It’s time. Our intransigence on Newstart shames us

It’s time. Our intransigence on Newstart shames us

How would you fare if you had to live on Newstart (the dole)?

I ran the Centrelink income calculator and discovered that if Sandy & I were unable to find work we would be eligible for $630.00 per week. That’s made up of the Newstart allowance, Family Tax Benefit (we have two children living at home with us), and an energy supplement. Could our family live on that?

At first glance I thought it would easy for the four of us to live on $630/week. But when I started doing the sums I found it quite challenging.

First up, we would need to make savings by getting get rid of some big ticket items: cancel our health insurance; switch Lachlan from private to public schooling; and sell our newer car, use the money we get from that to finalise an outstanding loan, and keep our 12 year old Kia Rio.

Yet when I punched these savings into a spreadsheet we were still some distance from living within the $630 per week of the dole. Somehow we would need to find a way to make this cover:

  • mortgage payments (and by Australian standards our mortgage is very modest);
  • home and content insurance;
  • motor vehicle registration, insurance, petrol and servicing;
  • land, water and electricity rates;
  • health costs;
  • clothing;
  • haircuts;
  • groceries and other consumables;
  • school costs;
  • phone and internet.

We might, with a lot of discipline, just get there if we negotiate with our bank to make interest payments only; cancel the phone plan of each member of the household in favour of a shared family mobile on a very cheap plan; cut our internet back from high speed, unlimited data (I have children who game!) to the cheapest plan on the market (thus upsetting children who would no longer be able to game); find ways to use less electricity; eat cheaper foods; and make more stuff ourselves. We would not be able to buy the kids gifts for their birthdays or Christmas, pay for a holiday away from home, or afford to eat out or go to the movies. Lachlan would need to get an after-school job to pay for his recreational expenses. And we’d be hoping that there would be no unexpected big expenses (eg fridge needing replacement or major repair costs on the car) for there would simply be no money to pay for these.

That it would be difficult to live on Newstart should come as no surprise, for close to 80% of households that rely on the Newstart payment live below the poverty line.

The rates of Newstart Allowance and student payments fall well below the poverty line and are not enough to cover the cost of essentials. These payments have not kept pace with rising living expenses and, unless they are increased and properly indexed, will slide even further behind…

The inadequacy of Newstart and Youth Allowance is having devastating effects on individuals, families & communities: deepening inequalities, robbing people of their dignity, and undermining the health and wellbeing of families

St Vincent DePaul Society, Briefing on the Newstart Allowance

Housing stress can be one of the ways families are robbed of their dignity on Newstart. To begin with it is extremely difficult for many living on Newstart to find a place to live. Anglicare surveyed the private rental market and found that of 69,000 private rental properties available across Australia, only two were affordable to a single person on Newstart. This means that households dependent on Newstart often have to spend so much on rent that “they can’t afford to eat decent food, fill a prescription, pay for transport, or buy clothes.” (Anglicare, April 2019, Rental Affordability Snapshot, page 17).

The Business Council argues that not only is the current level of Newstart indecent, but because it leaves people less healthy, less likely to be housed in areas where there are jobs, and unable to afford the cost of clothing and transport required for job interviews, that it impairs people’s ability to reenter the workforce.

These realities are borne out in the stories told by people living on Newstart.

“You can’t live on Newstart. I eat one meal a day so the kids can eat. My sweet girl says I should eat more. I was a nurse for 27 years. All my savings have gone. I’m in so much debt. I try my best but feel so ashamed.”

Ellen, 61 and caring for two children. Story told in ACOSS 2018 Poverty Report

“I’m 51, on Newstart and need someone to know what I’m experiencing. I’ve been homeless this year, and last. I’m reliant on my daughters giving me extra food when they can. I lost my car. What I’m afraid of is if this nightmare continues”

Bella. Story told in ACOSS 2018 Poverty Report

I was on Newstart from October 2017 until April 2018 and it was impossible to meet basic expenses such as rent/food/bills, never mind new clothes and transport.

Jim. Story told in ACOSS 2018 Poverty Report

25 years of unbroken economic growth have seen Australians get vastly richer. Collectively we enjoy a standard of living unrivalled in history. Yet while our economic success saw Australian wages, profits and government benefits surging upward, every Government since john Howard’s has made sure that this didn’t apply to payments to the unemployed. Since 1999 increases in the Newstart allowance were pegged to inflation. As a result the single Newstart rate today is equivalent to only 60% of the age pension and 38% of the minimum wage.

