Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020


Pensions and Benefits

4:10 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes that the low rate of Newstart and the insufficient rate of disaster payments do not adequately meet people's needs and can exacerbate the difficult circumstances people are experiencing in the face of bushfires and drought; and

(b) calls on the Federal Government to immediately raise the rate of Newstart by at least $95 a week and raise the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment to $3000 per adult and $1000 per child.

This is a particularly important issue. This summer's bushfire crisis has put the spotlight directly on our social security system. This disaster highlights just how important our social security system is. It is a safety net that Australians know they can rely on to help them through their times of difficulty and crisis. When they lose their employment or when they are sick, they can access our social safety net. In a time of crisis, such as the bushfires that we have faced in this nation since September, people know, or believe, that the social safety net is there to help them. It's in these times that people need a really strong social security system so that they can fall back on that for support.

The disaster recovery payment is a one-off, non-means-tested payment—currently set at $1,000 for adults and $400 for children—for people who have been adversely affected by a major disaster. This payment has not increased since it was introduced in 2006. Given the devastation and ongoing threat of extreme climate-driven natural disasters, it's essential that the government plays its role in supporting people. We've received feedback from the community that the disaster recovery payment isn't enough. Areas have been declared under the process so that people can access these payments, so we're not saying that the social safety net hasn't been put in place or the necessary actions taken to enable people to recover—although I'll come back to a few problems that have occurred specifically for some people. By and large, that process has been established. The fact is we are starting to get feedback from people that what is available isn't sufficient to help them through the current crises that this nation has been facing.

We strongly support the Australian Council of Social Service's call to increase the disaster recovery payment to $3,000 for adults and to $1,000 for children. We share ACOSS's concerns that the current payments are seriously inadequate, especially for people on lower incomes and with fewer assets, family members and friends to secure alternative housing options. Many people have lost everything and urgently need adequate financial support. Increasing the disaster recovery payment to $3,000 for adults would be a small way to help people who are in crisis. We know they need more support, but at least this would boost what is currently available.

Let's be clear: $1,000 doesn't meet people's needs and doesn't go far enough when it comes to helping people recover from, in this instance, these horrific bushfires. It's exacerbating the difficult circumstances people are experiencing in the face of bushfires and floods; and, as I was referring to earlier, it's not necessarily getting to those who need it—because of some administrative issues, we think. People have been told, for example, that their area hasn't been declared a disaster area. The report from Mungo residents is that they were denied the recovery payment because Centrelink claimed they were outside the fire zone, despite losing their homes.

I'm sure these issues are more about administration, and I acknowledge also that these things happen. They shouldn't happen, but, if they do, they need to be rectified directly, and it's unfortunate that people have to go to the media or their local members or local senators to get some action, particularly when communications in these areas are poor because of the loss of those services due to the fires.

The Prime Minister clearly acknowledged that the disaster recovery payment was inadequate, when he announced in January that families in bushfire affected areas who had already claimed the payment would be eligible for an additional $400 for children—an understanding that more money was required. However, I am concerned that this is a one-off deal and it will not be provided for other disasters going forward. The government should be acknowledging that the disaster recovery payment is seriously inadequate, especially for people on lower incomes and with fewer assets.

I now come to the disaster recovery allowance—that was about the payments. The disaster recovery allowance, which is the other part of the disaster support that is available in Australia, is paid for a maximum of 13 weeks if a declared disaster directly affects your income. The catch is that it is paid at the rate of Newstart or youth allowance, and that's, of course, the really, really clear problem. When Newstart already traps people in poverty, how does the government expect it can truly support someone who has lost their income, their job, and perhaps their home following the bushfires? In January, Robert Provenzale was forced out of his home and his job in Batemans Bay following the bushfires. When talking about the disaster recovery allowance, he said:

'It's, to be honest, stuff all.

'It'll barely pay my bills, it'll barely pay anything.'

I must say that his comments there reflect those in the large number of emails I have received about the adequacy of the payment. And I'm sure other members of this place have received similar emails, because people are deeply concerned that they're not going to be able to survive on those low levels of payment.

The bushfire crisis will have long-lasting impacts on people's safety, health and wellbeing. We believe the government must act now to increase this payment so that people have adequate support to get back on their feet in the wake of these disasters. It is essential that we have a responsive and fair system to help people recover as quickly as possible.

I want to touch very briefly on the cashless debit card because I've also had a lot of feedback about the use of cashless debit cards in disaster affected areas. It's not only the low rate of the disaster payments that affects people; it's also the government's punitive measures, like the cashless debit card. People on the card who face power outages are, effectively, left stranded without any access to money. On New Year's Eve, bushfires caused around 25,000 homes and businesses in and around Ceduna, for example, to lose power. The same situation happened in Central Australia, where extended blackouts meant food relief organisations had to step in to feed people. How can someone on the card eat, feed their family and buy other essentials when the power is down? They can't call the cashless debit card hotline for help when the power is out. This is absurd, and it is another example of the dangerous consequences of compulsory income management and restricting access to cash.

Let me come to the general issue of Newstart, which, as I said, is the base rate for the disaster recovery allowance. This is a vitally important issue. ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Services, is now calling—it happened just towards the end of January—for a $95 increase to Newstart and youth allowance at the very minimum. Most people in this place—I'd say all people in this place—have heard me talk about this all the time. Acting Deputy President Askew is nodding her head. This is an issue that many, many people are passionate about. But the fact is that the gap—the inadequacy of Newstart—is absolutely critical to those who are living in poverty, because we know that people living on Newstart are living in poverty. The gap is growing so quickly between the cost of living and income support payments that ACOSS has needed to update this figure from $75 a week to $95 a week. I remember when it was $50 a week. We were campaigning on that. It's taken so long—and in fact the government still hasn't recognised that Newstart is too low—that the figure is now $45 higher than when we originally started this campaign—$45. And $95, I would argue, would be barely enough. We support this increase, but stress that it's just a starting point.

