add:

"and the Senate calls on the Government:

  (a) to increase Newstart by $50 a week; and

  (b) to provide additional financial support to single parents to lift them and their children out of poverty."

As I said, the Greens will be supporting these measures because every little bit will help. But it is not nearly enough, and our support does not indicate that we are complacent about the fact that we need to keep striving to ensure that our fellow Australians are able to live in dignity, able to have a satisfactory quality of life and not to condemn generations of children to live in poverty.


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