Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 April 2019


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Energy Assistance Payment) Bill 2019; Second Reading

3:47 pm

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

I rise to make a contribution on the debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Energy Assistance Payment) Bill 2019. As we know, this is a one-off energy assistance payment, the grand total of which is $75, for people on a range of income support payments. Having said it is a one-off payment of $75, I note that any dollar that goes into pockets of people trying to survive on income support means a lot to each of those people. But, in the scheme of things, a $75 one-off payment will not address some of the most fundamental issues that people on income support face.

Let us remember that this government never intended for this payment to go to people on Newstart and youth allowance. They never intended it to. They have been shamed into also making this payment to people on Newstart. I bet it's been done through gritted teeth. We know they didn't want it to go to people on Newstart, because when this issue was first leaked to the media there was outrage about Newstart. They could have fixed this before last night's budget. But, no, it was done overnight, and all of a sudden there are different figures for this payment from what was in originally in the budget papers. It's very clear this is a last-minute thing; they were shamed into doing it. If they really cared about people on Newstart, we would have seen an increase to Newstart.

This is where I find some of the commentary from the Labor Party outrageous, when they know very well that people trying to survive on the measly Newstart payment—which has not been increased for 25 years—are living in poverty. They know that people are living in poverty. In the arguments that the government and, for that matter, some on the other side of the chamber make, they comment about this being a transition payment. This morning on the radio when the Treasurer finally acknowledged and let people know that Newstart recipients will get this $75, he still repeated the same old myth—that this is a transition payment—when 64 per cent of people on Newstart have been on it for over a year, 44 per cent for over two years and 15 per cent for over five years.

This is a payment that was designed when the labour market was different. It is a very different situation now, and we have both of the old parties unprepared to increase Newstart. People struggling to survive on Newstart need an increase now. Even some members of the government agree with that, and even their former Prime Minister John Howard, the architect of Welfare to Work, now admits that we need to increase Newstart. So, yes, let's review income support payments, but after we have seen an increase to Newstart immediately. That is what's needed in this country, and that's what the Greens are going to this election with: an increase in Newstart.

We've been campaigning for an increase to Newstart for years and years and years. Members in this chamber who have been here long enough know that I tried to live on it for a week in 2012. It hasn't seen a real increase since then. Then, it was difficult; seven years later, it's even more difficult for people to live on Newstart. It is outrageous that people are still condemned to this—and this government doesn't care. They were completely ignored in the budget. For the government to come out and say, 'This is a budget for people on low incomes,' is just not true, because those on low incomes are the very people that are struggling on Newstart or struggling on youth allowance. They deserve an increase. Instead, the government layers out largesse on the wealthy end of town. That's where the bulk of the tax cuts go—the wealthy end of town. It prefers to layer largesse on the wealthy and ignore the people that are struggling to survive on Newstart. That is what the community is hearing really clearly from the government. The government didn't even want people on Newstart to get the $75 energy assistance payment—the very people that would benefit the most from this payment to help them with struggling to survive.

This bill, along with a whole range of other bills, is being forced through the chamber by five o'clock tonight. There were over 21 bills on the list, because some of the bills were done together. We're at bill No. 4. In just over an hour, we will stop and go into another process of first speeches and valedictories, which I'm sure will be very worthy, and I will be here listening intently. But then we'll go into a series of divisions to knock through those 17 bills, one of which is on the cashless debit card, which of course affects people on Newstart as well. It affects people on Newstart and people on a whole range of other payments. It is a cruel budget measure which the government told a blatant untruth about in the budget speech, saying that it's cut alcohol by half and it's reduced gambling. That's a blatant untruth, when they know that the ANAO report clearly said there is no evidence to support a claim of reduction in social harms. It's a blatant untruth, and yet they're ramming the bill through this place—with the complicity of the ALP, I might add. The ALP know very well we won't get to debate the CDC bill, because it will be one of the 17 that are rammed through this place with no debate, come five o'clock. That bill condemns people to at least another 12 months on CDC and, if the government have their way, they'll be transferring all the people on BasicsCard, the terrible flawed experiment of income management in the NT, to the cashless debit card as well.

So here are the ALP, who claim to be fair and who did not support rollout of the trial in the Goldfields. But now they are supporting the continuation of the cashless debit card in the Goldfields, in the East Kimberley and in Ceduna. They have some amendments that they have circulated, which, again, we won't get to debate; we will just get to vote on them. They're going to try to convince the community that they're trying to make it a little easier for people to get off the card. Last night, in this place, I articulated very clearly that to get off the cashless debit card is very hard. The amendments that I have seen circulated on the cashless debit card do not improve it that much. It leaves it up to the department quite a bit. It also leaves it up to the flawed community panel, where there is one. If they had bothered to ask anybody living in those communities, they would know that that process is flawed too. These, again, are people who this government demonises because they are unfortunate enough to have to try to survive on income support—specifically, Newstart, one of the lowest of those payments. Youth allowance, in fact, is even lower.

The ALP are assisting the government to get that done, and let no-one else tell you differently. That's what they're doing by agreeing to the motion on hours this morning and by agreeing to ram these 21 bills through this place, most of them without debate. What they are doing is being complicit in driving those flawed approaches through. I, for one, am not going to let the community forget what has happened in this place and how it affects people's daily lives. It is appalling that this government forgets the people on Newstart and is ably assisted by the opposition in punishing people on income support even more. People deserve to be living on more than $40 a day, which is what they are currently doing if they are trying to survive on Newstart.

Given the timing, I will pass the call. That's because we've got so many bills to continue on with. I could talk for a very long time about the injustices of this budget and about the injustices of the measures this government is trying to force through this place. However, I'm aware that other senators want to make contributions on the over 21 bills that are going to be forced through this place in a very short amount of time. I move the second reading amendment that has been circulated in my name, on behalf of the Australian Greens:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate calls upon the Government to re-regulate electricity prices and establish a public retailer to lower electricity prices."

This payment will help a tiny bit for people who are living on income support payments. It will help a small amount for those struggling to survive on Newstart and youth allowance, but it is not a solution to the problem. The problem is that people are living below the poverty line. They are struggling, they are vulnerable and they need an increase to Newstart. It needs to happen immediately. It cannot wait while some sort of review is done; it needs to happen immediately. If this government cared about the whole of the Australian community, it would have ensured that there was an increase to Newstart and youth allowance in this budget, instead of handing out largesse to the big end of town.


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