Dr HAINES (Indi) (13:05): I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023. The measures in this bill will make life a little bit easier for our most vulnerable Australians at a time when just getting by is harder and harder to do. These measures include: an increase of $40 per fortnight in working age and student payments; a higher rate of JobSeeker payments for 55- to 59-year-olds; and increases to Commonwealth Rent Assistance and single parenting payment. The $40 increase will apply to the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance, parenting payment partnered, Austudy, ABSTUDY, special benefit, disability support pension and youth payments.
Right now a single person with no kids who is receiving JobSeeker receives around $49 a day. From September, it will be $52.36 a day or $733.10 a fortnight. I support this increase because for families in my electorate counting the dollars and seeing how far they can stretch every cent absolutely helps. We are in a cost-of-living crisis. Groceries, rent and petrol prices keep going up and, in relative terms, families are getting by with much less. Any increase, then, is welcome.
But we do need to be honest with each other and with the Australian public. These payments remain unconscionably low. An increase of $2.86 a day won’t fix this. It’s almost impossible to live a dignified life on these payments alone. I certainly couldn’t do it. The rate of payments is so low that instead of helping people back into work it pushes them down into poverty. A study from the University of New South Wales and the Australian Council of Social Service found 60 per cent of JobSeeker recipients and 34 per cent of youth allowance recipients live in poverty. The local food bank organisation in my electorate, Albury Wodonga Regional FoodShare, says that in their catchment there are 22,230 people living in poverty, and this includes 4,942 children. This is truly shameful
I believe that the goal of our social security system should be to support people who can work to do so and to support people who are unable to work to live a decent life. This is how we should measure the adequacy of our social security system, yet these low payments neither give people unable to work a decent life nor encourage people who can work to do so, because the structural barriers remain so fundamentally high. For those who are unable to work, it condemns them to daily difficult decisions that no-one should have to make, such as choosing between paying the telephone bill or paying the rent or between putting dinner on the table or switching on the heating.
In my regional electorate it is harder to make ends meet on these payments and harder to find a job if you rely on them between periods of employment. If you need a car to get to a job and you don’t have one, your employment options are very limited. We have no public transport reliable or frequent enough to use to commute. If you live in the town of Bright and there’s a job in Wodonga and you don’t have a car, it is pretty simple: you can’t take that job. Then there is the shocking lack of child care, with waiting lists extending more than two years in some towns, especially child care for shift workers, which keeps many women of working age right out of the workforce. If you are a single parent receiving JobSeeker and there’s a cafe offering a job at lunchtime and you can’t find child care then you simply can’t take the shift.
In regional Victoria we have a higher than average chronic burden of disease. If we need to see a doctor in Indi, only 12 of our 33 GP practices bulk-bill, and the bulk-billing rate is only 18 per cent, according to research by Cleanbill. So the incentives announced in the budget by the government to increase the amount of bulk-billing by GPs are extremely welcome. I really hope that they do work for the people of Indi, because this is a major cost and a major contributor to the lack of access to GPs and to the chronic disease burden that we experience.
With additional barriers and costs, income supports don’t go as far as they should in rural and regional Australia, and that’s against the national statistic of the relative value declining from 50 per cent of the minimum wage in 1997 to under 40 per cent immediately before the addition of the coronavirus supplement. Everywhere this government turns, the call is the same. Groups as diverse as ACOSS and the Business Council of Australia, and the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, have called for a substantial increase—not just an increase; a substantial increase. The government’s own economic inclusion advisory panel found that the current rates of payment were seriously inadequate, whether measured against payments overseas, the minimum wage, pensions or poverty lines. The panel recommended that:
The Government commit to a substantial increase in the base rates of JobSeeker Payment and related working age payments as a first priority.
And they recommended increasing it to 90 per cent of the age pension to improve adequacy. The $40 increase which this bill sets up falls far below this.
Before the budget, I signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for a substantial increase in payments, along with 12 MPs from the government’s own party, including the member for Hunter, the member for Bruce and the member for Dunkley. I’m sure these members were left disappointed, as I was, with what they saw in the budget.
I am glad the government has committed to assessing the JobSeeker payment and other income support payments before each budget. The government should publish this assessment, so we know on what basis it keeps making this choice that leaves so many in poverty.
I welcome the increase in the JobSeeker payment by $92.10 per fortnight for people aged between 55 and 59, which will benefit 340 people in my electorate. Yet many older people want to keep working, and, with a workforce shortage, we need all hands on deck. I’ll be seriously considering the opposition’s proposal to raise the income-free area for recipients from $150 to $300, although I don’t support the member for Deakin’s second-reading amendment in its entirety; there’s much in that amendment that I disagree with. However, on this issue, I think we seriously do need to consider raising this opportunity to work.
I think we need to consider raising the income-free threshold to allow people on JobSeeker to work more when they can and want to work more, like many pensioners I hear from in my electorate; they’re very interested in this. But we must also increase JobSeeker at the same time. Department of Social Services figures from last year showed more than 350,000 people on unemployment benefits were unable to work full time due to illness or disability. So we must adequately support people where work is just not possible for them or where they need that extra help to get into the workplace in the first instance.
