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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12337

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (20:22): It may come as a shock to members of the government, but the current rate of Newstart, the unemployment benefit, is not exactly generous. I don't know if any of them know actually what it is or have spent any time on unemployment benefits while they look for a job, but it is hardly a king's ransom. At the moment, people who are looking for work who are on unemployment benefits are living below the poverty line. When you have $250 to $260 a week to live on and you have to make everything come out of that small amount of money, you have no choice but to give up on some essentials. I invite anyone from the government benches to try for a week to live on the equivalent of Newstart. What you will find is that the only way you can get to the end of that week is either by being further in debt or by skipping out on some of life's necessities.

That is something that the Greens have been saying for some time, but it is not just the Greens who have been saying that. Someone who sits very close to us on the ideological spectrum, the Business Council of Australia, has also said that the level of support given to people in this country who have the misfortune of being out of work is now so low that in fact it is becoming a poverty trap. What do they mean by that? They mean that when you have got $250 to $260 a week to live on, you do not have the money to buy yourself those new clothes to get ready for the job interview. You do not have the money to put yourself through a course to train up to increase the chances of getting a better job. You do not have the money to get that haircut to make yourself look nice, which might put you higher up the queue. You perhaps do not even have the money to get transport to get around to look for the number of jobs and apply for the number of job interviews that you might like, or to fund someone to go and look after the kids while you look for a job.

In fact, at the moment you spent almost all of your time just surviving and working out how you are going to eke out about $500 over a fortnight and to spread it so that you get to the end of it without you or someone close to you having to go hungry. Many of the people who are getting this kind of income at the moment find themselves in country towns where youth unemployment can have a two in front of it. It can be in the 20-something per cent. Or you could find yourself in city areas where youth unemployment can be in the order of 14 per cent, where you desperately want a job, but the jobs just are not there.

When you have people who are in that situation, who are being forced to live below the poverty line and who all the evidence says we are now treating in a way that is actually pushing them further away from jobs, what do you do? One option would be to do what the Greens, the Business Council of Australia and others are calling for which is to say, 'Let's lift the level of unemployment benefit so that it is no longer a barrier to people getting a job, so that they stop spending all their time just working out how to survive and how to meet the requirements that the system imposes on them'—which does not necessarily help them get a job, but is just about making them take time out of their day to do that. You could say, 'Let's change the system so we help people find a job.' Or you could do what this government is doing.

What this government is saying is, 'Instead of giving someone who is in trouble a hand up, we are going to push them down.' What it is saying is, 'If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being out of a job, you are going to find yourself below the poverty line'—something that can happen to anyone through no fault of their own if their employer goes under or they get made redundant. Not only is the government going to force you to live below the poverty line, it is saying, 'If you miss an appointment for certain reasons, we are going to take away even that small amount of money that you have got.'

Let us go through—because none of the other speakers from the government side have spoken about this because they would have no idea of the reality facing people who are struggling to find work or are struggling to engage with the system—some of the reasons that someone might miss an appointment in the brave new world under this Liberal government. One of the reasons might be that the Liberal government has taken away their dole for six months. What do you do if you are a young person who has no money, zero, because this government has said, 'We are going to take away your dole for six months'? How do you get to your appointments? How do you do it?

I welcome any interjections from anyone from the government bench and any advice that they might have for a young person who has got absolutely zero dollars, who is trying to pay the rent, who is looking for work and who now might miss their appointment because they do not have the money to pay for the bus ticket or the tram ticket or the train ticket to get there. What are they going to do? What do you do if the reason that you miss your appointment is that you are homeless? You are homeless and that might have been through no fault of your own, but you find yourself on the streets or living rough or couch-surfing, as many people in this situation do because they have not got the money for a stable house.

What do you do if the letter does not get to you or your mobile has been cut off and you do not get the text message and you miss your appointment? What do you do if you are in that situation? What happens is that you find out about it when you go to the bank to get out that last $20 and you find it is not there. Then what do you do? Then the problems compound. The problems compound because now you have got no money at all, assuming you were getting some in the first place. Now you have got no money at all and that might mean that you get kicked out of the place you were staying at. It might mean you do not have money for food that night. It might mean you do not have the extra money to pay to go and see the doctor, especially if you have to pay a GP co-payment as well. And that is how the problems compound. That is why, if you are this government and you take the approach to remove the carrot and beat them hard with a stick, this is an ill-thought-through measure that has the prospect of not encouraging people to look harder for work but actually has the prospect of just making them completely disengage with the system.