In fact, we need to go further than $95 a week if we are to seriously close the gap for those who live in poverty. If we are going to address poverty in this country, we have to increase Newstart. Newstart has been at the same level for 25 years. We have now witnessed such a long period of inaction from the federal government on Newstart that people have descended further and further into poverty. The government's continued failure to act means that people trying to survive on Newstart are falling further and further behind. People in the community are denied dignity when they are forced to live on $40 a day for extended periods of time. It affects their job prospects, their mental health and their children's health.

As we get ready for the start of the university year, students receiving youth allowance will be attempting to survive on just $33 a day, an income that is even less than Newstart. ACOSS found that nine in 10 young people on allowances skip at least one meal a week, and six in 10 have less than $14 a day after paying their rent. In 2019, the average Newstart recipient claimed their payment for more than three years, which is up from two years and two months in 2014.

Just recently, the figures were published on the number of older people on Newstart. For the purposes of employment, because of ageism 45 is now the mark for when people are being discriminated against in the work place when they're trying to find work. Over 50 per cent of people now on Newstart are aged over 45. They're ageing in poverty into the pension—50 per cent of people on Newstart. They're finding it increasingly difficult to find work because of ageism. If you stick around, you'll hear me talk about that in the adjournment tonight: the impact of ageism. The truth is people are trapped on Newstart and it is so woefully low that it takes away from their ability to find work and it has ongoing consequences.

The low rate of Newstart will also be profoundly felt by people facing difficult circumstances, including the loss of income and employment in the wake of the bushfires and floods. It will definitely make it harder for people to get back on their feet, and I've had correspondence from people saying exactly that. Increasing Newstart is in fact a smart thing to do. It's not just compassionate; it's also really smart. It would provide significant economic stimulus and the creation of thousands of new jobs that would assist in the recovery of bushfire, drought and flood affected regions. The only thing standing in the way now of an increase in Newstart is the unwillingness of government to recognise that they have a responsibility to support those who are doing it tough in our country—those who have lost their job in a variety of ways, through no fault of their own, be it through the loss of businesses because of bushfires and floods or be it through their job no longer existing or being laid off. The fact is that there are a lot of Australians who are doing it tough living on Newstart and youth allowance. It needs to be increased.

Similarly, the disaster recovery payments also need to be increased for Australians affected by bushfires and other disasters—in this instance, bushfires and floods—to make sure that they have enough to get by and to get back on their feet. Every Australian, I'm convinced, wants to see the people affected by these disasters being able to get back on their feet and they want to see the government helping them. I urge you to support these calls to increase Newstart and these payments.

4:25 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise and speak on this motion, which comes at a time when so many Australians are in shock following the devastating black summer bushfires. As we know, 33 people tragically died, including a number of firefighters; 2,900 homes have been lost; an estimated one billion animals have died, which is overwhelming in its scale; and an estimated 10.4 million hectares have been lost. I want to thank Senator Siewert for bringing this motion to the parliament, because I know it comes from a good place in Senator Siewert's heart. I hope that what Australians have been able to see in the Morrison government's response is that we too have made our decisions, in the way we've responded, with our hearts. We know how devastating these bushfires have been for so many families.

The Morrison Liberal government has been focused on the immediate relief we need to get to the people on the ground. We've also been holding a number of roundtables with each key sector to ensure that we're planning for the recovery effort in the weeks, the months and the years ahead. As the Prime Minister has highlighted, our actions are part of our initial support, but he has said this, and I want to stress this to the Senate: we will do whatever it takes to support the communities and businesses hit by the fires, and if we need to do more we will. This is not set and forget.

On some of the individual cases which Senator Siewert and other senators have raised in this place, or members have raised in the other place, can I please ask those senators and members to bring the cases to the government because, if people are falling through the cracks because of particular individual circumstances, we need to know about it so we can consider particular circumstances and respond appropriately.

In respect of this motion, I'm a bit disappointed that the Greens have put up this motion without acknowledging the very broad range of support, investment and work that we are doing. I will make reference to that in a minute. I first of all want to go through the payments and how they work, because it is quite complex and, of course, there are some differences, depending on which state people are in. Under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, there's what's called a category A payment. That covers the personal hardship allowance. This differs, as I mentioned, in different states. The Commonwealth and the states actually share the cost of this payment. The states determine when this is activated. This has already been activated in various locations in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. In Victoria, for instance, it's $540 for an adult and $270 for a child to a maximum of $1,890.

Then there's another payment: the Australian government disaster recovery payment. That's the one referred to in the motion. That's $1,000 per eligible adult and $400 per eligible child. We've just doubled that payment for children to $800. I know Senator Siewert proposed $1,000, so we're quite close in terms of the payment to children. This is a one-off, non-means-tested payment when the disaster on individuals and families requires an additional response. It's completely paid for by the Commonwealth and, to date, a very large amount of money has been paid—91,000 claims have been processed since 16 September and there has been $107 million paid. Then there's another payment, the Australian government disaster recovery allowance. It provides up to 13 weeks of income support to subsidise lost income. We're also going about simplifying the application process.

So, while we can't be definitive, because there are different payments under category A in different states, in very rough terms—and I'm looking particularly at the Victorian rates—a family of five, made up of two adults and three children, can receive up to $1,890 under category A, $4,400 under the disaster recovery payment and 13 weeks of income under the disaster recovery allowance for each working adult where they lost income. That's $1,000 a fortnight for a couple and $7,000 in total. So the total support is $13,300, which, of course, is substantial and is a lot more than is referred to in the motion that Senator Siewert has brought to the Senate today.

The range of support that the government is providing is unprecedented, and I say that because I have lived and breathed working with my community in the wake of the Wye River and Separation Creek bushfires, where 116 homes were lost. Thank God no lives were lost, but it was a very long journey, a very long road. I worked with many families, including to hold one insurance company in particular—AAMI, which is owned by Suncorp—to account. That particular case ended up in the royal commission because of the horrendous manner in which that insurance company treated a number of families. They were proposing to essentially rip off families. We took that to the minister and the parliament and, through a lot of advocacy and support from the relevant minister, we were able to rectify that terrible injustice. So I have lived and breathed this myself. I know how challenging this is. As we all know, this is going to be a very long road.

