Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023


Consideration by Estimates Committees

3:35 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I want to thank Senator Ruston for putting this motion about unanswered questions before the Senate today, because the number of unanswered questions from estimates and other questions on notice is outstanding. These have critical implications for transparency in government, particularly transparency about programs that are failing, that are having huge impacts on Australians. Today, budget day, we're talking about the budget being about choices, about deciding who this government is supporting and who it isn't. It's very clear from the silence on some issues that particular groups of people are not being supported in this budget and not being supported by this government.

I also have many unanswered questions in the portfolios that I am responsible for, for the Greens, particularly to the Minister for Social Security, to the Department of Social Security, about our income support system and the absolutely punitive conditions that people who are living on income support are facing when it comes to so-called mutual obligations, which are ridiculous hoops, ridiculous trials, that people have to jump through just to continue to receive payments that are below the poverty line.

I've got one unanswered question that is about payment suspensions. These are people who are on income support, who are on JobSeeker, who are having their payments suspended. I asked a question at last estimates about the number of payment suspensions by demographic group and program, the number of individuals subject to payment suspensions, the number of payment suspensions broken down by type of participation failure by program for each month from December 2020 to the present, the number of payment suspensions leading to a payment delay or cancellation, demerit and penalty counts by stage of the targeted compliance framework, and the number of payment-on-hold messages and conversion to payment suspensions.

This is critical information, because people are trying to survive on, as I said, below-poverty-line payments and are absolutely struggling to put food on the table, to pay their medical bills, to pay their rent, to get their kids off to school and to put shoes on their kids' feet. There are people in these conditions who are having their payments suspended because they are not fulfilling their mutual obligations. These are the people who can least afford to suddenly have no income coming in. They're people who haven't got big bank accounts to fall back on. There are a lot of people who haven't got family support, haven't got friends they can suddenly borrow $1,000 from. They're people who, if the money's not coming in, don't eat. These people, if their payments are suspended, go hungry. It means they can't afford to pay their rent and are at risk of being evicted. It means they can't go off to the chemist and pay for medication that might be keeping critical medical conditions under control. It has desperate impacts on their mental health, let alone the mental health impacts of knowing there is no money coming in. I have spoken to many people who tell me, when they've been put in this situation, of the damage it does to their mental health—the suicidal ideation.

These payment suspensions literally kill people. That is absolutely what happens. Yet the basic data—how many payment suspensions, to whom and why—is not forthcoming. I asked these questions on 20 March—seven weeks ago—and there has been silence since then. What does this say about this government's regard for the people who are surviving on income support payments and are at the mercy of this punitive mutual obligation system? Income support payments are meant to provide much-needed support, and payment suspensions have a devastating impact on the people who rely on them.

In addition, payment suspensions can create a cycle of debt and poverty. If a recipient falls behind and can't pay their bills or their rent, they can be forced to turn to credit cards or payday loans to make ends meet, which can lead to a cycle of debt that is incredibly hard to escape. It certainly does not put people in a good spot to take on finding work. It makes it incredibly hard for people to retain financial stability.

We've had considerable evidence brought to us in the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, which I chair, for our inquiry into the extent and nature of poverty in Australia. I'd like to read some of the evidence featured in the interim report, which I am going to be tabling this afternoon. Dr Elise Klein, in her evidence to the committee—which is, of course, already published—drew attention to the impact of two particular features, the base rate of payments and mutual obligations. She noted:

Two particular features are important to note: the low base rate of payment, which contributes to material deprivation; and the use of mutual obligations and conditionalities that stigmatise and disempower and can lead to the withholding of income. Together they produce hostile conditions that are said to propel people into employment. However, this logic of deterrence completely overlooks that people cannot work, in that they have a disability or illness; that there are not enough jobs, particularly in remote regions of the country; or that people receiving payments are already working, undertaking the critical work of unpaid care, which is essential for the economy and society.

Dr Klein also noted:

According to ACOSS, of the people receiving unemployed payments, 40 per cent have a disability, 47 per cent are 45 years and older, 20 per cent are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, 10 per cent are First Nations people and 13 per cent are raising a child alone. We see from these numbers the very real ableist, racist and gendered impacts of the government's policy approach on those it subjects to poverty. Critically, instead of understanding the important care obligations people have or the very real situations that stop people from working, people are subjected to payments well below the poverty line…. What is also deplorable is that children are punished through these policies. It is hard to think that this policy-induced poverty could be anything but state violence against our nation's children.

When we ask questions about mutual obligations, about these payment suspensions, we don't receive any answers.

