Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Matters of Urgency

Newstart Allowance

4:39 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that at 8.30 am today four proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot.

As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Siewert:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move: 'That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

"The low rate of Newstart is making people sick and the Government must urgently increase the rate of Newstart to improve people's health, wellbeing and barriers to employment."

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:40 pm

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

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency

'The low rate of Newstart is making people sick and the Government must urgently increase the rate of Newstart to improve people's wellbeing and barriers to employment'

Today we are talking about the low rate of Newstart and the fact that it's making people sick and that the government must urgently increase the rate of Newstart to improve people's wellbeing and barriers to employment. It comes as no surprise, unfortunately, that Newstart recipients suffer from poorer health outcomes.

This has been reinforced by findings from a Monash University report released on Monday, The health of disabilitysupport pension and Newstartallowance recipients. The study found: more than a third of Newstart recipients rated their health as poor or fair; 48 per cent of Newstart recipients reported experiencing a mental or behavioural problem; Newstart recipients reported visiting a dentist significantly less frequently than wage earners; Newstart recipients were significantly more likely than wage earners to report having five or more health conditions; Newstart recipients' risk of visiting a hospital was 1.5 to two times that of wage earners. These findings show the stark difference in the health status of people receiving Newstart compared to those who earn a wage. Other research has shown that being out of work and receiving unemployment payments is linked with higher rates of mortality and morbidity.

It's no wonder that people on Newstart and their kids are sick when they are forced to live on $40 a day. Last year the proportion of Australians seeking food relief increased from 46 per cent to 51 per cent. When I asked people about what it's like to live on Newstart, people told me that they cannot afford to eat. I will quote income support recipients on what it's like living on Newstart: 'Going hungry because you can only afford to eat once a day so your kids get meals'; 'Right now, I'm sitting here with my last $13 trying to work out how to make it stretch till Tuesday'; 'I go hungry a lot, and when you're hungry you feel hopeless. It's a constant state of living in despair'; 'I have gone without food to feed my son. I've been not letting him go to birthday parties because I can't afford a present to give. I've kept him home from school because I didn't have food to send or petrol to get him there.' There are currently 700,000 children living in poverty in Australia. Imagine the devastating impact the rate of Newstart is having on the health and wellbeing of these children. Evidence shows that growing up in poverty has wideranging impacts on the physical and psychological health of children.

People who are on Newstart can't afford to visit the doctor and buy essential medicines. People have told me that they are socially isolated because they don't have any money and can't afford to see friends because they need to buy their medication. Somebody else says: 'Living off Newstart means going without medication. This means that my condition is degenerating because I can't afford the medication to keep it stable.' This is an everyday reality for people who are trying to survive on Newstart. Now there are 200,000 people who are sick and disabled who are on Newstart because of the way that people are being kept off the disability support pension.

It's not just about people's physical health; it's also about people's mental ill-health. People talk about the fact that they are on Newstart and can't find work and the punitive approach of this government and how they feel stigmatised and how it affects their mental health. I have heard from many people around Australia who have talked about this impact. One person said: 'The depression associated with being financially way under the poverty line leads to mental health issues that are there for life, needing medication, which again costs money we don't have. You don't live on Newstart; you spiral down into poverty and depression, being treated like a criminal by compliance agencies and government policies.'

There have been people who are trying to survive on Newstart visiting the parliament this week, trying to explain to members of parliament what their lived experience is like. Particularly, Tracy and Imogen shared their experiences with me today. I urge all members of parliament to accept their offer to come and talk to them so that they can learn personally about their lived experience. We need to raise the rate of Newstart now. (Time expired)

4:45 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this matter of urgency from the Australian Greens and note the Morrison government is strongly committed to an income support system that is a safety net for people who need it the most whilst also ensuring the system remains fair for Australian taxpayers. I think we all understand that Newstart was never meant to be a replacement for a salary or wage. It is a transitional payment, a safety net for people while they are looking for work. Around two-thirds of jobseekers who are granted Newstart will exit income support within 12 months.

Welfare spending in Australia in 2018-19 was more than $172 billion, which represents 35 per cent of all government spending. It is our responsibility, the responsibility of government, to ensure that the social security and welfare system is sustainable into the future so that it can continue to provide support to those who are most in need when they need it most. As I have previously said in this chamber, every cent that is spent on welfare is a cent that has come from the hip pocket of working Australians. We must act responsibly.

