Senate debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


COVID-19: Income Support Payments

4:26 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes that the Morrison Government has abandoned people in lockdown on income support payments; and

(b) calls on the Government to re-instate the Coronavirus Supplement, to ensure people are supported to stay safe at home.

I've moved this motion to ensure that this place debates and understands that 90 per cent of people on income support in those areas currently in lockdown in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT are not receiving any additional payments. The Greens believe that that is simply unfair, unconscionable and contrary to sensible public health decision-making in that, if people can't get enough financial support to be able to put food on the table and to pay for a roof over their head and essential medications, they are going to go out to try to find work, which often will be frontline work, and that could expose them to unhealthy situations, particularly if they have to keep going out searching for that work. They would not be staying home, which they are being asked to do. They would be forced to go out in unsafe situations—potentially bringing COVID home to their families—because they are not receiving an income that is adequate for them to live above the poverty line and put food on the table.

I'd like to quote Jay Coonan and Kristin O'Connell from the Antipoverty Centre and Jeremy Poxon, who volunteers with the Australian Unemployed Workers Union. These people have deep lived experience of trying to survive on income support and of working and advocating for people on income support. They have lived experience of being unemployed, trying to look for work and dealing with mutual obligations while on a payment that is below the poverty line.

They made the point in an article in the Guardianyesterday:

It's now abundantly clear shutting down the economy hurts the poorest most. Lockdowns are necessary, but the social crises they create are optional.

I couldn't agree more, because those people on the low payment of JobSeeker, for example, of just $44 a day are living way below the poverty line and they are not getting a cent of support if they were unlucky enough to only be able to find less than eight hours of work. I will point out that people who have lost over 20 hours of work get $750 a week as a disaster payment, yet somebody who has not been able to find work—remembering that structural unemployment is, at heart, the basis on which our economy works and operates—is left to try and live on $315 a week. Can you see the inequality there, straight up? Can you see why they are saying that the COVID crisis is deepening inequality?

The government thinks that it is okay for billionaires and big businesses who have claimed the JobKeeper payment and made huge profits to say: 'Oh, we calculated wrongly when we put in our application! We got lots of money and paid dividends to our shareholders and bonuses to our executives. They've done a good job. They got us JobKeeper.' The government thinks it is okay for them to keep the millions and millions that they have been paid out of JobKeeper. But the government then chases people who were on income support and may have received JobKeeper as well. They chase them for debts but do not chase the billionaires for the money they claimed that turned out to be a mistake.

Just as bad as that is what we see now is a deliberate choice by government to let those rich people keep the money they got from the system, but they won't support people who are trying to survive in lockdown. They will not pay them an additional payment to help them keep safe and as part of a public health message. They're saying: No, you're staying on $315 per week. You try and make ends meet. You try and keep a roof over your head.' What do you think's going to happen when people lose their accommodation or they are forced to share other accommodation, which is also extremely unhealthy in the current lockdown circumstances? 'Oh, no, we are not giving those people any support,' they say. Ninety per cent of those people were struggling already under normal circumstances. We know that people are living in poverty and cannot survive on $44 a day.

During lockdown it is more expensive. As the article from the Unemployed Workers Union and the Antipoverty Centre points out, it is much harder during lockdown because all the cheap brands go, for example. As for home delivery, for people trying to survive on $44 a day—believe me—every single cent counts. So they can't afford to get groceries delivered. They don't have any savings they can use. They have nothing, because you can't save when you are trying to survive on $44 a day. Now they're in lockdown and not being able to afford to get groceries delivered. They're having to go out and find groceries and are again exposing themselves to unhealthy situations. It's no wonder we are seeing the demand on and phone calls to emergency food services escalate dramatically. It's the charities that are picking up the pieces, because the government would prefer that the billionaires and millionaires and big business keep the money that they mistakenly claimed through JobKeeper than to actually put money in and bring back the coronavirus supplement.

The government know that the coronavirus supplement helped so many people during the initial lockdown. They know very well, and ACOSS has pointed it out very clearly, because they talk to their members' members—because ACOSS is a peak organisation. I've read out here in this place on numerous times what the coronavirus supplement meant to people. It meant they did not have to go out in a difficult situation. It meant that they could in fact—surprise, surprise!—eat three meals a day, that they could pay their utility bills, that they could keep a roof over their head, that they could buy the medication that they need. It made them much safer and helped us to get through the initial lockdown.

How are those people going to survive now? We know that in New South Wales and Victoria they've just extended the lockdown and we know it's going to take quite a number of months, and they're still going to be struggling to survive in lockdown in unsafe situations, under the poverty line. The government has made a choice—and I've said this before. They've made a political choice to keep people in poverty. You can take no alternative view. They made a choice that people who are trying to survive on JobSeeker should be kept below the poverty line, should be made to struggle even more in difficult circumstances.

It is a very well-known fact, and we hear it every day, that lockdown impacts on people's mental health. We know that living in poverty impacts on people's mental health. If you're lucky enough to find a mental health specialist or worker or carer, that costs you money. We already know that the mental health professionals are booked out months and months ahead and that people are struggling to find mental health support. So, if people are dealing with lockdown and people are living in poverty, what do you think that does to people's mental health? It is having very significant impacts on their mental health, and they cannot afford to find mental health support, and this government is escalating the mental health crisis in this country for those who are currently on income support and living in poverty. Shame on this government!

The coronavirus supplement helped people enormously. It was the right thing to do. It showed that the government understood that you can't live in poverty in lockdown. So what the government have done now is they've chosen to give some people additional money so that they're not living in poverty during lockdown, but they haven't given the people who are already condemned to poverty additional support so they do not have to live in poverty. We now have two systems here: we have the system where we'll reward and we'll support, quite rightly, people who were working before, to keep them out of poverty, but we won't actually support those who cannot find work. We will keep them living in poverty, hence the Greens' very strong assertion that the government's approach will escalate inequality in this country.

The Antipoverty Centre, in an article published yesterday, made the point:

With cheap goods flying off supermarket shelves, more of us are confronted with the choice of skipping meals, falling behind on bills or paying rent.

Surviving on jobseeker is not Covid-safe. Buying the essentials forces us to leave home. Wealthy people get groceries delivered and poor people get Covid exposure. The nightmare scenario is transmission at a food bank.

As we battle Delta, we need payments that ensure everyone – especially unemployed people – can afford to stay home safely, even as living costs go up. We need to make sure families feeling the pressure of being cooped up together don't experience unnecessary financial stress—

They also point out that that can contribute to further domestic and family violence because you're creating a pressure cooker for these families. The article continues:

Poverty also traps us in unemployment, even the frontline workers we most need as our health system struggles.

As Covid spreads further into our communities, so does inequality. To solve both problems, we need to protect everyone.

I absolutely agree. That is why we need additional payments to those people on income support. We need to bring back the coronavirus supplement so that, in fact, we are again all in this together, because, at the moment, we are not.


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