I also want to read from a document prepared by the Antipoverty Centre, titled 'Compulsory activities do not address employment barriers'. The Antipoverty Centre collected the following stories from people in the welfare system in the days preceding our appearance at the Workforce Australia Select Committee briefing. These stories have been collected from a group of people traumatised by unemployment and the welfare system, who generously volunteered to participate in the protest to be held on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and to share their stories as an act of resistance to the government manufactured poverty machine that traps so many of us. This is not a cherrypicked sample of the stories we received designed to skew the perception of what is happening. Every person who submitted their story is included below. Employment services purport to address unemployment and constantly fail to do so. You cannot separate unemployment from the person who is unemployed and their whole circumstances.

The first story highlights the dire impacts of the threats of payment suspensions. This is information we were seeking from the government, which we have no information about. This is about Jarrad. Jarrad's on JobSeeker and currently has mutual obligation requirements. He says:

I have had to struggle with rising costs in living, rent, bills, medications and specialists all on the insufficient funds provided by the government.

Due to the renting crisis all I have left after my payment is less than $60 for a fortnight and I'm somehow expected to live on this? Without any additional help from friends and family I would have long since been homeless or dead. I have fought against daily thoughts of suicide and my depression and anxiety has become dangerous because of this constant struggle and stress, I'm living day to day and I often don't know how I'm going to get through the next week and pay for what I need to pay.

I am now disabled but not disabled enough to get on DSP and the entire process is a mammoth task with impossible hurdles. I am constantly fighting against your system and getting medical exemptions where I can because I cannot work but all of the systems in place tell me I can, that I have to or I'll lose my payment yet I can barely get out of bed each day, I have to get family and friends to help me do even the most basic of tasks but sure according to my provider I can do many hours a week of work.

Please, please for everyone that is struggling, please raise the rate.

End mutual obligations, end the privatisation of these systems.

Make DSP more accessible.

I don't want to die.

This is the impact that our punitive income support system is having on people. With these sorts of impacts, you would think that the least the government could do is be transparent about the data and about the number of people that are being impacted by this punitive system. But we know why they don't want to be—because it would be overwhelming evidence that the system is not working, that mutual obligations are not working and that mutual obligations need to be abolished and are keeping people out of employment, in poverty, totally oppressed and totally feeling that they are just a tiny cog in an enormous machine. That's why this information and answering those questions is critical. That's why it is critical that this government is transparent—because then it would be obvious that we need a different way.

I want to share another story. This one was shared anonymously, and it highlights the challenges of meeting your so-called mutual obligations if you can't afford a phone or have limited technical abilities. The person says:

I've been living in poverty on Centrelink payments—Austudy then Newstart/Jobseeker—since leaving high school almost 9 years back. I have never been able to afford housing that meets my needs as a disabled person with trauma from multiple domestic violence situations from various cohabitors. I can barely afford anywhere to live at all, actually, and the fact that I am once again likely having to find a place to live, with current prices within my greater area STARTING at 70% full Jobseeker payment, is soul-crushing.

I spend hundreds of dollars a month on medication and medical equipment I need to live on a day-to-day basis. I can't afford to see specialists for things like my ADHD or autism. I can barely afford basic foods—almost any meat I buy is nearly off, any veg frozen, any snack half-price or made from scratch. Almost all of my money goes directly to rent, bills, food, medical. The paltry leftovers aren't enough to cover keeping my car on the road—I have to ask for help pretty much every year to cover CTP etc. (Also, almost every job I've ever applied for has specifically stated that applicants need a car, so people on Jobseeker are literally priced out of being able to work.) New clothes are cast-offs from friends or from the clearance section at an already-cheap store. I've never been able to buy my own phone—which, by the way, is needed just to access Centrelink payments, and an up-to-date phone with reasonable technical specs is a necessity for the vast majority of jobs I've worked or applied for.

The current system of mutual obligations is unfair and punitive, and it often leads to people's payments being suspended through no fault of their own. That's the critical information. That's why we were asking questions about the numbers of people, the suspensions by demographic group and program, the numbers of individuals subject to payment suspensions, the numbers broken down by type of participation and the numbers that lead to a payment delay or cancellation. This is important information to have in the public eye—so it is very clear that our system is broken, that we need to be doing more and that we need to be supporting people who are currently trapped in poverty. By not providing this information, by not acting to abolish these punitive mutual obligations, the government is choosing to leave people in these circumstances. It is a political choice that's being made to leave people in abject poverty and feeling crushed under the punitive mutual obligations.

We can do more. This government, clearly, in the budget tonight is not going to be taking action to support people, but we as Greens are going to continue to fight for people until they have justice.

Question agreed to.


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