Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Matters of Urgency
There are a million different reasons that Newstart is too low. Of course it's time to raise it—we should have done it years ago. The government says they want people on Newstart to get a job, but when they do the government penalises them. If someone on Newstart works anything more than three hours to try to keep their head above water and the wolf from the door, this government takes half the money they earn. Newstart recipients are being taxed more than millionaires. That sounds incredible, but it's true. A Newstart recipient faces a higher effective marginal tax rate than the Prime Minister. The government says that losing 32c in the dollar is discouraging people from work, but it takes 60c in the dollar from people trying to get a foothold back in the job market. If you're on youth allowance, you can earn over $200 a week without losing any payment. If you're on Newstart, your payment rate is the same, but if you earn over 50 bucks you start losing half your money. The payment for jobseekers penalises work. Let that sink in.
Can't we let them have one shift a week without punishing them for it? You can't keep punching down; you've got to give people a leg-up too. Stop thinking up ways to make the lives of people on Newstart worse and start thinking of solutions and ways to make things better. For some that means going off drugs and into work. You go to these trial sites for the cashless debit card, and people are volunteering to be put on it. They're doing that because they think it's a circuit-breaker. They do it out of hope, and I'm inclined to give them that bit of hope. Some have a problem where they've trained and worked for years in a job that no longer exists. Some of these people have been out of work for so long that, every time they go to an interview and they're asked about the two-year gap in their employment history, they have to say they've been out of work. Every new employer hears that and thinks, 'Well, if nobody else thinks this person is worth hiring, I'm not going to risk it either.'
Those people keep fronting up in their best suit and their biggest smile and they keep getting knocked down. And we tell them: get back up or lose everything. We should be on their side. Let's give them some light. Let's give them some hope. And while we're at it we can actually give them some dignity back. I think that is the best thing this parliament can do. If you do not want to raise the Newstart allowance then, for goodness sake, the simple answer is this, and it won't cost you people anything: give them more hours to work before you start penalising them and taxing them at a higher rate. It's an absolute embarrassment; I'll be honest with you. That's all we're asking here. Give them 10 or 12 hours a week before you start penalising them. A carrot at the end of the stick—that's what it's all about. If you don't put that carrot at the end of the stick, you're going nowhere. It's as simple as that.
It's interesting when you think about the name 'Newstart'. Newstart is exactly that: a means of support to enable a new start. It's really tough to be unemployed, especially when you're met with barriers to accessing work; there's no denying this. What's important to remember, though, is that our government provides a whole suite of support to working-age Australians to give them the best chance of independence. Newstart was never meant to be a salary or wage replacement. It's a safety net for people, while they look for work.
When we talk about Newstart, we need to remember that we're talking about a broad spectrum of Australians. Sometimes I feel that the conversation around Newstart can be skewed towards young people. Given that Australia is an ageing society, I'd like to focus on what our government has done to support older Australians to seek employment or stay working for longer. The Morrison government recognises the contribution older Australians make to our community, the economic benefits of their experience and the desire of many to continue working. Recent figures show that more than 100,000 jobs have been created for Australians over 55, which is real progress in improving participation in the labour market for older people. However, we do recognise that some older Australians find it difficult to transition into new jobs following career or life changes. That's why the government is investing in a range of initiatives to assist older Australians to participate in the workforce.
For example, the 2018-19 budget measure More Choices for a Longer Life Package included jobs and skills measures, like connecting retrenched workers to supports and services. We're also trialling a new skills and training incentive to encourage lifelong learning and help workers aged 45 to 70 gain new skills for future workforce opportunities. It complements the Skills Checkpoint for Older Workers Program, which commenced in December 2018.
The 2017-18 budget included the Mature Age Employment Package to provide additional assistance to jobseekers aged 50 years or over. Within this package the Career Transition Assistance program, now rolled out nationally, helps mature-age participants in jobactive identify work opportunities in their local labour market and ways to reskill, develop resilience strategies and improve digital skills. This package is also expanding and enhancing the National Work Experience Program to provide work experience opportunities, establishing Pathway to Work pilots to connect mature-age jobseekers with employers and to prepare and train participants for specific vacancies. These complement the Restart wage subsidy that provides up to $10,000 to encourage businesses to hire and retain mature-age employees.
