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A surplus at the expense of vulnerable people

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 20 Nov 2012

Here we are, talking about an extremely slim budget surplus, a budget surplus that is being delivered at the expense of some of the most disadvantaged in our community. An issue that I was addressing earlier this afternoon in this place is the cuts to single parents' incomes by moving single parents from single parent payment to Newstart, a so-called saving of around $700 million—at the expense of the most vulnerable in our community: single parents who are trying to raise our next generation. Between 100,000 and 150,000 single parents and their children are being moved onto Newstart, thereby dropping their incomes by a significant amount of money. In fact, the government has not even modelled the impact on some of those single parents. I was talking about that earlier this afternoon. 




In answer to my question earlier this afternoon, the minister said he was unaware of any modelling that has been undertaken, for example, on the 10,000 single parents who look as if they will lose all their income support, their access to a concession card and their access to rent assistance. The government actually has no idea what impact that is going to have on single parents in terms of an actual dollar value. We do know that it will lower their incomes. We do know that the incomes of those single parents will drop and they are already struggling and many of them are already living in poverty. We do know that their income is going to drop. My question then is: what impact does that have on the government's budget line? How does it look in this country, when the government claims it made a surplus, yet the most vulnerable in our community are living in poverty? 

You just have to look at the Australian Council of Social Service poverty report that they put out at the beginning of Anti-Poverty Week in October. It shows that there is a growing body of evidence about the extent to which people in Australia are facing multiple deprivations, such as the inability to heat their homes or to afford school things. Thirty five per cent of people on social security payments are unable to raise $200 in an emergency. Alarmingly, more than half of the households with Newstart as the main source of income are living in poverty, as are one-quarter of the people in sole parent families. The ACOSS poverty report demonstrated that 48 per cent of these households have experienced three or more financial stresses like these in the last year. 

I also launched Anglicare's report, When there's not enough to eat, in Anti-Poverty Week in October. It demonstrated what many other emergency relief services are reporting—that is, that a significant proportion of the people accessing their services are single parents. Anglicare also found that 45,000 of the households using their emergency relief services were unable to feed their families properly. In other words, families are going hungry. Those most vulnerable in our country are going hungry, yet the government think that they can manage a surplus by dropping these people further into and condemning them and their families to poverty. How can we say in this country that we have adequate support for these people when they are living in poverty? If you are living on Newstart, you are living on more than $130 below the poverty line. 

How can we say we have a surplus? How can we say we are a caring society when we are condemning not only the current generation but future generations to poverty, intergenerational poverty and the poverty cycle? It is time that we made sure that we looked at our economy and our budget surplus in terms of needing to address the most basic human needs and ensuring that we are caring for the most vulnerable in our community. We need to ensure that our economy is planning for and able to provide a secure future for all of our community, and we need to also make sure that we are protecting our natural world, which is absolutely vital to sustain us. We need to be addressing issues around poverty, food and security, and barriers to employment for our most vulnerable Australians, instead of taking the simplistic approach of saying, 'Well, single parents, we'll drop you onto Newstart and that will encourage you into work.' 

This forgets about or ignores the fact that 45 per cent of single parents are in fact already working. Single parents have the highest work participation rate of all of the groups on income support. In other words, the policy justification just does not exist. It is about trying to save $700 million that can go to the $1.5 billion so-called surplus. But I do not even think that the government actually have their figures right. For a start, just last week, they downgraded the estimate from 17,000 to 10,000 single parent families that are going to be without income support. The government could not tell us what impact that will have on those families and my question is: if you have done the budget calculations based on successfully managing to get 17,000 people off income support by dropping them further into poverty, what does that do to the bottom line? 

The other issue that I started canvassing earlier is that for those 10,000 families who are supposedly being encouraged into work—although by definition those 10,000 families that are not going to get any income support are already working families, already working single parents—there is in fact a perverse incentive happening. They are going to have a drop in their income by working. The natural conclusion there is that, if I am dropping my income by working, maybe I am better off reducing my working hours so that I can still maintain some link to the income support system and get access to concessions and rent assistance. So the very policy objective is null and void. Not only that, but by going onto income support I am then going back into the system and I am costing the government money. In other words, the surplus calculations are reduced. Not only have they mucked up their sums; their policy is actually counterproductive. The rhetoric you hear from the government is any job is a good job and that children need to be growing up in families that have jobs. Yet, here are these children who will see their parents forced into reducing their working hours because of a stupid government policy. It is counterproductive, all based on the fact that we are trying to get the most marginal surplus off the backs of the most vulnerable families in Australia. Those people are going to be forced into accessing emergency relief. 

The minister could not answer a question about this when I asked him in the chamber today. In a media comment previously, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister Shorten, said that when families drop onto Newstart on 1 January, one of the hardest, most expensive periods of the year for families—Christmas time, school holiday time and going back to school time—they will be able to access the once-off crisis payment. Not only is it very difficult to access that; these people are facing a crisis situation. The government could not tell me how they have budgeted to make sure that that money is available. I wonder if that was calculated into the budget bottom line. I wonder if that was calculated into the razor thin surplus that the government has. These families are going to need support somehow, other than that they are going to emergency relief centres. 


Earlier in the year when I asked whether the government was going to make extra funding available to emergency relief, they said no. What will happen to these emergency relief services that already have to turn people away, that are already supporting many people on Newstart and supporting single parents who have been already been dumped onto Newstart under the welfare to work regime? How do we support these people? How can we say that we have a caring society and that we have a surplus when it is off the backs of the most vulnerable in this country? People are living in poverty and we are condemning them to intergenerational poverty. We are condemning them to the poverty cycle unless we re-evaluate the way that we see the economy supporting our community and start putting people first, and not seeing the economy as an end in itself. (Time expired) 


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