Federal Parliament - Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021

March 16, 2021

Dr ALYI first of all congratulate the member for Canberra on such an impassioned and heartfelt speech about this issue. I'm going to do something unusual here and also congratulate the member for Bass for her very thoughtful and informative contribution to this debate as well. I have to say, it is so refreshing to hear something from somebody on the other side that isn't just about demonising people who are on welfare in this country, that isn't about lifters and leaners and that doesn't buy into that discourse and narrative that everybody who is on JobSeeker—or Newstart, as it was—is some kind of long-term dole bludger who just wants to get their hands on everybody else's money and live a life of luxury. I commend the member for Bass on standing up, arguing her case and being an relentless advocate for people who are on welfare, as I do the member for Canberra.

I think about what $3.57 a day means. As the member for Canberra said, it's often likened to a cup of coffee, but she's absolutely right that people who live in poverty do not go out and buy cups of coffee. That's not what they'll spend it on. They will spend it on essentials, if they can. They'll spend it on food. They'll probably put it aside to pay for their electricity bill or their petrol bill to get them to where they need to get to. They will certainly not be spending it on coffee, avocado on toast or any of the other things that we here in this place take for granted.

Labor is not going to stand in the way of this modest increase, but, as the member for Canberra said, it's hardly an increase; it's more of an insult. The rate of JobSeeker—Newstart, as it was called—is absolutely disgraceful in a country like Australia. I don't say that as the Labor member for Cowan. I say that as somebody who's lived on it; I say that as somebody who found herself in a position where she had to rely on welfare raising two sons; I say that as somebody who's had to live on $40 a day; I say that as somebody who has had to walk to a Centrelink office, feel the degradation and the humiliation of going to a Centrelink office, and ask for a payment; I say that a as somebody who has gone to her bank account to get some money out and found that her bank balance was minus $6 and then gone to cross the road, being nearly hit by a car and wishing that the car actually did hit me, because I was so desperate; I say that as somebody who's had to put half the shopping back at the counter, with two young boys crying, because I just couldn't afford it; and I say that as somebody who had to budget so hard that, once a fortnight, my sons would get a Happy Meal because, by buying a Happy Meal, they could get a little toy in there as well. Once a fortnight, they got a $3 Happy Meal. That was their treat. That was all I could afford. I also say that as a mother who had to make her sons' school uniforms. My father gave me an old sewing machine, and I sewed my sons' school uniforms because I couldn't afford to buy them. That's why I stand here today and argue that $3.57 a day is not enough. It is an insult. But, at the same time, we are in a position here where we cannot stand in the way of even this modest increase to the JobSeeker payment.

I want to talk about some of the other things that the member for Bass raised, and I'm very pleased that she raised them. She raised reasons for unemployment. So often when we talk about social welfare, when we talk about JobSeeker—or Newstart, as it was—we focus on people getting jobs. Therefore you have this discourse that goes around and around: 'There are jobs, but people don't want them. If people wanted jobs, they would get them,' and all of this rubbish. But we don't really have an in-depth conversation about why people are unemployed, about what contributes to long-term unemployment and what contributes to generational unemployment. It's not laziness on their part. There might be a tiny minority of people who don't want to work.

Every Australian should be afforded the opportunity to contribute to their country, to the social, economic and political fabric of the society in which they live. When you go out there and ask people what matters to them the most—'Do you care about jobs? Do you care about education? Do you care about this? Do you care about that?'—when you really dig down deep into it, instead of just giving them a multiple-choice question, you find that what really matters to people is security. I'm not talking about national security and the kind of stuff that I used to write about. I'm talking about personal security. I'm talking about a sense of wellbeing. A sense of security and wellbeing comes with job security, financial security and economic security.

If you want to talk about unemployment, we need to talk about more than just the rate. We need to not just give people crumbs of $3.57 a day and say: 'Here you go; that'll do you. You can go and buy a cup of coffee now.' We need to talk about their sense of wellbeing and what that means, and how we enable that in people. If there's one thing that we can come together in this place to do it is to ensure that every Australian has a sense of wellbeing—that every Australian has personal security, economic security and job security. But that's not happening at the moment. We're not going to 'fix' unemployment and 'fix' our welfare situation by giving people the crumb of $3.57 a day. Right now—today, in fact—each one of us will get more in travel allowance than we give people on JobSeeker per week. I want everybody to think about that.

Ms PAYNE: It's shameful.

Dr ALY: It is shameful, as the member for Canberra says. It is shameful. We're here, staying in our nice little comfortable hotels or wherever it is that we're staying. We're free to eat our meals at the trough or to go and buy vegies at Coles and cook our own food. Let's stop and give a thought to the fact that, just today, each one of us is getting a travel allowance that is more than what people on JobSeeker are getting per week. Think about what it would be like if you had to make today's travel allowance last a week—with children. Then, on top of that, you have to fulfil your obligations to look for a job. Then, on top of that, you have to go to job interviews, using public transport—it might be $30, maybe $15 a day if you're lucky—or filling your car up with petrol. Then, on top of that, you have to put aside some money for your electricity bill, your rent, your gas bill and your water bill. Then, on top of that, if you've got school-age children, you've got to get them off to school every day, buy their school uniforms and fill their lunch boxes with the things that children want in their lunch boxes so that they don't stand out from the rest of the kids. Take a minute to imagine making today's travel allowance last a week.

That is what it's like for millions of Australians who, on 31 March, will have their JobSeeker allowance reduced to what we're given per day in travel allowance. We tell them, 'That's okay, because you're going to get a $3.57-a-day increase.' We couldn't survive on that. None of us here, I guarantee you, could survive on one day of travel allowance to last us a week. I guarantee you none of us could do that. Those of us who have had to do it are the ones who know exactly how hard it is, along with those of us who speak to our constituents who are doing it and who come to us and say: 'I've got a choice. Do I buy my food or do I buy my medication? Do I feed my kids or do I feed myself?'

I've been there. I've been the one who waits for her kids to finish eating so that she can have the leftovers, because you just can't afford to feed everyone. Just take a minute to imagine what that's like. I know that there are good people with good hearts in this place, and perhaps if we did that—perhaps if we cut through all the discourse and all the narrative and the rhetoric and all this crap about lifters and leaners and all of those people who are spending their Newstart allowance on drugs and are lazy—we could find the heart in this place to feel something more for the Australians who are left behind. Maybe we could find the heart in this place to find a little more generosity for those people who find themselves in situations not of their making, the victims of circumstance out there.

So, as I said, we're going to support this increase, because it's an increase. Three dollars fifty-seven might buy another Happy Meal as a treat for a kid every fortnight, might buy a cup of coffee, might buy a tin of dog food or might buy a pack of chewing gum. In fact, it just covers a pack of chewing gum a day. But I stand here and support this knowing full well that it is not enough. But I'm heartened by the fact that there are, at least on this side, enough people who understand that, and I'm heartened by the fact that, on the other side, there are some people who understand that too. I'm heartened by the fact that we can find the heart in this place. We can bring the heart to parliament. We can be more generous. We just need the political will.