Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020


Pensions and Benefits

4:40 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Labor is proud of the fact that we as a nation have a social safety net designed with the purpose of providing assistance to those going through rough patches in life . The reality is the loss of a job or finding oneself out of work happens regularly, and difficult times can certainly happen to any one of us. It's also clear to everyone but the government that the rate of Newstart is way too low. Of course, that also goes for the disaster recovery allowance, which is set at the rate of Newstart.

People who have suffered through some of the toughest times of their lives deserve and need adequate support to get through those immediate days and weeks, yet the disaster recovery payment has not been increased since 2006. For 14 years it has remained set at $1,000. The expenses that people face when they've suffered loss or damage in a fire or other disaster such as a cyclone are significant. No amount of money can take away that pain and the disruption and the loss. But it is important that people have enough assistance to meet their basic needs in the immediate term. That is why the disaster recovery payment is so important. Many groups that have been working on the frontline with people after these bushfires have made it clear that the current rate of the payment is not stretching far enough for many people. I know that the government may not want to hear this, but this is what is coming through, and I think it is important that the Senate acknowledges these concerns.

The stories from bushfire affected communities show there is still much to be done to heal and recover from the devastation. We've heard stories of people who have lost their home waiting for a month for the disaster recovery payment. We've seen that, we've heard that. Families have been left in dire straits waiting for funds to come through as they pay for alternative accommodation and try to replace everyday necessities. People have been in desperate straits. Displaced families are living in tents or couch-surfing, and farmers can't get stock feed. Over 3,000 homes have been confirmed lost across Australia since the bushfire season began, and that number is sure to rise as damage assessments continue. There are also significant impacts to livestock and farming infrastructure. Twelve million hectares have been burnt in the devastating bushfires across Australia's south, east and west, and up to one billion native animals have perished.

Labor flagged the threat of the looming unprecedented fire season back in November. The Labor leader wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to call an urgent COAG meeting to coordinate a bushfire response plan for the country. Throughout the crisis, Labor put forward constructive solutions, including measures that could assist with the recovery efforts.

I might digress a little bit and point out the importance of the knowledge of First Nations people around the bushfires in northern Australia, and how we as a country need to take more time to focus on the knowledge of our First Nations people and particularly our rangers. I have stood here and spoken about the important programs and the burning off of country, which is done in a way that prepares the country for new growth. Those skills have been learnt by non-Indigenous Australians and our fireys up in the north, in terms of being mindful of the bushfire season and also the general knowledge.

I've shared here on a number of occasions in relation to my family in the Gulf Country—the Yanyuwa and Garrwa people—looking after country by burning off in the dry season, which is winter down here. Our dry season is from April through to October. In early April and May, after the wet, we start to burn off country, to protect it and also for growth coming forward. It's also good for the animals to know that they have new regrowth after the early burn offs by the jungkayi, which is what we say in my language. In Yanyuwa 'jungkayi' means the protectors of country. The English word would probably be 'policing' the country. So we always have jungkayi and the ngimirringki, which means 'traditional owners, working together as to when and where to burn off and, obviously, alerting people in those areas where they're burning off the country.

When we look at what's been happening here, it's not just about the level of the disaster recovery payment but there is the red tape and bureaucracy involved, and the hoops to be jumped through, which have certainly added to the distress and extra pressures for people who are already living right on the edge. We've heard stories like Rae Harvey's at Bateman's Bay, and how she lost her home in the bushfires and has been living on her property with no running water, electricity or wi-fi.

Then we've heard about all the animals; we all have, and I heard Senator Henderson make reference to that. It's just unbelievable when we think of the enormous numbers of our animals that have been either killed or maimed across these areas. There are some we may have lost forever, and I think that's a really sad point. I know there is great sadness among the language groups in those areas. Of the more than 100 marsupials that Ms Harvey used to look after, only 22 were left and most were suffering from dehydration and burns. She was certainly frustrated and exhausted by the bureaucratic demands in proving who she was and where she lived.

