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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 81

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (19:22): The gap between rich and poor is growing under this government—a fact that even some of its ministers have acknowledged. At one end of the spectrum we have the mining companies who have the wherewithal to spend $26 million on an advertising campaign and thereby get themselves out of paying $100 billion in taxes over the next decade; we have the big banks that are some of the most profitable in the world and that now, in the coming reporting season, are looking at potentially paying an extra unexpected dividend because it looks like they are going to be making so much more money than they expected—and that is on the back of significant public support, including the support we gave them during the global financial crisis; and we have millionaires, people in this country who earn over $1 million, paying the same marginal rate of tax as someone who earns $150,000 or $200,000.

At the other end of the spectrum we have people who are doing it tough, who may have lost their job through no fault of their own and who are forced to live on Newstart. Those people are living below the poverty line. They are $130 a week below the poverty line. It is not just the Greens who have been saying for some time that this is an untenable way to live; the Australian Council of Social Service and welfare groups have been saying that Newstart has not kept pace with the rising cost of living, and also the head of the Business Council of Australia has said that the level of Newstart is now so low that it is a barrier to people getting into jobs. When you have the Business Council of Australia and the Greens and ACOSS all saying Newstart is too low, then something is wrong in this country.

The order of magnitude we are talking about is $130 below the poverty line, and what is this government's response? This government's response is to boost the benefit by, on average, $4 a week. That is what the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support Bonus) Bill does. This $4 a week will not lift one single person out of poverty. The amount of money that is Newstart does not go very far, as I found out recently, when I tried to live on it for a week. Once you deduct from your $246 the cost of putting a roof over your head there is not much left, even accounting for rent assistance. In a place like Melbourne, that rent would be $180 a week. During the course of last week I spoke to someone who is homeless. He went to a housing service, and they found him a single bedroom in a rooming house in inner-city Melbourne. That single bedroom in a rooming house cost between $180 and $220 a week. That is what people are paying now. I spoke to a single parent today—I will talk a bit more about this in a moment—who said that for the only place she could find that was big enough to house her and her children she is paying $450 a week rent. It does not take much mental arithmetic to work out that, when you start with $246 and then you take out $180, you are not left with a lot to live on for the rest of the week.

What we find around this country is that about two or three days into the week, people on Newstart have spent all their money and that everything else after that is either debt or they rely on family and friends or they go without. People on Newstart are routinely skipping meals because they have no money available to feed themselves. I visited one welfare service in my electorate, St Mary's House of Welcome, that does free or $2 lunches every day for people who live in the area, including many who live in the housing commission flats. If my recollection is right, they told me that in the order of 40 per cent of the people coming through the door are on Newstart—and they are coming in two or three times a week. In other words, Newstart is not even enough to feed yourself on, and the government is outsourcing to charities the obligation of finding enough money for those in our society who are doing it too tough to feed themselves.

These charities and services do a fantastic job, and they do it on the strength of donations and volunteer labour. But people should not have to rely on charity to feed themselves when they are unemployed. The level of government assistance should be enough to at least pay for a decent meal each week. We have not even got into paying for car registration, if they are lucky enough to have a car, or paying for things that might help them get a job—getting a haircut, buying some new clothes, getting training. All of this means that when people find themselves on Newstart they are in a cycle where they are going further and further into debt; they are not getting closer and closer to a job. Things become tougher and tougher and tougher.

My small experiment last week was just a simple taste. I was on the dole for a while about 20 years ago, when I finished university and was looking for my first job. It took me the best part of a year to find a full-time job. It was not the most salubrious of existences, but I remember being able to share a house with some other people, that we ate well and that I had enough to buy a suit and go and find a job. You cannot do that now. If any one of us or anyone who is listening found their job gone tomorrow through restructuring, through no fault of their own, they would expect that the income that they went onto would not be as high as they received in their job and probably would not even be as high as the average weekly wage but would be enough to hold them up until they were able to stand on their own two feet.

We are finding that the safety net is not supporting people when they find themselves in times of trouble; it is strangling them. It is making it impossible to live. Three reports have told the government this.

So what does the government do when given a chance to fix it? It increases Newstart by $4 a week. Of course we are going to support this legislation, because $4 is better than nothing, but $4 is almost an insult.

What is even more insulting, knowing how low the payment is, is that, in order to achieve the now abandoned goal of reaching an early—political—budget surplus, Labor decided to abolish the great Labor legacy of the single parents pension and kick tens of thousands of parents off their benefits and onto the dole on 1 January this year. This has plunged tens of thousands of children around this country into poverty. The extra amount that you get on the dole when you are a single parent is minimal.

Even worse, the government tried to dress up this naked cash-grab as a move to get people into work. When you scratch the surface of that, you understand that the single parents who have been hit hardest by this move are the ones who have been working. They are the ones who are working 15 or 20 hours a week to make ends meet, and that is because under the single parent payment you were allowed to earn a lot more before you started losing your income. But under Newstart you can earn only $30 a week. That means that, as of 1 January, because this government did not have the courage to stand up to the mining industry and pass a proper mining tax and therefore needed some money to try to balance the budget, there are now single parents who are trying to raise their kids and work at the same time who are up to $140 a week worse off. They have lost $140 a week. That is potentially a third of their whole income.

This is having massive flow-on effects. We are seeing people going further into debt—further into hock. Last week I spoke to Catherine, who is a single mum. She has gone back and trained as a graphic designer. She needs her computer as the tool of her trade. Because she is now on Newstart and because the new school year has come around, she had to put her computer in hock to get $200 to buy the schoolbooks. How is it helping someone to find work when they have to put the tools of their trade in hock?

The worst thing is that the people who are suffering the most from this are the kids, because they are now unable to do what their peers are doing. I have had parents tell me that, because they do not get the same income—or, potentially, because they lose Newstart altogether and therefore lose all the benefits, such as the concession card that helps with the rego and the bills—they are now having to make choices like, 'Do I pay the car rego or do I pay for the school camp?' What is even more heart-breaking is when they tell you, as they have told me, that the kids have now stopped bringing them the permission slips for a camp or an excursion because they know it upsets mum and makes mum cry. That is happening now because Labor has not had the courage to raise the money we need to fund the services and payments that most Australians expect.

This is about values and it is about the kind of society we want to live in. It is about how we treat those who have fallen on tough times—how we treat the hardest working families in this country, the single parents who are balancing work and looking after their kids with no-one else to help them, quite often unable to pay childcare fees and the like. It is about how we treat them. Do we want to become a more caring society, where we use some of the wealth of this country to look after those who have fallen on hard times and who could be any one of us if we found ourselves unemployed and in need of assistance, or are we going to attack them and keep them living below the poverty line because it is easier to target and pick on them than to ask Gina Rinehart to pay one cent of mining tax? That is what this boils down to.

It was very generous and magnanimous of the government to bump up Newstart by the equivalent of $4 a week! It probably will make a bit of a difference to some people, and they will use that money and they will be very grateful for it. It might help them start to get out of debt. It might help them pay the rego. It might mean that they do not have to put the computer in hock, because they can pay the school fees. But it is almost an insult that, after being told several times that the level of income support in this country is below the poverty line, we are now keeping people there.

We have a choice. Do we want to become a more caring society, where we look after people who have fallen on hard times, or are we going to go down the path where society becomes more dog-eat-dog and we do not care about people who fall through the cracks? That is the direction in which we are going. Until we have the courage to stand up to big business and raise the money that this country needs to fund the services and payments we expect, we are going to see more of these cuts.