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Tuesday, 2 April 2019
Page: 14481


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (16:22): As we head towards an election, it is worth remembering that we have seen six years of attacks from this government on Centrelink, on our social payment system and on people who are doing it the toughest. For six years, the government has punished people through Centrelink instead of supporting them. We've seen the disastrous robo-debt recovery program, the expansion of the cashless welfare card, outsourcing of staff to private companies like Serco, demerit points, Work for the Dole and, of course, the Community Development Program. And the rates of Newstart, youth allowance and other payments remain outrageously low. They lock people into poverty.

In a country like Australia, we should have a fair and accessible system that provides people with a safety net when they need it. There's sometimes talk from those on the right that poverty is a choice. Poverty's not a choice; no-one would ever choose it. But I'll tell you what is a choice: punishing people and keeping people in poverty. That is a choice that this government repeatedly makes and needs to be held accountable for.

As we debate the Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2018-2019 and await tonight's budget, I want to share with the House the stories of people in my electorate who, as a result of this government's decision to raise money not by going after the top end of town but instead by attacking those who are least in a position to be able to afford it, have faced the consequences of this government's failure. We've been contacted by almost 350 Melbourne constituents who've needed help with Centrelink recently. When my office receives calls from university educated constituents—let alone people whose first language isn't English—who want to raise their concerns because they can't understand or navigate the system, the situation is clear: Centrelink is breaking under this government.

Melbourne constituent Bridget contacted my office after her claim for youth allowance, which she had made four months earlier, still hadn't been processed. She made the claim well before her university semester and was still waiting after the semester had finished. Bridget's a full-time student, but she was forced to work up to four days a week to cover her basic costs. She told my office that this had a huge impact on her studies and her health. She was forced to work when she wanted to focus on her studies. After my office contacted Centrelink, her claim progressed, but she was told by them that she was no longer eligible for youth allowance because she was earning too much. You don't process their claims, you force them to go to work and then you say, 'We're not going to give you any of your payments because you are earning too much.' My constituent was forced to work because her claim took more than four months to be processed, only to be told that the situation the government forced her into then excluded her from receiving the support that she needed.

One constituent contacted my office after making a claim for Austudy that still hadn't been finalised more than three months later. She went without any income support from the government for more than three months, struggling to pay bills and rent, and couldn't work because her degree required her to do two 14-week full-time placements. So she wasn't in a position to be able to go and work. Another Melbourne constituent contacted my office after her disability support pension was cancelled in July last year without notice. She wasn't able to go to a service centre due to her disability and didn't have a phone. She spent 45 minutes standing in the freezing cold at a phone booth waiting on hold to speak to Centrelink, who then gave her the wrong information and didn't reinstate her payment. She was told her payment was cancelled because Centrelink wanted to transition her to the age pension, when, in fact, it was cancelled because Centrelink had sent a letter to the wrong address. She told my office she'd been living off bread and tea for two months and that she'd just run out of tea. She had been sent threatening letters to vacate her residence because she was so behind on rent and she was at risk of having all her belongings sold because she couldn't continue paying for storage. This should not be happening in Australia.

Another constituent, Alex, contacted my office after his claim for the disability support pension was refused. His appeal had been going on for more than one year. In the meantime, his disability meant that he couldn't get work, and the government's payment for Newstart allowance is so low that, after he pays his monthly rent of $1,250, he has less than $200 per month to pay for his bills and food. That's more than 90 per cent of his income that goes on rent, but he doesn't have any options because he can't access affordable housing. Alex told my office that he uses the torchlight on his phone instead of turning on the lights in his house, because that is what this government is putting him through. He tells my office that he is only one step away from being homeless. With the government's new demerit points system, all it would take is one system error to see him miss a rental payment and be out on the street.

These are just some of the stories from the people who live in Melbourne. Right around Melbourne and right around the whole country, people are getting screwed by this government. The truth is that people accessing Centrelink will never match the big donations to the big parties of the big banks and developers and coal companies, so they're seen as easy targets for budget cuts and punitive attacks. It is shameful that governments are failing people like this. We need to make governments serve the many, not just the powerful few donors.

Whilst sharing these stories, I also want to acknowledge here in parliament the work being done by the Australian Unemployed Workers' Union, who are taking a stand for the right to social support and secure payments when we need them. Social support and secure payments when we need them are, of course, and should be, the right of all people in this country. They are informing Centrelink recipients about their rights and organising to change the system.

This government might think that the system is working fine when we punish people rather than help them, but it is not. That is a broken system. The Greens will continue to fight for people's rights to gain proper support and to increase the single rate of Newstart and youth allowance by $75 a week—not put it under review but to increase it. We don't need more reviews. We know—the facts are in—that people are living so far below the poverty line that it is a barrier to their finding work and to their staying healthy and well. We must lift Newstart and youth allowance by $75 a week. Newstart hasn't increased in real term in decades. It is locking people into poverty. We need to change that and we will keep fighting until we do.