The Australian Defence Force have been assisting since the start of the season in September. There has been the compulsory call-out of reservists. More than 6,500 personnel have been deployed, and that has been very substantial in terms of support on the ground. The government is now paying volunteer firefighters up to $300 per day for lost income, with a total amount of $6,000 available. There are recovery grants of up to $75,000 to primary producers and farmers, and the initial estimate in terms of what the government will spend is $100 million. So it is very substantial additional support for our wonderful farmers and primary producers. We know how much they have suffered in these fires.

There are also $50,000 grants to affected businesses, loans of up to $500,000 with deferred repayments and concessional rates, and some support provided with a single point of contact in a new hotline and 10 new financial counsellors. We've also made the decision to delay tax filing requirements.

A very substantial announcement by our government is the $2 billion national bushfire recovery fund. We made a number of announcements under that fund. Two billion dollars is an incredible amount of money. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency has been established, led by former AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin. There's $60 million to support severely impacted local councils, $76 million for mental health and $50 million—a down payment, with more to come—to protect our wildlife, which we know has been devastated. There is $40 million being paid to charities to enable them to provide direct assistance on the ground by way of food, fuel and cash; $10 million for expanded financial counselling; $15 million for rural financial counsellors; and $8 million for mental health support to fund an extra 25 Beyond Blue liaison officers and clinicians to support local schools and early childhood services.

There's increased resources for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre and water-bombing aircraft—$20 million on top of the $11 million announced in December—and of course our annual budgeted amount of $14.9 million. There is also an additional commitment of $100 million to help the states clean up bushfire damaged buildings—that's a huge cost in terms of the clean-up—and an additional $76 million to rebuild the tourism industry. We have announced some grants. Businesses are able to apply for grants. We know that, not just in bushfire affected areas but more broadly, this has hit tourism oriented businesses very, very hard.

And then there's a range of other support—our mobile service teams and our dedicated National Disability Insurance Agency resources in impacted areas. There is investment in emergency communications and wi-fi. There is a deferral of tax liability for individuals and businesses. There is free passport replacement. As I mentioned earlier, we're running a number of round tables to ensure that in every sector, in every part of the economy and in every community, we are doing everything possible. We can't do this on our own. We have to do it with all of the relevant agencies, communities and stakeholders. We remain open and alive to the fact that more help may be required. I say to Senator Siewert and other senators that, if anyone is falling through the gaps, we will take this very seriously and consider people's individual circumstances. We've also made a very substantial investment in the P2 face masks—to the states and territories. There is a supply of 3.5 million masks. We know the damage bushfire smoke can do and the health risks of that.

I hope what I have presented today is an overview of what can be seen as incredibly comprehensive support to individuals, to businesses, to communities, to our firefighters and to our charities. And an enormous amount of additional money has been addressed. So many kind-hearted Australians and people from around the world have opened their wallets and their hearts and raised millions upon millions of dollars. One of the great concerns of a number of people, including some who have contacted my office, is to make sure that the money that has been raised is being spent in these communities. The Red Cross initially announced that it was going to hold back some of those moneys for other future disasters. I think that went down very badly. That has now been remedied. We don't want to see that money going to administration costs. We want to see that money very quickly getting out to where it is needed.

I also want to reference the other part of Senator Siewert's motion in relation to Newstart. I appreciate that she is very closely concerned about the rate of Newstart. We are in absolute agreement; no-one is saying it is easy to live without a job. Newstart is not a wage replacement; it comes nowhere near equating to a proper salary. It is, and was always meant to be, a safety net for people while they are looking for work. Everyone who receives Newstart is eligible for some form of additional assistance from the welfare system. A very high proportion of Newstart allowance recipients also receive other payments—whether it is family assistance payments or rent allowance. The Commonwealth spends more than $4 billion on rental assistance. For low-income people it is bloody tough—absolutely, horrendously tough. But many families who are struggling are receiving a number of support streams from the government, which does make things a bit easier.

We're working incredibly hard to grow jobs and employment opportunities right across the economy. We're providing a range of programs to encourage people into work—like our Try, Test and Learn program and individual placement support. We're now seeing the dividends of the government's hard work: 1. 5 million more jobs have been created since we were elected and our unemployment rate is 5.1 per cent. In the Geelong region, which I proudly represent as a regional senator in Victoria, we have seen the unemployment rate drop to some very substantial lows, and that is resonating very positively across the community.

The social security system, which is complemented by a range of employment services and programs, is designed to support people of working age by creating pathways to employment and giving people the incentive to go out and look for work. We will continue to look at different, innovative ways in which we can support people in finding work and get those pathways to make it as easy as possible. I want to thank Senator Siewert for bringing this motion to the parliament today. It's certainly been a great opportunity to explain in detail the support that our government is providing to bushfire affected communities in this very challenging time.

4:40 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor is proud of the fact that we as a nation have a social safety net designed with the purpose of providing assistance to those going through rough patches in life . The reality is the loss of a job or finding oneself out of work happens regularly, and difficult times can certainly happen to any one of us. It's also clear to everyone but the government that the rate of Newstart is way too low. Of course, that also goes for the disaster recovery allowance, which is set at the rate of Newstart.

People who have suffered through some of the toughest times of their lives deserve and need adequate support to get through those immediate days and weeks, yet the disaster recovery payment has not been increased since 2006. For 14 years it has remained set at $1,000. The expenses that people face when they've suffered loss or damage in a fire or other disaster such as a cyclone are significant. No amount of money can take away that pain and the disruption and the loss. But it is important that people have enough assistance to meet their basic needs in the immediate term. That is why the disaster recovery payment is so important. Many groups that have been working on the frontline with people after these bushfires have made it clear that the current rate of the payment is not stretching far enough for many people. I know that the government may not want to hear this, but this is what is coming through, and I think it is important that the Senate acknowledges these concerns.

