(Image: AAP/Tracey Nearmy)

This morning, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert introduced a private member’s bill to increase Newstart and Youth Allowance by $75 a week. It is Siewert’s fifth attempt to raise the rate over the course of her 14 years in parliament.

Given Scott Morrison laughed the issue off last week, Siewert’s chances of success are slim to none. The likely bipartisan rejection is particularly galling when, in the 25 years since John Howard first froze the payment, people on Newstart ($275 per week) experience conditions far below poverty-level ($433 a week) while enduring brand new punitive measures like Centrelink “robodebt”, ParentsNext and cashless welfare cards.

Now, with everyone from the Business Council to ACOSS to Howard himself admitting that $39 a day simply cannot cut it for Australians in 2019, let’s review the excuses politicians have used to buck the issue, and will likely wheel out again today.

‘How good are jobs?’

– Scott Morrison, July 18 2019.

The most common excuse for ignoring the 700,000 Australians relying on Newstart is also the oldest: welfare is meant to be temporary. This ignores the fact that, according to ACOSS, 44% of people rely on Newstart for over two years, and 15% longer than five years.

Even if we take Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s slightly sunnier version of the stats — that “two-thirds of the people on Newstart move on to a job within 12 months” — the “get a job” excuse ignores the fact there are only roughly 15.57 job seekers to every job vacancy, and that those job seekers with secure food, housing and time (that is, those not currently on Newstart) are generally better equipped to find work.

‘They don’t just live on Newstart alone … and 99% of people on Newstart are also on other payments’

– Scott Morrison, May 13 2019

The next common argument against increasing Newstart is that, with biannual indexing and supplementary payments, recipients are basically living it up.

But as Deloitte Access Economics outlined last year, Newstart is indexed to prices, rather than wages like the age pension. This means that while the pension has roughly doubled since 2000, Newstart has barely budged. Last September saw a “laughable” $2.20 increase.

While Morrison is correct in noting that almost everyone on Newstart receives a supplementary payment, The Guardian’s analysis of Senate estimates found that 51.9% of recipients only received an extra $7.30 per week from minor supplements; 28.4% received approximately $55.18 per week with rental assistance; and roughly 20% of people on the family tax benefit received an extra $200 per week.

For most Newstart recipients, total welfare amounts to just $40 a day. Morrison and co would know this, having fought against including welfare recipients for a $4.40 per week energy supplement.

‘We’re in a $10 billion deficit … so I don’t think you can all of a sudden go oh let’s make whoopee

– Scott Morrison, September 26 2018

Last year, Morrison argued there simply wasn’t room in the budget to increase Newstart by $75 a week. Doing so would constitute a $3.3 billion move that would provide a $4 billion return to the Australian economy on the back of increased jobs, taxes, and wages.

Morrison’s budget argument ignores the fact that the government had room for $95 billion in tax cuts for middle- and high-income earners, a far larger loss of revenue which would overwhelmingly benefit people less likely to return money to the economy. The government also found $400 million to squeeze $500 million out of welfare recipients with robodebt.

‘I could live on 40 bucks a day knowing the government is supporting me with Newstart to look for employment’

– Julia Banks, May 2 2018

As anyone outside of a political party would be able to admit, this is a tall claim — even the Business Council said so. BCA head Jennifer Westacott went so far to say that it would be “impossible”.

‘The ball is in the Morrison governments’ court’

– Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers, July 15 2019

Labor was always tepid on the Newstart issue under Bill Shorten — promises for a “review” satisfied exactly no one — but two months after the party’s election loss, Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers are still shrugging off real action as being the Coalition’s responsibility.

Compare and contrast this with an area in which the party has shown ambition, such as shadow energy minister Mark Butler’s holistic energy package aimed at a 45% carbon emission reduction target for 2030. Predictably, the policy created a large target for a Coalition during the federal election, but Labor pushed it anyway due to support from the industry it aimed to help.

‘This is a stunt by the Greens … It won’t pass the parliament’

Labor Senator Anthony Chisholm, August 16 2018

Labor’s final excuse gets brought out basically every time Siewert proposes a bill or motion to raise Newstart. It was repeated by Albanese last week, even while otherwise calling for the Coalition to raise the rate. It cuts to much of the frustration over advocating progressive changes within a deeply conservative parliament.

As with energy policy, there is a stark contrast between Labor’s Newstart malaise and the party’s genuine leadership on, for example, the banking royal commission. The party swallowed its pride, joined the Greens after rejecting earlier bills labelled as “stunts”, and kept at it for years until it finally wedged the Liberal Party with the Nats’ help. It was a similar story with marriage equality.

Siewert is almost certainly going to go home today 0-for-five. But as the royal commission demonstrated, when Labor drops politics and joins nominal allies — not just the Greens but Barnaby Joyce too, if his latest newsgrab can be believed — it is absolutely possible to pressure the Liberal Party into accepting sound policy.

What will it take for parliament to acknowledge the crisis in Newstart? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name.

Peter Fray

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