Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


Anti-Poverty Week

4:13 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate—

This is Anti-Poverty Week and what better time is there to discuss the issues around the adequacy of our social safety net and specifically the payments Newstart and youth allowance. These payments are far too low. They have been for a long time. They have not been increased since 1994, and certainly living costs have risen. We've seen a meaningful increase in the age pension. Not only has there been no real increase in Newstart since 1994; the indexation against the CPI continues, whereas the age pension has had an increase but it has also got a much more meaningful and more complex indexation formula so you do get a more meaningful connection to the true cost of living for the age pension. That's why the Greens are asking the Senate to recognise that this is Anti-Poverty week in 2019, and today also marks United Nations International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. We are also noting that raising the rate of Newstart and youth allowance is one of the most effective measures the government can undertake to reduce the rate of poverty in Australia. We also call on the federal government to immediately increase the rate of Newstart and youth allowance.

As I said, today marks the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This week is also, as I said, Anti-Poverty Week. Each year the team at Anti-Poverty Week and the coalition that works on this issue choose an evidence based solution as the focus to take action to end poverty. This year, the theme for Anti-Poverty Week is to raise the rate of Newstart by $75 a week. Increasing Newstart and related payments is one of the most effective ways that we can address poverty in Australia. Around one million Australians are reliant on these payments, which have not been increased in real terms for over 25 years.

The rate of Newstart is simply inadequate. It currently provides around $40 a day. This is trapping many people in poverty, and employers are telling us that it acts as a break on job searching. One of the big four consultancy firms, KPMG, recently recommended that Newstart be raised by $100 a week to support the material and psychological needs of unemployed workers looking for employment. We can improve our social safety net to lift people out of poverty and unemployment.

While Australia lacks an official definition of poverty—and we heard about this at the beginning of the week, when I asked the government about their appalling failure to officially develop a definition of poverty—we know what it means to live in poverty. Poverty is about having a lack of money and resources, both income for now and savings for later. But poverty is not just an economic issue. It's also about not having the basic things you need to survive and live with dignity—things like affordable housing, access to good education, quality health services. A lot of Australians are already under financial stress and are juggling bills. People living in poverty have to make difficult choices every day. There are the choices that parents make to skip meals to pay for a child's textbook or to have heating in their home, or they skip meals so their children can eat.

When our social safety net is so low and people don't have other supports, they easily fall into poverty. Of all Australians living below the poverty line, 53 per cent rely on social security as their main source of income. This shows that our current rates of income support are keeping people below the poverty line. The reality is that Newstart and youth allowance are not enough to meet people's basic needs. This is demonstrated through the latest findings of the Foodbank hunger report 2019, which came out on Sunday to mark the start of Anti-Poverty Week. This report found that the number of people seeking food relief has increased by 22 per cent over the last 12 months. Charities are struggling to meet the rising needs for food relief. We know that income support payments are inadequate, because a massive 42 per cent of the people experiencing food insecurity are living on a low income or pension. Australians don't think that people should be living in poverty. I think that Australians want to make sure that people aren't living in poverty and are looked after.

An Essential poll taken in June 2018 found that 92 per cent of people agreed with the statement: 'In Australia, no-one should be without basic essentials like food, health care, transport and power.' A 2018 Anglicare Australia survey found very high levels of compassion towards people experiencing poverty. In this survey, 86 per cent of people agreed nobody deserves to live in poverty, and 49 per cent agreed that people can experience poverty through no fault of their own.

This government is simply out of touch with the needs of our community. It lacks the political will to turn these problems into solutions. We have, in fact, a lot of the answers—they're right at our fingertips—yet the community calls have been ignored. One of the key solutions is increasing Newstart and youth allowance, making sure that our social safety net is actually tight enough to catch people and doesn't let people fall through, which is what it's doing right now.

Australia also has international obligations to reduce poverty. In 2015, we signed onto the Sustainable Development Goals. The first goal is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. This sets out a target for all nations to halve the proportion of people and children living in poverty by 2030, according to national definitions. But we don't have a national definition, do we? The problem is Australia doesn't have that agreed definition of poverty. But the government is refusing to act on it. In 2017, the former minister for social services told ACOSS, 'I cannot agree to your request to work jointly with ACOSS, academics and the community sector to set a national definition of poverty, because I am not convinced of the practical usefulness of such an approach in furthering opportunity and participation among disadvantaged Australians.' Yet, we know Australia needs to make dramatic policy changes if, in fact, we are to meet the sustainable development goal of halving our poverty rate.

Analysis by Professor Peter Saunders found that, if Australia was going to meet the goal of halving our poverty rate, we would need to get the rate down to 5.7 per cent for men, 6.1 per cent for women and 8.6 per cent for children. This would require radical change to our current policy settings. Yet, the government is refusing to use one of the biggest levers we have to reduce poverty, which is increasing Newstart. Today, the Greens are urging the government to fully commit to achieving the first goal of ending poverty in all its forms. It needs to do a number of things in order to do that. Developing a national definition and increasing Newstart and youth allowance are two key things that we could be doing.

I want to discuss children and poverty. Unfortunately, in Australia there's upwards of 700,000 children living in poverty. The theme for International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, which is today is, 'Acting together to empower children, their families and communities to end poverty'. Poverty condemns many children to lifelong disadvantage and entrenches intergenerational disadvantage. Research has now found that poverty has a significant influence on the development of children's brains. Children growing up in poverty too often go to bed or school hungry.