The stories from bushfire affected communities show there is still much to be done to heal and recover from the devastation. We've heard stories of people who have lost their home waiting for a month for the disaster recovery payment. We've seen that, we've heard that. Families have been left in dire straits waiting for funds to come through as they pay for alternative accommodation and try to replace everyday necessities. People have been in desperate straits. Displaced families are living in tents or couch-surfing, and farmers can't get stock feed. Over 3,000 homes have been confirmed lost across Australia since the bushfire season began, and that number is sure to rise as damage assessments continue. There are also significant impacts to livestock and farming infrastructure. Twelve million hectares have been burnt in the devastating bushfires across Australia's south, east and west, and up to one billion native animals have perished.

Labor flagged the threat of the looming unprecedented fire season back in November. The Labor leader wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to call an urgent COAG meeting to coordinate a bushfire response plan for the country. Throughout the crisis, Labor put forward constructive solutions, including measures that could assist with the recovery efforts.

I might digress a little bit and point out the importance of the knowledge of First Nations people around the bushfires in northern Australia, and how we as a country need to take more time to focus on the knowledge of our First Nations people and particularly our rangers. I have stood here and spoken about the important programs and the burning off of country, which is done in a way that prepares the country for new growth. Those skills have been learnt by non-Indigenous Australians and our fireys up in the north, in terms of being mindful of the bushfire season and also the general knowledge.

I've shared here on a number of occasions in relation to my family in the Gulf Country—the Yanyuwa and Garrwa people—looking after country by burning off in the dry season, which is winter down here. Our dry season is from April through to October. In early April and May, after the wet, we start to burn off country, to protect it and also for growth coming forward. It's also good for the animals to know that they have new regrowth after the early burn offs by the jungkayi, which is what we say in my language. In Yanyuwa 'jungkayi' means the protectors of country. The English word would probably be 'policing' the country. So we always have jungkayi and the ngimirringki, which means 'traditional owners, working together as to when and where to burn off and, obviously, alerting people in those areas where they're burning off the country.

When we look at what's been happening here, it's not just about the level of the disaster recovery payment but there is the red tape and bureaucracy involved, and the hoops to be jumped through, which have certainly added to the distress and extra pressures for people who are already living right on the edge. We've heard stories like Rae Harvey's at Bateman's Bay, and how she lost her home in the bushfires and has been living on her property with no running water, electricity or wi-fi.

Then we've heard about all the animals; we all have, and I heard Senator Henderson make reference to that. It's just unbelievable when we think of the enormous numbers of our animals that have been either killed or maimed across these areas. There are some we may have lost forever, and I think that's a really sad point. I know there is great sadness among the language groups in those areas. Of the more than 100 marsupials that Ms Harvey used to look after, only 22 were left and most were suffering from dehydration and burns. She was certainly frustrated and exhausted by the bureaucratic demands in proving who she was and where she lived.

We've also heard the story of the mayor of Bega, Kristy McBain, who raised concerns that it was just difficult for bushfire victims to get help. I know that many of the frontline workers have been doing their level best to assist people affected by the disasters. For example, Services Australia employees reduced a 17-page disaster recovery payment form to five pages, which helped reduce the paperwork for the victims. I know it doesn't sound like much, but if you think about all the applications and work that you have to go through just to get the relief then that component is enormously frustrating. So to have that reduced and streamlined in a way that gives assistance earlier to people was certainly a great assistance. I'm told that the agency continues to field over 120,000 calls from Australians experiencing devastation—120,000 calls! It's not the fault of the people on the front line that they're dealing with policies that seem not to aid in getting support as soon as they can.

As I said at the outset, Labor is proud that we have a system designed to provide assistance to those going through rough patches in life. But of course, like everything, it has to be adequate. And so I'll talk about Newstart, and the reality of Newstart is that it is not adequate. Who does this affect? Over the past six years, the number of Australians aged 45 and over who rely on Newstart has surged by 60,000. Those over 45 represent half of all Newstart recipients, and those over 55 represent a quarter. And that's the future: this is how we care for people moving on in their middle years and those who are closer to retirement.

The reality is Australians aged 45 and older find the most difficulty re-entering the job market due to structural barriers and age discrimination. It is out there, and I am sure many people can tell stories about it. There are three Newstart recipients for every job vacancy. Some two million Australians are either looking for work or looking for more work, 1.1 million are underemployed and 130,000 Newstart recipients actually have a job but don't earn enough wages or receive enough hours to get off the payment.

Soon this government is going to enforce compulsory income support—the cashless debit card—on Newstart recipients and others receiving support payments across the country, and that will make it immensely tougher for people already on a very tight income. It is going to limit the amount of cash that can be accessed. Purchasing second-hand items like school uniforms and kids toys will be made a lot harder, if not impossible, for many families. Those in the CDC trial sites report that accessing cheaper goods through online retailers is causing serious problems for them. Some of the reports given as evidence to the Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs inquiry into the cashless debit card can only be described as bizarre. For example, a mum trying to buy a child's book through an online bookstore had her CDC card refused and was told that she might be trying to buy a book on distilling alcohol, and that is just one story.

These are the facts of poverty and deprivation in Australia: three million or 13.2 per cent of Australians live below the poverty line when defined as 50 per cent of median income; 739,000 children or more than one in six Australian children live below the poverty line; and Anglicare says that there are 19 job applicants for every one job vacancy. I recall some of the evidence received by the inquiry—all public, all on the record—by Newstart recipients telling of the humiliation they feel having to jump through these hoops to be able to access their money every week. We had professors, journalists, people with all sorts of degrees come before the committee who were on Newstart and who were absolutely devastated that they cannot seem to move out of the cycle of being on Newstart. So I think that figure from Anglicare of there being 19 applications for every one job vacancy really is a crucial point among these facts I am sharing with the Senate.