NEWSTART COMPARED TO OTHER PAYMENTS (2017)

NEWSTARTAGE PENSIONMIN WAGEMEDIAN WAGE
267.80437.10694.91405.00

Source:ACOSS Briefing Paper

Observing the gulf between Newstart and the minimum wage, Chris Richardson, Senior Partner in Deloitte Access Economics and an economist frequently consulted by Coalition governments, commented that

“e here in Australia don’t have a dole-bludger problem — what we have is a society that is unnecessarily cruel.”

Chris Richardson, Access Economics

Richardson points us to the awful recognition that we have organised our society so that those who cannot find employment are punished. We have been and are being cruel. And we have crafted a mythology that justifies this cruelty. This is the mythology of the “dole bludger”. We have somehow convinced ourselves that the fruits of our hard work are being taken from us by hordes of lazy dope-smoking young people who have never worked a day in their lives but just want to party without end funded by our taxes. Our mythology is buttressed by sage pronouncements that anyone in this country who wants a job can get one if they’re prepared to work hard, and repeated tales of young people who refuse a job because it is beneath their dignity and of employers who advertise but cannot find anyone to work for them. Those thieving-lay-about-wouldn’t know-an-honest-day’s-work-if-it-walked-up-to-them-and-slapped-them-in-the-face-dope-smoking-hippy-delinquents deserve nothing from us other than a kick up the backside…and perhaps that’s what making their lives as difficult and miserable as possible might just do.

The reality is that there are not plenty of jobs out there for anyone prepared to work hard. It is a simple statistical fact that there are fewer jobs available than there are people who are unemployed. In May 2018 for example, there were eight unemployed or under-employed people for every job vacancy. Add to this the people who are already employed but looking for a change and it is not uncommon to have 15-20 people seeking a job for every job that is advertised.

This means the ranks of the long term unemployed are not filled by dope-smoking-lazy-youth, but rather with people lacking occupational skills or who employers discriminate against: those workers who are older (in 2017 49% of the long term unemployed were over the age of 45); principle carers of children (16%); people living with disabilities (29%); people with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background (11%), and those with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (21%). It is people like these who are long term unemployed and are being crushed by the grinding reality of poverty level unemployment benefits.

It’s exceedingly rare that unions, social service organisations, business councils, former Liberal and Labor PMs agree on issues regarding social welfare and the labour force. Yet there is an extraordinary consensus that Newstart payments need to rise. The most often cited suggestion is an increase of $75/week and then ensuring that in future Newstart is increased in line with other social welfare payments.

How then do we make sense of the steadfast refusal of the PM and the Treasurer to countenance an increase? They and other members of the government repeatedly trot out two responses.

“We’re not changing Newstart and the reason why is Newstart recipients, 99 per cent of receive other benefits, so it might be a parenting benefit or another benefit…

“The other thing about Newstart is two-thirds of the people on Newstart move on to a job within 12 months.”

Josh Frydenburg, Treasurer, cited by ABC News

Neither response amounts to an explanation.

“People on Newstart receive other payments
This is true, but the way it is articulated to suggest that these other payments compensate for the low rate of Newstart is misleading. Everyone on Newstart receives an energy supplement allowance, which for a single person without children is $4.40 per week. In particular circumstances Newstart recipients may also be eligible for a telephone allowance (maximum rate is $43.80/year or 0.84 cents/week) and a pharmaceutical allowance ($3.10/week). There are two more substantial payments that some receive: Family Tax Benefit which 19% of Newstart recipients receive and rent assistance, which 32% of Newstart recipients receive. (Data sourced from the Conversation)

But pointing to these other benefits doesn’t resolve the problem. These extra payments are made in recognition that the person receiving them incurs additional costs above those provided for in the Newstart allowance. And those payments never come close to funding the full amount of those extra costs. The result is that even when receiving the maximum rates for Newstart and other payments, the total benefit households receive places far below the poverty line.

GAP BETWEEN MAXIMUM BENEFITS AVAILABLE TO NEWSTART RECIPIENTS AND THE POVERTY LINE (2017)

HOUSEHOLD TYPEMAXIMUM PAYMENTSAMOUNT BELOW POVERTY LINE
Single, no children$324-$331$105-$191
Couple, no children$529-$599$85-$215
Single, 2 children$595-602$93-$232
Couple, 2 children$751-$767$85-$215

Source:ACOSS Poverty Report 2018

“Two-thirds of the people on Newstart move on to a job within 12 months”
The point Frydenburg and other are seeking to make is that Newstart is not meant to be a permanent source of income replacement but a stop-gap to help people while they are inbetween jobs. As such it was expected only to supplement other sources of income for the short period of time people were out of work.

