Waters, 3 Million Aussies live in Poverty on Newstart
Senator Larissa Water Pension and Benefits Senate Speech (Queensland—Leader of the Australian Greens): I rise to speak on the motion of my outstanding colleague, Senator Siewert, who’s been campaigning on issues of raising Newstart and looking after ordinary Australians for as long as she’s been drawing breath—certainly as long as she’s been in this place. Today we’ve asked the parliament to spend time debating the low rate of Newstart and the insufficient rate of disaster payments, which don’t meet people’s needs and can exacerbate the difficult circumstances that people are experiencing in the face of bushfires and the drought. We’re calling on the federal government to immediately raise the rate of Newstart by at least $95 a week and to raise the disaster recovery payment to $3,000 per adult and $1,000 per child.
The context for us continuing to bring these issues forward is what we’ve just seen wreaked upon our nation over the summer and what many parts of the east coast are still experiencing now that the fires have turned into floods. I’m getting constant weather updates for rivers near my house as well, so this is real for each and every one of us in this chamber, just as it is real for the people out there. The context here is that people who have just lost their homes—we know 3,000 people and counting have now lost their homes in these devastating fires—have reached out to their government for support, and in many cases, they’re still waiting. The delays in accessing the disaster recovery support and the inadequacy of that payment when it does eventually come through are just adding insult to injury.
It brings to mind the Prime Minister’s visit to a number of bushfire ravaged communities. Cobargo is, of course, the most well-known example. The Prime Minister didn’t bring any supplies to that community. He rocked up and tried to force people to shake his hand. He wasn’t offering any kind of solution to the climate crisis that’s driving these natural disaster events, which we’re seeing getting worse and more frequent. He wasn’t offering any solution to help prevent the problem, and he wasn’t offering any more funding to help people recover. This meagre payment, which hasn’t had a rise since 2006, is too small, and it’s taking forever to actually reach the people that need it.
We know that that was the situation all summer, and this is exactly why we’ve been supporting the calls to increase that disaster recovery payment. At the moment it’s a one-off payment. It’s $1,000 for adults and $400 for children who’ve been adversely affected by a major disaster. It’s been at that level since 2006, and that is not enough money. If you’ve just lost your home, you’re having to pay to rent somewhere else to stay if you don’t have friends that you can couch-surf with. You’re having to pay all of the ordinary daily expenses, such as sending your kids to school, putting food on the table and getting around the place. You have this additional accommodation expense and, moreover, you’ve just lost all your belongings and the very roof over your head. A thousand bucks is not enough. We strongly support the call to increase that payment to $3,000 for adults and to $1,000 for children.
I note that the Prime Minister kind of implicitly acknowledged that the amounts were too small, because he did, in fact, say that the payment for kids would go up by $400. So that’s a welcome acknowledgement, but it’s still not enough, and he really needs to listen to those communities when he visits them and hear the desperate need and then use his power, as the Prime Minister, to do something about it and to provide the help and support that those communities and those people desperately need in the wake of these disasters—and take climate action while he’s at it.
It didn’t escape anybody’s notice that there was a wonderful coming together of the Australian spirit and that people were getting behind fundraising efforts. In particular, one of my favourite comedians, Celeste Barber, has raised more money for bushfire victims than this government. That is an embarrassment. Good on her—she’s fabulous and she’s done wonderful work and she’s now helping people—but this government is letting people down.
Senator Larissa Waters: As I was saying, the rate of Newstart is pitifully low. When you work it out, it’s $40 a day. We here at this level of government have been talking about this for many years. In fact, oft times government ministers are asked if they could live on $40 a day. Many of their responses have been very unedifying and, frankly, very telling of the fact that they’ve clearly never had to live on $40 a day. They’ve somehow maintained they could probably do it. Nobody can survive on $40 a day. On the stories that we have heard throughout this whole campaign, that we hear from real people and that Senator McCarthy gave voice to: people are choosing between buying textbooks for their kids and eating dinner. Nobody should have to make that choice.
