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FOR – Bills — Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023; in Committee

Janet Rice

I think we need to take stock at the beginning of this committee stage to recognise what we're talking about—that is, the ability for those living on income support to be living dignified lives, to be able to fulfil their potential, to be able to get through and not be living in dire and abject poverty, to have a society where we care for everybody, or, in the words of the Labor government, where we don't leave anybody behind.

This bill is called 'strengthening the safety net', and it is very clear from the evidence before us, it is very clear from the cruel policies of the previous decade of the Liberal government, that we don't have a safety net. In the words of one of the submitters to the inquiry into this bill, what we have is a parachute with holes in it. Eventually, people relying on that parachute with holes are going to hit the bottom. What the bill before us today will do is put a tiny patch on one of those holes in the parachute; it is not going to stop jobseekers hitting the bottom.

The Greens, of course, want to see increases in income support so that people can live lives of dignity, so people can get by, so they have an income that is liveable so they can survive. This bill does not do this. This bill has an increase of $2.85 a day in income support—$2.85. The government is crowing about indexation, which is something all governments have done. I don't understand why we should suddenly be giving kudos to the government for indexing payments when it is a standard thing and has always happened. The payment for people on income support will be increased by $4 a day, which would still leave them way, way below the poverty line. Four dollars a day will not cut it for people who are only eating a meal a day. Four dollars a day is not going to cut it for people who can't afford to put a roof over their heads, who are currently living in tents, living in cars, living on the streets, couch surfing, being moved back into an overcrowded family home, having to stay in a situation of family violence because they can't afford to move out. Four dollars a day is still going to leave people in dire poverty, yet this government had a choice.

They have made a choice to increase income support by only that tiny amount at the same time as they are going ahead with the stage 3 tax cuts that are going to give $9,000 a year in tax cuts to every one of us in this place, to every billionaire, to everybody in the top two per cent of society. You have chosen to do that rather than lift people who are living on income support out of poverty. You have made the choice to give only this paltry $4-a-day increase. On the other hand, you're going to spend $368 billion on war machines, on nuclear powered submarines, and you have chosen to give only a paltry $4-a-day increase when you're sitting on a budget surplus of $20 billion that could make a meaningful difference to the lives of people living in poverty. That's where I want to start. That's what this bill is doing.

There are some good things in this bill. We absolutely support the changes to parenting payment single so that single-parent families will be able to access parenting payment single for children up to the age of 14. We want to see it up to the age of 16; I am going to move amendments for that to be the case. We also want to see those payments brought forward as quickly as possible so we don't have this ridiculous situation of families whose kids are turning eight right now being taken off parenting payment single and going back into dire poverty by living on JobSeeker, who are going to be struggling for the coming three months until their payment then goes up again. We will be moving amendments for the date that that comes in to be brought forward from the date of royal assent.

Fundamentally, there is so much more that could be done, and the evidence shows that that's what should be being done. The government's own Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee—which it set up, handpicked, with its own former Labor minister chairing it—told it that it needed to make a serious increase to the rate of JobSeeker and other work related payments. Yet you have squibbed that. You have not listened to that advice. You are leaving people behind.

I want to start off, Minister, by asking: do you think people living on income support should be forced to live below the poverty line?

Tim Ayres

Thanks, Senator Rice. This is a very substantial investment in the social safety net by the Albanese government. It's a $9½ billion investment, with substantial increases to payments—including the JobSeeker payment. The $40 increase means the basic rate of the JobSeeker payment will increase by $56.10 to $749.20 every fortnight from September this year if this legislation passes unamended through the Senate. That's what will happen. These are substantial increases.

I take your point, and the government has always taken the point, that many of those Australians who live on social security payments are doing it very tough. Rates of homelessness are unacceptable, and that is why the government has a series of reforms in this place—which are currently being opposed by the majority of senators in this place. The Treasurer and the Prime Minister have made it clear that, in every budget, this government will examine where it is possible to make improvements. We have taken advice from the task force you've referred to but also more broadly from across the community sector. We have formed a view these are very substantial increases. I commend the whole bill to the Senate. Thank you for traversing the whole context of this, and I look forward to further discussion.

Janet Rice

Thank you, Minister, for that explanation of the position of the government on the bill, but you didn't answer my question. My question was a very simple one, with a 'yes' or 'no' answer: do you think people living on income support should be living below the poverty line?

Tim Ayres

I wish that all Australians lived above the poverty line. I wish that all Australians had the benefit of work and support from the government, that housing was available at rates that were affordable. There are very significant challenges out there. The government have determined that this is the package that we are bringing forward. It is a very substantial package and I think it should be supported.

