Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Pensions and Benefits

3:31 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Watt) to a question without notice I asked today relating to poverty.

This week is Anti-Poverty Week. This is the second Anti-Poverty Week under the current Labor government. What do we have to show for it? Despite election promises to leave no-one behind, Labor is still choosing to abandon people on income support. Millions of jobseekers are still being forced to survive on payments well below the poverty line. Report after report from the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman show a failing social security system, and the government continues to support a system of mutual obligations and compulsory tasks that people on income support have to do, or they otherwise lose their payments.

Just last week the Guardian reported that an employment service provider ran training—one of these mutual obligations was that people had to undertake this training—and that this training instructed jobseekers on how to shower properly and asked them, in a questionnaire, if one of the reasons they were unemployed was that they were overweight or lazy. The government is continuing to support the system of mutual obligations despite mounting evidence from unemployment advocates, employment providers and academics showing these measures are ineffective and punitive.

In response to my questions about this today, the minister said mutual obligations shouldn't be punitive or degrading yet continued to support the concept of mutual obligations. It's pretty clear from Minister Watt's response to me today, and from other comments we've heard, that the government's current inquiry into Workforce Australia is not going to recommend that mutual obligations be scrapped. The government are kidding themselves. They're trying to spin us a tale that, under their watch, they're going to achieve the unicorn of a privatised mutual obligation system that's all sweetness and light, and that the folks who are unemployed will find it useful and empowering rather than punitive and degrading—fat chance!

The Greens have got a suggestion for the government: if you want to treat people with respect—which is what Minister Watt said he wanted to do in answer to my question today—make employment services voluntary rather than compulsory, and slash the costs by bringing them back under the government, recreating the Commonwealth Employment Service.

The best way to treat people who are looking for work with respect—the best way to treat students, young people and people with disability with respect—is to raise the rate of income support above the poverty line so people will not have to continue to struggle just to survive. To treat people with respect, make it so that they can afford to eat. Make it so that they can afford to pay their rent and to pay for their medications. The government could afford to do this. Why not put some of the billions of dollars you would save by slashing the system of mutual obligations and getting rid of privatised employment services into supporting people on income support and lifting their payments above the poverty line? Many people on JobSeeker are actually sick or too disabled to work, and they are barely scraping by on less than $54 a day. They can't afford transport to get to work. They can't afford to pay the rent. They can't afford to eat. It does not put them in a good place to be able to find work, and they should not be threatened with payment suspension for not attending discriminatory and useless training sessions.

Poverty is a political choice, and the Labor government are choosing to keep millions of people on payments well below the poverty line while handing out millions, hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to private employment providers. This Labor government is choosing to perpetuate the harmful and punitive system of mutual obligations and choosing to ignore the calls and the pleas of people on income support. This Anti-Poverty Week, we need more than platitudes from this Labor government. We need meaningful action to eradicate poverty in this country.

Question agreed to.