Just weeks from the JobSeeker welfare rate’s scheduled cut back to its pre-pandemic $40 per day, the federal government is still hesitant to name the figure unemployed Australians will be expected to live on.
Labor is also reluctant to pinpoint an exact figure but says the old rate is “far too little”, while the Greens have accused the government of “plain cruelty” over the delay.
“People in our community are living in situations of extreme anxiety and in many cases distress, “said Senator Rachel Siewert, Greens’ community services spokesperson.
Anti-poverty advocate Kristin O’Connell, of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, said the increased payment had allowed jobseekers to buy decent food and effectively look for work, and feared the impacts of the rate being cut again.
“The Prime Minister says his No.1 priority is mental health and suicide prevention. The No.1 way he can back that in, is by making sure that everyone has enough to live,” she told The New Daily.
JobSeeker increase expected, but how much?
The JobSeeker payment, of $565 per fortnight for a single person, was boosted by the temporary ‘coronavirus supplement’ last year, as unemployment exploded through the pandemic.
The extra payment, initially $550 per fortnight, tapered down gradually to $250 then $150 over the past year, and is set to revert to its original rate when the supplement expires on March 31.
Australia’s unemployment rate sits at 6.6 per cent.
In December, 1.32 million people were on JobSeeker, with another 328,000 on Youth Allowance.
Labor, the Greens, charities, social advocates and economists had called for a boost to the unemployment benefit from long before the pandemic, but now the government seems all but certain to lock in at least a small rise to the payment for post-March.
Senior government sources have privately told The New Daily it would be almost politically impossible to take the JobSeeker rate back to $40 a day, but say the government is waiting until closer to the March 31 cut-off date to pick the actual new rate, which will be based on the latest possible economic and jobs data.
On Monday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg would only commit to announcing a decision “before the end of March”.
Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud said “the government is getting close to a position on that”, citing fast-moving economic factors that would play into the decision, including the current lockdown in Victoria.
But opposition parties are demanding the government make a decision faster.
“We’ve been making the point for a long time now, well before COVID hit, $40 a day is far too little for anyone to live on,” Labor’s deputy leader Richard Marles said on Monday.
“We need certainty for those people because it is only six weeks away.”
Senator Siewert also called for the new rate to be urgently clarified.
“A permanent increase to Jobseeker is the highest priority,” she said.
“It is just plain cruelty to be keeping 1.3 million people in limbo on whether they are going back to living on $40 a day.”
On Monday, the Senate agreed to a motion proposed by Senator Siewert, which said cutting JobSeeker to its pre-pandemic rate would “further entrench poverty”, and called for “a permanent and ongoing increase”.
‘We needed it yesterday’
Ms O’Connell, whose AUWU wants a permanent JobSeeker increase, said a rise was “long overdue”.
“Changing payment structures at this time is fiddling around the edges while people are starving themselves because they can’t afford to eat. Increasing the rate by a small amount isn’t going to change that,” she said.
“The income support rate has to leave people at or above the poverty line … That means $80 a day.”
Ms O’Connell said the coronavirus supplement led to massive physical and mental benefits for welfare recipients.
She claimed the “drip feeding” of JobSeeker changes had “caused people a great deal of distress.”
Government seeking ‘balance’
Mr Littleproud defended the delay on a final decision, saying the government was analysing “fast-moving” and “fluid” conditions.
“We want to make sure we get it right, we get the balance right,” he said.
Government sources say the “balance” is between supporting those on welfare, but not paying so much that people may be discouraged from seeking work.
Labor backs a significant rise in the JobSeeker rate, but members have also resisted giving an exact number they want the government to settle on.
Senior Labor sources privately say this stance is also a political decision, claiming that choosing a specific number would open the Opposition to criticisms of being either too loose or too tight with money.