When it comes to health and wellbeing, the Morrison government is investing in new mental health and primary care initiatives, new health infrastructure and new medical research that will mean real on-the-ground benefits for all Australians, not only those on Newstart. In my home state of Tasmania, the Morrison government's Tasmanian Health Plan is improving lives, protecting lives and saving lives. Funding for Tasmanian public hospitals will increase from $425 million a year to $525 million a year under a new hospitals agreement. This is in addition to the $730.4 million provided to support Mersey Community Hospital, record bulk-billing in Tasmania and more than 2,000 new medicines subsidised through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The $91.9 million plan significantly strengthens Tasmania's health system by addressing healthcare needs, filling critical service needs and providing affordable and accessible health services for more Tasmanians where and when they need them. Through the Tasmanian Health Plan we are delivering greater hospital and health services and infrastructure, new cancer infrastructure, more MRI units for patients when and where they need them, two extra diagnostic mammography units, medical research, more mental health support, improved alcohol and drug support and better access to primary care.

We are providing more support for more drug and alcohol workers in Tasmania by providing $1.1 million for three additional mental health and alcohol and drug support workers to help young Tasmanians work through their addiction. They will be on the ground working with existing health services in Northern Tasmania. We are investing $6.3 million into drug and alcohol rehabilitation, building a new 10-bed facility in the greater Burnie region and establishing a new eight-bed residential rehabilitation service in Circular Head to support those with substance issues in north-west Tasmania.

Furthermore, we are committed to ensuring people in Tasmania who have mental health concerns can access high-quality support where and when they need it by delivering more frontline services and innovative solutions to ensure that everyone has the best possible care when facing mental health challenges. We are investing $3.5 million over four years for two headspace centres to support youth mental health services in Tasmania. This will upgrade the Devonport satellite service to a centre and establish a new satellite service in Burnie. Headspace is the government's preferred method of service delivery for young people living with mental illness. It provides tailored and holistic mental health support, working closely with young people at a crucial point in their lives.

In 2017-18, more than 3,000 young Tasmanians accessed headspace services. The Morrison coalition government is investing $10.5 million to boost mental health support for adults, with a trial of adult community mental health centres. A new centre in my home town of Launceston will provide a supportive environment where people can receive psychological, counselling or other mental health services without requiring a prior appointment. That centre will operate over extended hours, seven days a week, and will provide a more-welcoming alternative to emergency departments for those in crisis. Individuals will also be connected to existing community mental health services in their local area to ensure ongoing integrated care.

The government provides a further safety net to help with the cost of health care through concession cards for recipients of Newstart. These recipients are automatically entitled to either a healthcare card or a pensioner concession card, depending on their circumstances. These cards provide access to bulk-billing, cheaper pharmaceutical benefits or prescriptions, and a lower medical safety net threshold, where the concession card holder may be eligible to receive additional Medicare benefits, with the threshold being just $680.70, compared with $2,133 for people without a concession card. Everyone who receives Newstart is also eligible for some form of additional assistance from the welfare system, such as rental assistance of up to $182 a fortnight for families; FTB Part A, up to $42.20 a fortnight per child for children aged 13 to 19 years; FTB Part B, up to $158.34 per family a fortnight for children under five years; a pharmaceutical allowance of up to $6.20 a fortnight; a telephone allowance of up to $175.20 a year; and an energy supplement of up to $12 a fortnight.

It is no secret that the Morrison coalition government is committed to getting people off welfare and into a job. As we all know, the best form of welfare is a job, with over 1.4 million jobs being created since we were elected, and there are 230,000 fewer working-age Australians on income support payments for the period between June 2014 and June 2018. We are now seeing the lowest level of working-age people receiving income support in 30 years, with the overall unemployment rate at 5.2 per cent. Our government is continually working to improve the support and pathways to employment for jobseekers, and we are committed to finding the best ways to support families and communities in places where high levels of welfare dependence coexist with high levels of social harm. For jobseekers receiving services through a jobactive provider, assistance can be provided to gain the tools, experience and skills to get and keep a job and break down the barriers to unemployment, such as providing additional assistance for jobseekers, including assistance with compiling and writing a CV or resume and assistance with purchasing clothes for a job interview or getting a haircut.