Regardless of age, the government remains focused on moving Australians off Newstart and into work. I note that the Morrison government has had substantial success in pursuing this goal over recent years. The proportion of Australians receiving working-age income support payments, including those aged between 55 and 64, has fallen to its lowest level in 30 years. There were 230,000 fewer working-age recipients on income support payments between June 2014 and June 2018.
As I mentioned before, Australia is an ageing society. Over the past six years, the proportion of the Australian population aged between 55 and 64 has grown at a faster rate than the working age population in general so, in some ways, it's unsurprising that there are more Australians aged 55 to 64 as a proportion of the Newstart cohort than there were in 2013. I'd like to note, however, that a higher rate of Newstart allowance is paid to single recipients aged 60 years and over after nine continuous months on payments. These recipients are also automatically issued a pensioner concession card.
For any Australian, seeking employment can be a tough time. As our Prime Minister has said, though, the focus of this government is to get people into a job and off welfare. To make this a reality, over 1.4 million jobs have been created since we were elected. That's around 240,000 a year. This compares to just 155,000 on average under Labor. We will continue to invest in jobactive and disability employment services to help people to get and keep a job. As I said earlier, everyone who receives Newstart is eligible for some form of additional assistance from the welfare system, such as rent assistance, family tax benefit parts A and B, pharmaceutical allowance, telephone allowance and an energy supplement. Welfare costs more than $172 billion in 2018-19, representing more than one in three dollars, or 35 per cent of all spending by the government.
It's a responsibility of government to ensure our social security and welfare system is sustainable into the future so that it can continue to provide support to those most in need. It's easy for Labor to sit in opposition and say that this government should raise Newstart as they said during the federal campaign, but Labor doesn't have a serious policy in relation to Newstart. Their so-called policy is to hold a review with a view to increasing Newstart. They've not costed this proposal or indicated how it impacts on the budget bottom line. If Labor want to raise Newstart, they need to be up-front with the Australian people and tell us how they propose to pay for an increase.
The Labor Party played a cruel joke on Australians in the lead up to the election, claiming they would review the rate of Newstart, but they did not budget for any increase. Prior to the election, the policy was a review—and then a review—with no view of lowering the rate. Labor have not been clear on what they offer to people trying to get off welfare and into work.
The difference between the coalition and Labor when it comes to welfare spending is that only the coalition is able to maintain the sustainability of the system. When Labor were in office, the rate of increase of spending on welfare far outpaced the rate of growth in tax revenue. Labor's position on this important welfare payment changes almost every day. This is not an issue where it's fair to throw around empty promises or to trivialise for the sake of political gain. We're talking about real people who need to know that, while they're seeking employment, we'll provide them with a Newstart allowance and continue to create initiatives and opportunities to access skills, education and ultimately, jobs.
One such initiative is program called Try, Test and Learn. The Try, Test and Learn Fund aims to generate new insights into what works to reduce long-term welfare dependency, by creating pathways towards education and employment. As of 17 July 2019, more than 2,000 people have benefited through projects supported through the Try, Test and Learn Fund, including 700 people attending over 3,000 mentoring sessions and 1,000 people completing education and skills training sessions.
The Morrison government's focus on a strong economy is working. We're delivering the job opportunities that Australians need. This government has seen the largest increase in jobs since the global financial crisis, with over 1.4 million jobs created since we were elected. The proportion of Australians receiving working-age income support payments has fallen to its lowest level, so I'd say, if we take a moment to look at the bigger picture of what Newstart is actually for and what the government is doing to get people off it and into jobs, then in its current form it is fit for purpose. That said, we will continue to grow jobs and ensure that everyone has adequate access to skills, training and education in order to gain the employment that is fit for their purpose.
For Newstart to work it needs to be enough to cover the basics, so people who are looking for a job, studying, caring for children or recovering from injury or illness can live with dignity, without the stress of juggling debt …
It's a simple, rational statement that makes perfect sense, yet this government is completely deaf to its logic. We've heard over the last year from literally dozens of respected organisations who support an increase in the rate of Newstart. The economic case for an increase has been laid out time and time again. The Australian economy is slowing to frightening levels, and one of the most obvious ways to stimulate it would be to increase the rate of Newstart, because we know that Newstart recipients will spend it in their local community, at their local supermarket, corner store and pharmacy. But the Morrison government has turned its back on this economic advice, desperately clinging to the notion of a budget surplus that may well be gained at the cost of a recession.
