Rachel delivered this speech to the Senate on Wednesday 28 November 2012 in resonse to the Newstart Inquiry report. You can also view the video and visit our Newstart Campaign page for more information.
Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia-Australian Greens Whip) (12:18): I would also like to contribute to the debate on the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee report entitled The adequacy of the allowance payment system for jobseekers and others, the appropriateness of the allowance payment system as a support into work and the impact of the changing nature of the labour market.I am very pleased to be able to contribute to this debate as it was the Greens that referred this very important issue to committee inquiry.
The Greens have submitted additional comments because, while we welcome the primary finding of the majority report, which is that the current rates of Newstart and other allowances are inadequate-let me say that again: the committee found that the current rates of Newstart allowance are inadequate-and we support that finding, the overwhelming evidence that the committee received was in fact that Newstart is inadequate. Where we have concerns is that the committee did not then go on to make the most obvious recommendation, which of course the Greens have done, which is: Newstart needs to be increased. Newstart needs to be increased by at least $50 a week because it is inadequate. We also go on to recommend the need to address the issue around indexation because we know that is separate as well, and we document that in our committee report findings. We also recommend that, with the increase in payment, there should also be proportional increases across the other payment allowances.
The reason that we needed to give additional comments is that the committee in their majority report failed to make that increase. In fact, they say that they are not able to make that recommendation. They go on to say how we cannot afford it because of other wastages of money, which Senator Back has just articulated. The committee's majority report says that there are two possible solutions: either Newstart allowance should be increased to raise the standard of living available to recipients, or more careful thought needs to be applied to how best to ensure that people spend as little time as possible on welfare between jobs.
The committee were not forced to take that approach. What they should have more carefully looked at was: what impact does a low rate of Newstart have on people in driving them into poverty, what impact does that poverty have on them and what cost does that poverty have on society? We document that in our additional comments to highlight the need to address an increase in Newstart. It is quite obvious that Newstart is inadequate and that it needs to be increased. I am really disappointed that the majority of the committee did not take the step to make that recommendation. The Greens have of course taken that step and made that recommendation.
Another issue that the Greens address in our comments is around the inadequacy of some of the joint agency submissions. We raise two points in particular in our additional comments. We believe that they run two particular arguments to dull the overwhelming evidence from the community and from the experts that Newstart payments are inadequate. One of the arguments they run is that measuring 'adequacy' is a subjective measure and so it is difficult to measure. My question is: what is so difficult to measure about Newstart being $130 below the poverty line or only 45 per cent of the minimum wage? It does not seem to too hard to me.
On top of that, of course, there are a lot of international frameworks around, guiding measurements of this sort. So it should not be too hard now because of the frameworks that we have. It is a pretty poor argument that we cannot raise Newstart because it is a bit of a subjective measure.
The other line that they continue is trying to mess with the fact that other allowances on top of Newstart mean that families can earn almost as much as the minimum wage or more than it. Of course, that line was run very early on and the media picked it up because the government were trying to make it look as if was not too bad being on Newstart if you get these other payments-but they were measuring it against the minimum wage for a single. If you are a family on the minimum wage, you are also entitled to those same allowances such as family tax benefit. This is done to disguise the fact that Newstart is too low. I am really disappointed that the agencies that are supposed to be looking after the welfare of the most disadvantaged Australians feel it is necessary to muddy the waters to try and confuse people about the inadequacies of Newstart-and so we address those issues in our submission.
The other issue that we raise is that we think that the committee did a good job in addressing issues around older workers. We had some very strong evidence around that, including the contribution that, if only three per cent of older workers were able to gain employment and get over discrimination against the aged in our workforce, they would make a very significant contribution to our economy. The report, as Senator Back just touched on, addressed the issues around carers going back into the workforce. However, I do not think the committee really adequately got to grips with the issues around partial disability, with one in 10 people on long-term unemployment being Indigenous, one in 15 being a sole parent-and we are about to see a whole lot of sole parents dumped onto Newstart-and the fact that one in two have not completed year 12.
The department and the government like to use these confusing figures saying that nearly 60 per cent of those going onto Newstart come off within a year. As Senator Back said, 42 per cent are actually on Newstart longer than a year, and 62 per cent of people that are on Newstart have been there long term, trying to survive on an inadequate payment. The majority committee report addresses this bit with quite a piecemeal approach. With issues around better employment service support, they make some recommendations but they are not comprehensive.
The Greens believe that there was certainly enough evidence given to the committee to point out that we need to be having an independent review of the functioning of Job Services Australia. There is enough evidence to show that major cohorts are missing out and that we need to better support people trying to find work. We need to be addressing their barriers to employment, even it is a single barrier-though many of them face multiple barriers to work. So we also need to be improving our employment support to those most disadvantaged job seekers.
We have identified the inadequacies of Newstart and we are about to dump tens of thousands-in the first instance, 84,000-single parents and their families on to an inadequate payment that is clearly documented as inadequate. On 1 January we dump 84,000 single parents and their children onto a clearly documented inadequate Newstart payment. I had an email just this morning from one of those single mothers. I would like to read it out:
"I am absolutely in shock that my parenting payment is about to be reduced by around $200 a fortnight. I had a Centrelink employee ask me if I needed to talk to counsellor. I need to have the $200. I am in a legally binding lease. I have payments for my car, internet for my son and all the other expenses in life. I have been given two months' notice of the changes. I do the right thing. I work double what Centrelink requires but I cannot find fulltime work. It would be like tapping the highly paid Centrelink employer on the shoulder and saying, 'Oh by the way, at Christmas we are halving your wage.' It is outrageous. There are going to be a lot of homeless people and children. Somebody please help us with no voice."
That is the human face of what is about to happen on 1 January.
What this report clearly articulates is that we need to be changing direction. We need not to be dumping these single parents onto Newstart. We need to be increasing Newstart. We need to be indexing it better and supporting those workers who have faced multiple barriers to employment. They are the most disadvantaged workers. They need better employment support to enable them to find meaningful work, not just cycling people in and out of casual work. That is the other thing the department could not tell us about. They do not even have the data systems to track whether people are cycling in and out of work and how many times. Of that 60 per cent who find work, we do not know how many return to unemployment within a short period of time. We have to do this better, Australia. This report clearly articulates that.