Cross-party anti-poverty push targets ‘inadequate’ jobseeker payments

·3-min read

Two major-party MPs have launched a cross-party push to put the focus on unacceptable levels of poverty in Australia as they call for an increase to the “inadequate” jobseeker payment.

The parliamentary friends of ending poverty group, chaired by the Labor backbencher Alicia Payne and the Liberal MP Bridget Archer, will launch on Tuesday night with speeches from the Rev Tim Costello and the economist Chris Richardson, who has long called for an increase to unemployment benefits.

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The launch comes as the Albanese government faces calls to increase jobseeker in the May budget in the lead-up to a report from its independent economic inclusion advisory committee, which will advise Labor on the adequacy of payments. A Senate inquiry, chaired by the Greens senator Janet Rice, is also examining poverty.

Payne told Guardian Australia there was a need for more discussion in parliament about the poverty and disadvantage MPs saw in their electorates and, specifically, “what governments can do about those things”.

She said the group was being established “in the lead-up to the budget, and in the context of a discussion about the need to increase the jobseeker payment”.

Speaking for herself and not the group as a whole, Payne said the evidence was “clear that we do need an increase to jobseeker”.

“It’s clearly an inadequate payment and it has been for many many years,” she said.

The coronavirus supplement had shown increased welfare payments could “lift people out of poverty and change their lives”, she said: “All of that money goes back into the economy as people spend on the necessities they can’t currently afford.”

The Canberra-based MP recalled one overwhelmed local emergency relief organisation telling her the best it could do for clients was to provide money “to register their car so they can continue sleeping in it”.

Payne said the social security system was inadequate but should be viewed as being as fundamental to an egalitarian society as Medicare and public education.

Archer, who represents one of the more disadvantaged electorates in Australia, said there were economic arguments for raising income support payments including jobseeker and commonwealth rent assistance.

But it was also a “human issue”, she said.

“Demographically, there are a lot of people in my electorate that are depending [on income support] every day,” she said. “People are having to make terrible choices about whether they heat their home or whether they’re eating. People are going to bed early to keep warm or to save on the cost of their power.”

She added: “Fundamentally I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘As a first-world country, a prosperous country like Australia, is it acceptable that we have people living in these conditions?’

“I think most people would say, ‘No, it’s not.’”

The jobseeker payment, set at $693.10 a fortnight for a single person, or about $50 a day, is well below commonly used poverty measures in Australia.

The Australian Council of Social Service last week called for the payment to increase to $1,026 a fortnight, about the same rate as the pension for a single person. The policy would cost $10.5bn in 2023-24.

About 3.3 million people were living in poverty in the first year of the pandemic, including 761,000 children, a figure that was likely to have increased when Covid-boosted payments were cut in March 2021, Acoss said.