The Foodbank hunger report 2019 found that children represent 22 per cent of food insecure Australians. Tragically, 18 per cent of parents say their children go a whole day without eating at all at least once a week. I hear from so many single parents who go without meals to make sure there is enough food for their family. I hear of parents making so many sacrifices so their children can eat and go to school. Many of us, of course, have made sacrifices for our children, but these are sacrifices that endanger their parents' health as well when they go hungry. A large number of children experiencing poverty are living in families who rely on income support payments. One of the key measures we have available to ending child poverty in Australia, as I keep repeating, is raising the rate of payments. This is especially important for single parents, who were kicked off parenting payment single and onto Newstart. This harmful policy change saw single parents poverty rates rapidly increase from 16 per cent in 2006 to 59 per cent in 2018. We can change poverty rates. We can make sure that single parents who are raising their children on the low rates of Newstart have an increase.

First Nations children are also disproportionately impacted by poverty. The family matters report 2019 was launched this morning. I was there for it down at Old Parliament House. It highlighted First Nations children are 10.2 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care. Tragically, this number is increasing every year. Poverty is one of the drivers for children living in disadvantage and for their connection with the child protection system. Nearly one in three First Nations people is living below the poverty line. This contributes to overrepresentation of First Nations children in out-of-home care. We must take urgent action to end child poverty and build better outcomes for First Nations children across this country. One in 10 family households has one or more unemployed parent, and we have to support these families. I often hear government say, 'This is all about people finding work.' We do very clearly want to support people who are receiving income support to find work, but, when you are facing barriers to work, it makes it even more difficult. Poverty is a barrier to work.

Another report was released this week, by Anglicare, and it was about job availability. You hear the government say: 'We're doing something about this. We're making jobs. We're developing jobs. We're delivering jobs.' Well, they're not delivering enough, and, in the meantime, people are stuck on Newstart for, on average, 159 weeks—three years. Anglicare's report, released on Wednesday, entitled Jobs availability snapshot, highlighted that it is taking people, on average, five years to find work. How can someone survive on Newstart for five years and successfully find employment?

The average duration people spend on Newstart, as I said, is three years. Newstart is not a transition payment for people anymore. It was. I'll grant the government that. It was a transition payment. But who can survive transitioning for three years? For many people over 45, it is longer than that, because they're facing many barriers to work. This is no longer a transition payment, and the government should stop deceiving Australians. They bandy statistics around. They try and manipulate the statistics to make people believe that it's still a transition payment, because they use the people who flow through the Newstart program. No-one's denying that some people flow through it. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who remain stuck on Newstart for years and years because their barriers are not being adequately addressed and, as the report finds, there are not enough jobs.

Newstart doesn't cover your costs for food, let alone the costs of looking for work. These include internet expenses, phone bills, appropriate clothing and transport to attend job interviews. Again, I hear the government say, 'You can use the Employment Fund.' But I haven't found many people—and I've spoken to a lot—who have been able to access the Employment Fund for those sorts of things.

The ongoing stress and struggle to make ends meet can also distract people from undertaking their job search activities, further diminishing employment prospects. Nobody trapped in poverty wants to stay in poverty. Certainly I have not met anybody who wants to. The Jobs availability snapshot found that jobs for people without qualifications or work experience are drying up. There are at least five jobseekers without qualifications competing for every job at their skill level. On top of that, there are 1.16 million people in Australia who are underemployed. The reality is there just aren't enough jobs to go round. There are not enough entry-level jobs, in particular. At one end, you haven't got enough entry-level jobs, for young people, in particular, and, at the other end, employers don't want to be employing people over the age of 45 these days. And think about if you're over 55 and you lose work. The government again will come and tell you about all the programs they're developing. Some of those programs look really good on paper, and some people, they'll tell you, have got work. But that is not enough. It belies the statistics of the fact that people are stuck on Newstart for so long. I wholeheartedly agree with Anglicare when they say that it is now unconscionable and an act of wilful denial to pretend that Newstart can cover basic needs. I'll say that again: it is unconscionable and an act of wilful denial. That's exactly what the government is doing. They're in wilful denial. Their own departments gather their statistics, so they know what they are. They know they're selling a pup to the community when they say this is a transition payment.

There are 200,000 disabled Australians living on Newstart. Successive federal governments have chipped away at the disability support pension. Both sides, past Liberal and Labor governments, have tightened the eligibility criteria and made the application process so difficult. People who should be on DSP are being forced to survive on Newstart. If you are sick or disabled it is even harder to live on Newstart due to higher healthcare costs, medication costs and other equipment and supports that you need for your disability. Australians living on income support payments are having to skip essential medications and delay treatment. Here's what I heard from a disabled person trying to live on Newstart: 'Doctors said I should be on DSP, but I'm stuck on Newstart. The job provider agency seems to overlook chronic illness. The demands are too stressful now. Something has to change because our children are becoming crippled too.' Somebody else said to me: 'I broke down in tears on the phone to my mum the other day about this. Surviving is exhausting.' Those are people that have what the government calls partial capacity to work. In other words, they're living on Newstart with a disability. Only around eight per cent of people with a partial capacity to work are working or can gain work. They also face barriers to work.

The government continues to use harmful and misleading language about people who are trying to survive on our social security system. Our social safety net is failing them. There are many, many people who are suffering, living in poverty on Newstart. It's time that this country recognised it. It seems that the only people that don't recognise it are the government. Please: raise the rate now. Recognise that this system needs help. Support the people you claim to be supporting. Recognise that it needs to increase. Support your other programs by raising Newstart. Raise the rate.

4:33 pm

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

At the outset I acknowledge the senator from Western Australia's passion in relation to this issue and I note that it's an issue which she often speaks about in this place. I don't think that there's a single senator sitting in this chamber who is not concerned about the opportunities which some people in our community are struggling to find: to obtain work, sustainable employment and to progress their lives in the way that I think everyone in this country should have the opportunity to do so. The question is: what are the appropriate policy settings to address that circumstance? That is where the government differs in its approach from the good senator from Western Australia.