Over 1.1 million Australians are underemployed, and poverty threatens the Australian way of life. Poverty directly affects over one in 10 Australians, but it indirectly affects each and every one of us. When a child goes hungry or without a roof over their head, they cannot do their homework, complete their education or reach their potential. When a person has to live on the amount of money that Newstart provides and cannot afford clothes to attend a job interview or transport costs to get there—I know that might sound like a crazy thing; why can't people have clothes or transport to get somewhere?—there is no way they can prepare and then feel confident in themselves to be able to go out there and get those jobs. They cannot re-enter the workforce and contribute to the economy: it is a fact.

When a person must skip meals or medication, they cannot participate economically or socially in our society. When they cannot afford the basics or essentials, our local businesses have less to spend on wages or jobs. All Australians, whether they live above or below the poverty line, will in some form or another feel the struggle of the reality of that poverty. They feel it in their stagnant wages and they feel it in their lack of job security. This vicious cycle will continue until we as a country choose to do something about it.

4:54 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the motion of my outstanding colleague, Senator Siewert, who's been campaigning on issues of raising Newstart and looking after ordinary Australians for as long as she's been drawing breath—certainly as long as she's been in this place. Today we've asked the parliament to spend time debating the low rate of Newstart and the insufficient rate of disaster payments, which don't meet people's needs and can exacerbate the difficult circumstances that people are experiencing in the face of bushfires and the drought. We're calling on the federal government to immediately raise the rate of Newstart by at least $95 a week and to raise the disaster recovery payment to $3,000 per adult and $1,000 per child.

The context for us continuing to bring these issues forward is what we've just seen wreaked upon our nation over the summer and what many parts of the east coast are still experiencing now that the fires have turned into floods. I'm getting constant weather updates for rivers near my house as well, so this is real for each and every one of us in this chamber, just as it is real for the people out there. The context here is that people who have just lost their homes—we know 3,000 people and counting have now lost their homes in these devastating fires—have reached out to their government for support, and in many cases they're still waiting. The delays in accessing the disaster recovery support and the inadequacy of that payment when it does eventually come through are just adding insult to injury.

It brings to mind the Prime Minister's visit to a number of bushfire ravaged communities. Cobargo is, of course, the most well-known example. The Prime Minister didn't bring any supplies to that community. He rocked up and tried to force people to shake his hand. He wasn't offering any kind of solution to the climate crisis that's driving these natural disaster events, which we're seeing getting worse and more frequent. He wasn't offering any solution to help prevent the problem, and he wasn't offering any more funding to help people recover. This meagre payment, which hasn't had a rise since 2006, is too small, and it's taking forever to actually reach the people that need it.

We know that that was the situation all summer, and this is exactly why we've been supporting the calls to increase that disaster recovery payment. At the moment it's a one-off payment. It's $1,000 for adults and $400 for children who've been adversely affected by a major disaster. It's been at that level since 2006, and that is not enough money. If you've just lost your home, you're having to pay to rent somewhere else to stay if you don't have friends that you can couch-surf with. You're having to pay all of the ordinary daily expenses, such as sending your kids to school, putting food on the table and getting around the place. You have this additional accommodation expense and, moreover, you've just lost all your belongings and the very roof over your head. A thousand bucks is not enough. We strongly support the call to increase that payment to $3,000 for adults and to $1,000 for children.

I note that the Prime Minister kind of implicitly acknowledged that the amounts were too small, because he did in fact say that the payment for kids would go up by $400. So that's a welcome acknowledgement, but it's still not enough, and he really needs to listen to those communities when he visits them and hear the desperate need and then use his power, as the Prime Minister, to do something about it and to provide the help and support that those communities and those people desperately need in the wake of these disasters—and take climate action while he's at it.

It didn't escape anybody's notice that there was a wonderful coming together of the Australian spirit and that people were getting behind fundraising efforts. In particular, one of my favourite comedians, Celeste Barber, has raised more money for bushfire victims than this government. That is an embarrassment. Good on her—she's fabulous and she's done wonderful work and she's now helping people—but this government is letting people down.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not true. Liar, liar, pants on fire.

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

You can't just come in here and lie.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm happy to check the figures.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Fifty million dollars—are you serious?

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Excuse me. I'm calling you to order. The senator has the call. She has the right to be heard in silence.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm happy to go back and check those figures. Certainly, everyone was very impressed at the contribution that she was able to marshal from the community. It put into stark relief the fairly pitiful contribution that this government has made.

We've called for that disaster recovery payment to be increased, but I want to bring to mind the fact that it is taking far too long to get it out the door. We've heard reports that people have been waiting for up to a month. They're going into more and more debt as that time elapses. This is making the situation worse at a time when people are looking to their government to actually help them. Once again, they're realising that this government doesn't work for them; it works for its own corporate donors and vested interests, and for the lobbyists and industries that government members want to go and work for once they leave parliament.

The other facet I want to raise this evening is the disaster recovery allowance. It is a complementary disaster recovery approach in that, rather than being a one-off payment, it's a payment for a maximum of 13 weeks if the disaster that's been declared has directly affected your income. That sounds good, but the fine print is it gets paid at the rate of Newstart. This is why Senator Siewert has brought this issue to the attention of the parliament yet again. Even some members of the coalition—they're now backbenchers, but they used to be frontbenchers—are admitting that Newstart is too low. Newstart is too low anyway, but Newstart is particularly too low when you've just been affected by a climate-driven natural disaster that has seen your home either fried or washed away, your government is taking weeks upon weeks to send you a recovery supplement and you're condemned to 13 weeks, tops, of living on Newstart in those kinds of circumstances. We strongly support the calls by ACOSS to increase Newstart. It's been, what, 25 to 25½ years since Newstart was increased.

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

That's not true!

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It is—1994. Minister, check your facts before you allege that my facts are not correct.

