Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020


Pensions and Benefits

4:10 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes that the low rate of Newstart and the insufficient rate of disaster payments do not adequately meet people's needs and can exacerbate the difficult circumstances people are experiencing in the face of bushfires and drought; and

(b) calls on the Federal Government to immediately raise the rate of Newstart by at least $95 a week and raise the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment to $3000 per adult and $1000 per child.

This is a particularly important issue. This summer's bushfire crisis has put the spotlight directly on our social security system. This disaster highlights just how important our social security system is. It is a safety net that Australians know they can rely on to help them through their times of difficulty and crisis. When they lose their employment or when they are sick, they can access our social safety net. In a time of crisis, such as the bushfires that we have faced in this nation since September, people know, or believe, that the social safety net is there to help them. It's in these times that people need a really strong social security system so that they can fall back on that for support.

The disaster recovery payment is a one-off, non-means-tested payment—currently set at $1,000 for adults and $400 for children—for people who have been adversely affected by a major disaster. This payment has not increased since it was introduced in 2006. Given the devastation and ongoing threat of extreme climate-driven natural disasters, it's essential that the government plays its role in supporting people. We've received feedback from the community that the disaster recovery payment isn't enough. Areas have been declared under the process so that people can access these payments, so we're not saying that the social safety net hasn't been put in place or the necessary actions taken to enable people to recover—although I'll come back to a few problems that have occurred specifically for some people. By and large, that process has been established. The fact is we are starting to get feedback from people that what is available isn't sufficient to help them through the current crises that this nation has been facing.

We strongly support the Australian Council of Social Service's call to increase the disaster recovery payment to $3,000 for adults and to $1,000 for children. We share ACOSS's concerns that the current payments are seriously inadequate, especially for people on lower incomes and with fewer assets, family members and friends to secure alternative housing options. Many people have lost everything and urgently need adequate financial support. Increasing the disaster recovery payment to $3,000 for adults would be a small way to help people who are in crisis. We know they need more support, but at least this would boost what is currently available.

Let's be clear: $1,000 doesn't meet people's needs and doesn't go far enough when it comes to helping people recover from, in this instance, these horrific bushfires. It's exacerbating the difficult circumstances people are experiencing in the face of bushfires and floods; and, as I was referring to earlier, it's not necessarily getting to those who need it—because of some administrative issues, we think. People have been told, for example, that their area hasn't been declared a disaster area. The report from Mungo residents is that they were denied the recovery payment because Centrelink claimed they were outside the fire zone, despite losing their homes.

I'm sure these issues are more about administration, and I acknowledge also that these things happen. They shouldn't happen, but, if they do, they need to be rectified directly, and it's unfortunate that people have to go to the media or their local members or local senators to get some action, particularly when communications in these areas are poor because of the loss of those services due to the fires.

The Prime Minister clearly acknowledged that the disaster recovery payment was inadequate, when he announced in January that families in bushfire affected areas who had already claimed the payment would be eligible for an additional $400 for children—an understanding that more money was required. However, I am concerned that this is a one-off deal and it will not be provided for other disasters going forward. The government should be acknowledging that the disaster recovery payment is seriously inadequate, especially for people on lower incomes and with fewer assets.

I now come to the disaster recovery allowance—that was about the payments. The disaster recovery allowance, which is the other part of the disaster support that is available in Australia, is paid for a maximum of 13 weeks if a declared disaster directly affects your income. The catch is that it is paid at the rate of Newstart or youth allowance, and that's, of course, the really, really clear problem. When Newstart already traps people in poverty, how does the government expect it can truly support someone who has lost their income, their job, and perhaps their home following the bushfires? In January, Robert Provenzale was forced out of his home and his job in Batemans Bay following the bushfires. When talking about the disaster recovery allowance, he said:

'It's, to be honest, stuff all.

'It'll barely pay my bills, it'll barely pay anything.'

I must say that his comments there reflect those in the large number of emails I have received about the adequacy of the payment. And I'm sure other members of this place have received similar emails, because people are deeply concerned that they're not going to be able to survive on those low levels of payment.

The bushfire crisis will have long-lasting impacts on people's safety, health and wellbeing. We believe the government must act now to increase this payment so that people have adequate support to get back on their feet in the wake of these disasters. It is essential that we have a responsive and fair system to help people recover as quickly as possible.