People who find themselves on the margins of society might not have the greatest literacy, might be struggling to find permanent accommodation and might have some mental health issues that have not even been diagnosed. All of a sudden they start getting their payments cut off and what they are actually quite possibly going to do is just disengage from the system completely. They are not going to look for work harder but they are at the risk of disengaging.

Every time the proposal of putting penalties on people comes up, whether under the previous Labor government or now under this government, when you drill down into the evidence, what you find is that punishing people in this way will not make them more likely to get into work. No-one apart from the most ideologically driven person would say that that is going to work. What you also find is the reasons that on the surface appear unreasonable for people not turning up often have complex explanations. It is the people who are falling through the cracks who will get hit the hardest, not the ones who are thumbing their nose at the system, not the ones who say, 'I do not want to look for work'. Not only that but this bill is going to hit older workers hard as well because it is going to change how their activity tests are defined and change what counts for them as being in work so they are going to bear the brunt of it as well.

It is a part of the government's war on the young, the old, the sick and the poor. It stems from a proposition that there are all these people out there who are somehow bludging off the system. I have not met that many people who are on the dole, struggling to get by on $260 a week, who would not love a job. Pretty much everyone I have met who is on unemployment benefits wants to find work. If they cannot, it is usually through no fault of their own.

When people get into work it not only helps with their dignity, it not only helps to control their lives but it has an added benefit for the government as well because the government does not have to pay welfare payments. Instead, it starts getting tax receipts. When you do that, you help people and you help the budget. But when you do what this government is going to do, you are just pushing more people further and further away.

It is notable that instead of talking about any real-world engagement with unemployed people or service providers, the previous speaker got up and read out an economics textbook and said, 'I read this in my year 12 textbook, and that is all I need to know how things work in the real world.' It does not work like that. If this government spent a little bit of time talking to the people who need help instead of taking an axe to them, we might have a more inclusive society and it might help with getting people into work. What is the answer? The answer is not this bill. This bill has to be stopped and we will be voting against it here and in the Senate.

The next step has to be to lift Newstart by $50 a week at a minimum. Let's start lifting people out of poverty—we can afford to do it if we want to—and help them find jobs. Everyone from us to the Business Council of Australia knows that if you stop making people just have to survive, if you stop making people live so far below the poverty line that it is a barrier to them finding work, it is going to help them into jobs.

Let's also have a realistic outlook about where jobs are going to come from in this country. We saw the previous speaker pillory having a jobs plan. I do not know if he talked to his industry minister about that before he gave that speech, but we saw the minister talking about the plan for the country that is going to grow the economy. It picks a good area like medical technology as a potential growth area but still this governments cannot tear its gaze away from its dig-it-up chop-it-down mentality.

Out of the five priority areas, we have got the forward-looking minister and government saying, 'I reckon fossil fuels are going to be very big in the 21st century; let's make those two out of our five priority areas. Let's ignore tourism, let's ignore all the jobs in Queensland that are dependent on the Great Barrier Reef, let's ignore the healthcare sector where we have had some of our strongest jobs growth and let's focus on the areas that did us sort of okay in the 20th century so perhaps they will do just as well in the 21st century.'

If we really want to create jobs for people including young people, first of all, you do not kick them off the dole and force them to do anything they have to just to make ends meet by taking away their income. Secondly, you ask, 'How are we going to stand Australia in good stead in the 21st century?' That means investing in education so that we as a country have something to sell the rest of the world in 15 years' time that is not just coal or uranium. We are never going to be able to compete with China or India on wages but will be able to compete with our brains. That means investing more in education instead of making people pay the equivalent of a second mortgage for their first degree. And it means having a forward-looking industry and jobs plan so that people have a job to go into as the rest of the world moves to a clean-energy future. That is not going to come from this government and, increasingly, all around the country people are realising that. And that is one of the reasons that we will be strongly opposing this bill.