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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 1437

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (13:15): I rise today to speak about what Christmas is like for single parents and other people trying to survive on income support, such as those who live below the poverty line on Newstart, and those on low incomes. These people do not necessarily look forward to Christmas because it is a very vulnerable time of year for them. Not only do they have to deal with what could be a bleak Christmas but they are also looking at what the future will hold for them over the next 12 months. It is with great sadness that I draw attention in this place again to the fact that we have a large group of Australians who are living below the poverty line. They cannot look forward to a Christmas they can share joyfully with their children. They are yet again wondering how they can make ends meet.

I spoke about a similar issue at this time last year when single parents in Australia were facing being dumped on Newstart. Unfortunately, Newstart has been the reality for those single parents and their families for 12 months. It is not a pretty picture. Last year we were deeply concerned about what the future held for those single parents and their families because they were dumped on Newstart, which is up to $120 a week below what they were trying to survive on on parenting payment single.

How are these parents doing now? How are their families doing now? Unfortunately, the government cannot tell us. It is a complicated story. The Howard government dumped the first group of single parents on Newstart and then the Labor government dumped another lot of those grandfathered parents on the single parenting payment. There has been no systematic monitoring and review of how these changes are impacting these single parents, most of whom are single mothers.

While some people have managed to move into work, we do not know about the appropriateness of that work, whether they are holding down a number of jobs—and I know a couple of examples of people doing that to make ends meet—how many had to give up study and who is looking after their children if they have taken on more working hours. We do know that most families are living in poverty. We do know that these families are living on Newstart and that means that they are living significantly below the poverty line.

As the school holidays approach I know that most single-parent families are contemplating how they will care for their children and continue to work. The briefing note from the Productivity Commission released last Friday showed that, for a family on the minimum wage, the cost of putting a single child into all-day care is nine per cent of their disposable income. Of course, these are parents who are getting less than the minimum wage or are working only part time. Many single parents cannot afford to put their children into child care during the school holidays. Those who are lucky enough to find work and are able to juggle their work and parenting commitments do not know what to do during the school holidays. I know some who have had to give up work because they do not have satisfactory caring arrangements. So it is back to Newstart, back to poverty and back to trying to find more work after the school holidays.

A single mother rang my office just last week desperate and depressed. She told me that she has decided not to pay the rent in the coming week because the kids need to be fed. That is the choice she had to make. She had to choose between paying the rent and feeding the children. This new government has been talking about wanting to expand income management into new areas and it is carrying out an urgent review of this failed policy. One indicator of vulnerability is housing, so if the government has its way and a single parent cannot pay their rent because they have to feed their kids then that single parent might be subject to income management in that brave new world of expanded income management.

Because of the lack of government monitoring since last year about the impact of this policy on single parents, their families and the community services they have to rely on for support, I made a point of speaking to charity and community organisations about the impact that the parenting payment cuts have had. In my home state of Western Australia I undertook a survey of providers. I asked how they were going this year and if they had had an increase in the number of people calling on their services. All but four of the 31 organisations said that the demand for their services had increased during 2013. Almost half said that they had been unable to meet the demand. They identified housing affordability, access to mental health services and inadequacy of income support payments as the top priorities for government action. These are areas in which we need the government to be showing leadership.

Just today there are reports of charities in my home state of Western Australia experiencing high demand for assistance as we approach Christmas. Foodbank has found a nine per cent increase in the number of people looking for food donations this year compared to last year. The Salvos have said that some requests may need to be turned down. This is the reality that single parents face this Christmas. From Foodbank's past reports, we know that in general a third of their requests for help have been from single-parent families. It is fair to assume that single-parent families are part of the increasing demand. For many, the new year is shaping up to be even harder. All the signs from the government are that more and more areas where assistance and support are currently provided to those on Newstart, single-parent families and low-income families will be hit by budget cuts. As a result, household budgets which are already stretched past breaking point will be under even more pressure. Let us look at some of these areas.