We've also heard the story of the mayor of Bega, Kristy McBain, who raised concerns that it was just difficult for bushfire victims to get help. I know that many of the frontline workers have been doing their level best to assist people affected by the disasters. For example, Services Australia employees reduced a 17-page disaster recovery payment form to five pages, which helped reduce the paperwork for the victims. I know it doesn't sound like much, but if you think about all the applications and work that you have to go through just to get the relief then that component is enormously frustrating. So to have that reduced and streamlined in a way that gives assistance earlier to people was certainly a great assistance. I'm told that the agency continues to field over 120,000 calls from Australians experiencing devastation—120,000 calls! It's not the fault of the people on the front line that they're dealing with policies that seem not to aid in getting support as soon as they can.

As I said at the outset, Labor is proud that we have a system designed to provide assistance to those going through rough patches in life. But of course, like everything, it has to be adequate. And so I'll talk about Newstart, and the reality of Newstart is that it is not adequate. Who does this affect? Over the past six years, the number of Australians aged 45 and over who rely on Newstart has surged by 60,000. Those over 45 represent half of all Newstart recipients, and those over 55 represent a quarter. And that's the future: this is how we care for people moving on in their middle years and those who are closer to retirement.

The reality is Australians aged 45 and older find the most difficulty re-entering the job market due to structural barriers and age discrimination. It is out there, and I am sure many people can tell stories about it. There are three Newstart recipients for every job vacancy. Some two million Australians are either looking for work or looking for more work, 1.1 million are underemployed and 130,000 Newstart recipients actually have a job but don't earn enough wages or receive enough hours to get off the payment.

Soon this government is going to enforce compulsory income support—the cashless debit card—on Newstart recipients and others receiving support payments across the country, and that will make it immensely tougher for people already on a very tight income. It is going to limit the amount of cash that can be accessed. Purchasing second-hand items like school uniforms and kids toys will be made a lot harder, if not impossible, for many families. Those in the CDC trial sites report that accessing cheaper goods through online retailers is causing serious problems for them. Some of the reports given as evidence to the Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs inquiry into the cashless debit card can only be described as bizarre. For example, a mum trying to buy a child's book through an online bookstore had her CDC card refused and was told that she might be trying to buy a book on distilling alcohol, and that is just one story.

These are the facts of poverty and deprivation in Australia: three million or 13.2 per cent of Australians live below the poverty line when defined as 50 per cent of median income; 739,000 children or more than one in six Australian children live below the poverty line; and Anglicare says that there are 19 job applicants for every one job vacancy. I recall some of the evidence received by the inquiry—all public, all on the record—by Newstart recipients telling of the humiliation they feel having to jump through these hoops to be able to access their money every week. We had professors, journalists, people with all sorts of degrees come before the committee who were on Newstart and who were absolutely devastated that they cannot seem to move out of the cycle of being on Newstart. So I think that figure from Anglicare of there being 19 applications for every one job vacancy really is a crucial point among these facts I am sharing with the Senate.

Over 1.1 million Australians are underemployed, and poverty threatens the Australian way of life. Poverty directly affects over one in 10 Australians, but it indirectly affects each and every one of us. When a child goes hungry or without a roof over their head, they cannot do their homework, complete their education or reach their potential. When a person has to live on the amount of money that Newstart provides and cannot afford clothes to attend a job interview or transport costs to get there—I know that might sound like a crazy thing; why can't people have clothes or transport to get somewhere?—there is no way they can prepare and then feel confident in themselves to be able to go out there and get those jobs. They cannot re-enter the workforce and contribute to the economy: it is a fact.

When a person must skip meals or medication, they cannot participate economically or socially in our society. When they cannot afford the basics or essentials, our local businesses have less to spend on wages or jobs. All Australians, whether they live above or below the poverty line, will in some form or another feel the struggle of the reality of that poverty. They feel it in their stagnant wages and they feel it in their lack of job security. This vicious cycle will continue until we as a country choose to do something about it.


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