We should place this debate in a context. The fact of the matter is that we currently have the lowest proportion of working-age people on welfare in 30 years. That's a good thing. It's a great thing that we have the lowest proportion of working-age people on welfare in 30 years. It should also be noted that in the last budget year this country spent $172 billion on welfare—35 per cent of all government spending is spent on welfare. We do have a substantial social net in this country, and that's an important thing. We should have a substantial social net. We are a rich country and I think we're in a position to offer that.

With respect to Newstart, as the senator did recognise, it is indexed to CPI twice a year. Secondly, the fact of the matter is that many people—and I'd say most people who receive Newstart—are eligible to receive other entitlements from the federal government and indeed from a number of state governments around the country. That should be recognised as well. This government's focus is to try to provide an opportunity for people currently on Newstart to find a path to work, because work is the best form of welfare you can provide to a person. Every day that I'm standing in this place, I'll be looking to how we make it easier, not harder, for every business in this country to employ more people, especially young people—especially young people in regional Queensland in some of the socioeconomically disadvantaged areas in my home state—and get that extra young person an opportunity to seek employment. That's important; it's absolutely fundamental.

The government has instituted a number of programs in order to provide that pathway to work. The government is focused on breaking down the barriers some Australians face in returning to the workforce, which is why we are investing $96 million in Try, Test and Learn, which is trialling innovative pathways to work for people at risk of long-term welfare dependency.

Now, I know that the senator has passionate views with respect to the next subject I am about to touch upon: the cashless debit card. The results in my home state of Queensland are promising. That is the reality of the situation.

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

You are misquoting the data.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm not misquoting the data.

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

Yes, you are.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, let me give you the data. The latest data shows that the number of people receiving Newstart or youth allowance in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay regions has reduced between June 2018 and June 2019. It has reduced by 8.7 per cent in Bundaberg and by 10.2 per cent in Hervey Bay. That is the actual data. It's not my data; it's the ABS's data. What happened in those areas, as distinct from other areas in regional Queensland, that made Bundaberg and Hervey Bay outliers with respect to reducing youth dependency on Newstart and youth allowance? What was the critical difference? The critical difference was the cashless debit card. That was the only difference. We didn't see that reduction in Logan, south of Brisbane; we didn't see it in Ipswich; we didn't see it in Brisbane; we didn't see it in Mackay and we didn't see it in Townsville. We saw it in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, the only parts of regional Queensland that saw this astonishing decrease. In Bundaberg, 502 people came off Newstart or youth allowance and in Hervey Bay 395 came off Newstart or youth allowance. The statistics are compelling. The data is compelling.

What is also compelling is what my good friend Keith Pitt, the member for Hinkler, tells us about the feedback from his constituents. This is his patch, his area. What is he telling us? I've given you the data, now let me tell you what he's hearing from his constituents. He's hearing reports that people are able to budget better and have money left over at the end of the fortnight, so they have some savings. This is what he's telling us; this is what his own people are telling him—his own constituents. They're telling him that people have asked if they can volunteer to go on the card. This is in the legislation, to allow volunteers in the Hinkler trial. Currently, people cannot volunteer in other areas. But they're asking if they can go on the card to assist in their ability to manage their circumstances.

One of the emergency relief organisations in Hervey Bay has reported a reduction in people coming in for free food.

Senator Siewert interjecting

Well, Senator Siewert, I'll give you the quote from 7.30. This is what happened on 7.30it's straight from the transcript:

There is however some anecdotal evidence the card is having an effect according to this Hervey Bay-based food charity.

JAN CARLSON, WE CARE 2: We have noticed since about July a significant decrease in the number of people coming in for free food through the emergency relief program and an increase, almost parallel in numbers, to the people coming through our low cost food centre and actually purchasing food.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: And do you think that can be attributed to the cashless debit card?

JAN CARLSON: Well, I can't say unequivocally but it's a trend that we have never seen before.

We have never had that, we usually would get in three days we would get at least 30, maybe 36 people through emergency relief previously.

Now we're probably seeing 12 a week.

That's the feedback from constituents in my friend Keith Pitt's seat of Hinkler. That's what his people are telling him. That's what the community is saying. Senator Siewert, if you look at those regional job figures across Queensland for that period—

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

No it's not! The figures that you had in the media were in fact that there was a significant drop before—

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Siewert, interjections are disorderly.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take the interjection, and I'll say that the period was between June 2018 and June 2019. There were three areas in my home state of Queensland which had that significant drop in unemployment: one was outback Queensland, which was incredibly significant. It was so significant that I've made inquiries as to the reason for the significance. The other regions were Bundaberg and Hervey Bay—not in Logan, not in Ipswich, not in Brisbane, not in Mackay, not in Townsville and not in Cairns. It was in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. The only difference from those other regions is the fact that they have the cashless debit card. At the very least, it should cause someone to pause and reflect on the information which has been passed through to Keith Pitt, a passionate member for his people in the seat of Hinkler. They should pause and reflect on the circumstances in his region. The people of Australia deserve that pause and reflection.

And it isn't just happening in Queensland. Let me go to the good state of South Australia and the seat of my good friend Rowan Ramsey, the member for Grey, where the cashless debit card was introduced in the region of Ceduna. Let me quote from Rowan Ramsey, the member for Grey. He sat down with the leadership group in Ceduna. That included the Indigenous groups around that greater community, and the Mayor of Ceduna. These are his words:

… we agreed together to trial the cashless welfare card. I'd have to say that community is absolutely delighted with the results. It came on the back of a coroner's report after no less than seven people had died either sleeping rough or in accidents on the road with intoxication. I had been to Ceduna and talked to people at the drying-out centre, where they said, 'Last night there was a woman in here who was eight months pregnant who could not stop throwing up.' It is just heartbreaking when you hear the stories.

