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Thursday, 18 October 2018
Page: 7634

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (16:04): I rise to speak on the Australian Greens' Social Services Legislation Amendment (Ending the Poverty Trap) Bill 2018. This week is Anti-Poverty Week, and we have seen many reports this week from a broad range of organisations that have been clearly articulating the rate, level and impacts of poverty in this country. We have seen that, despite economic growth, poverty levels have remained entrenched at high levels for many years now. This bill will provide additional financial assistance to single recipients of the basic rate of the Newstart allowance, Austudy, sickness allowance, special benefit, widow allowance, crisis payment and youth allowance, increasing them by $75 a week. The bill will provide additional financial assistance to single recipients of the maximum rate of away-from-home rates of youth allowance, again to the amount of $75 a week. The intention is for ABSTUDY to be increased in the amount of $75 a week as well. However, this payment is based in policy rather than in legislation. This bill will also change the indexation arrangements for these payments and other income support payments to bring them into line with the higher of the CPI—the consumer price index—or the pensioner and beneficiary living cost index—the PBLCI.

Newstart, youth allowance and the other abovementioned payments have not had a real increase in nearly 25 years. The last time they had a real increase was in 1994. We are increasing the indexation to bring it into line with the pension rate because one of the reasons why these payments have fallen so far behind the real cost of living is that their indexation is not the same as the pension indexation rate. The evidence is overwhelming and it is clear. An increase to these payments will assist in alleviating poverty, help reduce income inequality and help people who are studying and seeking employment.

There are three million people in this country living in poverty, and that is a great shame to this country. This figure includes over 730,000 children. In a wealthy nation like ours, this is simply not good enough. In this wealthy country, no-one should be left behind. All of us should be able to live a good life with access to social services regardless of our postcode, our parents or our bank balance. Today I hope that we can together do something tangible for our community, for children living in poverty, for families, for students, for disabled people and for single parents, to help them pay their bills, put food on the table and pay their rent.

All people should be able to fully participate in our society. At the moment, people can't, because when you're living in poverty you just can't fully participate in our community. Without a sufficient income or sufficient wealth, we do not have a fair, just or productive community. Recipients of these income support payments face barriers to being able to participate in our society and to cover basic living costs. Newstart and youth allowance don't cover the necessities—housing, food, transport, health care and utilities. People on income support are skipping meals. We've seen that in evidence from people that talk of their lived experience. They're going without medication, they're not filling their scripts, they avoid using their heaters because they cannot pay their bills, and they can't pay their rent. Income inequality creates significant barriers to an individual's physical and mental wellbeing, societal cohesion and stability, and economic growth and productivity—and we've heard that from many organisations.

ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Service, and the University of New South Wales have just released their report on inequality, entitled Inequality in Australia 2018. This report highlighted that those living on Newstart have very limited incomes. Specifically, it found that 63 per cent of Newstart recipient households are in the lowest five per cent of incomes. The report also found, with regard to income inequality, that someone in the top one per cent of the income scale earns more in a fortnight than someone in the lowest five per cent earns in a year. A strong societal safety net is key to addressing income inequality. It ensures that, when people fall on hard times, there are supports in place to help them when they need it most. Allowance payments need to be increased as a matter of urgency so that people receiving unemployment and student payments have the support they need, as they are facing some of the highest rates of poverty.

The ACOSS report Poverty in Australia 2018 found there are more than three million people living below the poverty line—as I said, including over 739,000 children. The Salvation Army's national 2018 Economic and Social Impact Survey reported that, after paying for accommodation, Newstart recipients were left with only $17 a day to cover their other expenses. I've tried living on that $17 a day, and you can't.

A University of New South Wales report released in 2017, New minimum income for healthy living budget standards for low-paid and unemployed Australians, found that the long-term decline in the adequacy of income support payments is 'a major policy failure that needs to be redressed'. This report, which builds on previous Australian and recent international research to develop a set of budget standards for low-paid and unemployed Australians and their families, outlined just how far Newstart is falling behind. The report found that those out of work and reliant on Newstart and safety net provisions fall short of estimated budget standards by $96 a week for a single person.

The National Sustainable Development Council, with the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, publish the Transforming Australia: SDG progress report, which outlines our progress towards meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The report found that, of our income support payments, only the pension is currently keeping up with the poverty line. It found that people on Newstart who would have been on the poverty line in the year 2000 were 20 per cent below the poverty line by 2014. Single recipients of the payment without dependants were worse off, being more than 25 per cent below the poverty line by 2014. The report attributes the difference between the pension and Newstart, as well as other allowances, mostly to indexation rules, which this bill seeks to rectify.

Research conducted by Relationships Australia entitled Is Australia experiencing an epidemic of loneliness? found that poverty and unemployment are significantly associated with loneliness, and that lonely people make greater use of the health system. Lack of employment and/or access to the social safety net is associated with a higher risk of loneliness for both men and women. Should it really come as any surprise that people living in poverty are experiencing loneliness and social isolation? Should it come as any surprise that people who can't get out and about in their community, due to a lack of resources, and who are unable to participate in the broader community because they are living below the poverty line are isolated? They can't get out with their friends or join the local sporting club or do many of the things that we take for granted. They are told again and again by this government that they should just go out and get a job, despite the fact that the jobs aren't there.

