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

Barbara Pocock

I rise to speak to the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023. In the wake of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, it is vital that we, as a parliament and a nation, reflect on our attitudes towards unemployment and the serious harm that results from the attitudes that we have towards the unemployed. Thousands of innocent people were made to feel like criminals by a system that demonises the unemployed and treats people not having a job as having a personal failing. We cannot carry on in this very damaging and deluded belief that poverty has a role to play in our institutional response to unemployment. You cannot starve a person into sustainable, well-paid employment. It's a malicious delusion that has been allowed to persist for far too long.

In its first interim report, the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee was extremely clear on this point: the rate of JobSeeker is so low and so far below any measure of a livable income that it's a barrier to entering the workforce. Decades of toxic talking points have created a situation where income support payments are not lifting people up and helping them into employment. Instead, they have become a pit that one has to climb out of.

We have become hostage to a punitive mindset that is so intent on punishing misfortune that we've engineered perverse systems that actually compound it. Our treatment of the unemployed keeps people in grinding poverty while requiring them to navigate the mismanaged mess of Workforce Australia. The impact of that grinding poverty extends not just to the unemployed person but in so many cases to their children, their family, their household and their communities. If we want to support people who are out of work to find secure, well-paid jobs, we need them to be able to access a basic standard of living.

People without work need to be receiving enough support that they are no longer forced to choose between meals and medicine. An extra $40 a fortnight doesn't get them there. It doesn't get them even close. The increase in the JobSeeker rate does not just fail to get people above the poverty line; it fails to get them anywhere near the poverty line. An increase of $40 a fortnight still leaves the payment 41 per cent below the poverty line. This is a national shame in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. Many people living in my home state of South Australia are already worse off than when this increase was announced. The additional $40 the Treasurer promised them in May was swallowed in June by a rent increase or an interest rate rise. Without real steps to address the housing crisis, including freezing rents and committing to build enough social and affordable housing to clear those huge waiting lists, the housing stress experienced by jobseekers is only going to get worse.

We've also heard statements from advocates and community organisations that an increase to the income-free area would make a positive difference in the lives of people on JobSeeker and other payments. I foreshadow that my colleague Senator Hanson-Young will move a second reading amendment on this issue that will suggest an increase to the income-free area in this policy amendment.

The Labor government have made a lot of excuses about inflation and government debt, but the reality is: the Albanese government are not afraid to spend money on other things. The Labor government are very happy, for example, to spend $313 billion over the next decade on the stage 3 income tax cuts—tax cuts that overwhelmingly go to the wealthiest Australians, especially to older people and to men, much more than they go to young people or to women. The Labor government is prepared to spend $368 billion on nuclear submarines. The spending choices of this government reflect its priorities, and it is currently choosing to keep people without work living in poverty. It's a great shame that we do not see that level of commitment, the willingness to invest, when it comes to providing people with an adequate safety net while they are looking for work.

It is an obscenity that we are debating a meagre $40 a fortnight rise for people living in extreme poverty while the government plans to give almost $350 a fortnight in tax cuts to the top two per cent of wage earners, without a second thought. We need to scrap the stage 3 income tax cuts and increase the JobSeeker payment above the poverty line, to $88 a day. Raising the rate above the poverty line would help people rather than hold them back from finding work. We saw during the height of a pandemic that governments can end poverty and ensure a strong social safety net. We should not need a pandemic for the government to choose to end the suffering of thousands of Australians, their households and their children. I just repeat that the amendment I foreshadowed is in Senator Hanson-Young's name.

Tim Ayres

I'd like to thank all of the senators who have participated in this debate on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023 and the senators who participated in the Senate committee process around this important piece of legislation. It strengthens our safety net, which is critical for not just the Australians who need it but our social cohesion more broadly. The measures in the bill deliver a $9½ billion investment, which reflects the government's commitment to consider the rates of income support payments ahead of every budget. The bill will increase the rate of working-age and student payments by $40 a fortnight, including the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance, the parenting payment (partnered), Austudy, Abstudy and other related payments. That measure will provide around 1.1 million Australians with immediate cost-of-living relief. The $40 increase to working-age and student payments recognises the particular challenges faced by people on those income support payments.

If passed through the Senate this week, the basic rate of the JobSeeker payment will increase by $56.10 to $749.20 per fortnight, including indexation, from 20 September 2023.

The bill will also extend eligibility for the higher rate of JobSeeker payment by reducing the qualifying age from 60 to 55 years whilst retaining the requirement that the person has been on the payment for nine or more continuous months. This measure means that, from 20 September 2023, people aged 55 to 59 who have been on the payment for more than nine months will be better off by at least $109.40 per fortnight, including indexation. This increase will bring the basic rate of JobSeeker payment for this cohort to $802.50 per fortnight, including regular indexation applied on 20 September. The proportion of mature-aged recipients on JobSeeker has significantly increased over the course of the last decade. The change recognises the challenges that many older people can face when looking for a job due to age discrimination or poor health.

The government is also providing additional support to single parents by extending the eligibility for parenting payment single. The changes in this bill will benefit around 60,000 single principal carers so they can balance caring responsibilities and paid work. As a result of this measure, an eligible single principal carer on a JobSeeker payment whose youngest child is under 14 years will be transferred to the higher parenting payment single rate of $922.10. This is an extra $176.90 per fortnight in their basic payment to help with the costs of raising children. The rate will also be indexed on 20 September. The exact amount will be determined in mid-August when the required data is released by the ABS. The Albanese government recognises that single parents face many barriers to employment and financial security due to the investments, both financial and of their time, associated with caring for children on their own. I want to acknowledge the role that community leaders like Terese Edwards, the CEO of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, who has welcomed this announcement. People in the community have argued about this measure for a very long time, Ms Edwards in particular. Her patient, careful, effective advocacy has really delivered. To further increase support for income support recipients, the government is increasing the maximum rate of Commonwealth rent assistance by 15 per cent—the largest increase in over 30 years.

I've listened to the debate carefully. I've watched the positions of some of the Senate participants, both in the debate and over the course of recent announcements that have been made about senators' and parties' positions on these issues. I look forward to debate about this bill, the amendments and its passage through the Senate. I just gently make this point: the machinery of government that is allocated towards ensuring that payments flow from 20 September is predicated on the successful passage of this piece of legislation through the parliament this week. It is absolutely the right and the responsibility of senators here to make their case and to express different views about the structure, process and purpose of social security legislation. I want to make this point very clear: any successful amendment of this bill risks real people missing out—real people whose interests people in this place have argued for, many of them over many, many years. It is my view that a responsibility is incumbent on this place. Make the arguments, by all means, but do not delay. Do not frustrate.

Do not deny low-income families the benefit of the payments that are set out in this bill. While it may not meet the policy objectives of the opposition and may not meet the ambitions of the Greens party, there are real people who are relying on this Senate to do its work and make sure those payments make their way into their accounts in the week following 20 September. I commend the bill to the House—to the Senate; wherever we are!

Andrew McLachlan

The question before the Senate is that the second reading amendment standing in the name of Senator David Pocock be agreed to.


Date and time: 12:20 PM on 2023-08-01
Senator Pocock's vote: Aye
Total number of "aye" votes: 10
Total number of "no" votes: 29
Total number of abstentions: 37
Related bill: Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023

Adapted from information made available by