Wednesday, 2 August 2023
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023; In Committee
While I understand the motivation behind the Greens' amendment on sheet 2031, it's not something that we can support. The amendment calls for the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee to determine a single national poverty line for a financial year, every year. It requires the committee to give that poverty line to the minister and for the minister to have to table it. This is asking the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee to do something that is impossible. Poverty doesn't look the same everywhere. Poverty in Tasmania isn't like poverty in Sydney, where the cost of living is really high. You've got to draw the line higher. Because the cost of just feeding and housing yourself is higher in Sydney than it is in Tasmania, you can't guarantee much about a single national poverty line consistent everywhere except that it's going to be wrong everywhere. It's the problem with averages. It's going to be too high in Tassie and too low in Sydney, and it's going to be wrong from day one.
The Henderson poverty line is a series that most people use in Australia to define the threshold for poverty. It's updated every three months. That's because the cost of living changes more than once a year and payments change twice a year, and the cost of housing changes when interest rates change every month. If you set the 2023 Henderson poverty line to where it was at in 2022, based on data from the previous year, you'd be wrong as soon as you start, and you'd get more wrong the longer you wait to update. The Greens have designed this amendment to have the line updated once a year based on the data of the previous year to inform a budget that applies to the next year. It misleads because it applies a single standard on everyone using old information, and then projects it forward as if nothing else is changing.
Finally, the Henderson poverty line is actually a series of 20 different lines. There is no one line. The Henderson model breaks it down based on your living circumstances. A single unemployed parent with four kids is going to have more bills to pay and more mouths to feed than a working couple with no kids. They can both be in poverty, but they can't be if you use a single line. You can't compare a working single parent with a retired pensioner who owns their own home and say that because that pensioner owns their own home they can't be in poverty. You might have bought it 50 years ago when prices were cheap and now you own it, but you can't afford your heating, you can't afford your groceries, your car doesn't leave the garage because you can't afford the registration. A single national poverty line would say that you're fine, and we know that you're not.
Poverty doesn't look like any one single thing. It matters where you live. It matters who lives with you. If we were to support this amendment it would be because we think poverty rates are important to measure and track, and it's important to have the government focused on reducing the number of people who are living below the line. We do think it's important to do all of those things. But it's because poverty is important that we think it's worth measuring right and tracking right, and we don't want to ignore whole groups of people who are living in poverty right now because we want a single, simple number instead of a messy, complicated bunch of different ones.
Poverty rates should be a national obsession. I want governments to measure success or failure based on how many people are unable to make ends meet, but we will not get there by jumping out of the gates with a number we know is wrong based on data we know is old averaging away people who don't seem to count. It's because they count that they deserve to be counted, and that's what this amendment would prevent. That's why we can't support it.