Imagine the impact of getting 20 rejections a month for jobs or sometimes not even getting a response to your application. I've lost count of the number of people who have told me they've put in an application and not even got a response or an acknowledgment. Older Australians have told me of applying for jobs and not getting a response and so they've rung up where they've applied. In one instance, it involved stacking shelves and they were told the job was gone. But then, days later, they saw online that the job was being advertised. So they were being actively discriminated against. The older gentleman who told me this story was devastated that he was unable to find work. He had been going above and beyond the requirements for seeking jobs. That has a distinct impact on your mental health.

The ACOSS and Jobs Australia report Faces of unemployment highlights exactly how difficult life is for people trying to find a job on Newstart. In May this year, figures showed—and these are believed to be conservative—that there were eight unemployed or underemployed people for every job vacancy and that 46 per cent of Newstart recipients are on the payment for over two years. This is not a transition payment any longer. Whenever we talk about this the government's response is that it's a 'transition payment'. Well, those figures demonstrate that it is simply not a transition payment. People are stuck living on it despite their best efforts to try to find work. Forty-six per cent are on the payment for over two years. I'll repeat: this is no longer a transition payment.

Living in poverty makes it harder and harder for those people to find work. I've asked time and again whether ministers in this government could live on $38 a day. Not once have we got an answer to say, 'Actually, I'd find it hard.' Not once. Not once have they responded that way when I've asked. They trot out the story that Newstart is supposed to be designed for transitioning into work. I've just highlighted how hard it is to live on $38 a day for over two years, and that's before you take out rent. It's because there are limited jobs available. People are living in poverty—dire poverty in many cases. This is the government gaslighting people. They are gaslighting people looking for work, telling them just to get a job and telling them that Newstart is just a transition payment when that is simply not true—and the figures bear that out.

This report highlights demographic groups stuck on Newstart and youth allowance payments long term and the failure of the current employment services to help particular and certain groups. People over 45 years old are the largest group of those in long-term unemployment. It is obvious the system is not supporting them. Those with disabilities are forced to live on Newstart long term. They're forced to prove they can't find work and live on Newstart and are not considered eligible for DSP. Of course, our First Nations people are disproportionately affected by this system that is simply not helping them to find work. In fact, as I was just referring to earlier in this chamber, they are discriminated against through the CDP program.

Faces of unemployment also shows how punitive and demeaning our employment framework is. We have one of the hardest compliance regimes and the harshest activity requirements for people looking for work, yet we spend less than half of the OECD average on employment assistance and services. Poverty undermines access to education and training, and educational outcomes are directly correlated with socioeconomic status. Poverty limits access to safe, secure and appropriate housing, transport, employment outcomes, child care and many other aspects of full participation in our society. Poverty has a devastating impact on children and their wellbeing. Children and young people deprived of food, clothes and other materials have reduced engagement with school, sometimes due to hunger, shame or being excluded or marginalised. It impacts children's development, education and, eventually, their long-term employment opportunities. Our social safety net should provide those unable to find paid work with a liveable income until they find employment. This is particularly important when finding work is difficult for many and poverty is a barrier to finding work. The government should not be adding to this stress by making it impossible for these people trying to survive on these payments, by making it more difficult for them to afford housing, food, transport and health care, among other things.

Increasing Newstart and related payments and amending the indexation arrangements will help reduce poverty for hundreds of thousands of Australians. The money spent on increasing these payments will also go straight back into the economy as much-needed goods and services are bought. Deloitte Access Economics recently released research showing that increasing the Newstart payment by $75 a week would boost the Australian economy by over $4 billion as a result of extra spending, because there are so many people living in deprivation that that extra money would go straight into buying those essential goods and services.

The government keeps spouting the same old tired lines about the best form of welfare being a job, refusing to acknowledge that poverty is in itself a barrier to employment and that there are not enough jobs out there. Anglicare Australia's Jobs availability snapshot 2018, released again this week, because it's Anti-Poverty Week, shows that in May 2018 there were 110,735 jobseekers with barriers to work but only 14 per cent of the jobs advertised were entry level, or what they call level 5 jobs. In other words, there are between four and five people competing for each entry-level job across Australia. The snapshot is invaluable in bursting open the government's perpetuated myth that jobseekers could get a job if they tried hard. Well, there are not enough jobs, no matter how hard they try.

And it doesn't end there. The figures are actually worse when you look at the state and territory breakdowns. The ratio of disadvantaged jobseekers to entry-level vacancies was 11.86 in Tasmania, 8.48 in South Australia and 5.93 in Western Australia, my home state. Fifty-one per cent of the respondents to the Salvation Army's national Economic and Social Impact Survey 2018 recorded that finding employment or getting into education and training was their greatest challenge on a day-to-day basis.

It is time to raise the rate of Newstart. We have well and truly passed that point. I ask this place to support this bill. I beg this place to support this bill. People in this country cannot survive on Newstart. Young people cannot survive on youth allowance. It is well past time that we increased the rate of Newstart. Seventy-five dollars a day won't magically fix everything—I'm not naive enough to believe that—but it will significantly help those people who are struggling to find work, who are struggling to make ends meet, and it will help ensure that children are not living in deprivation in this country. It is to the shame of this nation that children live in poverty, that we are unwilling to increase the scandalously low income support payments for Australians. We are a wealthy nation. We can afford it. We need to increase Newstart and youth allowance and the other payments covered in this bill. I urge this chamber to support this bill.