Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


Anti-Poverty Week

4:48 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the general business motion for today regarding Anti-Poverty Week and the rate of Newstart and youth allowance. 'Poverty exists. Poverty hurts us all.' That is the theme of this year's Anti-Poverty Week, and I earnestly ask the government to take this to heart. That's because, to live up to the ideals we see for ourselves as a country, we must ensure that we do not leave people living in poverty. We are failing miserably in this regard. Three million, or 13.2 per cent, of Australians live below the poverty line, which is defined as 50 per cent of median income. Young people are particularly affected, with half of all households headed by someone younger than 35 experiencing in just the last 12 months one or more indicators of financial stress such as skipping a meal or failing to pay a bill on time.

Tragically, 739,000 Australian children live below the poverty line. The government cannot keep seeing three-quarters of a million children living in poverty and not look to act on it. It cannot think that this is in any way acceptable. Children are unable to change the circumstances they were born into, and they shouldn't be collateral damage from policies of a government that seems to believe that unemployment is a moral failing of an individual. The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth have conducted research which has found there is real damage being done to children who are living in poverty. Data from the Australian government funded longitudinal study of Australian children, which has been following 10,000 children since 2003, was used in their paper To have and to have not: measuring child deprivation and opportunity in Australia. They found:

Children in monetary poverty were more likely to experience deprivations across all Nest dimensions, illustrating that the impacts felt by children in families living below the poverty line spread far wider than just their material basics, to affect all areas of their wellbeing.

These children are significantly more likely to experience multidimensional deprivation and deep deprivation and are significantly deprived in relationships with friends, food security, learning at home, enjoyment of exercise and regular participation in extracurricular activities. Sadly, this damage is potentially carried forward into their adult lives.

The government's cruel policies are not only causing extreme hardship for this generation but carrying it over to the next, which obviously brings significant cost to the children and their communities. The government has to rethink their approach. This government seeks to place the blame for unemployment on the individual to justify its increasingly cruel and heartless policies. It's a callous and cynical view which is dangerously wrong, and it's clear that the blame for unemployment and underemployment should not be placed on the unemployed and underemployed.

I want to expand for a couple of minutes on the idea of the effect of poverty on children. Children who grow up in poverty are particularly tragic because they're deprived of a fair start in life before they can even make the decisions for themselves, and the proportion of children living in poverty is higher than any other age group. Let's think about what it means for a child to live in poverty. It can mean that you go to bed on an empty stomach; you go to bed hungry. It can mean not having a safe and secure home or place to live and sleep. It can mean going to school not only with, maybe, the pain of hunger but the shame that among their peers they're missing out. They probably can't attend school excursions. They often don't have the school uniform. Quite often these kids stand out, and they can be victimised because of that. Or sometimes they don't even get to go to school at all. If the parents can't afford a driver's licence and can't get them to school, if there's no public transport where they live, the kids don't go to school at all.

As I said, they don't get to go on school excursions, and they don't get to participate in things like team sports, because you've got to pay for uniforms and registration to participate in team sports. And so they don't get time to spend with their friends and their peers, which leaves them feeling really lonely and isolated, and this is not good enough. They're missing out on healthy food, physical activity and interacting with people their age, and all those things are so critical to a child's development, with the first five years of their lives obviously being the most important.

Children living in poverty can experience severe physical and health complications, and of course this all has an impact on concentration in the classroom, their homework and, ultimately, whether they complete their education—finish year 12, go on to tertiary education or whatever. Children in poverty are not only anxious for themselves but worry for their parents and their families. As I see it, poverty is a collective challenge, and addressing poverty is a collective responsibility for us all—not shaming people, not trying to make people feel as though they're lesser people because they might have to receive social security of some type. That is not appropriate, but that is how people have been made to feel over the last few years.

For families living in poverty, parents are struggling to get to the end of their pay cheque. Of course, some parents don't even get a pay cheque. They delay things such as buying medicine, going to the doctor, or going to the dentist. They forgo new shoes or a haircut or new clothes for a job interview. We know that many parents skip maybe one or two meals a day. Sometimes they don't eat for a whole day. Sometimes parents will not eat for many days. They do their best to shield their kids from these things. They cover it by saying things like, 'I ate while I was cooking' or 'I was over at the neighbours and had something to eat there.' Parents shouldn't have to do this. To be honest, it's not always possible to shield children from these realities.

We have to remember—and those opposite really need to bear this in mind—that the impact of poverty, especially on young children, can have a profound and lasting impact on their outlook on life as well as the quality of their life outcomes. To many, many people poverty means they cannot imagine a future. As a former early childhood educator, to me that is one of the saddest things to see. I worked with children who, because they came from a low-income or no-income family, could not imagine a future, and it was one of the saddest things I think I've ever seen. These kids deserve a fair go, because when our children are deprived our whole country's future is diminished. It's all right for us in here. None of us in here live below the poverty line. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't take responsibility. We should act in a fair and caring manner, not a callous and punitive manner. We need to make sure that we understand that poverty affects us all and we need to act appropriately.

I mentioned that some people can't afford clothes for an interview. When they can't re-enter the workforce, they can't contribute to the economy. To me, it's a bit of a false economy for those on the other side to want to keep the Newstart rate so low and to deny an increase of any type for these people, because, when you have to choose between a bus fare to get to a job interview or medication from the chemist, you just can't participate properly in society. This government refuses to even acknowledge the critical socioeconomic challenge threatening the Australian way of life, never mind that the government will not lift a finger to do something about it.

I heard Senator Siewert say this, and I've heard many people on this side of the chamber say this: the overwhelming majority of people on Newstart are desperate to get work. They will take any work. They are not dole bludgers. They are not lazy. They are not dealing drugs all the time. We've heard so many comments over the past few months and years from the other side, and they've all been punitive. I haven't really heard anything positive coming from that side. 'If you have a go, you'll get a go.' Well, do you know what? Not everybody is born equal. Not everybody has the opportunity to have a go. We need to remember that and bear it in mind when we're dealing with these situations.

There are many people in work who are underemployed, desperate for more work and unable to meet their basic expenses even with their current hours. In my home state of Tasmania there are 13.89 jobseekers for every entry-level job available. How can you possibly look to blame the individual when the odds are so stacked against them? It's clear that the issue is with the economy, guided, of course, by this third-term Liberal government that doesn't have a clue where it's going. And while the government says Newstart is a temporary payment, the average person on Newstart has been on the payment for three years. I have said it quite a few times in this place, and lots of people on this side and in the Greens have said it in this place: for most people, Newstart is not just a temporary payment.

The government says that Newstart is there to assist in getting a job, not to live on. But it's clear that it's harder to get a job if you cannot afford to get to the interviews, can't pay for interview clothes or can't pay your rent, or if you're worried about where you're living or you can't find enough money for electricity or even food. We should not be grinding people into the ground, which is what I see happening on that side, simply because the government can't see past their flawed ideology and look to care for all Australians. The Prime Minister's constant mantra that the best kind of welfare is a job is just trite. It's a heartless phrase, and it's an insult to those who are desperately looking for a job and are having difficulty putting food on the table for their kids.

The motion today calls on the government to increase the rate of Newstart and youth allowance, and we wholeheartedly support this, but I also call upon the government to reconsider their attitude to the unemployed, to stop the cruel attacks, to stop their blame-shifting and to actually work to make the lives of all Australians better, especially for the children because, when poverty exists, we all hurt, but it hurts the kids the most. They're the ones that you guys need to put a bit more thought into.


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