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Newstart Speech - Matter of Public Interest

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 18 May 2012

Rachel delivered this speech to the Senate on Wednesday 9 May 2012. You can also view the video and visit our Newstart Campaign page for more information.

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (13:15): I rise to speak on a matter that I believe is of extreme public interest: the current state of Newstart and other allowance payments in this country. It is a timely issue, given the government's focus in the budget on low-income families and, supposedly, on sharing the benefits of the boom, and the fact that they shaped last night's budget speech.

The Treasurer acknowledged last night that working families are under pressure and he reminded us of the important increases that pensioners have received to keep them above the poverty line, albeit about $3 above the poverty line. I welcome a focus on low-income Australians, but I am seriously concerned that the most vulnerable members of that group have been left out yet again. The 512,000 Australians on Newstart have virtually missed out. Yes, there is the supposed $210 supplement, but that is only $4 a week. It is not even one-tenth of the $50 increase that we have been calling for, that businesses have been calling for and that community support organisations have been calling for. The Greens believe that we should be prioritising helping the most vulnerable Australians, by increasing Newstart by at least $50 a week. $210 a year is an insult to the people struggling to survive on $244 a week. That increase is equivalent to the price of a cup of coffee a week. Having just spent a week living on Newstart, I can tell you that $4 is an insult. This payment will come as a $100 cheque twice a year. It is a handout rather than an attempt to address the systemic problems that face those struggling to survive on income support in this country and to those Australians who are living below the poverty line.

Those trying to survive on Newstart are living at $130 a week below the poverty line. Yippee! They are going to get four more dollars a week. They will now be living at $126 a week below the poverty line. As well as ignoring in last night's budget the urgent requirement to increase income support, the government added insult to injury by moving single parents from parenting payment single onto Newstart. That will reduce their income support and make them significantly worse off, from the allowance perspective. But, as I articulated in this place earlier today, it will also mean that they are significantly worse off when they are working part time or seeking to work part time. This is not delivering on Labor values; this is condemning vulnerable Australians to poverty and making them even more vulnerable.

The current single rate of Newstart is $244 per week, or $35 a day. That is $130 a week below the poverty line. After deducting the cheapest rent you could find, on the outskirts of the metro area, you are left with $17 a day. That figure is based on information from a number of sources, both reviewed fairly recently: ads in some of the metropolitan papers and advice from community service organisations. However, during the week that I spent living on Newstart a report came out highlighting the facts that affordable housing is even scarcer than it used to be and that if you are living on Newstart you cannot afford to live in major capital cities in this country, other than perhaps Adelaide and Hobart, if you can actually find some affordable accommodation.

Let us look at life on $17 a day, which is the figure I used for my week on Newstart. That amount has to cover absolutely everything: electricity, food, clothes, personal care, household items, transport, phone bills and any health crises. You can forget car registration, car insurance, household insurance—any of those sorts of bills. You simply cannot afford them. Look at how this compares to other people in the community. The average weekly expenditure of a single person under 35, excluding rent, is $84 a day and the average weekly expenditure of a single person over 65, excluding rent, is $53 a day. No matter how you look at it, this is the absolute minimum amount that you could live on—you cannot live on it, in fact.

I spent a week over the April break trying to survive on Newstart. After allocating money for rent, utilities, all my train transport, some pre-paid phone credit—you need a phone because you have to participate in employment activities such as looking for work and responding to invitations to job interviews and things like that—a bit of money for petrol, because in our capital cities it is unfortunately very hard to meet all your obligations on our poor public transport systems, and buying some food I was left with $11.25 in my wallet for the rest of the week. There was certainly no takeaway coffee. There was certainly no entertainment. There was no expenditure on clothes. In fact, I needed to buy some more margarine and milk because I ran out of both items. I needed some extra public transport trips. I needed some personal care items. There was no money for new clothes; there was no money for entertainment. Before someone says, 'If you're living on Newstart you shouldn't be entertaining yourself,' think about your personal life and about what entertainment means to you. Entertainment brings you joy. It keeps your sense of hope going. It gives you social interaction. One of the things that people living on Newstart find is that they are increasingly isolated from the community. An increasing sense of hopelessness sets in as people are unable to survive as the debt increases. Because you cannot survive on that amount of money, you end up maxing out your credit cards and going to payday lenders. You end up in debt to your friends and family. That is what it means to live on Newstart, our supposed safety net, in this country.