Senator Ruston interjecting

CPI does not count as a material increase—please! Nobody buys that.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Waters! I remind senators that Senator Waters has the call and deserves to be heard in silence, and that interjections are disorderly.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was saying, the rate of Newstart is pitifully low. When you work it out, it's $40 a day. We here at this level of government have been talking about this for many years. In fact, oft times government ministers are asked if they could live on $40 a day. Many of their responses have been very unedifying and, frankly, very telling of the fact that they've clearly never had to live on $40 a day. They've somehow maintained they could probably do it. Nobody can survive on $40 a day. On the stories that we have heard throughout this whole campaign, that we hear from real people and that Senator McCarthy gave voice to: people are choosing between buying textbooks for their kids and eating dinner. Nobody should have to make that choice.

Here is a government that just dished out $158 billion in tax cuts to the very wealthy and to big business, and they don't even have the decency to raise Newstart by $95 for the three million Australians who are forced to live on it. They claim it's a transitional payment. Wouldn't it be lovely if it was, although it would still be too low. But it's not a transitional payment, because the average time that people languish on Newstart is three years—three years of living on $40 a day. This government is condemning three million Australians to continue to live in poverty while it dishes out massive tax cuts to the very wealthy and to big corporates. Is it any wonder that trust in government is bottoming out. It's democracy for sale, and people, once again, are at the bottom of the list.

We're backing the call to increase Newstart. What's really clear is that it continues to fall on deaf ears. We just heard government senators make a contribution to this debate. They trotted out that often-used refrain: 'It's not just Newstart. People get other payments as well.' My colleague Senator Siewert reminded me that the most common payment that accompanies Newstart is the energy supplement, and do you know how much that supplements? Four bucks a week. And this government is trying to say that somehow that's enough, that that means we don't need to increase Newstart. Please! The entitlement of this government is almost too much to be believed.

We've got a flailing economy. If you want stimulus, stop looking at the RBA to do the heavy lifting for you and increase Newstart. People who are living below the poverty line—the three million Australians who are languishing on Newstart for an average of three years—will spend that increase because they cannot afford to meet the basics of life as it is. If you want stimulus and you want stimulus that actually helps people, there is no better way than increasing Newstart. ACOSS is saying so, the business community is saying so, and some of your own backbenchers are saying so. It's kind of ironic because normally you'd take your orders from big business but you're ignoring them on this call. What a shame. We'd actually like you to listen to them on this front.

The other refrain that we often hear from government is that you've got to have a go to get a go and that somehow it's the fault of people on Newstart that they can't find a job. Maybe they don't want a job or they're too lazy. There are more people seeking work than there are jobs available in the job market at the minute under this government's watch. This is a situation of the government's making that they continue to not fix. The Anglicare figure that's often cited is that there are 19 people going for any one job. Many people on Newstart want to work; they're desperate to work. They can't afford the money for the outfit to go to the job interview or the train fare or the petrol to get to the interview. If they can somehow manage to scrimp and save to pull that together, they're then up against 18 other people for that job. And this government continues to blame people who are on Newstart as if it's somehow those people's fault. It is not. This is a systemic failure that is being perpetrated and perpetuated by this government. Everybody can see that. I hope the government knows that everybody can see that.

We have the solution: stop telling people to have a go to get a go and just lift Newstart and create jobs. Invest in infrastructure like schools and hospitals and clean energy that can make peoples' lives easier and create employment. And address the climate crisis. It's not rocket science, folks. It's not all going out to lunch with lobbyists and then handing out big business tax cuts. You're actually meant to be here to improve peoples' lives, and there are some fairly simple ways of doing that. You have many experts and advocates making these suggestions to you on a regular basis, but you can't see the evidence—or the climate science for that matter—because the money from the vested interests is clouding your judgement. It's completely embarrassing.

This is why we here at the Greens are strongly backing ACOSS's continued campaign for increasing Newstart by at least $95 a week. People should not have to choose between textbooks for their children and putting food on the table when this government instead dishes out massive big business tax cuts and tax cuts to the very wealthy and a quarter of a million dollars for sporting clubs that councils don't want. The priorities of this government are so clear. People have had enough, and they actually deserve a democracy that works for them. They deserve decisions that can improve their lives, help restore trust and confidence in our institution of government. Just actually do the job that you were elected to do: represent people, help improve their lives, help protect the planet, act on the climate science, invest in schools and hospitals and clean energy and stop worrying about the job that you're going to go for once you leave parliament.

5:09 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is time to shatter the mythology peddled by those sitting at the end of the chamber and opposite and shine a very bright light on the compassionate assistance the Morrison government is actually providing to Australians in hardship. One by one the myths have to be smashed. There's no more compelling example of this than the government's care, than the disaster recovery funding arrangements after a heartbreaking summer of devastating bushfires. These arrangements are facilitating the early provision of disaster assistance; alleviating the significant financial burden of the states; providing relief from personal hardship and distress; restoring essential public assets such as roads, bridges, stormwater infrastructure, public hospitals, schools and public housing; and funding small businesses, primary producers and non-profit organisations in their efforts to recover from the horrendous impacts of the Christmas and New Year infernos.

The funding is also devoted to futureproofing communities from further disasters. It allows a state or local government to use other funding to enhance assets above their predisaster standard by improving their durability and strength and relocating them if necessary. Under the disaster recovery funding arrangements, the Morrison government may contribute up to 75 per cent of the costs under the program. That includes additional assistance in the form of Australian disaster recovery payments. This is a one off, non-means-tested payment of $1,000 for eligible adults and $400 for eligible children, including an additional $400 for those children returning to school who have been adversely affected by a major disaster either in Australia or overseas. Then there is the disaster recovery allowance, a short-term income-support payment to help those with income that's been affected by disaster. There's support for employees, small-business persons and farmers suffering a loss of income.

