Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


Anti-Poverty Week

4:13 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate—

This is Anti-Poverty Week and what better time is there to discuss the issues around the adequacy of our social safety net and specifically the payments Newstart and youth allowance. These payments are far too low. They have been for a long time. They have not been increased since 1994, and certainly living costs have risen. We've seen a meaningful increase in the age pension. Not only has there been no real increase in Newstart since 1994; the indexation against the CPI continues, whereas the age pension has had an increase but it has also got a much more meaningful and more complex indexation formula so you do get a more meaningful connection to the true cost of living for the age pension. That's why the Greens are asking the Senate to recognise that this is Anti-Poverty week in 2019, and today also marks United Nations International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. We are also noting that raising the rate of Newstart and youth allowance is one of the most effective measures the government can undertake to reduce the rate of poverty in Australia. We also call on the federal government to immediately increase the rate of Newstart and youth allowance.

As I said, today marks the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This week is also, as I said, Anti-Poverty Week. Each year the team at Anti-Poverty Week and the coalition that works on this issue choose an evidence based solution as the focus to take action to end poverty. This year, the theme for Anti-Poverty Week is to raise the rate of Newstart by $75 a week. Increasing Newstart and related payments is one of the most effective ways that we can address poverty in Australia. Around one million Australians are reliant on these payments, which have not been increased in real terms for over 25 years.

The rate of Newstart is simply inadequate. It currently provides around $40 a day. This is trapping many people in poverty, and employers are telling us that it acts as a break on job searching. One of the big four consultancy firms, KPMG, recently recommended that Newstart be raised by $100 a week to support the material and psychological needs of unemployed workers looking for employment. We can improve our social safety net to lift people out of poverty and unemployment.

While Australia lacks an official definition of poverty—and we heard about this at the beginning of the week, when I asked the government about their appalling failure to officially develop a definition of poverty—we know what it means to live in poverty. Poverty is about having a lack of money and resources, both income for now and savings for later. But poverty is not just an economic issue. It's also about not having the basic things you need to survive and live with dignity—things like affordable housing, access to good education, quality health services. A lot of Australians are already under financial stress and are juggling bills. People living in poverty have to make difficult choices every day. There are the choices that parents make to skip meals to pay for a child's textbook or to have heating in their home, or they skip meals so their children can eat.

When our social safety net is so low and people don't have other supports, they easily fall into poverty. Of all Australians living below the poverty line, 53 per cent rely on social security as their main source of income. This shows that our current rates of income support are keeping people below the poverty line. The reality is that Newstart and youth allowance are not enough to meet people's basic needs. This is demonstrated through the latest findings of the Foodbank hunger report 2019, which came out on Sunday to mark the start of Anti-Poverty Week. This report found that the number of people seeking food relief has increased by 22 per cent over the last 12 months. Charities are struggling to meet the rising needs for food relief. We know that income support payments are inadequate, because a massive 42 per cent of the people experiencing food insecurity are living on a low income or pension. Australians don't think that people should be living in poverty. I think that Australians want to make sure that people aren't living in poverty and are looked after.

An Essential poll taken in June 2018 found that 92 per cent of people agreed with the statement: 'In Australia, no-one should be without basic essentials like food, health care, transport and power.' A 2018 Anglicare Australia survey found very high levels of compassion towards people experiencing poverty. In this survey, 86 per cent of people agreed nobody deserves to live in poverty, and 49 per cent agreed that people can experience poverty through no fault of their own.

This government is simply out of touch with the needs of our community. It lacks the political will to turn these problems into solutions. We have, in fact, a lot of the answers—they're right at our fingertips—yet the community calls have been ignored. One of the key solutions is increasing Newstart and youth allowance, making sure that our social safety net is actually tight enough to catch people and doesn't let people fall through, which is what it's doing right now.

Australia also has international obligations to reduce poverty. In 2015, we signed onto the Sustainable Development Goals. The first goal is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. This sets out a target for all nations to halve the proportion of people and children living in poverty by 2030, according to national definitions. But we don't have a national definition, do we? The problem is Australia doesn't have that agreed definition of poverty. But the government is refusing to act on it. In 2017, the former minister for social services told ACOSS, 'I cannot agree to your request to work jointly with ACOSS, academics and the community sector to set a national definition of poverty, because I am not convinced of the practical usefulness of such an approach in furthering opportunity and participation among disadvantaged Australians.' Yet, we know Australia needs to make dramatic policy changes if, in fact, we are to meet the sustainable development goal of halving our poverty rate.

Analysis by Professor Peter Saunders found that, if Australia was going to meet the goal of halving our poverty rate, we would need to get the rate down to 5.7 per cent for men, 6.1 per cent for women and 8.6 per cent for children. This would require radical change to our current policy settings. Yet, the government is refusing to use one of the biggest levers we have to reduce poverty, which is increasing Newstart. Today, the Greens are urging the government to fully commit to achieving the first goal of ending poverty in all its forms. It needs to do a number of things in order to do that. Developing a national definition and increasing Newstart and youth allowance are two key things that we could be doing.

I want to discuss children and poverty. Unfortunately, in Australia there's upwards of 700,000 children living in poverty. The theme for International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, which is today is, 'Acting together to empower children, their families and communities to end poverty'. Poverty condemns many children to lifelong disadvantage and entrenches intergenerational disadvantage. Research has now found that poverty has a significant influence on the development of children's brains. Children growing up in poverty too often go to bed or school hungry.

