Call to increase Newstart by $75. Photo: Sebastian Reategui

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By John Moyle

Last week Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne issued a press release proclaiming that he was fronting a push at the ALP’s national conference in Sydney for a $75 a week increase to the Newstart allowance.

The fact that even with support from his employer and mentor Anthony Albanese, the motion failed to gather support from conference delegates and is now in Labor’s ‘too hard’ basket.

“In regards to Labor it brings into question their commitment to fighting inequality,” Greens Senator for NSW Lee Rhiannon said.

While Labor may not be heeding the call for an increase, it is ignoring the groundswell of calls for an increase that includes Deloitte Access Economics, the Australian Business Council, the Business Group of Australia, Ai-Group, small business advocates COSBOA, the ACTU, ACOSS, the Salvation Army, Australian Super and even John Howard.

“As of March 2018 there were 750,412 Australians receiving Newstart and the majority of people receiving Newstart also receive at least one supplementary payment,” a Department of Social Security spokesperson said.

Newstart currently pays a single recipient with no children $272 per week, when the unofficial poverty line is $426.30 per week and the national minimum wage is $694.90 per week.

According to the Australian Council for Social Services( ACOSS), the minimum cost of essentials such as housing, groceries, energy transport and clothing is $433 per week.

There has not been a change in real terms to the amount of payment for Newstart since 1994 under the Keating Labor government.

“This is where Labor should come to their senses and recognise that if they are part of fighting inequality they should be ending the near 24 year freeze,” Senator Rhiannon said.

“We want people to have job opportunities where they can work, but we have to make sure while they are on Newstart that it’s adequate, that we

are not entrenching them into disadvantage,” Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, Business Council of Australia said.

Treasurer Scott Morrison thinks that Newstart is adequate and wants to leave the payments as they are.

“Once Australia abandoned its full employment policy in the seventies this idea of an unconditional safety net begins to fall away as a new attitude that we are all individually responsible for our lives becomes the dominant attitude,” Jeremy Poxon, media officer, Australia Unemployed Workers Union said.

With the unemployed debate perception is everything as the media and politicians seldom speak about unemployment without referring to ‘dole bludgers’,

“There has been a long standing policy on both sides of government that distinguished people as deserving and non-deserving, and the way that the unemployed have been spoken about has been disgraceful for a long time,” Charmaine Crow, senior policy and advocacy officer, ACOSS said.

There is also a perception perpetrated by both sides of politics that there are plenty of jobs out there and that the current low rate of pay is necessary to force people back into work.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Employment both say that there are currently 1.83 million unemployed and under-employed people competing for 155,000 job vacancies, or 12 job seekers for every job listed.

The survey did not say what percentage of these jobs were part time jobs.

“You are meant to go and check out jobs that aren’t even there,” Senator Rhiannon said.

There is also the fundamental changes brought on by the gig economy currently sweeping society that both government and the opposition have failed to account for.

These changes to the very nature of work are likely to create a new underclass that will need to resort to social security many times over during their working life, while stripping them of safety nets such as sick pay, holiday pay and superannuation.

“The gig economy is like going back to feudal times where people are expected to work in piece work,” Senator Rhiannon said.

Whereas once most Australians could aim for full time work across their lifetime, now they are looking at up to 20 jobs in their working careers and can expect gaps of varying lengths between positions where they will need to access the safety net of an equitable social security.

“The gig economy is a classic case of technology far outpacing government policy and there is a concern about the impact of this economy on people’s financial security and also on how the social security system interacts with the gig economy where we see people in insecure work,” Charmaine Crowe said.

In 2017, an ACOSS report revealed that there was an estimated 2.9 million Australians were living below the poverty line and included 731,000 children under the age of 15.

Figures like this should be of concern to all political parties as they will play an increasing role in the makeup of Australia’s social fabric.

There is a glimmer of hope that the call for an increase for Newstart will gain traction when the Greens introduce a private members bill later in the year, that is if our politicians have the courage to address it.