This card has made a palpable difference. It has changed Ceduna. The Indigenous leaders there have stood up strongly, and they believe in the card. A gentlemen the other day said to me—

This is a quote from a constituent of Rowan Ramsey's seat of Grey in South Australia—

'I get all the numbers; I get all the figures. But this place just feels like a whole lot better place.'

Another positive example from Ceduna in Rowan Ramsey's seat of Grey. Again, I think it's incumbent upon every senator in this chamber to stand up, sit back and take notice of the results that are being achieved.

I would also like to see a drug-testing trial rolled out as well. I know there will be some who will perhaps say, 'This is a punitive measure. Why do you want to adopt that?' I'll tell you why: one of the biggest impediments to someone getting a job is drug dependency. That's one of the biggest impediments, so anything this government can do to break down that barrier of addiction, we should do, and that deserves a trial.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

You are depriving people of a basic income if you do that.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's not intended to do that, Senator. I'll take that interjection. It's not intended to do that. Instead, it's quite the opposite—it's to assist them to get the necessities of life in a situation where they've got an addiction to drugs. It's to assist them to get on the pathway to employment. If they have a positive drug test and then come back a period of time later and have another one, that person's got a problem. They've got a problem and they need assistance and support. One of the ways in which we can provide that assistance and support is through a cashless debit card to make sure that they get the essentials of life. When that is married with an effective treatment program—you can't have one without the other. If you were to do that, that would be punitive. If you were to simply change their income circumstances without offering an effective treatment program, that would be punitive. But the proposition is that, if they do have that drug dependency, they are then put on a path to treatment so they can actually have the same opportunities that every person in this country deserves. That is the intention behind the policy.

We might well have differences with respect to the appropriate pathway to assist disadvantaged people in this country to realise the opportunities which everyone in this country should have, but the intention underpinning both the cashless debit card and the drug-testing trial is to assist people to manage their circumstances and put them on a pathway where they can have a better life and enjoy a better life. That is the intention, and both the results from my friend Keith Pitt, the member for Hinkler, in Queensland, and from my friend Rowan Ramsey, the member for Grey, in South Australia, are extremely positive.

In my view, we should take heed of those and we should act on those results. Personally, I'd like to see the programs rolled out across wider parts of Australia. I think they're wonderful programs. They need additional research, I'll grant you that, to look at the results, but that feedback from those two local MPs is very positive and promising, and I think it's something which the senators in this chamber should consider.

4:48 pm

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

I rise to speak on the general business motion for today regarding Anti-Poverty Week and the rate of Newstart and youth allowance. 'Poverty exists. Poverty hurts us all.' That is the theme of this year's Anti-Poverty Week, and I earnestly ask the government to take this to heart. That's because, to live up to the ideals we see for ourselves as a country, we must ensure that we do not leave people living in poverty. We are failing miserably in this regard. Three million, or 13.2 per cent, of Australians live below the poverty line, which is defined as 50 per cent of median income. Young people are particularly affected, with half of all households headed by someone younger than 35 experiencing in just the last 12 months one or more indicators of financial stress such as skipping a meal or failing to pay a bill on time.

Tragically, 739,000 Australian children live below the poverty line. The government cannot keep seeing three-quarters of a million children living in poverty and not look to act on it. It cannot think that this is in any way acceptable. Children are unable to change the circumstances they were born into, and they shouldn't be collateral damage from policies of a government that seems to believe that unemployment is a moral failing of an individual. The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth have conducted research which has found there is real damage being done to children who are living in poverty. Data from the Australian government funded longitudinal study of Australian children, which has been following 10,000 children since 2003, was used in their paper To have and to have not: measuring child deprivation and opportunity in Australia. They found:

Children in monetary poverty were more likely to experience deprivations across all Nest dimensions, illustrating that the impacts felt by children in families living below the poverty line spread far wider than just their material basics, to affect all areas of their wellbeing.

These children are significantly more likely to experience multidimensional deprivation and deep deprivation and are significantly deprived in relationships with friends, food security, learning at home, enjoyment of exercise and regular participation in extracurricular activities. Sadly, this damage is potentially carried forward into their adult lives.

The government's cruel policies are not only causing extreme hardship for this generation but carrying it over to the next, which obviously brings significant cost to the children and their communities. The government has to rethink their approach. This government seeks to place the blame for unemployment on the individual to justify its increasingly cruel and heartless policies. It's a callous and cynical view which is dangerously wrong, and it's clear that the blame for unemployment and underemployment should not be placed on the unemployed and underemployed.

I want to expand for a couple of minutes on the idea of the effect of poverty on children. Children who grow up in poverty are particularly tragic because they're deprived of a fair start in life before they can even make the decisions for themselves, and the proportion of children living in poverty is higher than any other age group. Let's think about what it means for a child to live in poverty. It can mean that you go to bed on an empty stomach; you go to bed hungry. It can mean not having a safe and secure home or place to live and sleep. It can mean going to school not only with, maybe, the pain of hunger but the shame that among their peers they're missing out. They probably can't attend school excursions. They often don't have the school uniform. Quite often these kids stand out, and they can be victimised because of that. Or sometimes they don't even get to go to school at all. If the parents can't afford a driver's licence and can't get them to school, if there's no public transport where they live, the kids don't go to school at all.