In supporting older people, we cannot forget the extreme financial pressure facing our younger generations. I want to quote directly from Harry, a 23-year-old young man from Indi, from the town of Wangaratta. This is what he said:
Those under 55 are the first generations to be worse off than their parents. We are facing a climate crisis, a cost of living crisis, a housing crisis and are witnessing a real time erosion of the Australian middle class.
Furthermore, younger Australians are the most educated generations ever—yet we are still comparatively underpaid, even before historic increases in net productivity are considered.
Harry went on to say:
We want fair and equitable policies that benefit us all. Not short-sighted legislation that only seems to serve wealthy, asset rich Australians, whilst winding back the benefits that our parents enjoyed.
And whilst I understand—
that those over 55 on JobSeeker do need additional help in our current affordability crisis, this does not mean those under 55 need it any less, or that they are any less deserving of the basic dignity of affordable living.
This bill will increase Commonwealth rent assistance maximum rates by 15 per cent, and, according to the government, this will affect 5,055 households in my electorate. The average increase will be $24 per fortnight. Now, while this may be the largest increase in this payment in 30 years, it is essentially meaningless when compared to the increased cost of rents, especially over the last two years.
In the 2021 census, the median weekly rental in Indi was $270. But today this is a very different picture. Before coming to this chamber, I checked on domain.com to see the average cost of renting a place in some of the towns in my electorate. Here are a couple of examples. In Wodonga, it’s $430, up 7.5 per cent in 12 months. In Wangaratta, it’s $420; and, in the Alpine Shire, it’s $505, a staggering increase of 12 per cent in one year alone.
In the more than 35 years that I’ve lived in Indi, I’ve never seen a situation in housing like we’re seeing today. How can my constituents afford to pay the rent when in some places it has more than doubled in two years? According to the national campaign Everybody’s Home, 40.6 per cent of renters in my electorate of Indi are facing rental stress—40.6 per cent—and this is leading to desperate situations. So, unfortunately, while the government’s increase is welcome, it really is not going to make a difference to these people.
I want to see the solutions to this housing crisis across our communities in regional Australia—solutions that help those experiencing homelessness, as well as solutions to help essential workers. My regional housing infrastructure fund is one such proposal. Housing is the No. 1 issue I hear about from my constituents now, and I’ll keep lobbying the government to adopt the proposal I’ve put to them to be a national leader where government has previously fallen short.
I also want recognise the increase in payments that are designed to support students, including Abstudy, youth allowance and Austudy. I represent many, many students studying at La Trobe University in Wodonga and Charles Sturt University in Albury, many more undertaking study either online at our country university centres or in other cities and then coming home when they can, and those students who are undertaking studies alongside full-time employment. I know this extra money in their pockets will be appreciated.
Yet, while this supports current students, young people with a HECS debt will tomorrow face indexation of 7.1 per cent on their loans, the highest rate in more than three decades, adding more than $1,000 to the average loan. Many in my region are now looking at their degrees as a lifetime debt burden. One constituent has returned to university to study education—thrilled to hear that. But she’s reconsidering whether to continue with her studies, because of the seemingly endless debt that comes with higher education. We desperately need teachers and so many other professions in regional Australia, but the high rate of indexation means that many more people will be looking at university study and seeing only a burden, not an opportunity. Indexation of loans also disproportionately affects women in the workforce who take time out to care for their children. The degree ends up costing them more than those who don’t undertake care outside of their work, and this situation simply isn’t fair. It’s in the government’s power to fix it, and I really urge them to do so. The cost of living is biting hard, and the government should be relieving costs on our young people, not adding to them.
Single parents in my electorate are extraordinary, caring and balancing part-time work to make ends meet, and the extension of the maximum single parent payment from when the youngest child is eight to when they are 14 is a no-brainer. I congratulate the government on doing this. This change will benefit 380 single parents in my electorate alone. I wanted to share the perspective of one of these single parents, in Barnawartha. She told the Border Mail recently that, with the rising cost of living, single parents were being forced into the workforce when they had primary care of their children. She’s the mother of children with extra needs and has chosen not to work so she can support her kids. When she has to apply for work and do government courses that prevent her from supporting her kids so that she can afford to live, this is an enormous burden. She does this, in spite of having to move back in with her parents so she can reduce the cost of rent. What broke my heart, reading her story, was that she said she’s not the worst off; there are many people much worse off than her. So I welcome this payment.
In conclusion, I support this bill because we need to do a lot more to support our vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians. I represent an electorate where 31,000 people aged 15 and over have government benefits as their main source of income, and I know that any increase, however small, will make a difference. People experiencing poverty don’t have time to lobby federal parliamentarians or to host fancy breakfasts where they can put their case to government over pastries and coffee. By and large, they don’t flood our electorate offices with calls or emails, unlike those for other trending issues of the day. They are too busy just getting by. That’s why as their representative I will keep using my platform here to fight for this government to do more and to make the choice to guarantee Australians a safety net—a true safety net—and a real opportunity to lead a decent, honourable, dignified life and contribute to their community in the best way they can.