Social Services Minister Anne Ruston has refused to answer if the Newstart payment is enough to live off, amid widespread calls to raise the rate.
Appearing on Sky News on Sunday, Senator Ruston was asked by political editor David Speers if she thought the fortnightly payment was enough to buy food and pay for amenities, such as heating.
“I have not said that it will be easy to live on Newstart,” she said.
“It’s a safety net payment. It never was meant to be a replacement for a wage or a salary. It is there as a safety net to assist people while they haven’t got a job.”
Speers asked the question several times to which the minister repeated: “As I said, it wouldn’t be easy.
“I have answered the question and I absolutely remain totally committed to helping anybody that is on Newstart who wants a job to get a job.”
The base rate of Newstart is $555 a fortnight for a single person, or less than $40 a day.
There have been widespread calls to increase the payment by at least $75 a fortnight, with welfare groups, the Reserve Bank, the Labor Party, the Greens and conservative politicians such as Barnaby Joyce and former prime minister John Howard joining the growing chorus.
(While Labor has advocated for an increase, it has delayed a decision on how much it should be increased until closer to the next election.)
Despite the growing list, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been adamant the government will not increase the payments.
When asked if this was still the case, Senator Ruston said: “The prime minister has made it very clear that, currently, we are not considering an increase in Newstart. What we are doing is focused on getting people into work.”
The ongoing debate around lifting the rate of Newstart has centred around the liveability of the payment.
ACOSS senior adviser Charmaine Crowe argues the low payment holds people back from finding secure work.
“With one job available for every eight people looking, people often struggle to get by on Newstart for years in today’s competitive job market,” she said.
“Newstart is not working – $40 a day is not enough to get through tough times and into suitable paid work.
“Raising the rate will get Newstart working by allowing people to focus on building the skills they need to take the opportunities to get them through tough times.”
In the past six years, the number of people on Newstart payments seeking assistance from homelessness services increased by 75 per cent, according to an analysis by Homelessness Australia.
Since 1995-96, the year after Newstart was last increased in real terms, the median weekly cost of private rent has increased by 166 per cent, from $139 to $370 per week by 2017-18, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In 2017, 54,066 people receiving the payment sought assistance for homelessness or risk of homelessness – a sharp rise from the 30,761 who did the same in 2012.
Homelessness Australia chairperson Jenny Smith said the analysis proved the system wasn’t working.
“There really isn’t any point calling Newstart a ‘safety net’ when it doesn’t do its job, which should be protecting people from poverty and enabling them to have a home,” she said.
“State and federal governments need to deliver social housing so that people on the lowest incomes can afford a home, as well as increasing unemployment payments and rental supplements so people can afford the private rental.”