As I said, they don't get to go on school excursions, and they don't get to participate in things like team sports, because you've got to pay for uniforms and registration to participate in team sports. And so they don't get time to spend with their friends and their peers, which leaves them feeling really lonely and isolated, and this is not good enough. They're missing out on healthy food, physical activity and interacting with people their age, and all those things are so critical to a child's development, with the first five years of their lives obviously being the most important.

Children living in poverty can experience severe physical and health complications, and of course this all has an impact on concentration in the classroom, their homework and, ultimately, whether they complete their education—finish year 12, go on to tertiary education or whatever. Children in poverty are not only anxious for themselves but worry for their parents and their families. As I see it, poverty is a collective challenge, and addressing poverty is a collective responsibility for us all—not shaming people, not trying to make people feel as though they're lesser people because they might have to receive social security of some type. That is not appropriate, but that is how people have been made to feel over the last few years.

For families living in poverty, parents are struggling to get to the end of their pay cheque. Of course, some parents don't even get a pay cheque. They delay things such as buying medicine, going to the doctor, or going to the dentist. They forgo new shoes or a haircut or new clothes for a job interview. We know that many parents skip maybe one or two meals a day. Sometimes they don't eat for a whole day. Sometimes parents will not eat for many days. They do their best to shield their kids from these things. They cover it by saying things like, 'I ate while I was cooking' or 'I was over at the neighbours and had something to eat there.' Parents shouldn't have to do this. To be honest, it's not always possible to shield children from these realities.

We have to remember—and those opposite really need to bear this in mind—that the impact of poverty, especially on young children, can have a profound and lasting impact on their outlook on life as well as the quality of their life outcomes. To many, many people poverty means they cannot imagine a future. As a former early childhood educator, to me that is one of the saddest things to see. I worked with children who, because they came from a low-income or no-income family, could not imagine a future, and it was one of the saddest things I think I've ever seen. These kids deserve a fair go, because when our children are deprived our whole country's future is diminished. It's all right for us in here. None of us in here live below the poverty line. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't take responsibility. We should act in a fair and caring manner, not a callous and punitive manner. We need to make sure that we understand that poverty affects us all and we need to act appropriately.

I mentioned that some people can't afford clothes for an interview. When they can't re-enter the workforce, they can't contribute to the economy. To me, it's a bit of a false economy for those on the other side to want to keep the Newstart rate so low and to deny an increase of any type for these people, because, when you have to choose between a bus fare to get to a job interview or medication from the chemist, you just can't participate properly in society. This government refuses to even acknowledge the critical socioeconomic challenge threatening the Australian way of life, never mind that the government will not lift a finger to do something about it.

I heard Senator Siewert say this, and I've heard many people on this side of the chamber say this: the overwhelming majority of people on Newstart are desperate to get work. They will take any work. They are not dole bludgers. They are not lazy. They are not dealing drugs all the time. We've heard so many comments over the past few months and years from the other side, and they've all been punitive. I haven't really heard anything positive coming from that side. 'If you have a go, you'll get a go.' Well, do you know what? Not everybody is born equal. Not everybody has the opportunity to have a go. We need to remember that and bear it in mind when we're dealing with these situations.

There are many people in work who are underemployed, desperate for more work and unable to meet their basic expenses even with their current hours. In my home state of Tasmania there are 13.89 jobseekers for every entry-level job available. How can you possibly look to blame the individual when the odds are so stacked against them? It's clear that the issue is with the economy, guided, of course, by this third-term Liberal government that doesn't have a clue where it's going. And while the government says Newstart is a temporary payment, the average person on Newstart has been on the payment for three years. I have said it quite a few times in this place, and lots of people on this side and in the Greens have said it in this place: for most people, Newstart is not just a temporary payment.

The government says that Newstart is there to assist in getting a job, not to live on. But it's clear that it's harder to get a job if you cannot afford to get to the interviews, can't pay for interview clothes or can't pay your rent, or if you're worried about where you're living or you can't find enough money for electricity or even food. We should not be grinding people into the ground, which is what I see happening on that side, simply because the government can't see past their flawed ideology and look to care for all Australians. The Prime Minister's constant mantra that the best kind of welfare is a job is just trite. It's a heartless phrase, and it's an insult to those who are desperately looking for a job and are having difficulty putting food on the table for their kids.

The motion today calls on the government to increase the rate of Newstart and youth allowance, and we wholeheartedly support this, but I also call upon the government to reconsider their attitude to the unemployed, to stop the cruel attacks, to stop their blame-shifting and to actually work to make the lives of all Australians better, especially for the children because, when poverty exists, we all hurt, but it hurts the kids the most. They're the ones that you guys need to put a bit more thought into.

5:01 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on this motion brought to this chamber by Senator Siewert, and I sincerely thank Senator Siewert for this opportunity to do so. Through the chair: I commend you, Senator Siewert, for your ongoing commitment to this issue. I've seen your involvement in this debate over a long time and, particularly since coming into this chamber, I recognise and acknowledge that the commitment comes from a very sincere and real place.

No-one in this government is saying that it's easy living without a job. There's no doubt about that. Having worked for over a decade in employment services and with people who have been long-term unemployed, I've seen how difficult it is. For some people, there are some really tough and challenging barriers to employment. It can be a very confronting exercise to get up the courage to face, acknowledge and deal with whatever barriers to employment they might have. But when they do deal with them, when they undertake the training they need to address the skills gaps they have, develop their skill base and get a job—as someone who has worked in this space, I know that walking through that with people is one of the most rewarding things that you could ever do. You know that it's made a difference not just to them but also to their families and their wider community.