Janet Rice

You said that you would like all people to be living above the poverty line, so can I be clear: do you think that people who are living on income support should be forced to live below the poverty line?

Tim Ayres

The government is offering this very substantial improvement to the social welfare net. That is the government's position.

Helen Polley

Order, Senator Ayres. Senator Rice is on her feet.

Janet Rice

It's a very simple question that I've been asking the minister and I would like a simple answer. Yes or no, does he believe that people relying on income support should be forced to live below the poverty line?

The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Senator Rice, that isn't a point of order. The minister was in process of answering your question. I will remind the minister of Senator Rice's question and ask the minister to continue his response.

The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Thank you, Minister.

Minister, what I hear you saying is that you think that all people should be able to live above the poverty line. That is what I heard from a couple of answers ago. Well then, why aren't you acting? Why has the government decided to not increase income support to lift people out of poverty? It had been done before. The previous government, during the COVID pandemic, had the JobSeeker supplement that raised people out of poverty. This had massive, excellent implications for people's quality of life. It enabled people to pay to get their cars repaired. It enabled people to pay for their medications. It enabled people to put food on the table for their kids and not be living in poverty. Your government has made a choice to leave people below the poverty line, yet you are saying that you think all people should be able to live a life of dignity above the poverty line. That's what I hear you saying. So why aren't you acting? Why have you made that choice to leave people languishing below the poverty line at the same time as going ahead with the stage 3 tax cuts that are going to cost the bottom line over $300 billion that would more than adequately pay for increasing income support to above the poverty line?

Tim Ayres

I think what's important here is to understand the total context of the package that is being brought forward. A single JobSeeker payment recipient aged under 55, without children, who's living alone and receiving the maximum rate of rent assistance, will receive an extra $84 a fortnight. Commonwealth rent assistance has been increased by the largest amount ever. These are very significant increases that accord with the commitments that the government has made.

I understand that there are alternative views, and that some of them will eventually take the shape of amendments in this committee-of-the-whole process. It's important to understand the fiscal context within which the government operates. Some of those amendments would create an additional impact on the budget of billions and billions of dollars just over the forward estimates. The government has had to weigh the fiscal consequences of these questions against the backdrop of rising inflation—inflation that's out there in the community. We should be paying very close attention to dealing with inflation. It affects low-income people more than anybody else.

The package that is being delivered here is substantial. If it makes its way through this chamber unamended, it will be in people's accounts in the last week of September.

Janet Rice

I want to clarify, Minister: are you claiming that for those individuals you mentioned, living alone with their children, getting the maximum rate of Commonwealth rent assistance, that their income support is going to be above the poverty line?

Tim Ayres

I'm claiming that in the real world it's a real amount of money. It's a real increase, and it makes a real difference. That is what the government is dealing with here: a set of payments and an increase to payments that are real and that will be there. I absolutely understand that—not just in this place but more broader in the community—Australians will make the argument for more. I respect that argument. But these are real amounts of money—a real government is following through on its commitments—and, should this legislation make its way unamended through here—they will make their way into real people's accounts and make a real difference. That is what I'm saying, Senator Rice.

Janet Rice

I acknowledge it will make a difference to people. We will not be standing in the way of getting this real increase—although it is absolutely insufficient—because $4 a day will make a difference. It might enable people to put a bit of extra food in their kids' lunchboxes. It might mean they can eat two meals a day instead of one meal a day. But my question remains: even with this real increase, I would like to know whether you accept that this increase is not going to lift people above the poverty line? People will be grateful for this increase, because they are living in absolute dire poverty now. They will welcome an extra $4 a day, but they would have welcomed much more an extra $40 a day, which would have lifted them above the poverty line. I just want to get a straight answer from the government, to acknowledge that, with this increase, people on income support are still going to be living in poverty.

Tim Ayres

It is a political question asked for a political purpose, designed to prosecute a political campaign. I understand that point. I get it. But what has been said out there in the community sector? The Australian Council of Social Services said just this afternoon in an ACOSS statement on the strengthening the safety net bill: 'We are calling for parliament to pass the strengthening the safety net bill without further delay, to deliver the increases to income supports people desperately need.' I emphasise the words 'without further delay', and I think that ought to be borne in mind in terms of the way the debate is managed in this Committee of the Whole process.

Long debate text truncated.


Date and time: 1:28 PM on 2023-08-01
Senator Pocock's vote: Aye
Total number of "aye" votes: 11
Total number of "no" votes: 29
Total number of abstentions: 36
Related bill: Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023

Adapted from information made available by