Senate debates

Monday, 29 July 2019


Newstart Allowance

10:05 pm

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

I rise tonight to share further accounts of people's lived experience of Newstart. I promised I would continue to share these accounts in the chamber. This week, I share older Australians' experiences struggling to survive on Newstart. There are now more unemployed workers aged between 55 and 64 receiving Newstart than any other cohort. In December last year, there were 173,196 people between the ages of 55 and 64 struggling on Newstart. Older Australians are more likely to experience long-term unemployment: around 25 per cent of people aged between 55 and 64 have been unemployed for two years or more, compared to only 13 per cent of people aged between 25 and 34. We know that the longer people are out of work, the lower their chances of gaining employment. It becomes more and more difficult.

This government talks about helping unemployed workers into jobs, but is it really helping these groups who are most at risk of long-term unemployment? Last year, a Senate inquiry into jobactive found mature-aged unemployed workers aren't being supported by their jobactive providers to find employment, and that jobactive services and mutual obligations are currently not tailored to mature-aged workers. The inquiry heard evidence that jobactive doesn't recognise the age discrimination experienced by mature-aged workers, and that jobactive staff don't have enough tools or resources to manage their older unemployed workers. This situation is made even worse by the additional barriers older people face when engaging in the workforce. Some of these barriers include age discrimination, health issues, disability, skills, and education. In 2018, the Australian Human Resources Institute, in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission, undertook a survey of older workers. The survey found that up to 30 per cent of Australian employers are still reluctant to hire workers over a certain age, and that, for more than two-thirds of this group, that age was over 50. Before receiving Newstart, everyone is subject to an income and liquid assets test, having to use up most of their savings before being able to access Newstart. Older workers are therefore put in a terrible situation where they have to use up most of their savings and then try to survive on Newstart. And, even if they find work, after being out of work—as I've just said, for a lot of them, it's after more than two years without work—they then face an uphill battle to find financial security before their retirement. Or they have to keep on working.

I'll now share some of those experiences of older workers on Newstart. One person simply said: 'I'm 59 years old, on Newstart, living in a tent with my two dogs, because I can't afford to live anywhere else.' Another said: 'My husband is nearly 64. I am 61. We are both on Newstart, renting. Life is tough, going through our savings. We deserve better.' One person described how visiting their GP was a luxury while living on Newstart: 'Thank you for sticking up for Newstart recipients. Sadly, I'm one of those. My husband passed away six years ago this Christmas. As an older Australian on a widow's allowance (which, by the way, is the same as Newstart) I have been discriminated by age and health issues preventing me from gaining any employment. Adding to the stress, I've returned a positive test from my bowel screen and I find out that, when I have my preadmission appointment, I will be required to pay $137. I will get $62 back and will be out of pocket $75. It has also become a luxury to visit my GP. Like many other things on Newstart, everything is going up and I will use my food money for the preadmission appointment. This becomes a common occurrence for many Newstart recipients—rob Peter to pay Paul.'

I heard from many people about how the low level of Newstart is exacerbating mental and physical health issues. Somebody wrote: 'I am 61. I have been on Newstart for three years since I got sick. I will never get well again. My Centrelink medical exemption ended a couple of months ago. They say I can work two days a week. I literally can't. I can't even clean my unit and have to pay privately for help at home. I've been trying to complete an application for DSP for nearly a year. I don't have help and can't get any help to do it. I'm just too sick to do it but somehow I am supposed to work two days a week. It's getting to the point where I will be cut off Centrelink by the job agency for not looking for work.'

Other people spoke about the significant stress they felt while having to survive on Newstart: 'The stress I've suffered being on this chronically low income for seven years, I believe, was responsible in a significant part for my heart attack and stroke suffered at 62 years of age. The stress and worry can be so debilitating, and depression comes to the fore. For God's sake, an increase is desperately needed.'

Another person wrote: 'I was on the widow's pension for four years from the age of 61 to 65, which was the same as Newstart—less than $300 a week. I held down a full-time corporate job for 22 years but had a mini breakdown. Luckily I was in subsidised housing, otherwise it would have been desperation in the extreme. Older people get so much discrimination. I did supplement this with going back to uni at 50. Even at Centrelink, I heard one of the younger staff say, 'Not another one to support.' Just so hurtful! They forget that I've worked since I was 17 and paid more than my share of taxes. I just found the staff had picked up on hostility of the government toward the unemployed.'

I also heard from older Australians who have repeatedly been rejected for the disability support pension: 'Nobody survives on Newstart. You just scrape by, payment to payment. I've applied for a DSP six times over the past five years and been knocked back each time without any explanation. I experienced PTSD from the Black Saturday bushfires. I had a stroke due to stress and burnout. I then had a total breakdown due to PTSD and was advised by my doctors and medical teams that my working life had finished. I was a mental health case manager for over 20 years and worked in Healesville. I moved to South Gippsland in 2012 at the age of 57 into forced medical retirement.'

I then heard from another person who wanted to remain anonymous, so I'm just going to summarise instead of reading out what they wrote. They told me about how the husband had to give up work to look after his wife, who was chronically ill. He became her full-time carer. For a small while, they had some income protection, but that ran out, and then they had to go onto Newstart. They talk about how their Newstart payments don't help them cover the cost of the mortgage, how they may lose their home and how then they have no history of renting. They are very concerned about whether they will be able to afford to get a rental property. They are both over the age of 50. They wonder about their future.

Older unemployed workers across this country are doing it tough on Newstart. They juggle health issues and caring responsibilities. They're the classic generation who are still potentially looking after their older parents and younger grandchildren. They are discriminated against in the workplace, and this is ongoing. They are entering into retirement on the Newstart payment, having used up their savings. They are living in poverty. They are ageing into retirement in poverty. We know single women are one of the highest-growing cohort of homeless people because they can't find work, because they don't have superannuation. They may have had a split-up and don't own a home. People having to exist and survive on this low level of Newstart are then condemned. Older Australians living on Newstart are condemned to living in poverty for the rest of their lives. Newstart is too low. It needs to be increased by at least $75 a day. It should be a top priority for this government to increase Newstart by at least $75 a day.

Senate adjourned at 10:15