It’s one of the most hotly anticipated, enthusiastically attended events of the parliamentary calendar. Every year, Eric Abetz brings a whole bunch of Apple Isle providores to Canberra and sets them up in the Great Hall. In a cross between a university careers fair and a corporate cocktail party, MPs, lobbyists and journalists flit between stalls that offer bountiful supplies of triple cream cheeses, smoked fishes, seafood, grass-fed beef, pinot noir and the kind of champagne I only get for my birthday.
Despite such deliciousness, this year’s event – held on Wednesday night – was beset with a couple of uncomfortable frissons.
The most obvious was that it is traditional for the Prime Minister to attend and give Tasmanian food a plug. This meant Abetz had to share a handshake and stage with The Man Who Ruined Everything.
The second was that the gourmet knees-up was held smack bang in the middle of Anti-Poverty Week. Granted, “Flavours of Tasmania” is about promoting the state’s troubled economy. And it’s always something week somewhere. But there was something syncopated about so many powerful people enjoying a canape free-for-all while the community sector was pointing out that Australia has a significant poverty problem.
Earlier this year, the Centre for Economic Development of Australia found that between 1 million and 1.5 million Australians live in poverty, based on their access to necessary goods and services and social exclusion measures. Using an income measure, the Australian Council of Social Service estimates that 2.55 million Australians live below the poverty line.
In acknowledgement of Anti-Poverty Week, we’ve seen many groups release research and reports to highlight the issue. Amid recommendations for a hard target to reduce poverty and a national plan to create jobs for the long-term unemployed, there have also been renewed calls to raise the level of dole payments.
Welfare groups have been requesting an increase to unemployment benefits for years and years. Peter Davidson has been with ACOSS for two decades and says there have been concerns about the adequacy of payments “for as long as I can remember”.
The concerns have been so persistent as to now verge on the cliche – the background noise that you expect to be there, but don’t really notice. One assumes the 720,000-plus people on Newstart (the dole) are noticing, however.
Currently, a single person with no children on Newstart gets a maximum payment of $523.40 a fortnight. That equals $37.40 a day and is less than half the minimum wage.
ACOSS estimates that 55 per cent of those receiving Newstart live below the poverty line. In a recent survey of more than 110 Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients, it found 24 per cent had gone without meals in the last year because of their financial situation.
Back in 2012, amid calls to increase Newstart and other unemployment benefits by $50 a week (it is now $51 a week), one prominent lobby group wrote to a Senate inquiry, calling for more money for the dole.
“The rate of Newstart no longer meets a reasonable standard of adequacy,” it said. “There is concern that the low rate of Newstart itself now presents a barrier to employment and risks entrenching poverty.”
This wasn’t ACOSS, Vinnies or the Salvos. It was that well known bastion of heart bleeding, the Business Council of Australia.
There is this crazy idea that the dole should provide enough to pay for things like rent, food, healthcare, clothing, transport and phone/internet needs. In other words, it should allow people to survive and give them the resources to get a job.
While the dole has purposely been kept below the minimum wage – as an incentive for people to find work – Newstart has not been increased in real terms since 1994. That’s when Turnbull was buying his stake in OzEmail and plugging a republic.
It is updated twice a year in line with the Consumer Price Index, but as welfare groups note, this has not kept it in step with living standards (unlike pensions, which are indexed to wages).
Why is this so?
It is certainly cheaper to maintain the status quo. It is estimated the $50 a week boost would cost about $2 billion a year. But while this is not loose change, in the overall context of Australia’s $137 billion social services budget, it is not pie-in-the-sky talk either.
And it’s not like there’s a blow-out in numbers. Analysis by Australia National University professor Peter Whiteford shows that the numbers of Newstart recipients dropped between 1996 and 2014.
Government attitudes towards Newstart can best be explained by the attitude that kids go on the dole because they are too lazy to get a job (see: policies to make young people wait six months/one month for the payment).
And yet, we know that parts of Australia are experiencing high unemployment and there are fewer and fewer low-skilled jobs out there. Noting those under 22 get Youth Allowance, the fact that 67 per cent of those on Newstart are between 35 and 64 also suggests we are not being swamped by 20-something bludgers wanting beers and an extended holiday on the taxpayers’ dime.
Despite the continued and troubling evidence that Newstart does the exact opposite of what its name suggests, governments of all stripes have ignored the problem and pretended it was something else.
Call it Australia’s collective blind spot.
And as the years – and yet another Anti-Poverty week – creep by, this is one policy canape that’s getting harder and harder to swallow.