The NDIS needs to be there for people who need it. The NDIS is the beginning of work that needs to be done so that people with disabilities can live a good life. But the NDIS needs to be properly resourced and its flaws need to be addressed so that it can provide people with the support they need. I want to share some of the stories of people who live in Melbourne who face difficulties accessing disability support through the NDIS. My office is receiving an increasing number of inquiries about the NDIS as it continues to roll out across Melbourne. We've heard from many constituents facing extremely long delays in accessing NDIS and from even more people who have been waiting months and months for a review of their plan to be completed. Melbourne constituent Lorraine contacted me when her NDIS package had been cut from over $40,000 for the year to just $9,000, placing her at serious risk of having to go into care without access to adequate supports. Lorraine requested an urgent review of her package and some five months later, and only after intervention from my office, Lorraine's review was finalised. Lorraine told my office that once her review was completed, with the same information the NDIS had the entire time, her package was increased from $9,000 for the year to up to $46,000 for just the six months remaining of her plan. She told my office that this process aged her significantly and caused her tremendous undue stress for almost half a year. We're happy to help Lorraine, but you shouldn't have to go to your MP to get your NDIS plan increased from $9,000 to $46,000 on the basis of information that the authority had for the whole time.

We've also heard from parents of young children with autism who waited six months or more for their children's NDIS plans to be finalised, missing out on integral early childhood support. Six months is a long time in a child's life. If you have to wait that long you can miss out on integral early childhood support and that can push families to the breaking point. People can't see their draft plans before they're signed off, giving no opportunity for participants to argue for a better plan. Given this, together with a cap on staffing of 3,700 people, well under the Productivity Commission's recommended 10,000 staff, it is no wonder that people in Melbourne have to wait six months or more without access to vital support while their plans are inevitably reviewed. The NDIS needs as many staff as it needs to deliver that service. It is so important that the NDIS works for everyone. We'll keep working to make sure it's properly resourced. I want to acknowledge the important advocacy of my Greens colleagues Senator Jordon Steele-John and Senator Rachel Siewert, who have worked so hard for this.

We've just had news this week of the success of the campaign for a royal commission into violence towards and abuse, exploitation and neglect of people with a disability. Congratulations to everyone who worked for this. Change can happen.

Melbourne is a great place to live, but the things that make it liveable are under pressure, and that includes the cost of renting. Yesterday, a report from NATSEM showed that more than one in five renters in Melbourne were under significant rental stress, the highest rate for any electorate in the country. If you want an illustration as to why this is the case you need look no further than the real estate pages online during the course of last week. A rental listing was posted for a tiny apartment in Richmond in my electorate. Not only was it tiny—a one-bedroom apartment—but on the plan the kitchen was in the garage. To get into the house you had to walk through a hallway and through two adjoining doors, one either side of that hallway, and in that hallway was the bathroom. You had to walk through the bathroom in order to get to the other rooms. A kitchen in the garage, a bathroom in your hallway: how much was being asked for for that? $450 per week. It is unacceptable that in 2019 people are being forced to cook in a car parking space and pay $450 a week. Everyone who rents has a horror story about inspecting dodgy places like this, yet prices are sky-high and out of reach for too many. This week, one man came into my office after applying for 50 rental properties and being refused for each one. That is what is happening. People are applying for 50 rental properties and being refused.

Over the last decade, rents in Melbourne have risen by, on average, about 4.9 per cent—over twice the rate of wage growth. According to last year's Anglicare rental survey, not one property in all of Melbourne is affordable for a single person on youth allowance or Newstart. If you're on the minimum wage, only 38 out of the 11,536 homes up for rent across the whole of metropolitan Melbourne are affordable. That is not just in my electorate but across the whole of metropolitan Melbourne. Out of over 11,000 places up for rent, only 38 are affordable if you are on the minimum wage. Even as the decades-long explosion in housing sales prices is coming to an end, reports indicate that rental prices are not falling and that renters are still facing the pressure. The rules are rigged. Government give tax breaks to investors to buy their fourth, fifth or sixth home, while renters are left paying for it. Young people are saddled with debt and living in the precarious world of short-term contracts and the gig economy. They are being sold out.

The government will announce its budget and all its election plans, and you can bet your bottom dollar that it will do nothing to fix the rental crisis, just like it will do nothing to fix education or tackle the climate crisis or do anything to stand up to Senator Pauline Hanson and the right-wingers inside the government. It is absolutely time that we turf this mob out, but we need to have the guts to stand up and say, 'We need rent control in this country, like they have in other countries.' It is time for rent control and to cap rents. We tried to get action on this in Victoria, but the Victorian Labor government has said no. The Greens will keep fighting for rent control to tackle this crazy, out-of-control situation. Hopefully we can get the next government to change its mind, because young people are being sold out.

There's a reason 50,000 students in Melbourne took to the streets to march to demand climate action. There's a reason. People are seeing this government and other governments around the world selling out their future. It comes in the form of the climate crisis, in the form of high household debt, in the form of graduating from university with a huge debt hanging around your neck and in the form of high rent. The Greens will stand up for young people and demand a better deal. The start of that is turfing this current mob out, and the next step is holding the next lot to account.