I think in particular of a program in Geraldton called Real Futures. Real Futures is a program aimed at helping long-term unemployed Aboriginal people in that area get work. Wendy Arnold, the leader of that program, opens the door of their little shopfront on the main street, and people come in. It's amazing what happens there. They reach out with open arms to everyone who walks in, and big changes and big transformations happen. I went and visited them prior to coming into this place as a senator, and I saw people walk in there. I remember one fellow who walked into that place who wanted to get a job. He was interested in working in a traffic control business that had a policy of no tolerance for drugs and alcohol. As part of applying for the job, they had to pass a medical, and it's obvious that, if someone has drugs in their system, that would prevent them from getting the job.

One of the services that Real Futures offer is prescreening. They'll do a drug test before someone needs to go before the employer's own drug test. They can check whether there has been an issue of substance use or abuse. They're able to test that it is in fact out of their system. I watched a fellow walk in. He walked very quietly to the front desk and spoke to the people there. He very quietly asked if they had a drug test. They had a little conversation about the situation. I thought, 'Isn't that great? Here's an organisation—Real Futures are offering this service—right in the middle of Geraldton, and people are confident and bold enough to go there.' I entered into the conversation myself, and the guy said that he'd been off marijuana for over four weeks and he was confident that it's out of his system, but he just wanted to check because he really wanted to get the job.

Senator Bilyk said that it's a trite comment: the best form of welfare is a job. Well, I've seen the impact that it has on people's lives. When you get a job, it absolutely transforms your life. I reject the characterisation of that because it does make a difference. You can politicise it as much as you like, but it really does make a difference. Senator Scarr spoke about the cashless debit card. I just want to add a little bit to what he was saying. I'm from Western Australia, and we've seen the trial of the cashless debit card for some time up in Kununurra. Kununurra and Ceduna, in South Australia, have been running it for the longest time of the trial sites, and the results are there.

No-one is saying that the cashless debit card is a panacea to the social problems that come from drug and alcohol abuse in these communities, but you only need to talk to, for example, the senior sergeant of police, who tells us that prior to the cashless debit card there used to be four or five nights of continuous chaos in the town after welfare payments hit. The ambulances service would respond and had a significant rate of call-outs on the nights immediately following the welfare payments. You can see what happens. I haven't got the stats in front of me since the introduction of the cashless debit card. I just wanted to add to what Senator Scarr was talking about. I know, through my own observation of what has happened and from speaking to people on the ground, that, instead of there being four or five nights of issues, there are now only one or two. It doesn't mean that there aren't still issues, but the ambulance service says that there has been somewhere in the order of a 30 per cent reduction in the number of alcohol related call-outs to deal with situations.

What I'd like to see, though—and I'd like to make a contribution now with regard to the cashless debit card—is a real focus on the technology that is the cashless debit card. I really want to call on the banks and on the retailers to work together to develop the technology and augment it so that it becomes a product that is offered, in fact, by all banks. One of the issues that you hear is that anyone who is on the cashless debit card has a very identifiable card. While it's just a silver card, the reality is that, if you've got that silver card, it is obvious to people in those towns that you must be on welfare. One of the good things that could happen is that the product is offered by any bank—the Commonwealth Bank or ANZ or Westpac or whatever—and it is an unidentified product. I think that would make a big difference to the stigma issue, which I acknowledge can be an issue for people. I urge the banks to cooperate with this government and to work with the retailers as well to improve the technology. One of the limitations of the cashless debit card as it stands right now is that it works by limiting the merchant. So you can't use the cashless debit card at a merchant that sells alcohol. The problem with that is that the merchant could also sell groceries. You need to ensure that welfare recipients are able to purchase those necessities. So, if there were any expansion of the cashless debit card, you would have to address that fundamental issue, because, if you were to take it ubiquitously across the country, merchants across the country would need to be able to take it. Unless you get down to item-level blocking, where you're restricting the sale of particular items rather than blocking it on an entire merchant level, it would prevent its ability to be rolled out. I want to call upon the banks and the retailers to work together, because the technology solution is there and it can be developed and it could make a big difference to people if that were able to happen. You could limit the sale of particular items rather than limiting a merchant. That would remove any of those physical barriers that are in the way, those things that actually might get in the way of someone just being able to go about their lives without any great interference.

Just quickly, the other thing that I want to acknowledge in this debate is that there is a great program. I spoke a little about it in my contribution to the take-note session. Youth Jobs PaTH really is a great example of a program that actually provides greater assistance to people. Those opposite didn't support it in its introduction. They said that they were going to remove it had they won the election on 18 May, and that's really disappointing, because one of the parts of this program, which I just wish we'd take the politics out of and think about for a minute, is the fact that an extra $200 is provided to the participant of that program, to the intern that signs up to it. They get an extra $200 a fortnight which assists them with those important things of getting to a job and keeping that job. I think it's something that we should really sincerely work together on, to look at how the mainstream employment services system, which is jobactive—it's got a $7 billion price tag on it—could over time actually be developed and that those sorts of ideas, like we're seeing with Youth Jobs PaTH to provide that extra assistance to people, could actually be considered in future in the employment services system. I'll finish my remarks there.

5:12 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would also like to speak in favour of Senator Siewert's motion today, and I would like to congratulate her on her strong advocacy on this issue. Like her, Labor also calls on the government to immediately increase the rate of Newstart and youth allowance. We note in the motion that's been presented to the Senate that this week's also Anti-Poverty Week. The easiest action that we all can take to reduce income inequality and effectively reduce poverty in Australia would be to increase Newstart and youth allowance. There is an enormous amount of evidence available that shows the merits of lifting Newstart and the negative impacts of continuing to leave vulnerable people without enough income to survive.

