Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Matters of Urgency

Newstart Allowance

6:05 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I draw your attention to this simple statement by the CEO of the Tasmanian Council of Social Services, Kym Goodes:

For Newstart to work it needs to be enough to cover the basics, so people who are looking for a job, studying, caring for children or recovering from injury or illness can live with dignity, without the stress of juggling debt …

It's a simple, rational statement that makes perfect sense, yet this government is completely deaf to its logic. We've heard over the last year from literally dozens of respected organisations who support an increase in the rate of Newstart. The economic case for an increase has been laid out time and time again. The Australian economy is slowing to frightening levels, and one of the most obvious ways to stimulate it would be to increase the rate of Newstart, because we know that Newstart recipients will spend it in their local community, at their local supermarket, corner store and pharmacy. But the Morrison government has turned its back on this economic advice, desperately clinging to the notion of a budget surplus that may well be gained at the cost of a recession.

Less discussed is the impact of Newstart on people's health, but, if you care to listen to our health workers, social workers, first responders, charities and support agencies, they can tell you all about it. Being out of work and receiving unemployment benefits is linked with higher mortality and morbidity. Mental health conditions are more common among Australians receiving Newstart, parenting payments and the disability support pension. People trying to subsist on Newstart are the poorest of the poor, at the bottom of the lowest socioeconomic grouping in our country. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's 2018 report stated that, compared with Australians who are comfortably off, those in the lowest socioeconomic group are 2.6 times as likely to have diabetes; 2.4 times as likely to state cost as a barrier to seeing a dentist; 2.3 times as likely to state cost as a barrier to filling a prescription; and 2.1 times as likely to die of potentially avoidable causes. So someone on Newstart for any length of time is 2.1 times more likely to die of avoidable causes, and someone on Newstart is more than twice as likely as any member of this place to die from avoidable causes. The low rate of Newstart not only makes it more difficult to re-enter the workforce, as people find it difficult to meet transport costs, afford clothes for job interviews and access computers, but also makes it difficult to feed yourself, leave your house, maintain friendships and family ties, care for those you love, stay clean and warm, and form and maintain the human relationships we all need in order to live with hope and dignity.

In my office this week, I met a woman in her 40s who is homeless for the second time in her life. She lost her latest home when she lost her job. She can't get a rental because of the low rate of her income from her part-time job supplemented by Newstart. No-one will give her a lease. In order not to lose all her possessions, she has rented a small storage locker, but of course you can't get rental assistance on a storage locker. And you can't sleep in a storage locker, so she is couch-surfing while she works part time and studies at university. This woman is truly having a go. She was trying to stay in the workforce despite the fact that her miserable wage and the amount of petrol she uses to get to work mean that she is only $41 a week better off than she was on the full Newstart payment. She is studying to try to get a better-paying job, and she is desperately, desperately sad after years of poverty and struggling with her mental health. She is one of the thousands of Australians who are having a go and not getting a go. As she said, 'It's breaking me.' She cannot afford the medical assistance that she needs.

As the elected representatives of the Australian people, we have a fundamental responsibility for these people. I'm a senator for Tasmania, and I have the responsibility to do what I can on behalf of the 21,000 Tasmanians who are recipients of Newstart. Good government should provide social security support that allows people to live in health and dignity, with job generation and access to training that give Australians the opportunity of a secure job and a decent wage. Of course, our focus needs to be on jobs, but good government can do both. (Time expired)


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