Here is a government that just dished out $158 billion in tax cuts to the very wealthy and to big business, and they don’t even have the decency to raise Newstart by $95 for the three million Australians who are forced to live on it. They claim it’s a transitional payment. Wouldn’t it be lovely if it was, although it would still be too low. But it’s not a transitional payment, because the average time that people languish on Newstart is three years—three years of living on $40 a day. This government is condemning three million Australians to continue to live in poverty while it dishes out massive tax cuts to the very wealthy and to big corporates. Is it any wonder that trust in government is bottoming out. It’s democracy for sale, and people, once again, are at the bottom of the list.
We’re backing the call to increase Newstart. What’s really clear is that it continues to fall on deaf ears. We just heard government senators make a contribution to this debate. They trotted out that often-used refrain: ‘It’s not just Newstart. People get other payments as well.’ My colleague Senator Siewert reminded me that the most common payment that accompanies Newstart is the energy supplement, and do you know how much that supplements? Four bucks a week. And this government is trying to say that somehow that’s enough, that that means we don’t need to increase Newstart. Please! The entitlement of this government is almost too much to be believed.
We’ve got a flailing economy. If you want stimulus, stop looking at the RBA to do the heavy lifting for you and increase Newstart. People who are living below the poverty line—the three million Australians who are languishing on Newstart for an average of three years—will spend that increase because they cannot afford to meet the basics of life as it is. If you want stimulus and you want a stimulus that actually helps people, there is no better way than increasing Newstart. ACOSS is saying so, the business community is saying so, and some of your own backbenchers are saying so. It’s kind of ironic because normally you’d take your orders from big business but you’re ignoring them on this call. What a shame. We’d actually like you to listen to them on this front.
The other refrain that we often hear from the government is that you’ve got to have a go-to get a go and that somehow it’s the fault of people on Newstart that they can’t find a job. Maybe they don’t want a job or they’re too lazy. There are more people seeking work than there are jobs available in the job market at the minute under this government’s watch. This is a situation of the government’s making that they continue to not fix. The Anglicare figure that’s often cited is that there are 19 people going for any one job. Many people on Newstart want to work; they’re desperate to work. They can’t afford the money for the outfit to go to the job interview or the train fare for the petrol to get to the interview. If they can somehow manage to scrimp and save to pull that together, they’re then up against 18 other people for that job. And this government continues to blame people who are on Newstart as if it’s somehow those people’s fault. It is not. This is a systemic failure that is being perpetrated and perpetuated by this government. Everybody can see that. I hope the government knows that everybody can see that.
We have the solution: stop telling people to have a go-to get a go and just lift Newstart and create jobs. Invest in infrastructures like schools and hospitals and clean energy that can make peoples’ lives easier and create employment. And address the climate crisis. It’s not rocket science, folks. It’s not all going out to lunch with lobbyists and then handing out big business tax cuts. You’re actually meant to be here to improve peoples’ lives, and there are some fairly simple ways of doing that. You have many experts and advocates making these suggestions to you on a regular basis, but you can’t see the evidence—or the climate science for that matter—because the money from the vested interests is clouding your judgement. It’s completely embarrassing.
This is why we here at the Greens are strongly backing ACOSS’s continued campaign for increasing Newstart by at least $95 a week. People should not have to choose between textbooks for their children and putting food on the table when this government instead dishes out massive big business tax cuts and tax cuts to the very wealthy and a quarter of a million dollars for sporting clubs that councils don’t want. The priorities of this government are so clear. People have had enough, and they actually deserve a democracy that works for them. They deserve decisions that can improve their lives, help restore trust and confidence in our institution of government. Just actually do the job that you were elected to do: represent people, help improve their lives, help protect the planet, act on the climate science, invest in schools and hospitals and clean energy and stop worrying about the job that you’re going to go for once you leave parliament.
Chamber:: Senate on 13/02/2020 Item MOTIONS – Pensions and Benefits. Speaker: Senator Larisa Waters
Senator Larisa Waters, Source: Parliament of Australia Website provided under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence. Please note Parliament Transcripts can not be Edited or any Spin added.