Speech: Social Services Amendment Bill 2020

Speech: Social Services Amendment Bill 2020 Main Image

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (13:09): I'm pleased to rise today to speak on this very important bill. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 has the opportunity to further support our community as we deal with the economic challenges of this year. I support many of the measures in this bill today and I know they will make a significant difference to people in my electorate who are struggling. Many people have told me the difference the first two economic support payments made to them, and I also know from my many months of visiting many hundreds of local businesses that it made a difference to our local economy too. When people have enough money to get by, when they aren't rationing their food to pay their bills, they might go to their local butcher, baker or small grocer rather than try to save at the biggest stores. They might spend money on fresh vegetables for once—what a treat. They can spend where they couldn't before, and that helps local businesses.

I am also pleased to see concessions to the paid work test for young people to demonstrate independence for youth allowance and ABSTUDY purposes. Young people in my electorate have had their income and their ability to work even more crushed than many of their peers around the country. When we lost the summer trade during the bushfires this year, it hit young people particularly hard. They weren't able to work in their local cafe or at the local pub, because there were no customers. No customers means no shifts. When many rely on this income to get them through the year, that can be particularly tough. Another aspect of this bill that I find particularly encouraging are temporary incentives to encourage young people to undertake seasonal agricultural work during the upcoming harvest season. A student claiming youth allowance can be deemed independent if they earn $15,000 through employment in the agricultural industry between 30 November this year at 31 December next year.

My electorate on the NSW South Coast is famous for our food and wine—our locally grown produce. Without the usual influx of international backpackers, who are renowned for spending a harvest or two working on local farms, many farmers were feeling concerned about how they would get through this year. I know that many of our local farmers will be grateful for this small incentive to encourage more young people onto their farms. I do worry a little bit, though, as this bill doesn't address some of the structural issues that prevent local young people from working on these farms: issues like public transport, for one. But it is still a positive move nonetheless.

I also welcome the changes to paid parental leave and particularly the changes to improve payments for parents with a stillborn child. The loss of a child—any child at any point—is heartbreaking and difficult to fathom, and I am pleased to see additional support being provided to parents during what is already a very difficult time for them. Labor has been calling for these changes for some time and we welcome them now.

While there are many measures that I welcome in this bill, as I have just outlined, I also want to reflect on what this bill does not do. I am disappointed to say once again that this bill represents another missed opportunity by the government to fix some of the errors so far in responding to the pandemic. Once again our pensioners are being left behind, forgotten by this government, who time and time again have cut their payments and turned their back on them. These are pensioners that are facing increasing health costs as a result of the pandemic, who have lost super, who have lost savings. They are pensioners who have struggled to get by and who feel like they have been left behind by this government. This is hurting real people in my electorate.

Peter, from Tuross Head, wrote to me only this month. Peter said, 'The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has seen us all scrambling to survive. My problem is in regard to the people the government have missed: self-funded retirees. Before you think, "Ah, yes; the rich people of Australia," let me give you an example,' he says. 'I belong to this cohort. I retired at age 60 after 40 years of full-time work. For the past five years I have lived below the poverty line. My superannuated pension is barely sufficient given I pay rent that entails approximately 60 per cent of my income. While I'm sure there are many permutations out there in the real world, I feel like I am punished for retiring early even after 40 years of work.’ That is Peter's story.

It is heartbreaking to hear, but Peter is not alone. Geoff, from Meringo, was receiving a part-pension. During the bushfires he and his wife were evacuated four times. They lost power for days, had their water supply compromised and lost the contents of their fridge and freezer. So in February they applied for the $1,000 disaster support payment. Geoff was promptly kicked off the pension, along with all his concessions, for doing so. I was able to help Geoff resolve this issue and reinstate his pension, but in the meantime he missed out on his concessions for his car registration, prescriptions and rates, costing him much more than $1,000. What a cruel and heartless thing to go through—first the bushfires and then having to fight to get help and keep his pension.

Many people have told me they feel the government discriminates against self-funded retirees and those receiving part pensions. Take the deeming rates, for example. Deeming rates are used to determine how much pensioners earn from their secured financial assets—typically their savings—to determine their eligibility for the pension. The upper deeming rate is 2.25 per cent. With the cash rate nearing zero per cent, it is really difficult to see how pensioners could reasonably be earning 2.25 per cent on their savings. This is simply unreasonable and unrealistic of the government, and it is hurting pensioners in our community. The government's record on helping pensioners is not exactly rosy. Since being elected in 2013 they have tried to cut pension indexation, which would have forced pensioners to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. They cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions, axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth Seniors Healthcare Card, tried to reset deeming rate thresholds that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off, cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 by changing the pension asset test and tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government have made attack after attack after attack. There is no real help for pensioners in this bill, there was no real help in the budget and there has been no real help to deal with the pandemic. The economic support payments are welcome, but the simple truth is that they aren't enough.