So any suggestion that the Morrison government is anything other than extremely sensitive to the pressing needs of Australians doing it tough is pure mischief, if not scandalous. You can call it white noise. The US President might call it something of a darker colour, but you can be sure it has the same smell. You can be sure it's time to expose these falsehoods for the nonsense that they are.

Correcting the public record of commitments includes removing the rubbish that's passed off as debate around Newstart. Instead let's focus on the facts: the reality of how this allowance works. The Prime Minister has quite rightly pointed out to those demanding Newstart increases that the rate does increase every six months. Newstart is boosted in accordance with the CPI, and 99 per cent of recipients receive additional payments. Newstart will always be increased by indexation, and that's not going to change.

It must be remembered that recipients are not just receiving Newstart. Rental assistance and other measures are also supporting people in challenging circumstances as they seek employment. For example, Newstart and youth allowance are often supplemented by fortnightly energy payments and rent assistance payment. Nineteen per cent of unemployed people receive family payments. Rent assistance is up to $183.12 a fortnight for families with three or more children. FTB part A is up to $242.20 a fortnight per child for children aged 13 to 19 years. FTB part B is up to $158.34 a fortnight per family for children under five years. Pharmaceutical allowance is up to $6.20 a fortnight. Telephone allowance has risen to $178.40 a year.

While the amount of Newstart benefits is always increasing with the CPI, the core of its meaning will never change. The Morrison government remains committed to focusing on the key issue of securing employment. We only have to look at the falling unemployment rate to know Newstart is working in achieving its ultimate objective.

At the end of 2019, Australia's unemployment rate fell for the second consecutive month, to 5.1 per cent. That's the lowest level since March last year. It's a heartening indication of solid jobs growth in part-time work, with the ranks of the unemployed falling by 13,000 to just below 700,000. In December alone we celebrated the creation of 29,000 jobs. The government will continue to support the economy by providing tax relief to millions of Australians and adjusting the deeming rate for pensioners and other welfare recipients with shares and savings.

The Morrison government recognises the skills, insight and on-the-job experience of mature-age Australians. They have a valuable contribution to make to the workplace, and we're committed to ensuring that older jobseekers are able to modernise their existing skill set to re-enter the work force. No-one has ever pretended it's easy to live without a job. But the fact is Newstart was never meant to be a salary or a wage replacement. It's a safety net for people while they're looking for work. We owe to the taxpayers who fund it to make Newstart targeted, and recipients need to know it's sustainable—and it is.

Once again, the facts make for much easier reading than the fiction. The fact is the government is delivering the job opportunities. The fact is the government is providing pathways and breaking down barriers for people on welfare. The fact is we also provide a range of programs to encourage people into work, like try, test and learn and individual placement support.

The fact is Newstart allowance is the main income support payment for working-age unemployed people as they seek employment. It's a safety net payment, not a wage replacement. The fact is Newstart is not the only payment or support that jobseekers receive; it is part of a broader welfare system comprising payments, services, concessions, child care, housing and employment services and associated programs. That's why the Morrison government is so strongly focused on delivering job opportunities, providing pathways and breaking down barriers for people on welfare.

We recognise there are times when people need a safety net to help them when they're down and hard of luck. We'll never waver from the belief expressed by the Prime Minister time and time again that the best form of welfare is a job. The Morrison government is delivering job opportunities in abundance, creating more than 1.5 million jobs since we were elected. Thanks to our vision for a robust and expanding workforce and stronger labour market conditions, the participation rate is at 66 per cent, compared to a 10-year average of 65.2.

The fact is our 5.1 per cent unemployment rate is below the 10-year average of 5.5 per cent. As at June 2019, the proportion of Australians receiving working-age income supports had fallen to its lowest level in 30 years at 13.5 per cent, and the investment will continue in jobactive and Disability Employment Services to help people secure and keep a job.

About one-third of the Commonwealth's budget is spent on welfare. Social Services touch almost all Australians at some stage in their lives. The safety net provided for the most vulnerable is critical, and that's why the sustainability of the system is paramount. We promise all Australians that, if they have particular needs and meet the relevant residency income and asset tests, they will be supported with a particular benefit, be it the aged pension for those at that age, Newstart for those of working age who are unemployed or the disability support pension for those with a permanent disability that stops them from working. If we make that promise, it is crucial that we keep it. We never want to run the risk of not having the money to pay the benefit we have vowed to deliver.

5:18 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate we're having today does raise a couple of very important issues that I know many people in the community are concerned about. They are the general level of support being provided by the government in the wake of the recent bushfires and also specifically issues around the rate of Newstart that is currently being paid to unemployed people around Australia.

I'll say at the outset that Labor believes that in both cases the government needs to do more. In relation to victims of the bushfires, we do think that the government needs to do more and increase the financial support that it is providing to the thousands of bushfire victims that we see around the country. But, more broadly, we have said for some time now that we do believe that the rate of Newstart being paid to unemployed people in Australia is too low and does need to increase. I'll have more to say about the Newstart issues a little bit later in my contribution but I do want to begin with the bushfires.

Obviously, I've had quite a lot of involvement through my shadow portfolio with the victims of the bushfires and I spent a lot of time visiting bushfire affected regions before and after Christmas, in particular with the Labor members for the seats of Macquarie, Eden-Monaro and Gilmore: Susan Templeman, Mike Kelly and Fiona Phillips. I want to pay tribute to the effort they have put in, working nonstop, seven days a week, in each of these bushfire affected areas for a number of years. I acknowledge that obviously there have been a number of government senators, ministers and members of parliament who have also worked very hard over summer to assist their constituents.

In the condolence motions particularly, we've reflected on the significant damage that was caused to human life, property and the environment. People don't need me to go over those statistics again, but I think it is worth reflecting on the people who are suffering incredible financial losses that they will go through for a long period of time, even if they haven't suffered the loss of a home being burned down or some other loss of property of that nature.

