Senate debates

Thursday, 10 December 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020; Second Reading

1:39 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. Well, here we go again: another day, another group of people being hit and disadvantaged by this government, because, no matter how the government tries to explain this away by saying, 'Actually, what it's about is we're giving people more money; it's not a cut,' it is a cut. So let's start on the basis of the fact that we all knew the JobSeeker payment was too low at $40 a day. The government, very rightly—and we supported it—introduced the coronavirus supplement. They knew that was essential because they knew people couldn't live on the JobSeeker payment of $40 a day; that's been very clear for years and years. Then they cut it by $300 at the end of September, dropping people into poverty because the combined JobSeeker payment plus the coronavirus supplement bring that payment below the poverty line.

Now, despite all the rhetoric, they are cutting people's payments again, when the recession isn't over, despite the claims of the Treasurer, and we are still dealing with issues around the pandemic. They're being cut again, by another hundred dollars, dropping families and people further below the poverty line. I can hear those on the opposite side of the chamber coming out and saying, 'Oh, yes, but they get other payments.' The majority of them get an extra $4 a day for the energy supplement, which takes the JobSeeker payment plus that to $44 a day. This is another hit to the most disadvantaged in our community, who are trying to survive on payments that now don't enable them to meet their rent, meet their essential bills and meet any medical bills they may have. This is another go by this government at those who can't find work. We should bear in mind that last night they passed legislation that continued the cashless debit card for another two years, and that last night a number of us articulated the impact that that card has had on people's daily lives. This is yet another impact that those people are going to have to deal with.

The major change introduced by this bill is the extension of the coronavirus supplement and its reduction to $150 a fortnight from 1 January—that is, just after Christmas—to 31 March 2021. The Greens think it is appalling that the government thinks that people are going to be able to survive following these cuts. I'm foreshadowing a second reading amendment that notes that the measures in this bill will cut the coronavirus supplement from $250 a fortnight to $150 a fortnight and throw an additional 330,000 people into poverty, which means that the government will now have forced a total of 1.16 million Australians below the poverty line since September this year. Our amendment calls on the government to immediately announce a permanent and ongoing increase to the JobSeeker payment and youth allowance so that unemployed and underemployed Australians can live above the poverty line. It is essential that the government increases the rate of JobSeeker, end the uncertainty and end the fact that people can't make plans when they don't know what the payment is going to be. This bill also extends several changes that were made to our social security system through to 31 March next year, including changes to the personal income test for recipients of JobSeeker payment and youth allowance, changes to the partner income test for the JobSeeker payment, and waiving the ordinary waiting period, seasonal work preclusion period and newly arrived residents waiting period.

When the coronavirus supplement was initially introduced at the rate of $550 a fortnight, hundreds of thousands of Australians were lifted out of poverty. This bill will cut income support payments by $50 a week, a few days after Christmas. In doing so, it will reverse the gains made in tackling poverty and plunge record numbers of people into hardship. We started addressing the issues around poverty, and now this government is rushing to take those supports away, dropping people back into hardship. In fact, as I said, this latest cut to the coronavirus supplement will throw an additional 330,000 people into poverty. That means that, when this happens, the government will force an additional 1.16 million people below the poverty line.

Researchers from ANU say that we are now seeing elevated levels of poverty that are well above the levels of poverty we had pre-COVID. Quite frankly, it makes me sick that this government is putting in measures that it knows very, very well will increase poverty in Australia. The timing of these cuts to the coronavirus supplement is simply incomprehensible. The Minister for Families and Social Services should know that emergency relief and financial counselling services traditionally experience a peak in demand around January. What do you think these people are going to need to do when they haven't got enough money? They're going to be reaching out for emergency support, just when there will already be a peak in demand. Why, then, has the government chosen 1 January to make these cuts? They are cuts—that's how they're seen by people on the ground. People on the ground see them as cuts. The government wants to frame this bill as an extension of support, but make no mistake: these are cuts. That is what it means to people's pockets. It's a cut to people receiving the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance and parenting payment.