Less discussed is the impact of Newstart on people's health, but, if you care to listen to our health workers, social workers, first responders, charities and support agencies, they can tell you all about it. Being out of work and receiving unemployment benefits is linked with higher mortality and morbidity. Mental health conditions are more common among Australians receiving Newstart, parenting payments and the disability support pension. People trying to subsist on Newstart are the poorest of the poor, at the bottom of the lowest socioeconomic grouping in our country. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's 2018 report stated that, compared with Australians who are comfortably off, those in the lowest socioeconomic group are 2.6 times as likely to have diabetes; 2.4 times as likely to state cost as a barrier to seeing a dentist; 2.3 times as likely to state cost as a barrier to filling a prescription; and 2.1 times as likely to die of potentially avoidable causes. So someone on Newstart for any length of time is 2.1 times more likely to die of avoidable causes, and someone on Newstart is more than twice as likely as any member of this place to die from avoidable causes. The low rate of Newstart not only makes it more difficult to re-enter the workforce, as people find it difficult to meet transport costs, afford clothes for job interviews and access computers, but also makes it difficult to feed yourself, leave your house, maintain friendships and family ties, care for those you love, stay clean and warm, and form and maintain the human relationships we all need in order to live with hope and dignity.
In my office this week, I met a woman in her 40s who is homeless for the second time in her life. She lost her latest home when she lost her job. She can't get a rental because of the low rate of her income from her part-time job supplemented by Newstart. No-one will give her a lease. In order not to lose all her possessions, she has rented a small storage locker, but of course you can't get rental assistance on a storage locker. And you can't sleep in a storage locker, so she is couch-surfing while she works part time and studies at university. This woman is truly having a go. She was trying to stay in the workforce despite the fact that her miserable wage and the amount of petrol she uses to get to work mean that she is only $41 a week better off than she was on the full Newstart payment. She is studying to try to get a better-paying job, and she is desperately, desperately sad after years of poverty and struggling with her mental health. She is one of the thousands of Australians who are having a go and not getting a go. As she said, 'It's breaking me.' She cannot afford the medical assistance that she needs.
As the elected representatives of the Australian people, we have a fundamental responsibility for these people. I'm a senator for Tasmania, and I have the responsibility to do what I can on behalf of the 21,000 Tasmanians who are recipients of Newstart. Good government should provide social security support that allows people to live in health and dignity, with job generation and access to training that give Australians the opportunity of a secure job and a decent wage. Of course, our focus needs to be on jobs, but good government can do both. (Time expired)
Of course the rate of Newstart in this country is criminally low. It hasn't been raised in real terms for over a generation, and that is a generation of Australians who have been deliberately consigned to unnecessary misery and poverty by the neoliberal business model. Let's be really stark about this: there are fewer jobs available in Australia than there are people who need and want jobs. When you take that indisputable fact into account, and when you look at the punitive, deliberately demeaning welfare system that we have set up for unemployed people in this country, it becomes abundantly clear that the hurdles, hoops and barriers that this government puts in place for people just to be able to get income support, at a rate that is nowhere near enough for them to survive to a decent level, are based on ideology, not on a genuine desire to help people.
We often hear from the Liberals that the best form of welfare is a job. Well, no. The best form of welfare is actually a fair and decent welfare system, because the neoliberal business model has delivered us an economy where there are not enough jobs to go around, and that's true. Whether the Liberals like it or not, it's true based just on the unemployment rate. But, once you factor in the underemployment rate, the situation becomes even more dire. This is the result of deliberate policy settings by successive neoliberal governments of the LNP and ALP stripe in this country. It is simple supply and demand. If you have more jobs than there are people who want jobs, then wages are going to go up because companies and governments will be forced to offer increased wages to get people to fill those jobs, and that's not what the neoliberal model demands.