But the reality is that large numbers of people receive the payment for long periods. 2/3 of those who receive Newstart allowances remain on them for more than a year, including almost 50% who remain on Newstart in excess of 2 years.

Newstart may not have been designed with long-term recipients in mind, but it has become a means by which the Government distributes benefits to the long-term unemployed, and therefore must be managed in a way that recognise it is the primary source of income for hundreds of thousands of people for the medium term and to a lesser degree the long term. This is precisely why the rate needs to be lifted.

We can raise the Newstart rate
The arguments offered by the Government are weak and fail to offer defensible grounds for its refusal to budge.

Nor are there economic grounds for inaction. Last year Deloitte Access Economics released a study of the costs and benefits of a $75/week increase in the Newstart Allowance. It found that it would cost the Government $3.3 billion a year and would have both a “prosperity dividend” and “a fairness dividend”. The “prosperity dividend” would a boost the economy by $4 billion and create 12,000 jobs in the first year but would fade over time. The fairness impact would be substantial. The bottom 20% of income earners would receive a boost to their income 28 times the relative boost to the top 20% of income earners.

The continued refusal by the Government to lift the Newstart allowance is particularly galling to me in view of its commitment to deliver $300 billion in personal and company tax cuts and to invest $100 billion in infrastructure over the next ten years. Lifting the Newstart payment is endorsed by major business groups, unions, community service organisations, churches, former PMs, and many more. All agree it would have an immediate and dramatic effect on the wellbeing of around 700,000 Australians. It would reverse decades of injustice and would be welcomed across the political spectrum.

Dear Prime Minister, what on earth is holding you back?

Baptist to My Bootstraps

Baptist to My Bootstraps

I became part of the Baptist church when I was seven. Mum and dad had experienced a revitalisation in their faith and were looking for a church that would nurture their newfound spiritual interest. They had never been to a Baptist church but made their way to Caringbah Baptist one Sunday morning. Despite the humiliation of my brother and I getting into a fist fight during morning tea, mum and dad loved it. A packed building, heartfelt worship, and a swarm of people welcoming them was just the sort of church they were after. We stayed. I grew up at Caringbah Baps, had my faith cultivated there, was sponsored by the church to theological college and spent 4.5 years as Caringbah Baps’ youth pastor.

During those years the Baptist movement in Australia had a reputation for legalistic morality, doctrinal rigidity, and sensationalist views of the end of the world. Yet as ugly as those things could be, somewhere along the way I became more and more enamoured of the valuing of freedom that was the founding genius of the Baptist movement. Bouts of legalism, fundamentalism, and ecclesiastical abuse of power, have at times seen churches that declare themselves Baptist all but abandon the principles of freedom upon which their movement was founded. But it is this value that continues to echo in my heart and makes me a Baptist by conviction.

At the heart of a Baptist approach to life is a conviction that faith, beliefs and values can only ever be freely embraced. They cannot and should not be imposed. I and no-one else is ultimately responsible to God for what I believe and how I live. It follows that while I should listen carefully to what others have to say and to their interpretations of Scripture and Christ, at the end of the day I must live by what my conscience tells me to be true. To ask me to do otherwise would be ask me to surrender my lived faithfulness to Christ. And so, Baptist churches may have statements of faith and values, but they are not used as a means to bind conscience or demand conformity. We expect that members will embrace some and reject or question others.

Similarly, Baptists have a conviction that every individual church should seek the mind and the will of Christ free from the dictates of the State or of denominational religious authorities. Members of the congregation should listen to each other, search the Scriptures together, and take into account the wisdom of the wider church, but once they come to a decision, they should surrender it to no-one. Our associations of churches may have statements of faith and values, but they are not used as a means to bind conscience or demand conformity. We expect that members will embrace some and reject or question others. To ask them to do otherwise is to ask them to surrender their lived faithfulness to Christ.

The glue that binds Baptists together is not uniformity of belief, values or practises. We have confidence that the Spirit of Christ, the Scriptures, and the open heart of the believer are sufficient to ensure we remain headed in the right direction. The glue that binds us is a shared faith in Christ and a commitment to love, support, and care for each other on the incredible journey of faith.