Another lost opportunity in this bill is the opportunity to permanently increase JobSeeker. There is no argument about this anymore; we know it is true. Forty dollars a day is not enough to live on. Forty dollars a day forces people in our local communities to live below the poverty line. In my electorate of Gilmore there are more than 10,000 people receiving JobSeeker and Youth Allowance. That's more than 4,000 additional recipients since December last year. The Prime Minister has said that ‘if you are good at your job then you will get a job’, but the reality is that there are not enough jobs for everyone. That is a fact. In regional areas it is even more true. It doesn't matter how good you are at your job, when you're competing with hundreds of applicants and there aren't enough jobs to go around, people will be left behind. Linda, from Sanctuary Point, says,

‘I currently am on Newstart (JobSeeker) and have been for three years after sustaining an injury. Centrelink say that although I have lower limb disablement, I can do 15 hours work, therefore I cannot receive a disability pension. It is very difficult to find appropriate employment, therefore once I have paid weekly rent of $270, I am left with $50 which covers minimal food, and bills, just forget it, it's not that I don't want to pay them, there is no money left from my Newstart. Of course Newstart desperately needs to be increased.’

Julie, from St Georges Basin, had some powerful words on this issue when she wrote to me back in May. I thank Julie for sharing with me her story of how she came to be on Newstart, now JobSeeker. After she spent a hard life struggling to raise her children and get by as a single parent, her life took a turn, and she had to ask for help.

I want to share Julie's story in her own words, because it is so powerful. Julie says:

‘I feel the stigma and the shame around being unemployed is the fault of the government. Government do not want to have to pay people to do nothing and that is understandable. However, there are only a small percentage of people on benefits that want to be on benefits. I am not here to speak on their behalf. I am here to speak on behalf of the unfortunate cases, the battlers, the struggling students, the traumatised and suffering, the aging and the disempowered. This group are the majority that have been affected by the crippling Newstart system.

The increase has absolutely helped many through the pandemic and has helped many put and keep a roof over their heads, pay bills and eat more regularly. My cholesterol has increased from eating starchy foods because they were cheap but lately, I have been able to buy more fresh fruit and vegetables. At my age and needing to go on unemployment benefits has been one of the most depressing stages of my life, and I have had a few. The operation that led to me being on welfare was traumatic and depressing enough. The constant fear that I will not be able to provide for myself is affecting my physical and mental health. The recent fires and now the virus have affected us all. The feeling of hopelessness hangs over my head. Returning Newstart to the original $40 a day I feel will have many thinking what is there to live for? If only to struggle to survive and be isolated more?’

That was what Julie had to say—a woman who has spent her life contributing to our economy but now has breast cancer. She is scared and she feels abandoned by our government. This is the human face, the reality of the government's dogged pursuit of $40 a day. It's not quite the picture many people have, I am sure.

We are suffering through our first recession in 30 years. The number of people in situations like Julie's is only set to increase, and the Morrison Government wants to force them to live on $40 a day. It just isn't good enough. Local people deserve better. When people aren't living on the poverty line, they can help keep our shops open; they can do more than barely scrape by, so they contribute more to our economy. If our shops are open, guess what—there are more jobs. Who would have thought! Supporting people when they're doing it tough actually helps people out of doing it tough. It contributes to our economy. It creates jobs. It creates opportunity. It's benefit, benefit, benefit—just what we need during a recession. So why is the government stubbornly refusing to do it?

There was ample opportunity in the budget for the government to create jobs in my electorate. We could have improved the Princes Highway, built the Mogo Adventure Trail Hub, the Kiama Arts Precinct and the much needed Eurobodalla Regional Integrated Emergency Services Precinct, and invested in social housing projects, like the one at Bomaderry, and local hospitals, in Milton and the Shoalhaven and the new Eurobodalla Hospital. All of these projects would have created new jobs and stimulated our regional economy. So why didn't the government invest in them when it had the chance? Regional areas have been left behind by a Liberal government that doesn't seem to care.

It is for these reasons that I wholeheartedly support Labor's amendment to this bill. Local people on JobSeeker deserve the same certainty as people on JobKeeper. At the very least—and it really is the very least—those on JobSeeker should be able to continue receiving the coronavirus supplement until March, just like JobKeeper. We owe people like Julie that much. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change things for the most vulnerable in our community. It is simply tragic that the Morrison Government is wasting it—wasting the opportunity to help pensioners, to pull people out of poverty and to create regional jobs on the South Coast. What a waste. We can do better. I call on the government to listen to stories like these, take a good look around and decide to seize this opportunity for real change before it's too late.