People looking for work say they will be left starving and at risk of homelessness when the JobSeeker welfare payment is slashed by $100 a fortnight, with a Labor senator calling the government’s proposed changes “disgusting”.
“I will effectively end up with an eating disorder. I will not be able to feed myself three meals a day,” Canberra resident River Pettigrew told The New Daily.
“I will not be able to pay for medication … I will have to miss rental payments.”
‘Disgusting’ JobSeeker changes slammed
Dozens of Australians on the JobSeeker payment came to Canberra on Tuesday, joining a coalition of welfare groups to plead with the government to further increase the allowance.
The federal government announced on February 23 that it would increase the base rate of JobSeeker by $50 a fortnight from April 1.
But because the increase will kick in after the fortnightly Coronavirus Supplement of $150 ends on March 31, it means a person on JobSeeker next month will receive $100 less every fortnight than they currently do.
On the front lawn of Parliament House, representatives from the Australian Council of Social Service, GetUp and the Australian Unemployed Workers Union called on the government to vastly increase the unemployment payment currently being received by 1.4 million people.
Labor senator Louise Pratt called the changes “disgusting” and said she could not live on $43 per day, the new effective rate of JobSeeker.
“We will see many more Australians subjected to these indescribable levels of poverty,” she said.
However, Senator Pratt conceded Labor would not stand in the way of the government’s changes, saying the party wouldn’t block a rise to the payment.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert said her party would oppose the changes, which she said would “condemn 1.5 million people on the JobSeeker and Youth Allowance to poverty”.
“You can’t survive on $44 a day,” she said.
ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie told the crowd that the rate – which is the second-lowest in the OECD behind only Greece – should be much higher.
“The gross inadequacy and brutality of our social security system, which is being unleashed on people across the country, every single day, is a shameful human rights abuse,” she said.
“The social security system has become toxic, and it is making people sick. It is a tool that is bullying and harassing people, and causing chronic anxiety and distress.”
A parliamentary inquiry received submissions on the proposed changes, which will also increase the mutual obligation tasks that unemployed people are expected to undertake, and introduce a phone hotline for employers to dob in recipients who turn down jobs.
Kristin O’Connell, from the AUWU, said she was dismayed that despite nearly 400 written submissions opposing the change, and barely any in support, the government had not altered its plans.
“We’re here to represent the people who have been silenced and ignored,” she told TND.
“It means more people will go back to living in bad physical health, bad mental health. People will have to move out of their homes.”
Ms O’Connell said AUWU members had spoken to her through each stage of the government’s gradual cuts to the Coronavirus Supplement – from $550 per fortnight to $250 and now $150 – about how the cuts would affect their living situation.
“Then they talk to us a few weeks later, and they’re homeless. This is real,” she said.
JobSeeker changes cause worry for future
Dozens of welfare recipients at the event told their stories of how the changes will affect them.
Dante, who asked her surname not be printed, is a university student who recently moved to Canberra from Wollongong. She said the reforms would leave her hungry.
“I grew up poor. I’m used to not eating properly. I know how to go a few days without eating enough and still get by, but I shouldn’t have to know how to do that. I’m 18,” she told TND.
“I’m so sick of being hungry.”
Dante said it would become even tougher to pay rent.
“I already barely have enough. I’m living off $60 a fortnight for food. That’s not including medication,” she said.
Ms Pettigrew also said she struggled to pay for medication to address anxiety and depression.
“I need this medication to function, as an adult, to actually find a job. I won’t be able to find a job if I don’t have the capacity to get out of bed in the morning,” she said.
Labor to back changes
In the House of Representatives on Tuesday night, Labor’s shadow social services minister, Linda Burney, said the Opposition would back the bill and not stand in the way of an increase to the payment.
“We will not play cruel political games with this bill or with the lives of people who are doing it tough at the moment, who rely on this increase the most. We will not jeopardise this increase,” she said.
However, Labor will push amendments to other parts of the bill, in an attempt to make mutual obligations “fairer”.
Ms Burney called the government’s mutual obligations proposals “counter-productive” and the phone hotline – dubbed ‘DobSeeker’ by critics – “bizarre and clueless”.
“We will not vote against the bill because it does mean more money into the pockets of those unemployed,” she told Parliament.
“Mutual obligations should not be a punishment. It should help a person looking for work.”