This at least is what I understand it means to be Baptist. It’s not something peculiar to churches that have the word “Baptist’ in their title (indeed, many are not Baptist in the sense I have outlined here) but is a way of approaching faith and life that can be held by any individual or any church. It is why I am happy to be “Baptist to my bootstraps”.

Quoting the Bible in Public. What our engagement with slavery should have taught  us.

Quoting the Bible in Public. What our engagement with slavery should have taught us.

For much of the history of the church the practise of slavery went unchallenged. It’s not difficult to see why. Slavery was a longstanding feature of human society that was rarely questioned by those who were free. In the sixth century BC the philosopher Aristotle argued that slavery was a dictate of nature, that some human beings were by nature given to be ruled while others were by nature given to rule (Politics 1.1).

The Hebrew bible read by Christians and Jews celebrated the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but did not conclude that slavery was an evil from which all people should be liberated. It was assumed that Israelite households would include slaves (eg Exodus 20:10,17; Deuteronomy 12:12,18;  16:11) and, while no Israelite was to be subjected to slavery,  the Israelites were permitted to take slaves from among the foreigners living in their land and from other nations (Leviticus 25:39-46). Alongside the declaration that

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.

Leviticus 26:11

came this

As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.

Leviticus 25:44-46

Slaves taken from foreign nations were considered the property of their owner and could be bought and sold. They were incorporated into the covenant with God as members of their master’s household, and so were to eat the fruit of the land, enjoy rest on the sabbath, and participate in Israel’s festivals (eg Exodus 20:8-11,17; 21:1-27) but they never ceased to be the property of another. 

The New Testament letters recognised that slave and free were included in Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). For Paul this enabled a slave to reframe his/her thinking, to see that whatever his/her status in Greco-Roman society, his/her status in Christ was very different (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). Slaves should gain freedom if the opportunity arose (1 Corinthians 7:17-24), yet there was no expectation that Christian masters would free their slaves. Paul sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon (Philemon ) and in a number of NT letters the proper relationship between slave and master – in which slaves were obedient and masters kind – appears as a staple of instruction to households (eg Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-25), to which slaves were to remain true even when treated badly (1 Peter 2:18-24).

It is not surprising then that throughout the church’s history there was little objection to slavery. Prior to the US Civil war evangelicals in both the North and South routinely defended slavery (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological  Crisis, University of North Carolina Press, 2006). This did not mean they supported every expression of slavery. Some US evangelicals opposed the international slave trade, in which free people were kidnapped, transported to another country and sold as slaves, yet passionately defended the American system of trading people who were already slaves and their children. It was common to argue that America’s slaves were the descendants of Noah’s son Ham, who were cursed with slavery in Genesis 9. 

In addition to the “biblical mandate”, Christians argued that slavery could be seen as a benefit to slaves (the Editors, “Why did so many Christians support slavery?”, Christian History, Issue 33, 2002). Slaves, it was argued, were provided with far greater security of access to food, shelter and community than they would be if they joined the ranks of poorly paid labourers with insecure employment. And slaves were exposed to the Christian gospel and the opportunity to find eternal salvation. 

Bishop Stephen Elliott for example, warned that critics of slavery were

“checking and impeding a work which is manifestly Providential. For nearly a hundred years the English and American Churches have been striving to civilize and Christianize Western Africa, and with what result? Around Sierra Leone, and in the neighborhood of Cape Palmas, a few natives have been made Christians, and some nations have been partially civilized; but what a small number in comparison with the thousands, nay, I may say millions, who have learned the way to Heaven and who have been made to know their Savior through the means of African slavery! At this very moment there are from three to four millions of Africans, educating for earth and for Heaven in the so vilified Southern States—learning the very best lessons for a semi-barbarous people—lessons of self-control, of obedience, of perseverance, of adaptation of means to ends; learning, above all, where their weakness lies, and how they may acquire strength for the battle of life. These considerations satisfy me with their condition, and assure me that it is the best relation they can, for the present, be made to occupy.

quoted in Noel Rae,  The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery,  The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. 2018

Members of the Abolitionist movement argued that slavery was fundamentally incompatible with the overarching themes of Scripture – God’s concern for justice, the dignity and worth of all human beings as created in God’s image and the call to love our neighbour as ourselves. Some offered a more nuanced argument that it was the practises of American slavery that were incompatible with the overarching themes of Scripture. (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological  Crisis). For traditionalists this was a step too far. They accused abolitionists of turning the Bible against itself, denying the simple, plain and clear reading of the texts, and calling evil something God had permitted and authorised. Abolitionists were deemed guilty of one of the gravest sins of evangelicalism: questioning the authority of the Bible (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis). 