The effects of this pandemic are far from over. Despite the government trying to talk up the fact that we're moving away from recession, people are still feeling it on the ground. Cutting the coronavirus supplement will only serve to further entrench poverty and stall economic recovery. People want to work, but even before the pandemic there simply weren't enough jobs to go around. Anglicare Australia's Jobs availability snapshot shows that there were 106 jobseekers for every entry-level vacancy. This week, Anglicare Australia released another report, a survey of Australians on Centrelink payments. This report paints a bleak picture of life before the coronavirus supplement was introduced in March and before the JobSeeker payment was, in effect, increased with the coronavirus supplement. It found that 59 per cent of respondents had less than $100 in weekly income left after paying their housing costs—$100 left to pay all their other bills. That was after just housing costs coming out. It showed 72 per cent of all surveyed respondents regularly skipped meals and 14 per cent of young survey respondents had to couch-surf. After the $550 coronavirus supplement was introduced, the percentage of Australians living on $7 a day was halved.

I'm extremely concerned about how unemployed and underemployed Australians will survive when the income support payments are cut to $50 a day, which is what this cut basically does, come 1 January. The government is condemning people to a life of skipping meals every day, couch-surfing and not being able to pay their rent. There are 1.1 million children whose parents are receiving the coronavirus supplement. This bill will condemn hundreds of thousands of children to living in poverty, which we all know has lifelong implications. Children living in poverty are more likely to face food insecurity, lack good relationships and miss out on learning at home. We also know that children from poor households are 3.3 times as likely to suffer adult poverty as those who grew up in never-poor households.

This government talks about wanting to reduce what it calls long-term welfare dependency, yet it fails to recognise how cutting the coronavirus supplement is in direct opposition to this goal. One of the best ways we can lift children out of poverty is by ensuring that the income support payments their parents receive are above the poverty line. I am deeply concerned about the impacts that cuts to the coronavirus supplement will have on older Australians. We know that many older Australians have lost work and suffered the greatest reduction in hours as a result of the pandemic. In reality, if you are aged over 55 and have lost your job, it's highly unlikely that you will be able to enter the workforce again. Anglicare Australia found that income support recipients aged over 45 were significantly more likely to be pessimistic about their future work prospects. By ignoring calls for a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment, the government is condemning older Australians to live in poverty until they reach pension age.

I also worry about the impact this bill will have on people being pushed into debt and needing to seek out predatory payday lenders, because that's where people have to go when they're living in poverty and have urgent bills to pay. When income support payments fall below the poverty line, people are at significantly increased risk of using high-interest short-term lenders and unaffordable debt out of sheer desperation.

As rent and mortgage moratoriums are lifted, we are going to see large numbers of people experiencing financial hardship and debt issues. While the government talks about payroll jobs returning, this holds little hope for the 700,000 people who were on the JobSeeker payment before COVID hit. This bill is going to entrench long-term unemployment by pushing those people on the JobSeeker payment further below the poverty line. We know that searching for work takes time and costs money. By keeping the payment below the poverty line, the government is putting barriers in people's way. People will have less capacity to pay for the costs associated with job searches, such as for clothing, transport and the many other things they need to find work.

I'm also concerned about the impact this cut will have on women experiencing domestic and family violence. We cannot ignore the intersection between poverty and family violence. We have all heard the powerful accounts of how the additional $550 a fortnight has supported women to leave family violence situations and re-establish their lives. I am extremely concerned about what the ramifications of cutting this payment will be for those women.

These cuts will also impact on the mental health and wellbeing of unemployed Australians. I really struggle to listen to the government doing shiny press conferences on mental health when they are turning around and cutting income support in the next one. Living below the poverty line for an extended period of time impacts people's mental health. It exacerbates existing health problems and creates new ones. People are understandably fearful about what happens next and how they will keep a roof over their heads.

This bill contributes to poverty by permanently ending the pause to the liquid assets waiting period and the assets test from 1 January 2021. It is absolutely premature to reintroduce these tests when millions of Australians are experiencing unemployment and underemployment. Older Australians who are being forced to wear down their savings before they can access support are going to be particularly worse off. I've also had people tell me how they've accessed their super and how that now means they cannot apply for JobSeeker because they don't meet the liquid assets test. It's appalling that, because of the liquid assets test, people are being forced to use their super, when we know that super is supposed to be there for their retirement.

We cannot not support this bill, because, if we don't support it, people won't get the reduced payment. But we absolutely resent and call out the government for cutting these payments way too early, because it is going to drop so many people into poverty. The government needs to announce a permanent, ongoing increase to JobSeeker to ensure that people won't be living in poverty and won't be living with uncertainty about their futures because they don't know how much money they're going to have in order to live.


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