During the time that I spent on Newstart I decided it was a bit pointless for me to pretend that I would do JobSearch. Instead, I chose to talk to as many people who are trying to survive on Newstart as possible. I spent a lot of time talking with and visiting community support organisations that work with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community. I met single mums, older workers who have been retrenched, young men and women, people living with a partial disability or with mental illness and migrants struggling with language. Not one of them said to me that that is what they wanted for their family—that they wanted to remain unemployed because, hey, they are having such a good time living on Newstart! Let me tell you that they are not. Not one of the people I met during that time said they enjoyed living on Newstart. In fact the reverse was very much the case. People told me of the sense of hopelessness, of the fact that they struggle to support their children and of the fact that they want a better life for themselves and for their children. Many recounted the difficulties they faced in finding an employer who would take them on, because of their unique circumstances.

Sixty per cent of people living on Newstart have been there longer than 12 months and have faced multiple barriers to finding work. Unlike the stereotypes, these are often older workers, single parents, people with a partial disability and people who have a significant barrier that prevents them from walking into a job.

As well as an increase in payments, people talk to me about the need for flexible services so that they are empowered to succeed in their search for work. They also spoke of the need for more support and incentives for overcoming the barriers to work. They found they were lacking that support from employment services. Many people in fact criticised the job search networks and the lack of support they have received. The only place people got support—and I will come back to this in a minute—was from community support organisations.

David, a retired army chef, who remembers when social security offices actually helped you find a job and have a job interview, rather than shunting you from place to place, is an older worker. He recounted his multiple efforts to find work and told of the age discrimination he is facing while trying to find work, to the point that when he applied for a job he was told it had been filled, only to see the job re-advertised the next day. Do you know what that job was? It was a night-fill job in a supermarket. He was told that job had been filled. That is age discrimination.

Some of the people doing language classes to improve their English had been in the workforce. Before people start saying, 'These are people who have only just come to Australia and are taking all our money,' et cetera, that is a nonsense argument. These people had been retrenched from the workplace and recognised that they needed to improve their language and literacy skills so that they could gain employment. They were at the language schools so that they could gain skills to find employment. They recounted the difficulties they faced.

Then there is Glenda, a full-time mum who has been out of the workforce and is now on Newstart. Even though she found training opportunities she was not supported by her job services provider. She was not given the training. Again, she was an older worker. She was not given training even though she went out and identified it.

One of the opportunities I had was to meet with Ready to Work in Western Australia, and I will say that it was a great privilege for me to spend time with this particular group of women. Ready to Work is a not-for-profit community based organisation that helps disadvantaged women to gain access to employment. One of the things they do is provide two outfits to a disadvantaged woman to wear to an interview. In fact, they provided me with the outfit I am wearing now. They are run largely by volunteers—they have volunteer stylists who work with women. I spent a good half day with them and I felt good when I came out of the meeting after hearing of the amazing things they do working with women. They do not just provide the outfits but also provide help with CVs and with interviewing techniques: what is that little bit of a thing you need to get that job? I met a lady who had just worked with this group. She was just bubbling over with enthusiasm, because she had achieved her outcome of gaining a training position, through being helped by this service. This organisation is not-for-profit. The women are not finding it through government provided services or through the employment services providers. It is essential support for women to help them get confidence. When you have been unemployed for a significant period of time, particularly as a disadvantaged woman, you face many barriers, one of which is having the confidence just to walk in the door to have an interview.

Organisations like Ready to Work make a huge and visible difference to a job seeker's life in the way that they work with them. It is a positive approach rather than a punitive one. We need to rethink our approach to helping people into work and to providing them with assistance, before they become entrenched in poverty, physically and mentally ill and desperate. Our job seeker networks will continue to act as a stick beating the most vulnerable people in our community rather than a lever to open doors for the unemployed. It is essential that we provide extra employment support services and that we increase Newstart so that people are not living in poverty. Poverty becomes yet another barrier to overcome.

We believe in a socially just democratic society, one that guarantees an adequate income safety net for all Australians and allows people to live in dignity, even when facing some of the toughest times of their lives. The complacency in leaving people to languish in poverty or trapping them in debt is unacceptable in what we say is a just society. The budget glazed over unemployment. It did not address the issues for the most vulnerable Australians. The benefits of the boom cannot be said to be equally shared unless we direct those benefits to the most vulnerable in our community, guaranteeing them an adequate income and the support they need to overcome their multiple barriers to employment. This country can never call itself a just country if we do not do that. (Time expired)

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