Thursday, 2 September 2021
Questions without Notice
COVID-19: Income Support
Yes, so I'm expecting a really good answer. My question is to the Minister for Families and Social Services, Minister Ruston. Hundreds of thousands of people are living below the poverty line through lockdown in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT. Last year, your government recognised that people on income support needed additional assistance during lockdowns. Most people on income support are not getting additional support during the current lockdowns. Why not?
Can I say, Senator Siewert, it's a tremendous honour to be receiving your last question. You have been an extraordinary member of this parliament, and I thank you very much for your question and your continued interest in advocating on behalf of some of the more vulnerable members of the Australian community.
Senator Siewert, as you would be aware, last year, when Australia went into lockdown when the pandemic first hit, we were in a vastly different situation to where we currently are. We had no certainty at all about what was about to happen, and the government acted very, very quickly to throw a blanket over the whole of Australia, in the hope that we could give Australians confidence to get through what was a very, very dark time for our country. This year, we have unfortunately seen a second round of COVID-19 impact parts of our country, so what we have sought to do is to be particularly targeted in our response, to people in lockdown areas who have been impacted by a loss of hours as a result of pandemic lockdowns.
The first measure was to make sure that anybody who had lost hours was immediately able to have access to the COVID-19 disaster payment that's administered through emergency services—through Senator McKenzie's department. Subsequent to the initial allocation of the COVID-19 disaster payment to people who were working and had lost hours, we also extended it to those people who were on income support payments who also had lost work, recognising that we did not want those people to actually be going out and seeking to work, because we needed to try and contain the virus in the states that were in lockdown. In addition to that, we have also maintained support across the whole of the community. But, Senator Siewert, as you would know, having listened to the numerous answers that have been provided in this place by Senator Colbeck, vaccinations are the way we can get our country safe again.
Through you, Mr President: Minister, most people on income support in lockdown are not receiving any additional payments and are living below the poverty line. Do you acknowledge that this puts them at greater risk during the pandemic, particularly if they have to go out to find work because they are living below the poverty line?
Senator Siewert, you and I have had many discussions in relation to the payments that are received by Australians who require the support of the Australian welfare system, and we are constantly in discussion around the issue of the measurement of poverty. What I would say is that the Australian welfare system is a very comprehensive and targeted system which seeks to provide support to individuals that reflects their particular circumstances and their particular needs. That is why we talk not just about the Australian welfare system as the primary payment that is received by a recipient but also about all of the other things that are provided. Obviously, with families, there is family tax benefit. Those people that are renting, obviously, get rental assistance. But we also have a universal system of health care and education, and many non-cash-transfer payments, so that we can make sure that our non-contributory, non-time-limited welfare system targets people and the needs of the individual.
How can you be safe and stay at home if you have to go out to scrape some money together because you are living below the poverty line? Does not the fact that people are living below the poverty line mean that they are at greater risk? You didn't answer that the first time. I ask it again.
Thank you very much, Senator Siewert. The government remains absolutely committed to supporting all Australians, whether that be, in normal times, under our normal welfare system, or whether that be in the extraordinary times that we find ourselves in at the moment. We recognise that support for Australians needs to be targeted, as I mentioned to you before. We will continue to disagree in relation to the definition of poverty and how it applies to Australia's welfare system, but the one thing that I would like to reinforce is that Australia's welfare system is non-contributory. You do not have to have worked and paid into the scheme to be able to get access to it. It is there for as long as you need. It is not time limited like other schemes around the world. But we need to make sure that our welfare system, whilst being fair to the people that it needs to support, is also fair to the people who pay for it: the taxpayers. We try and balance those two things to support people but make sure that it's sustainable into the future.