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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14570

Ms SHARKIE (Mayo) (10:34): Remember how the government promised that by scrapping the carbon tax we would reduce our energy bills? I remember. Remember how the Minister for the Environment and Energy promised to deliver a $550-a-year saving on all of our energy bills when they were going to pass the NEG, the National Energy Guarantee?

And then, of course, the government decided to pull their own legislation, and we got nowhere with that. So many broken promises! I have always been happy to work constructively with government on energy policy and any other policy that they bring to this chamber. But really, with respect to energy, they haven't given us much to work with.

Back in 2017, my Centre Alliance colleagues and I negotiated a one-off energy assistance payment as a stopgap measure to help some of the most vulnerable in our community manage to get through that winter, on the promise that there was going to be that $550 saving. Of course, we never saw the saving. We did get that energy supplement through—and, remember, at the time, the government were also looking to scrap the fortnightly energy supplement that goes to many welfare recipients. They wanted to scrap that for new ones because we didn't have a carbon tax. That didn't bring into mind the fact that energy bills were rising despite that.

As part of our negotiations then, an estimated 3.8 million Australians obtained relief for their energy bills with a one-off payment of $75 for singles and $125 for pensioners. At that time I was, as I am now, particularly concerned about households that are on low, fixed incomes and for whom full-time work or part-time work is not a realistic option. These are people who receive the age pension, the disability support pension, parenting payment single and various veterans payments.

Now the government admits that the temporary stopgap measure originally negotiated by Centre Alliance must become a temporarily permanent-style payment. Without a doubt, I fully support the additional assistance for our most vulnerable Australians to keep the lights on and the heaters running. But it's a great shame that we missed the opportunity in this place to get through the NEG or to get through some sort of energy policy so that we can have a more permanent, meaningfully addressed way of reducing energy bills. Last time I spoke in this place on the energy assistance payment, I explained how I'd spoken to an elderly lady who could barely move from her bedroom because she could not afford the heating bills for more than one room in her home.

I question why the government, with respect to the payment that they announced just a few days ago and that was referred to in the budget last night, did not include Newstart and youth allowance. Why were they ignored? I understand that the government have changed position, and I welcome that they have included Newstart recipients and youth allowance recipients and a very long list of other recipients of specific payments, but the issue is: why did you exclude them in the first place? Why is it that the government have an ideology where they see jobseekers, I believe, as dole bludgers, 'leaners'—that is the term that we heard only a few years ago and one that has been a mantra in this place: 'lifters' and 'leaners'.

I think that that language needs to stop in this place. It is clearly not the case that many people who are looking for work are dole bludgers. They are there trying their absolute hardest to find employment. There are plenty of unemployed workers who, through no fault of their own, lose their jobs because their employer goes bankrupt or their factory shuts down. When you live in a regional area, there are not as many options as in metropolitan areas to find employment.

For example, in South Australia, the Big W distribution centre in Monarto is closing. This made the newspapers this week in South Australia. This is just outside my electorate. However, many of the people who are employed there are from inside my electorate and have been employed there for a number of years. I understand that there is hope that many workers will be redeployed, but the closure of the distribution centre is patently not their fault. Neither will it be their fault if they need to apply for Newstart, which I may say is an incredibly difficult process and one that unnecessarily takes many, many weeks to do.

The level of Newstart is also not keeping families above the poverty line, because it is not keeping pace with the cost of living. The Business Council of Australia, the Australian Council of Social Service and former Prime Minister John Howard have said that we need to look at raising the Newstart rate. When you have that collective, you know that there is a problem. This should be above politics. It needs to be urgently addressed. I know that recently, when there was a motion in here from Labor with respect to the payments, the minister was saying to Labor, 'Yes, but you're not saying you're going to lift Newstart.' Well, neither are the government, and they should. The government should be leading from the front on this. It beggars belief that both parties have not moved with respect to Newstart. It will lead to more jobs because people will be able to be job ready, and you can't be job ready on the current Newstart amount.

I support mutual obligations for jobseekers. No-one should ever expect to receive a free ride, but jobseekers do need an adequate level of financial support to effectively search for work and pay for their basic necessities while they are looking for work.

It is for these reasons that I am pleased that the energy assistance payment is being extended to more recipients of Centrelink. While I support this bill, I strongly urge the government to consider all the needs of all vulnerable Australians and to look to raise the rate.