Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Matters of Urgency

Newstart Allowance

5:57 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

It's interesting when you think about the name 'Newstart'. Newstart is exactly that: a means of support to enable a new start. It's really tough to be unemployed, especially when you're met with barriers to accessing work; there's no denying this. What's important to remember, though, is that our government provides a whole suite of support to working-age Australians to give them the best chance of independence. Newstart was never meant to be a salary or wage replacement. It's a safety net for people, while they look for work.

When we talk about Newstart, we need to remember that we're talking about a broad spectrum of Australians. Sometimes I feel that the conversation around Newstart can be skewed towards young people. Given that Australia is an ageing society, I'd like to focus on what our government has done to support older Australians to seek employment or stay working for longer. The Morrison government recognises the contribution older Australians make to our community, the economic benefits of their experience and the desire of many to continue working. Recent figures show that more than 100,000 jobs have been created for Australians over 55, which is real progress in improving participation in the labour market for older people. However, we do recognise that some older Australians find it difficult to transition into new jobs following career or life changes. That's why the government is investing in a range of initiatives to assist older Australians to participate in the workforce.

For example, the 2018-19 budget measure More Choices for a Longer Life Package included jobs and skills measures, like connecting retrenched workers to supports and services. We're also trialling a new skills and training incentive to encourage lifelong learning and help workers aged 45 to 70 gain new skills for future workforce opportunities. It complements the Skills Checkpoint for Older Workers Program, which commenced in December 2018.

The 2017-18 budget included the Mature Age Employment Package to provide additional assistance to jobseekers aged 50 years or over. Within this package the Career Transition Assistance program, now rolled out nationally, helps mature-age participants in jobactive identify work opportunities in their local labour market and ways to reskill, develop resilience strategies and improve digital skills. This package is also expanding and enhancing the National Work Experience Program to provide work experience opportunities, establishing Pathway to Work pilots to connect mature-age jobseekers with employers and to prepare and train participants for specific vacancies. These complement the Restart wage subsidy that provides up to $10,000 to encourage businesses to hire and retain mature-age employees.

Regardless of age, the government remains focused on moving Australians off Newstart and into work. I note that the Morrison government has had substantial success in pursuing this goal over recent years. The proportion of Australians receiving working-age income support payments, including those aged between 55 and 64, has fallen to its lowest level in 30 years. There were 230,000 fewer working-age recipients on income support payments between June 2014 and June 2018.

As I mentioned before, Australia is an ageing society. Over the past six years, the proportion of the Australian population aged between 55 and 64 has grown at a faster rate than the working age population in general so, in some ways, it's unsurprising that there are more Australians aged 55 to 64 as a proportion of the Newstart cohort than there were in 2013. I'd like to note, however, that a higher rate of Newstart allowance is paid to single recipients aged 60 years and over after nine continuous months on payments. These recipients are also automatically issued a pensioner concession card.

For any Australian, seeking employment can be a tough time. As our Prime Minister has said, though, the focus of this government is to get people into a job and off welfare. To make this a reality, over 1.4 million jobs have been created since we were elected. That's around 240,000 a year. This compares to just 155,000 on average under Labor. We will continue to invest in jobactive and disability employment services to help people to get and keep a job. As I said earlier, everyone who receives Newstart is eligible for some form of additional assistance from the welfare system, such as rent assistance, family tax benefit parts A and B, pharmaceutical allowance, telephone allowance and an energy supplement. Welfare costs more than $172 billion in 2018-19, representing more than one in three dollars, or 35 per cent of all spending by the government.

It's a responsibility of government to ensure our social security and welfare system is sustainable into the future so that it can continue to provide support to those most in need. It's easy for Labor to sit in opposition and say that this government should raise Newstart as they said during the federal campaign, but Labor doesn't have a serious policy in relation to Newstart. Their so-called policy is to hold a review with a view to increasing Newstart. They've not costed this proposal or indicated how it impacts on the budget bottom line. If Labor want to raise Newstart, they need to be up-front with the Australian people and tell us how they propose to pay for an increase.

The Labor Party played a cruel joke on Australians in the lead up to the election, claiming they would review the rate of Newstart, but they did not budget for any increase. Prior to the election, the policy was a review—and then a review—with no view of lowering the rate. Labor have not been clear on what they offer to people trying to get off welfare and into work.

The difference between the coalition and Labor when it comes to welfare spending is that only the coalition is able to maintain the sustainability of the system. When Labor were in office, the rate of increase of spending on welfare far outpaced the rate of growth in tax revenue. Labor's position on this important welfare payment changes almost every day. This is not an issue where it's fair to throw around empty promises or to trivialise for the sake of political gain. We're talking about real people who need to know that, while they're seeking employment, we'll provide them with a Newstart allowance and continue to create initiatives and opportunities to access skills, education and ultimately, jobs.

One such initiative is program called Try, Test and Learn. The Try, Test and Learn Fund aims to generate new insights into what works to reduce long-term welfare dependency, by creating pathways towards education and employment. As of 17 July 2019, more than 2,000 people have benefited through projects supported through the Try, Test and Learn Fund, including 700 people attending over 3,000 mentoring sessions and 1,000 people completing education and skills training sessions.

The Morrison government's focus on a strong economy is working. We're delivering the job opportunities that Australians need. This government has seen the largest increase in jobs since the global financial crisis, with over 1.4 million jobs created since we were elected. The proportion of Australians receiving working-age income support payments has fallen to its lowest level, so I'd say, if we take a moment to look at the bigger picture of what Newstart is actually for and what the government is doing to get people off it and into jobs, then in its current form it is fit for purpose. That said, we will continue to grow jobs and ensure that everyone has adequate access to skills, training and education in order to gain the employment that is fit for their purpose.

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