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Monday, 25 February 2013
Page: 645

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (10:12): On the surface of things you would think that the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support Bonus) Bill 2012 is great because it puts a bit more money in the pockets of those on Newstart, but when you look at it—and it is supposed to be about sharing the benefits of the boom—you see that they only get an extra $4 a week. This is a cohort of people, nearly 600,000 Australians, who are living more than $130 a week below the poverty line. You can understand why they are not dancing in the streets with getting an extra four bucks a week. In Perth that will not buy you a cup of coffee.

If the government were serious about helping those who are struggling to survive—and it is a struggle to survive when you are on Newstart—they would be doing something more than the $4 a week. This is a stunt to make it look as if the government care about the most vulnerable in the community. It is not genuine support for those that are struggling on income support. The government has transferred single parents and their families onto Newstart when their child turns eight. Is the child supposed to be cheaper when it turns eight? Is it suddenly easier to look after your family? They have dumped over 100,000 single parents and their families onto Newstart, lowering their income by up to $60 to $120 a week. The $4 is a drop in the ocean compared to the slug they have just taken. Of course, the Greens will be supporting this bill because to deny people living in poverty even a small boost would be wrong.

We are very disappointed that the government thinks this is the solution to those hundreds of thousands of Australians who are struggling to survive below the poverty line. The government seems content with this dog-eat-dog approach to the most vulnerable members of our community—those who are continuing to fall through the cracks—because $4 a week will not stop that fall. It does not take them out of poverty; it does not help put food on the table. Since the government announced this, they have had another indexation of Newstart that is not indexed in the same way as aged pensions and other pensions and does not keep up with the true cost of living. In fact, six months after I lived on Newstart for a week I compared the basket of goods and they had gone up by $7. Indexation did not go up by that much for those people living on Newstart. The $4 they are getting a week now does not keep up with that increase in the cost of living.

This is not the action of a government that cares for its community or cares for the most vulnerable in that community. This is an extra $210 a year that will be paid in twice-yearly instalments. Those living on youth allowance and trying to study are trying to live at $170 below the poverty line, because they receive $42 less than those trying to survive on Newstart. This shows how out of touch they are if they think this is going to go anywhere near addressing the huge financial difficulties of those living on Newstart. Only the Greens are actually prepared to help look after the most vulnerable members of our community. We know that Newstart needs to be increased and that is why I have introduced a bill to increase Newstart by $50 a week. Although that does not fully address the gap between Newstart and the poverty line, it does at least give a meaningful additional payment to those struggling to survive. I will be introducing another bill to address the government's cuts to single parents that will provide a supplement to all of those single parents trying to survive on Newstart, because, of course, the Howard government's welfare-to-work changes, brought in in 2006, moved single parents—other than those who were grandfathered—onto Newstart, and it is those parents who are doing it even harder than those trying to survive on parenting payment single.

The bill I will be introducing will provide a supplement of $40 to all single parents, which will help those who are already struggling to survive on Newstart as well as that new grandfathered group that has been moved onto Newstart. It will also address the issues around the taper rate for single parents. The government says, 'We dumped over 100,000 single parents onto Newstart to help them, to encourage them, to find work.' We know that is a fallacy. We know from the mothers who have told us how they are struggling. We know it is even harder for them on Newstart as they struggle to keep ahead. Those who are already working are losing even more money than those who have not yet managed to find part-time work. We also know that cohort of people are the people who are on income support who are working the most—up to 50 per cent of those single parents who are on parenting payment single are already working—and yet NATSEM was reported in the media on Saturday as finding that single parents keep less per hour because the taper rates on Newstart if they are moving from part-time to full-time work. In other words, they are worse off if they are on Newstart and they are trying to work full time.

We know that up to 30 per cent of those who are using Foodbank services and other emergency relief services are people on income support and are single parents. You can bet your bottom dollar that those are the single parents who have already been moved onto Newstart and just cannot make ends meet when they are trying to raise a family and find work on the measly amount that Newstart pays. Since single parents have been moved onto Newstart, I have heard account after account of the ways people are struggling to survive on Newstart. Let me read some examples from mothers who are struggling to survive and raise their family on Newstart. This is one mother's story:

My heart is for my children. Do they not have a right to be parented by me? Do they stop needing me when they turn eight? There is no-one else to care for them when they're sad, sick or frightened. How can I be in two places at once? If I am at work I am worrying about my children, not focussed on work. At home I worry about finding the money needed to provide for my family. I am in a no-win situation.

Here is another one:

Dear federal government,

I am a single parent. My son has turned 12 last September. I fulfilled the commitment of studying, working since 2008 and I have continued to be eligible for parenting payment single. Since the change of legislation on 1 January 2013 I have been plunged into despair because of the demands on me—homemaker, financier, cook, cleaner, home maintenance repairs and car costs. The pressures of looking for full-time work are impossible for me. It is negatively affecting my ability to parent my son. Trying to manage everything with less money is a Mount Everest of burden on my shoulders and my son's wellbeing is bad. He is feeling my pressure. You must change the legislation back and give more, proper support to single parents and mothers and fathers with children of all ages.

Another mother says:

I am unable to plan! I will no longer be able to register my car!! Buy new tyres!! Replace light bulbs!! Buy new shoes!! Purchase head lice treatment! House and contents insurance, pay debts, let my daughter go to birthday parties as I can no longer buy presents. Unable to sleep!! I DO WORK in part-time employment. I DO study a full-time course. I volunteer at my neighbourhood house community school.