I want to touch very briefly on the cashless debit card because I've also had a lot of feedback about the use of cashless debit cards in disaster affected areas. It's not only the low rate of the disaster payments that affects people; it's also the government's punitive measures, like the cashless debit card. People on the card who face power outages are, effectively, left stranded without any access to money. On New Year's Eve, bushfires caused around 25,000 homes and businesses in and around Ceduna, for example, to lose power. The same situation happened in Central Australia, where extended blackouts meant food relief organisations had to step in to feed people. How can someone on the card eat, feed their family and buy other essentials when the power is down? They can't call the cashless debit card hotline for help when the power is out. This is absurd, and it is another example of the dangerous consequences of compulsory income management and restricting access to cash.

Let me come to the general issue of Newstart, which, as I said, is the base rate for the disaster recovery allowance. This is a vitally important issue. ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Services, is now calling—it happened just towards the end of January—for a $95 increase to Newstart and youth allowance at the very minimum. Most people in this place—I'd say all people in this place—have heard me talk about this all the time. Acting Deputy President Askew is nodding her head. This is an issue that many, many people are passionate about. But the fact is that the gap—the inadequacy of Newstart—is absolutely critical to those who are living in poverty, because we know that people living on Newstart are living in poverty. The gap is growing so quickly between the cost of living and income support payments that ACOSS has needed to update this figure from $75 a week to $95 a week. I remember when it was $50 a week. We were campaigning on that. It's taken so long—and in fact the government still hasn't recognised that Newstart is too low—that the figure is now $45 higher than when we originally started this campaign—$45. And $95, I would argue, would be barely enough. We support this increase, but stress that it's just a starting point.

In fact, we need to go further than $95 a week if we are to seriously close the gap for those who live in poverty. If we are going to address poverty in this country, we have to increase Newstart. Newstart has been at the same level for 25 years. We have now witnessed such a long period of inaction from the federal government on Newstart that people have descended further and further into poverty. The government's continued failure to act means that people trying to survive on Newstart are falling further and further behind. People in the community are denied dignity when they are forced to live on $40 a day for extended periods of time. It affects their job prospects, their mental health and their children's health.

As we get ready for the start of the university year, students receiving youth allowance will be attempting to survive on just $33 a day, an income that is even less than Newstart. ACOSS found that nine in 10 young people on allowances skip at least one meal a week, and six in 10 have less than $14 a day after paying their rent. In 2019, the average Newstart recipient claimed their payment for more than three years, which is up from two years and two months in 2014.

Just recently, the figures were published on the number of older people on Newstart. For the purposes of employment, because of ageism 45 is now the mark for when people are being discriminated against in the work place when they're trying to find work. Over 50 per cent of people now on Newstart are aged over 45. They're ageing in poverty into the pension—50 per cent of people on Newstart. They're finding it increasingly difficult to find work because of ageism. If you stick around, you'll hear me talk about that in the adjournment tonight: the impact of ageism. The truth is people are trapped on Newstart and it is so woefully low that it takes away from their ability to find work and it has ongoing consequences.

The low rate of Newstart will also be profoundly felt by people facing difficult circumstances, including the loss of income and employment in the wake of the bushfires and floods. It will definitely make it harder for people to get back on their feet, and I've had correspondence from people saying exactly that. Increasing Newstart is in fact a smart thing to do. It's not just compassionate; it's also really smart. It would provide significant economic stimulus and the creation of thousands of new jobs that would assist in the recovery of bushfire, drought and flood affected regions. The only thing standing in the way now of an increase in Newstart is the unwillingness of government to recognise that they have a responsibility to support those who are doing it tough in our country—those who have lost their job in a variety of ways, through no fault of their own, be it through the loss of businesses because of bushfires and floods or be it through their job no longer existing or being laid off. The fact is that there are a lot of Australians who are doing it tough living on Newstart and youth allowance. It needs to be increased.

Similarly, the disaster recovery payments also need to be increased for Australians affected by bushfires and other disasters—in this instance, bushfires and floods—to make sure that they have enough to get by and to get back on their feet. Every Australian, I'm convinced, wants to see the people affected by these disasters being able to get back on their feet and they want to see the government helping them. I urge you to support these calls to increase Newstart and these payments.


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