We also provide a range of programs to encourage people into work, like the Try, Test and Learn Fund, an individual support. Earlier today, in response to my question, the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator Ruston, updated the Senate on the work being done through the Try, Test and Learn Fund, helping long-term welfare recipients of all ages to find pathways to work.

In conclusion to my brief contribution on this matter of urgency, I would like to reiterate that the Morrison coalition government is delivering the job opportunities for Australians. We are reducing welfare dependency and offering more opportunities to assist people to move off welfare and into work.

4:54 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If you listened to those on the other side, you would think that life's quite rosy, really, for anyone on Newstart. However, a boost to Newstart is supported by a number of organisations. It's supported by the Business Council of Australia, the Reserve Bank, John Howard, John Hewson, Barnaby Joyce, Chris Richardson, KPMG, Ai Group, COTA, National Seniors, the Australian Local Government Association, COSBOA and the Small Business Association of Australia. So, obviously, everything is not as rosy as those on the other side would have us believe.

It's clear that Newstart is not working as it should and that it is causing great distress and harm to people. The reality is it's not possible to live on Newstart, with the low rate of payments making it even more difficult to re-enter the workforce. People are finding it difficult to meet transportation costs or to afford clothes for job interviews. Those on the government side say that Newstart is a temporary payment, that it's not there for living on and that people should get a job. But the reality is that the average person on Newstart has been on the payment for three years. Three years is not what I would call temporary.

Earlier this week I met with Jeremy from the Unemployed Workers Union. He has been on and off Newstart for the last few years. He is highly qualified and works freelance in the editing and publishing space. Sometimes he has a good amount of work, sometimes it dries up, and sometimes he can also manage to get casual jobs to help make ends meet. His situation is not unusual. In fact, over 130,000 Newstart recipients have a job but do not receive either enough hours or enough income to get them off the payment. The majority of Newstart recipients are desperate to find work, and they work hard, looking for work, to try to meet the compliance obligations Centrelink demands. So the narrative that this government puts forward that you can't leave the house without a job falling into your lap is complete nonsense. Instead of admitting that the economy is weakening and that there are not enough jobs to go around, the government wishes to blame jobseekers and implement punitive measures to distract from its complete incompetence.

Jeremy told me about how disheartening it can be to submit applications for many, many jobs and, more often than not, not even receive an acknowledgement of your application. Interviews are extremely rare because there are many times as many jobseekers as advertised jobs. In fact, the government's own figures show there are 19 job applicants for every job available. Of course, Newstart recipients also have issues accessing our stretched medical and mental health services. When the gap fee for a GP or a psychologist visit might be the whole of your food budget for a week, people often forgo their medical treatment, in order to survive. With its policies, this government, remarkably, seems to want to make things even worse for these people.

Older Australians experience particular difficulty in re-entering the workforce, due to structural barriers and age discrimination. The number of over-55s on Newstart has surged by a staggering 58,313 over a five-year period, according to the latest figures from the Department of Social Services. That means one in four Australians on Newstart are aged 55 or over—the single largest cohort of recipients of the allowance. Instead of having a plan to retrain and bring older workers back into the workforce, this government wants to subject them to humiliating drug tests. We oppose the drug testing of welfare recipients. Can I just say this is the third time the government has dusted off that policy. It's punitive and it's not going to work.

The government's desire to roll out nationally the cashless welfare card is also poorly thought through. I heard yesterday that drought-affected farming families will be rightly shocked, as I imagine they would be, by the suggestion that was made yesterday that they could be subject to the Morrison government's cashless welfare card. The government suggests that people should be in work, not on welfare. Well, guess what? Farmers are workers. Farmers are already at work. They live at work. This government needs to understand what it takes to survive on a drought-stricken farm. I'm wondering if the Nationals actually agree with that policy. Labor does not support a national rollout of the card.

Those opposite are a third-term government, but, as we on this side have said many times, they've got no policy agenda at all. They're an utter disgrace. They're blaming and shaming, basically, welfare recipients, such as people on Newstart. It's an absolute atrocity and it needs to stop. As I said, those on the other side are an utter disgrace, and it's absolutely clear to everybody. I will again give the list of those who support an increase in Newstart. A boost to Newstart is supported by the Business Council of Australia, the Reserve Bank, John Howard, John Hewson, Barnaby Joyce, Chris Richardson, KPMG, Ai Group, COTA—

Debate interrupted.