So let's not beat around the bush here. People who don't have jobs are not at fault. It's the policy settings of government that are at fault, and yet it is those people who don't have work—who want work but can't find it, because there aren't enough jobs in our economy and in our society for them—who get punished. It is those people who get treated in such a punitive and unfair way, and it is those people, the people on Newstart, who are condemned by the heartlessness of the neoliberal business model, by the heartlessness of the Liberal-National Party in this place, to live so far below the poverty line that they can barely see it on the horizon. It is a national disgrace, the unemployment rate. It is a national disgrace, the rate of Newstart, and it is based on the corporatist, neoliberal business model that treats corporate profits as more important than human beings. Raise Newstart now. Put in place fairer policy settings that create the jobs that Australians want, and do it now.
Today I met with representatives of the Baptist faith. Yes, they are in the building, going around to talk with politicians and raise the fact that the impact of Newstart on families across the country is creating a real issue and that Newstart has not increased in so long. These members of the Baptist faith were senior denominational leaders, influential pastors and leaders from Baptist Care Australia and Baptist World Aid Australia. That is just one group—one group of thousands of Australians across the country who are very concerned in relation to where Newstart is today.
These are people of Christian faith who, by their own description, are representative of Australia's middle class in their values and circumstances. And that is what they reiterated many times in the conversation today. What they had come to see me about was clear and direct: they want to see the government raise the rate of Newstart. They're concerned because they see the people they deliver services to—that they minister to and share our community with—living in poverty, with all the issues that that brings with it. They are concerned at the kids who are born into poverty, grow up property and, in turn, raise their own families in poverty. They're concerned that people they know are having to make ends meet on as little as $245 a week. These Baptist leaders spoke with me about their concerns for the people who are at risk of falling through the cracks of our so-called social safety net.
Last month, TheGuardian Australia revealed that the number of people claiming Newstart had increased in about 10 per cent of areas across the country, despite a national improvement. Remote unemployment hotspots are among those that have been getting worse in the past year. In the Northern Territory, Palmerston—a satellite city just outside of Darwin; a wonderful place—recorded a more than 20 per cent increase in the number of people claiming Newstart or youth allowance, with the number jumping from 1,119 to 1,366 individuals, an increase of 247 for that area alone. It doesn't sound much, does it? But it certainly is a lot for the people who have to be on Newstart or youth allowance. In the outback Northern Territory communities of Katherine and the Barkly region, there was a spike of more than 16 per cent in the number of people on benefits, while the Darwin suburbs, Litchfield and East Arnhem Land all reported an increase of more than three per cent. In outback South Australia, which includes the remote Indigenous communities of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, more than 2,000 people are claiming Newstart or youth allowance, with the number up about five per cent year-on-year. These are people who are already labouring under the Community Development Program, or CDP, earning just $11 an hour.
We heard evidence during the Senate inquiry and during estimates about the effect this is having on communities and people. People in remote communities are already familiar with the consequences of being penalised by having their benefits taken away. We heard about the consequences of taking money away from mums and dads trying their best to make ends meet. The government's own report into CDP found that social problems had increased since the introduction of the program, including an increase in break-and-enters to steal food, predominantly by children and young people. It found an increase in domestic and family violence and an increase in financial coercion and family fighting. It also found an increase in mental health problems, feelings of shame, depression, sleep deprivation and hunger. It said the CDP had the opposite of its intended effect—to get people off welfare or 'sit-down money'. The report stated:
… there was no evidence from the research in this evaluation to suggest that penalties are an effective way to generate engagement …
Yet this government continues to take the approach that people on benefits somehow deserve to be penalised. It talks about jobs. Well, where are they in our remote communities?
The previous minister made big promises about the jobs component of CDP. I spoke earlier in the Senate today and said that there are around 33,000 people on CDP. The previous Minister for Indigenous Affairs said there would be 6,000 jobs for those 33,000. Six thousand subsidised jobs were supposed to commence in February this year. That very quietly was downgraded to 1,000 jobs and now—wait for it!—the government has very quietly put out a package of just 100 subsidised CDP jobs. That's 100, down from 6,000—all quietly brought down, with no accountability and certainly no certainty for those 6,000 people, of the 33,000 people, who were waiting and hoping and for those organisations that believed this government at least on that plan to provide 6,000 subsidised jobs. From 6,000 to 100 remote area jobs is quite a reduction in the employment opportunities that were meant to come.