I've said before that it has been unfortunate that any objective observer would say that the government grossly stuffed up its preparation and planning for the bushfires that we went through. I've gone through that in some detail previously. Warnings were repeatedly provided to the government, whether that be by ex-fire chiefs or their own agencies. The Department of Home Affairs, for instance, provided advice to government in its incoming government briefs about the level of risk that was faced from bushfires this year and was ignored by the government. We saw the government comprehensively fail to prepare and plan for the bushfires that we saw hit this year. Then when we actually got to the bushfires, again, we saw gross failures on the part of the government to properly respond to what was happening on the ground and confusion about the different levels of government levels of responsibility and who was doing what. Meantime, Australians were faced with highly dangerous conditions.

Now that much of the country is in recovery mode, my great fear is that we are going to see the government stuff this up and fail Australians in the same way that they failed Australians in the preparation and planning for the bushfires and in the immediate response. We have been saying for some time that there are major gaps in the recovery effort of this government. We've asked questions about it in question time this week. We've raised issues with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency in the private briefings that we received this week—and I should thank the head of the agency, former Commissioner Colvin, and his team, for providing us with that briefing this week. We raised concerns there, as we have done in this chamber, about the slowness of payments and the bureaucracy that people are having to fight through in order to receive the payments that the government has said it is making available. My great concern is that—just as we have seen in other policy areas under this government, and I'm particularly thinking of drought relief—we are again going to see the government's marketing effort not being matched by what it actually delivers to people on the ground.

No-one disputes this Prime Minister's ability when it comes to marketing, when it comes to ads and spin. But there are very real questions about this Prime Minister and this government's ability to actually meet the claims that they make and follow through on their promises. At the last estimates period, we were able to establish that for all the claims this government made that it has a $7 billion drought package—which I think Australians thought was a good thing—that when you actually dig into it, it's only worth, in total, a couple of billion, and most of that hasn't actually been released yet. We've had many instances where the government was making announcements that it would provide loans to drought-affected farmers and grants and all sorts of things, but when you start asking a few questions, actually very little has been paid out.

We're already starting to see signs that the same thing is happening with the recovery effort from the bushfires. If you've been listening to any ministers in this chamber over the last fortnight—I'm sure it has been the same in the House of Representatives—you'll know they would have you believe the government is doing a magnificent job of providing recovery payments and all sorts of other support to Australians who've gone through the bushfires. If you've seen any of the Prime Minister's press conferences, you'll have seen he's really raised expectations about what the government is going to provide to people. But the minute you start asking a few questions about that you're accused, first of all, of politicising the issue, when you're just trying to hold the government to account for the statements that it makes. Then, once you get through that, you actually find out that what the government is delivering to people falls well short of what it says it is doing.

Over the last couple of weeks we've been able to put to the government real-life examples of people who have suffered through the bushfires and are not getting the support that the government claims to be making available. I'll refresh the Senate on a couple of the examples that we raised in question time this week. Mr Joe Borgia lives in Wytaliba in New South Wales. A month after losing his home in the bushfires, Mr Borgia, who is an RFS firefighter, had only received the disaster recovery payment. He was still waiting for other funding approvals and was forced to accept donations from neighbours in order to keep going. That's not what the government is talking about. The government would have you believe that Mr Borgia and other people who have gone through these bushfires are getting incredible support from the government, that they are getting everything they could possibly need. I'm sorry, but that's not the fact. People like Mr Borgia are having to rely on donations from their neighbours in order to stay afloat. Ms Rae Harvey, in Runnyford, lost her home in the bushfires. She's been living on her property with no running water, electricity or wi-fi. She has twice applied for a disaster relief payment and has been rejected twice because she couldn't provide bank account details for a government payment that she received 20 years ago. What sort of bureaucracy is this government imposing on people that they have to find and show bank account details for government payments they received 20 years ago in order to qualify for the payments that the government is out there marketing right now?

There are many examples right now of small businesses who are not receiving the support that the government claims to be providing. Even in question time today, I asked Senator Cash, the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, about how many loans had actually been provided to small businesses who have suffered losses through these bushfires. We had the extraordinary situation where the minister for small business, who the day before had been telling us what a great job the government was doing for small businesses that have gone through the bushfires, was completely unable to even tell us how many loans had been approved for small businesses. Fortunately for Senator Cash, the Prime Minister answered this question in the House of Representatives yesterday and confirmed that, for all the government's talk about making immediate support available to small businesses, they have actually only provided one loan anywhere in Australia to a small business that has suffered losses. So in all sorts of ways, whether we're talking about individuals or small businesses and other forms of support, the marketing effort that this government is putting in is not being matched by the reality.

I acknowledge that it's relatively early days in terms of the recovery effort. Maybe the government will get it together. I really hope that they do, because I don't want to have to come back into parliament in a couple of weeks time and provide further examples of people who are not getting the support that the government says it is providing.

Specifically in terms of the disaster recovery payments that have been asked for, Labor has already been on the record as saying that they are too low. Coincidentally, I noticed that the Prime Minister announced an increase to the disaster recovery payments for children within a matter of hours of Labor's calling for it. It is a shame that it took Labor's calling for an increase to disaster recovery payments for the government to respond. It has only done so, for the moment, in relation to children rather than to adults. There is no doubt that the disaster recovery payments the government is currently providing are too low. We have Australians who are absolutely desperate for support at the moment. They can't pay their bills. They've got all sorts of bills that they're now going to have to pay in order to rebuild their properties and get themselves back on their feet. The least that they should be able to expect of their government is a degree of support to help them get back on their feet, and that the government might actually deliver the things that it is out there advertising that it is doing.

People are sick of this government's level of dishonesty. They're seeing it in the sports rorts, they're seeing it in all sorts of policy areas and now they're seeing it in terms of bushfire support, where you have the Prime Minister out there crowing about the immediate support that his government is making available, but a quick look at what's actually happening on the ground shows that the reality is that that is not the case. People are not getting from this government the support they're looking for. It's got to get this fixed.

Debate interrupted.