The Foodbank hunger report 2019 found that children represent 22 per cent of food insecure Australians. Tragically, 18 per cent of parents say their children go a whole day without eating at all at least once a week. I hear from so many single parents who go without meals to make sure there is enough food for their family. I hear of parents making so many sacrifices so their children can eat and go to school. Many of us, of course, have made sacrifices for our children, but these are sacrifices that endanger their parents' health as well when they go hungry. A large number of children experiencing poverty are living in families who rely on income support payments. One of the key measures we have available to ending child poverty in Australia, as I keep repeating, is raising the rate of payments. This is especially important for single parents, who were kicked off parenting payment single and onto Newstart. This harmful policy change saw single parents poverty rates rapidly increase from 16 per cent in 2006 to 59 per cent in 2018. We can change poverty rates. We can make sure that single parents who are raising their children on the low rates of Newstart have an increase.

First Nations children are also disproportionately impacted by poverty. The family matters report 2019 was launched this morning. I was there for it down at Old Parliament House. It highlighted First Nations children are 10.2 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care. Tragically, this number is increasing every year. Poverty is one of the drivers for children living in disadvantage and for their connection with the child protection system. Nearly one in three First Nations people is living below the poverty line. This contributes to overrepresentation of First Nations children in out-of-home care. We must take urgent action to end child poverty and build better outcomes for First Nations children across this country. One in 10 family households has one or more unemployed parent, and we have to support these families. I often hear government say, 'This is all about people finding work.' We do very clearly want to support people who are receiving income support to find work, but, when you are facing barriers to work, it makes it even more difficult. Poverty is a barrier to work.

Another report was released this week, by Anglicare, and it was about job availability. You hear the government say: 'We're doing something about this. We're making jobs. We're developing jobs. We're delivering jobs.' Well, they're not delivering enough, and, in the meantime, people are stuck on Newstart for, on average, 159 weeks—three years. Anglicare's report, released on Wednesday, entitled Jobs availability snapshot, highlighted that it is taking people, on average, five years to find work. How can someone survive on Newstart for five years and successfully find employment?

The average duration people spend on Newstart, as I said, is three years. Newstart is not a transition payment for people anymore. It was. I'll grant the government that. It was a transition payment. But who can survive transitioning for three years? For many people over 45, it is longer than that, because they're facing many barriers to work. This is no longer a transition payment, and the government should stop deceiving Australians. They bandy statistics around. They try and manipulate the statistics to make people believe that it's still a transition payment, because they use the people who flow through the Newstart program. No-one's denying that some people flow through it. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who remain stuck on Newstart for years and years because their barriers are not being adequately addressed and, as the report finds, there are not enough jobs.

Newstart doesn't cover your costs for food, let alone the costs of looking for work. These include internet expenses, phone bills, appropriate clothing and transport to attend job interviews. Again, I hear the government say, 'You can use the Employment Fund.' But I haven't found many people—and I've spoken to a lot—who have been able to access the Employment Fund for those sorts of things.

The ongoing stress and struggle to make ends meet can also distract people from undertaking their job search activities, further diminishing employment prospects. Nobody trapped in poverty wants to stay in poverty. Certainly I have not met anybody who wants to. The Jobs availability snapshot found that jobs for people without qualifications or work experience are drying up. There are at least five jobseekers without qualifications competing for every job at their skill level. On top of that, there are 1.16 million people in Australia who are underemployed. The reality is there just aren't enough jobs to go round. There are not enough entry-level jobs, in particular. At one end, you haven't got enough entry-level jobs, for young people, in particular, and, at the other end, employers don't want to be employing people over the age of 45 these days. And think about if you're over 55 and you lose work. The government again will come and tell you about all the programs they're developing. Some of those programs look really good on paper, and some people, they'll tell you, have got work. But that is not enough. It belies the statistics of the fact that people are stuck on Newstart for so long. I wholeheartedly agree with Anglicare when they say that it is now unconscionable and an act of wilful denial to pretend that Newstart can cover basic needs. I'll say that again: it is unconscionable and an act of wilful denial. That's exactly what the government is doing. They're in wilful denial. Their own departments gather their statistics, so they know what they are. They know they're selling a pup to the community when they say this is a transition payment.

There are 200,000 disabled Australians living on Newstart. Successive federal governments have chipped away at the disability support pension. Both sides, past Liberal and Labor governments, have tightened the eligibility criteria and made the application process so difficult. People who should be on DSP are being forced to survive on Newstart. If you are sick or disabled it is even harder to live on Newstart due to higher healthcare costs, medication costs and other equipment and supports that you need for your disability. Australians living on income support payments are having to skip essential medications and delay treatment. Here's what I heard from a disabled person trying to live on Newstart: 'Doctors said I should be on DSP, but I'm stuck on Newstart. The job provider agency seems to overlook chronic illness. The demands are too stressful now. Something has to change because our children are becoming crippled too.' Somebody else said to me: 'I broke down in tears on the phone to my mum the other day about this. Surviving is exhausting.' Those are people that have what the government calls partial capacity to work. In other words, they're living on Newstart with a disability. Only around eight per cent of people with a partial capacity to work are working or can gain work. They also face barriers to work.

The government continues to use harmful and misleading language about people who are trying to survive on our social security system. Our social safety net is failing them. There are many, many people who are suffering, living in poverty on Newstart. It's time that this country recognised it. It seems that the only people that don't recognise it are the government. Please: raise the rate now. Recognise that this system needs help. Support the people you claim to be supporting. Recognise that it needs to increase. Support your other programs by raising Newstart. Raise the rate.


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