As I rise to speak on the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee Bill 2023, my thoughts are sitting squarely with the people of Indi who are doing it really tough and relying on government support. Here in this place and in the media, we are increasingly hearing about ‘the cost-of-living crisis’. It’s a phrase so overused it risks becoming just another political football used in this place to score points against the other side. But I know what the actual cost-of-living crisis is in my electorate of Indi and what it looks like. It looks like people increasingly calling on food shares and other charities to help put food on the table. It looks like people considering whether the cost of fuel is too high for their child to take on weekend sport and to drive them from town to town. It’s looking for second jobs on top of existing jobs because making ends meet is getting more tricky each week. For those who rely on government payments such as JobSeeker, the disability support pension, student payments and the age pension, the decisions they must take and make as costs go up are so much harder.

In my office we are experiencing an increase of people seeking help as they interact with Services Australia. As Australians we can be proud that we have such a safety net, but too often I hear from those who rely on Services Australia that the service they receive is not always adequate and the level of support offered through the payments provided is not enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. To be clear: the rate of JobSeeker is simply not enough. There have been times in our not-too-distant political history where it’s been incredibly controversial for a member of this place to even acknowledge that payments such as JobSeeker are not adequate and that we must do more to support those who are looking for work. Too often the debate descended into unhelpful and demeaning slurs like ‘dole bludger’, ‘leaners versus lifters’ or ‘welfare cheats’.

This is where this bill and the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee has the potential to provide powerful cut-through and allow decisions on the rate of payments such as JobSeeker to be made based on evidence, not on political games. This committee was set up following an agreement between my Independent colleague Senator David Pocock and the government last year as part of negotiations on the industrial relations ‘secure jobs, better pay’ bill. The agreement to form this committee played a major role in my eventual decision to support that bill. The committee reported to the government before the last budget, but this bill formalises it in legislation. It will be known as the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee. It will provide advice to the government ahead of each budget on economic inclusion and boosting participation, and on the adequacy and sustainability of income support payments. In preparing its reports, the committee must have regard to the government’s economic and fiscal outlook and fiscal strategy. Its advice to the government is non-binding and it will consist of 14 part-time members, with appointments lasting three years. Members are to include economists, academics, union and business representatives and community advocates who will be appointed by the Minister for Social Services, in consultation with the Treasurer. There is much to commend in this bill, and I intend to vote in support of it. I welcome efforts to improve the evidence base for policy, particularly for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Earlier in this speech I spoke of the potential this idea has. While I welcome this bill, I am concerned that in many ways the government’s proposal does not realise the true potential of this committee. This bill can be improved. The proposed membership of the committee has a major blind spot: among the economists, the academics, the union officials and business representatives, whose voice is missing? The voice of those who are actually experiencing poverty or who have experienced poverty. The voice of those who rely on government support payments and who face the often-uphill battle of interacting with Services Australia and making ends meet with those payments. The voice of single mothers, people living with disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Their experiences need to be heard alongside the expertise of economists and academics.

As an independent MP I am not guided by party ideology when making decisions on bills or forming policy decisions. I listen to those in my community who are most affected to truly understand how legislation would affect them and how it could be improved.

Listening to people shouldn’t be so revolutionary. It should be standard practice. This bill is a golden chance to seize that opportunity, but the government seems to be fumbling it. The Senate inquiry into this bill was undertaken in just over a month, with submissions from organisations such as the Australian Council of Social Services, Economic Justice Australia, UnitingCare Australia and others, making sensible suggestions on how this committee and its practice could be improved to get maximum impact. Suggestions have been made in good faith, and I note the Senate committee’s report recommended four amendments to the bill. These include ensuring the committee’s report is published at least two weeks before the budget is handed down and requiring the government to formally respond to the report. I also note and support the additional comments of Senator David Pocock regarding improving transparency and the independence of the committee, increasing the committee’s scope to include developing national measures of poverty and also measures to end homelessness and increase diversity of membership of the committee.

I understand the member for North Sydney intends to move a series of amendments to the bill which would pick up the recommendations by the Australian Council of Social Services, and these amendments would address my concerns, including by requiring the government to include people with direct experience of poverty and for committee members to be remunerated for their work. I support these amendments. They are sensible amendments. They would improve this bill. They would improve the functioning of the committee and the quality of the advice given to the government.

The government should take on recommendations made in good faith in the many submissions to the Senate inquiry. They would make this committee’s function transparent, independent, inclusive and as robust as possible. If we’re going to have a committee to advise government, let’s make the best it can be. They would ensure that the voices of those who have experienced poverty are heard. It’s so important; people who have lived experience have sensible solutions because they have a true understanding of the problems that a committee like this is trying to solve.

I hope that this committee and its work will become a long-lasting, respected and trusted part of our parliamentary budget process. The potential is there. This bill should embed evidence in decision-making processes and therefore should make a substantive difference in the lives of people who rely on government support payments. I really encourage the government to think about these amendments and to take them on. I really am happy that this committee is being formed. It could be better. It can be better. We still have time to make it better. Ultimately, though, the principle of this is sound, and I commend this bill to the House.

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