The government keeps repeating a mantra of 'welfare to work', but they have very quietly conceded the difficulty with trying to secure jobs in the welfare system they are entrenching in remote communities. The approach of imposing penalties, rules and regulations from above and afar is stifling economic opportunity. It's certainly discouraging entrepreneurship and any hope of enterprise. There are practical challenges such as needing to travel to buy groceries and attend medical appointments, as these services are either too expensive or simply not available in these communities. There are significant extra expenses faced by people living in remote and regional Australia. Then there's the impact of poor road infrastructure on vehicles.
As the Baptist leaders told me today, the current Newstart rate is often forcing families to go hungry, especially in regional and remote areas of Australia. Families are hard-pressed to have enough money to spend on healthy food. Some community stores have reported a decline in the sales of fresh fruit and vegies, already sold at high prices because of freight and other costs. The NT government's latest market basket survey shows that the average price for a basket of healthy food in a remote Northern Territory store was $319 more than in a major NT supermarket. That's a gap of 60 per cent in healthy food costs between remote stores and big supermarkets in the major centres. This is despite major efforts in recent years to improve access to affordable food in remote areas through licensing schemes and improved store infrastructure. Baptist Care NT, in the Territory, work with Foodbank NT to provide direct food support to struggling families and individuals. They told me today that they don't come close to meeting the needs in Darwin, let alone in the regional areas of the Northern Territory.
We know that the inadequacy of Newstart is not simply a welfare issue. It is not simply an economic issue. It is also a health and wellbeing issue. Newstart recipients are six times more likely to face poor health outcomes. They are more likely to suffer from multiple conditions. They are more likely to suffer from mental ill health. They are more likely to be hospitalised. Poor health is a barrier to work, and we all know this. There are many additional social costs involved with entrenched disadvantage, and those costs are alleviated as the cycle of disadvantage is broken. Newstart is inadequate. People are struggling to afford the basics and the essentials, and they're struggling to meet their medical and healthcare costs.
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I want to declare that One Nation supports increasing the Newstart allowance. Secondly, we do not support the idea that the low rate of Newstart is necessarily making people sick. What it is doing is making it hard for people to get a job, because it is hard for them to stay in touch and present to a job-ready standard. It isolates people, because people cannot afford to maintain social networks.
The third aspect of this matter of urgency is that we agree with the need to secure employment, because employment develops responsibility and the ability to pay for others on welfare. Work is the best form of support, because people have a need to contribute and belong beyond the monetary benefits. Yet what we see in rural areas, regional areas, provincial cities and some capital cities is job shedding. Productive people and meaningful jobs pay the welfare, as I've said, and Australia has led the way in sensible support and care because of its value of mateship. The problem is government. Government is not the solution; it is the problem. Let's look at the basics—and what a mess we see. The cost of living and energy prices are out of control. Tax—what a mess, destroying jobs. And we see economic mismanagement.
Secondly, on security, we see immigration destroying jobs, taking jobs, stealing jobs and decreasing wages in jobs. We see health being affected by the shortage of hospital beds or people staying in hospital less. We see infrastructure which is not being developed. That is the productive capacity for the future of our country. That's the best way to get people off Newstart.
Senator Rennick, in a fabulous speech last night, showed us the way. Jobs are not created; they are enabled. Government needs to set the environment right for employers. (Time expired)
We've had this debate quite a few times now in this chamber, and the talking points don't seem to change. The Liberals get up and say the best form of welfare is a job. Labor gets up and says, 'Yes, we should raise Newstart,' forgetting that it went to the election with a policy of simply reviewing it. What stays within this space is a kind of strange pantomime that we see, as each side trades talking points with each other. Meanwhile, out there, beyond the walls of this place, people are hurting—particularly disabled people, who have, since 2012, when the Labor Party amended the impairment tables in relation to the disability support pension, been driven onto the Newstart payment in droves and have sat there, below the poverty line, struggling to get by.
The reality is that there should be no shame in requiring income support in this country. God knows, the wealthy and the powerful and the privileged are quick enough to come for what they believe is theirs at every opportunity. I'll take this moment to remind folks who during this debate have expressed concerns about the cost of income support to the budget bottom line that we just spent $144 billion, over the next decade, on tax cuts with no evidential basis as to a stimulatory effect upon the economy. Meanwhile, we've got something like Newstart increases on the table, where even Deloitte Access Economics—hardly a progressive think tank—agrees that it'll increase the budget bottom line by $4 billion and create 12,000 jobs. The time is now.