Earlier this year, I visited Ozanam House in North Melbourne, a crisis and transitional accommodation facility for homeless Melburnians run by VincentCare, which has recently been renovated. When I met with them, the leadership team made a point of describing to me how desperately low the rates of Newstart and youth allowance are and the impacts that had, the risks for people living on the cusp of homelessness and how it made getting back into a stable situation very difficult for people who have fallen into that black hole.

In July, the CE of cohealth, one of Victoria's largest community health services, wrote to me to share her organisation's concerns about the impact of the low rate of Newstart and what that is having on the health and wellbeing of vulnerable Victorians. She told me that the people trying to live on Newstart 'cannot afford the costs of health care, meals are skipped and fresh nutritious food too is often out of reach, and the stress caused by worrying about paying for bills and keeping a roof over their head is a constant and significant issue'. She also quoted, in that letter to me, a report that showed vulnerable people are twice as likely to have a long-term health condition, as well as twice a likely to suffer from chronic illness, and on average will die three years earlier.

In 2018, a Deloitte Access Economics report for the Australian Council of Social Service highlighted the inadequacies of the indexation arrangements that applied to Newstart. I touched on this area in my first speech in this chamber. There's also a need to review the increase in the length of time that people are spending on Newstart—and I know Senator Siewert made mention that it's about three years on average. It's a disgrace that people are having to wait that long in order to transition into work, as it's called, when this government keeps talking about reducing the unemployment rates and about the number of jobs that they supposedly create. But what we are finding is that there is a large cohort of people out there in the real world who are doing it tough and who are struggling to find meaningful work.

That same report also clearly laid out the inaccuracies in the government's position. The Liberal-National government like to claim that the low rate of Newstart encourages recipients to get a job and they keep saying that the best form of welfare is a job. A job is not welfare. As we've also spoken about in this place on numerous occasions—and I know it's in Senator Keneally's portfolio area and I've also been assisting her on it—a number of workers have been exploited and have been paid below the minimum wage. For this government to talk about how there are all these jobs out there—well, where are they? People are clearly struggling to find work and to transition into meaningful opportunities. What Deloitte also found was that Australia has a very low Newstart payment, and when you compare that to other wages the fact is that the rate of Newstart is way too low and acts as a barrier to people trying to find work. They cannot afford the transport to get to interviews. They can't buy the appropriate clothing or equipment. They can't even afford the training and education that they need to get back into the workforce.

As respected ANU economist Peter Martin has pointed out in a piece for The Conversation just last month:

A decade ago the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that Newstart was low enough to raise "issues about its effectiveness in providing sufficient support for those experiencing a job loss, or enabling someone to look for a suitable job".

And there's no guarantee that a job is even available.

Earlier this week we read Anglicare's jobs availability snapshot, which showed that five jobseekers are applying for every entry-level position. And, by their own admission, Anglicare says, 'This is a conservative estimate because it does not include the 1.8 million Australians who say they're underemployed.' It's hard to believe, and yet this is the situation that the Liberal-National government have created. They have made it almost impossible for someone to find work while on Newstart, while at the same time demonising Newstart and other welfare recipients for not getting a job.

We are trapping people in poverty and then blaming them when they find it impossible to get out of the black hole. On a human level alone, the evidence shows how critical it is that this government acts immediately to increase Newstart. The case for an increase to Newstart on an economic basis is also compelling. The same Deloitte Access Economics report found that an increase of $75 a week would return about $1.5 billion a year in extra tax, as recipients spend the increase and boost the economy.

In June this year, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Philip Lowe, suggested that, although it was a matter for the government, an increase to Newstart would help stimulate the economy, as would any increase to household income.

I also noted that the Grattan Institute, which the government usually relies on for a number of their reports, wrote a paper in July on this subject matter. They described that there are many ways that the Treasurer could stimulate the economy. Surprise, surprise, they said a boost to Newstart would offer the economy an immediate stimulus. The Grattan Institute said:

… it puts money in the hands of the people most likely to spend every cent.

Not to mention the savings for the taxpayer that would arise from the cohort of people who would likely be healthier and in more stable housing, better able to get a job and would spend less time on welfare should they find themselves in the unfortunate situation of being without work.

The list of people and organisations calling for an increase in Newstart is growing ever longer. This includes some notable entries, including a number of conservative MPs and senators in this place. They join organisations like the Australian Council of Social Service, St Vincent De Paul, church groups and welfare advocates who have been arguing for a rise in Newstart for many, many years. One doesn't have to search far to find the real-life stories of people who live the experience of trying to make ends meet on Newstart.

Today I want to fill my speech in this place with some words of others. I do so because this issue is now beyond the rhetorical one-liners, the gotcha moments, that those opposite constantly throw back at Labor, the Greens and others on the progressive side of politics. I want to lay out the voices and clear evidence calling for an increase to Newstart and give voice to those who are living every day on just $40 a day. And I bet a lot of us in this place would spend $40 a day just at Aussies—on coffee, cakes and other things for lunch and dinner. The time is well and truly passed to increase Newstart. For the sake of the people tonight who will go hungry and their children who shiver in the cold, for the sake of people who are sick because they can't afford to get better, and for the many women who want to leave violent relationships, we on this side urge the government to immediately raise the rate of Newstart.

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am grateful to have the opportunity to also support raising the level of Newstart and youth allowance. This is an incredibly important issue for so many Australians who find themselves stuck on Newstart through no fault of their own and find themselves struggling to make ends meet. The conversation is even more relevant today, which is both part of Anti-Poverty Week and also the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. If you are on Newstart, you are living on a payment that is significantly below the poverty line.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my colleagues that the rate of Newstart needs to be increased without delay. The rate of Newstart is just too low. It's supposed to be a temporary payment but, on average, people are on Newstart for three years. It is not because they don't want to work hard and have a go, as some on the government benches may have you believe; it is because the jobs just aren't there. Unemployment is at over five per cent and there are over 1.9 million Australians who don't have work or don't have enough work to make ends meet.