I have received hundreds and hundreds of emails and letters from parents expressing similar concerns.

I have an example of a parent who was sick and could not make her interview at Centrelink. Her payments were cut because she could not make the interview. Her Centrepay payments were not met, therefore her rent was not paid. She has been made homeless. That is how Australia cares for its most vulnerable members of our community—by plunging them into poverty, making them unable to support their children and unable to pay their rent and making them homeless. That is not the sign of a caring community.

We know that those on income support are living below the poverty line. We know they make up a large number of the people that have to access emergency relief services. We know that their children are living in poverty. We know the lifelong effects that poverty has on those children's chances. We know from Anglicare’s When there's not enough to eat report that children are going to school hungry or being withdrawn or not sent to school because parents cannot provide lunch. When children do go to school hungry, it is not a good situation to be learning in. We know that, if you cannot learn and you do not learn and do not get a good education, that lowers your job prospects into the future.

It is not as if we do not know what impact poverty has on children’s lives and their lifelong chances. Yet this government thinks that $4 a week will fix that. This is a joke. It is a cruel joke on the most vulnerable members of our community. This is not sharing the benefits of the boom. If we were sharing the benefits of the boom, we would be making sure that we were supporting the most vulnerable Australians and caring for the most vulnerable Australians, because that investment not only helps now; it helps those families' long-term prospects and futures. An investment now is an investment for the future. An investment through a proper mining tax would properly share the benefits of the boom. If we were not more interested in keeping the big miners happy and keeping money in their pockets than we are in the most vulnerable members of our communities and the children that this government says it cares about, we would be investing a lot more than $4 a week in these families. These families are struggling to survive on Newstart, which is more than $130 below the poverty line.

Single parents who have been just managing to survive have been plunged into circumstances where they cannot make ends meet. They cannot make ends meet on Newstart. And $4 a week is nothing but show from this government: 'Look—we're sharing the benefits of the boom. We are putting money into parents' pockets.' Well, they are not. They put $4 in and took between $60 and $120 a week out. How is that the sign of a caring government? How is that sharing the benefits of the boom? It is not. Making children homeless does not share the benefits of the boom.

Anglicare’s report found that 45,000 households using their services were unable to feed their families properly. Three-quarters of the adults participating in the study said that they had run out of food in the last three months and could not afford to buy more. In other words, they were going hungry. Seven out of 10 said they had cut the size of meals and six in 10 are regularly skipping meals altogether. These adults and their children are going hungry. Children who are hungry are often reported to be grumpy, upset, embarrassed or withdrawn. Often they have behavioural problems, struggle to pay attention at school and are isolated from their friends. Parents in the Anglicare survey described keeping their kids home because there was nothing to put in their lunch boxes or not letting them have friends come over after school because there was nothing to eat and share.

The Senate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart agreed:

On the weight of evidence, the committee questions whether Newstart Allowance provides recipients a standard of living that is acceptable in the Australian context for anything but the shortest period of time.

We know that 62 per cent of those on Newstart have been on it for longer than 12 months. That is not a short period of time. How is $4 a week going to help these people? How is $4 a week going to help them pay the bills and manage to make ends meet? How is it going to help them pay the ever-increasing cost of rent? It is not.

Many, many people have been calling for an increase in Newstart—the Henry tax review, welfare groups like ACOSS, UnitingCare, the Salvation Army, economists and the Business Council of Australia. They are calling for at least a $50 a week increase in Newstart because Newstart is too low to live on. ACOSS reports that 25 per cent of single parents and their families live below the poverty line, and of course that data was from before single parents were transferred onto Newstart. There are almost 600,000 children living below the poverty line.

If you are struggling to survive on over $130 below the poverty line, what do you think $4 is going to do for you? It is not going to be able to raise you out of poverty. It is not going to pay for school books, for the spiralling cost of food, for car maintenance and for the spiralling cost of utility bills. It is not going to help you study. If you are a single parent who has not started studying you might as well forget studying, because you are not going to get the education supplement either. You do not make the benefits out of transferring from part-time work to full-time work because of the government's transferring you to Newstart and the effect of the tapering rate on the payments that you can take home. You are in trouble every way you look.

And what is the government's response? Four dollars a week, because they would rather care for keeping big miners happy than those more than 100,000 single parents that have had money taken out of their pockets and those on Newstart, youth allowance and Austudy who are all struggling below the poverty line. On top of not being able to survive, they are also struggling with inadequate job services. Job service employment agencies are not meeting the needs of the long-term unemployed. They are not able to help people find work. Not one person on Newstart that I have spoken to does not want to find work. They face multiple barriers to employment, not the least of which is struggling to survive below the poverty line.

It is time that we paid attention to supporting the most vulnerable in our community. We will be supporting this bill, because of course every cent helps; but they need $50 a week at least, not a measly $4 a week. Ultimately this is about the sort of society that we want to live in. We want to live in a caring society, a society that cares for people, not in a dog-eat-dog community, which is what the government and the coalition obviously want to see. The coalition are not even supporting a measly $4-a-week increase. This is about people who have fallen on hard times. How we treat people is a sign of how caring our society is—how we treat single parents who are struggling to balance work and looking after their kids, the kids that are our future. Do we want to become a more caring society where we use some of the wealth of this country to look after those that are doing it tough, or are we going to attack them and keep them living below the poverty line, unable to support their children, unable to make ends meet and continuing that cycle of poverty? If we significantly support the most disadvantaged, it helps them and our community.