The schoolkids bonus is one of the cuts the government are looking to make as they propose to get rid of the mining tax. We know that education is absolutely fundamental to children's wellbeing and to their wellbeing when they become adults. We know that education is a critical part of getting out of living in poverty. After the Christmas break and summer holidays, the return to school is a tough time from many parents, particularly single parents. Last year single parents were being advised, when they were dumped onto Newstart, to rely on the schoolkids bonus to help them get by and pay the bills. The reality is that the cost of uniforms, books, school fees, sporting activities and the other usual costs associated with education are hard to bear if you are on a low income. They are even harder if you are a single parent trying to get by on very little money.

This cut will hurt the most vulnerable members of our community, the very children that everybody says they are committed to helping not live in poverty. It is a complete farce. The government say that they are trying to look after people in our community and yet they are cutting the very payments that people who are living in poverty rely on and survive on. The schoolkids bonus is one of the three areas of support and assistance that are being cut back as the government move to abolish the mining tax. Rather than working to ensure that Australians benefit from our natural resources, the government are putting the multinationals before the most vulnerable in our community.

The mining tax repeal is responsible for another cut—which shows the real undercurrent of cruelness in the approach that is being taken—and that is the axing of the income support bonus. This has been described as being to help people on certain income support payments prepare for unexpected living costs. At the moment, this payment is $105.80 if you are single, and it is paid twice a year. As I said in the chamber when this measure was passed in the first place, it amounts to less than the price of a cup of coffee a week. I acknowledge that, but, when you are living below the poverty line, when you are robbing Peter to pay Paul each week and making those decisions about whether you pay the rent or put food on the table, every cent is essential. That money comes into a budget that is so desperately thin that it helps. And yet it is going to be taken away. It is not insignificant to the people who are trying to survive on such a little amount of money.

Then we have the low income superannuation contribution, which the government have also said they are going to cut. That is designed to help those on low and fixed incomes under $37,000 a year, to help them build up even a modest amount of money for their retirement. It will have a disproportionate effect on women. Industry Super Australia has said that axing the rebate will affect around two million working women, including 80 per cent of female part-time workers. How can you expect people to be financially secure and independent in their retirement if they are stuck in poverty, living below or close to the poverty line and yet you deprive them of opportunities to save for their super? Again, this is hitting the most vulnerable members of our community.

It is not just the younger members of our community that I am talking about. They are not the only ones that are at threat from this poor policymaking. If you look at some of the information that was received during questioning in estimates, it shows that there has been a 28 per cent increase in the number of Australians aged over 50 who have been on Newstart since 2010. There was a noticeable jump in these figures which coincided with the January single-parent payment cuts. On top of that, there is the reality that many traditional industries, such as manufacturing, are in decline. So we have got workers who are being forced out of employment without a strong set of transferable skills to help them into employment in a different industry. We have got, again, a group of single parents here. We know that jump in the figures was associated with single parents being forced onto Newstart.

People aged over 50 in the workplace, older workers, have been subject to age discrimination and ageism. They are not getting adequate support to be able to develop their skills and get training that meets their needs, and they face multiple and significant barriers to employment. At present, Job Services simply are not meeting their needs. They are left stuck on Newstart for extended periods of time. That means that they are living in poverty and it also means that they are not able to build up savings and super contributions for their retirement. In other words, potentially this group of people are stuck permanently in poverty, without an opportunity to get out of it. We must address the issues around Newstart and ensure that people are not living in poverty. Newstart is $134 below the poverty line. We need to make sure we increase Newstart, improve Job Services and tackle, front-on, ageism and age discrimination.

Another issue for people living on low income, older workers and single parents faces those who live in permanent mobile residences in lifestyle parks and caravan parks.

This is happening around Australia but I have also had a lot of contact from people in my home state of Western Australia, particularly from Busselton. Many of the regional centres, as well, have these particular areas because it is cheaper to live there. They received notices earlier in the year, which they were very upset about, from the owners of the villages saying that the ATO has drafted a ruling which would see the GST charged on rents paid by residents in lifestyle villages and similar accommodation increases; they are talking about moving the GST from 4.5 per cent to 10 per cent. This is deeply concerning to them. People live in these villages, in these mobile residences, because they are cheaper and they cannot afford to live in other accommodation. Reports suggest that there are 10,000 people living in these homes around Australia and the proposed change would see residents paying an increase in rent of between $15 and $30 per week, forcing people to make cuts in areas such as food, health care and community involvement. These are significant cuts for people who are trying to survive on the pension or on Newstart. (Time expired)