The Newstart rate is so low that it is actually preventing people from getting work. It is stopping them from having the 'go' that the government wants them to have. It is trapping people in poverty today. You cannot live on $40 a day. It simply does not cover the basic cost of living, let alone all the additional costs that you have if you are trying to get yourself into employment—the costs of access to the internet, appropriate clothing and even transport to job interviews. If you are really struggling to make ends meet, pay your bills and support your family, that is obviously a barrier to getting into work.

The Prime Minister has previously said that the harder you work, the better you do. He is essentially saying to Australians who are struggling that it is all up to them—just try harder, just do better. What he is saying is that if you are poor, if you are stuck on Newstart, it is your fault; nobody else is responsible, it is just your fault. That could not be further from the truth. This Prime Minister and this government are doing nothing to deal with the crisis of poverty in Australia today.

Poverty is a huge issue. The ACOSS report of last year, Poverty in Australia, found over 13 per cent of Australians were living below the poverty line. That is more than three million people, including 739,000 children. That's three million Australians and 739,000 children. The recent Foodbank hunger report found that 14 per cent of Australians are eating less food than they need due to a lack of money. In 2019, no-one should be going without food. No-one should be having to go without food so that their children can eat on that night. It's especially difficult to accept that that's happening in one of the richest countries in the world, our country. So many of the Australians on Newstart and on youth allowance make up these Foodbank statistics, and it's absolutely shameful, given how easy it would be to help them get through it by raising payment rates.

Take Ross, who shared his story with that Poverty in Australia report. He said:

I'm an ex-Australian soldier who returned to Australia, couldn't find work and was shunted into Newstart and (Work for the Dole). I have a three-year-old and barely have enough money to feed/clothe him or I. The extra money would help us "survive" until I could get back on my feet, employment-wise.

Does the government think that Ross isn't working hard enough? Does the government think that Ross is not having enough of a go? Does the government think that he should just try a little bit harder? What about Ross's three-year-old son? Doesn't he deserve a good start in life? At the moment, he is one of the 739,000 children in Australia today, right now, who are living in poverty.

For a child that lives in poverty, it's not just about having a secure home and enough to eat—as if that weren't important enough. Poverty limits a child's future, it limits their ability to learn, it limits their opportunities. It can mean going to school on an empty stomach. It can mean missing out on excursions and not being able to participate in the things that all the other children are enjoying. It can make it difficult to spend time with friends. All of that can leave those children who are living in poverty feeling ashamed about what they're missing out on, feeling excluded, feeling isolated.

The tragedy of it is that it just doesn't have to be this way. It doesn't need to be this way. The government could help hundreds of thousands of Australians and their families if they just showed some compassion and raised the Newstart rate. If compassion isn't enough to motivate this government to get them to act, then perhaps they can listen to the economic arguments for raising Newstart. We've seen over the past few weeks economist after economist ringing the alarm bells about the Australian economy. Only yesterday did we see the IMF substantially downgrade their forecast for Australia's economic growth. Today in the media, businesses are screaming out for the government to act to boost our faltering and flagging economy. Up until now, the governments have had their heads in the sand when it comes to the state of the economy. They keep telling us: 'Everything is fine. We've got a plan and our plan is going great.' Well, has anyone seen this plan? We haven't, the Australian people haven't, and I'm pretty sure that it doesn't exist.

Here's an idea for the government: raise the rate of Newstart. Research by Deloitte found that raising Newstart would help create economic growth while helping regional areas that are most in need of help. The Governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, has said that now would be a good time to raise the rate of Newstart in order to boost economic growth. Even the Treasurer has admitted that raising Newstart would be good for the economy. So why not do it?

It will improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians and it will help boost our economy.

If you're still not sure about it on the other side, why don't you ask one of the following who have called for an increase to Newstart: former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, former Nationals Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, deputy Nationals leader Senator Matt Canavan, Liberal senator Dean Smith, Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, Liberal-National MP Andrew Wallace and, lastly, Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos, whom we all would acknowledge is a well-respected contributor in this place. And they are not alone either, because the business community is also calling for a raise in the Newstart rate, as are a host of not-for-profits and charities around the country. All of those people and all of those organisations are in agreement with the 75 per cent of Australians who agree with raising the Newstart rate. So why is it that the government will not listen to the overwhelming public opinion and public support for raising the Newstart rate? Why is it that they won't do the compassionate, logical and sensible thing and raise the Newstart rate? It's because, instead of helping those people on Newstart, the government is currently doing its best to target them, to isolate them and to stigmatise them, with their terrible robo-debt program, with their discriminatory cashless welfare cards and with their demeaning drug-testing programs.

The government's legally dubious robo-debt scheme, which they want to rollout to target even more vulnerable Australians, is based on flawed calculations and it has an error rate of one in five. The cashless cards that they want to roll out across the country are preventing people from being able to purchase essential items at affordable prices. Those cashless welfare cards are excluding people from being able to participate in their community, in community events, in services and in activities that don't accept the card.

How about the proposed rollout of drug testing for social security recipients? How indiscriminate! How demeaning! It is something that is going to waste millions of taxpayer dollars. It's a project that medical and policy experts have said just won't work. Why spend millions of dollars on programs when there is no evidence to suggest that they are going to help people get off social security payments, off Newstart or off youth allowance? Why do all of that when you could just raise the Newstart rate, which we all know would have a massive impact on those hundreds of thousands of Australians who are relying on it today? Families are struggling and the government just doesn't seem to care, so take your heads out of the sand and raise the rate.

Question agreed to.