Senator Rachel Siewart pledges to raise the rate for Newstart recipients. Photo: Grace Turco via The Greens

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By ALLISON HORE

Over 80 people living on the Youth Allowance and Newstart have registered to meet up with their local MPs this week to share their stories and call on them to immediately raise the rate of Newstart and Youth Allowance.

The meetings, which will be held across the country, are part of a national week of action for the Raise the Rate campaign. Bev, from Sydney’s inner west, is one participant taking part. As a person living on Newstart, she said she knows first-hand what it’s like to live below the poverty line.

“I know many people are caught in this cruel web. The reasons people find themselves here are beyond their control,” she said.

The week of action comes as the Labor Party comes under fire for seemingly backflipping on their promise to support a review of the Newstart allowance.

Earlier this month a motion to commit to increasing Newstart by $75 a week was put to the senate by Greens senator Rachel Siewart. The motion was supported by the Center Alliance, One Nation and Jacqui Lambie Network.

But, senators from both the Liberal party and the Labor party voted down the motion. This is the second time a motion to raise Newstart has been voted down by both major parties.

Major parties lack political will

Ms. Siewart said in a press release that she believes that the increase is “long overdue” and would “be a real boost to our stagnating economy”.

“We know that an increase to Newstart would go straight back into the economy, spent on goods and services,” she said. “But for over twenty five years both the major parties have lacked political will and refused to increase Newstart. Instead the Government is spending $158 billion this week on tax cuts that will disproportionately benefit people on high incomes.”

A report by ACOSS released last year revealed that 64% of people on Newstart receive it for more than one year. And of those, 15% of people live on it for more than 5 years.

The long-term unemployed are also disproportionately made up of people of disadvantaged backgrounds, with 29% of those on Newstart for more than a year having a disability, 11% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and 21% of culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Jeremy Poxon of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) told City Hub that the current level of Newstart can have a detrimental effect on both the physical and mental health of recipients.

“According to a recent survey we conducted of our members, 61% said they can’t afford enough food on Newstart. 33% said they’ve, at one time or more, been unable to afford rent,” he explained.

“We’ve also been hearing reports that our members are suffering from extreme depression and loneliness on this punitively low entitlement – 98% said they felt Newstart had them socially isolated.”

Newstart socially isolating

But ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher told the senate that, while she agrees the payment is too low to give recipients a decent quality of life, it is not Labor’s responsibility to commit to a review.

“It’s so low that it is preventing people from getting work – they can’t afford the clothes, the transport or essentials – and it’s so low that it’s causing real hardship for many, many Australians,” she said to the senate.

“We didn’t win the election, and the responsibility for taking action over the next three years rests squarely with government..”

In his first speech as shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers also dismissed suggestions that Labor should follow through on their pre-election promise to review Newstart. He said that proponents for raising the rate of Newstart would have to “accept the reality that we are three years away from another election” and that he didn’t believe a review from Labor would be effective in shifting the policy.

“If people want to see a boost to Newstart, they have to convince the government,” he said.

But for Newstart advocates, Labor’s response is not good enough. Mr. Poxon told City Hub that Labor’s decision, as the “so called party of the workers,” to vote alongside the government against a review to Newstart is “incredibly disappointing” for the AUWU.

“As an opposition party, Newstart recipients desperately need the ALP to stand up for us and oppose cruel Coalition reforms that are eroding our right to social security as well as our dignity as human beings,” he said.

“It’s becoming clearer and clearer that advocates cannot passively rely on the major parties to grow a heart and commit to a Newstart raise – we need to keep organising communities and building our own power and pressure from below.”

To mark the National Week of Action, Ms. Siewart will introduce another member’s bill to the senate later this week. Whether Labor will vote alongside the coalition again remains to be seen.