Business Council Jennifer Westacott
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott.

It’s budget week, which gives us that perennial joy: conservative politicians splutteringly insisting that they could survive the brutal policies they impose on society’s most vulnerable. 

Backbencher Julia Banks kicked this round of foot in mouth off, insisting on ABC Melbourne that she could live on $40 a day, “I could, I could live on $40 a day knowing that the government is supporting me with Newstart to look for employment.”

This was followed by Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who knows all about doing it tough, thanks to her stint as a backpacker (bizarrely, this is not the first time she’s gone to that particular well).

Financial services Kelly O’Dwyer refused to “personalise” the impact of her government’s policy, and on Q&A last night, backbencher Tim Wilson insisted people could live on it — although, was gracious enough to not specify that he himself could.

So what is the Business Council’s stance?

The Business Council of Australia are in accord with the Liberals on many points, but not this. Chief executive head Jennifer Westacott came out and chided Banks after her interview, adding to a list of statements backing an increase to Newstart which go back as far as the Gillard government.

In 2012 the BCA made a submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Adequacy of the Allowance Payment System for Jobseekers and Others, which argued “the rate of the Newstart Allowance for jobseekers no longer meets a reasonable community standard of adequacy and may now be so low as to represent a barrier to employment.”

In May of the following year, Westacott repeated the call:

What remains important over the long term is for the level of the Newstart allowance to be increased to avoid trapping jobseekers in entrenched disadvantage, and this should be addressed as part of a comprehensive independent review of the size, scope and efficiency of government, and as fiscal circumstances permit.

Labor ruled out an increase at the time. Then-employment minister Bill Shorten changed his tune in the wake of the Banks interview last week, arguing for welfare reform.

The BCA did not find an ally in Tony Abbott on welfare standards; one of the Abbott government’s famously botched and unpopular measures was the attempt to extend the wait for welfare for those under the age of 30 to 6 months. Perhaps coincidentally, during the Abbott years, the BCA moderated it’s tone somewhat, mildly describing the move  as “pretty tough”, while the following year, focusing more on the sustainability of welfare: “Our welfare and employment systems need to be in sync so that assistance is targeted to people who need it most. The right incentives and supports have to be in place to ensure people who want and are able to work can do so.” 

However, Westacott returned to a more direct public call for action on welfare reform writing in the The Weekend Australian in September 2017: “I’m proud to have called out the inadequacy of the Newstart unemployment allowance which, at only $38 a day for single people, has itself become a barrier to effective jobseeking. The objective of welfare reform should be to ensure the right incentives and training programs are in place so people can get into the workforce as quickly as possible and stay employed.”

Of course, the BCA have also opposed any crackdown on corporate tax avoidance while also calling for tax cuts to big business which defy justification. Further, it appears they do not extend their concern about welfare to employees of their members, given they know the majority of those members actively refuse to commit to using those tax cuts to increase wages. On the issue of Newstart at least, the BCA have been consistent.