Yet despite this, the abolitionist argument won the day. It did not do so because it could demonstrate superior exegetical argument, but because the growing recognition of individual civil and human rights was becoming a fundamental assumption of western civilisation. Once it was accepted that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” it was only a matter of time until “all men” came to be seen not only as white men, but all men and women, and that this would make readings of the Bible that subordinated one group of people to another untenable.

In the century prior to the US civil war evangelicalism had spread as growing literacy and cheap forms of printing allowed people to own a bible and read it for themselves. They were encouraged to accept “the plain and simple” reading, which was soon equated with what “common sense” told the farmer sitting at his table with the Bible open before him. For some time that meant embracing the simple affirmation of slavery over against clever sophists who appealed to the grand themes of Scripture.

Historically however, the notion of a “simple and plain” reading was developed as a counter to allegorical readings, in which the text of Scripture could be assigned almost any meaning. It was never intended to mean an ahistorical reading nor a simplistic reading. It was never intended to mean that every text was to be taken as a direct word from God to the believer with the Bible open on the kitchen table and who would read a verse, assume it was God’s word to them and dismiss objections with the pious declaration that “God says it. I believe it. That’s good enough for me”.

The engagement with slavery taught us that biblical texts are historically conditioned, that practical guidance issued to ancient Israel and the early churches on how to manage their households and other dimensions of their lives should not be read as universal principles to be applied across space and time, but were part of working out how to live with grace, love, kindness, compassion and generosity in the midst of the messy circumstances of their time and place. 

To hear God’s word to us we need to do precisely as the abolitionists did, to listen for the grand themes of Scripture, and allow these to shape the direction of our ethics, recognising that at times this will mean championing things that contradict some of the time bound guidance offered in the biblical documents.  This does not represent a step away from the Scriptures but a faithful and thoughtful engagement with them.

This message is particularly resonant in view of the saga surrounding Israel Folau and his freedom to quote the bible in public. Sure, Israel should be free to say whatever he feels is a faithful expression of his faith, but this should not be mistaken with the assumption that by quoting bible texts in public we are articulating the word of the Lord.

Is there a way through the poisoned politics of climate?

Is there a way through the poisoned politics of climate?

Last week the Federal Government released the latest quarterly update on Australia’s greenhouse emissions. It is not pretty reading, for rather than breaking south and following a downward trend, our emissions are climbing, and have been ever since the Abbot government abolished the carbon pricing scheme and replaced it with its direct action approach.

Under the Paris agreement Australia has set itself the task of reducing our greenhouse emissions to 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030. On current projections we will miss the target by around 700 mt CO2 -e (the area represented by the orange ‘triangle’ in the chart below).

The Prime Minister is confident we’ll get there “in a canter”. He points to the fact that the projected abatement task (the orange area in my diagram) has declined over time and argues that the Government has the policies to close the narrowing gap. This sees a number of policy initiatives that offer emissions abatements.

The biggest tool in the Government’s plan is to use Kyoto carry over credits. Before the Paris Agreement, which sets out emission reduction targets for 2021-2030, the Kyoto Protocol set out targets for the periods 2008-12 and 2013-2020. Australia negotiated very favourable targets for both periods. Consequently, we finished the first Kyoto period 128 mt CO2-e ahead of target and look like we’ll finish 240 mt CO2-e ahead for the second Kyoto period. Where most industrialised nations have said they will not count their Kyoto credits, the Australian Government has decided it will count the Kyoto “savings” as a credit against the 700 Mt CO2-e reduction required for 2021-2030. This halves the real world emission reductions we need to make from 2021-2030.

The remaining 330 mt CO2 emission reductions come from a grab bag of initiatives. Will they be successful? The only people who seem to think so are members of the Federal Coalition.

This however is not my chief concern. My concern is that the government’s policy is just another expression of the poisoned national debate around climate which in more than a decade has not been able to deliver a coherent and bipartisan approach, and a poisoned global climate politics in which nations agree that reducing emissions is vital to the future wellbeing of humankind and the planet, accept a target (such as to keep warming below 2 degrees) and then every nation seeks to do as little as they possibly can in meeting their targets.

Just last year a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that human activities had already raised global mean temperature by about 1°C above pre-industrial levels and that on current trends, 1.5 °C warming would be reached between 2030 and 2052. To have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 without overshoot (ie a scenario where we go above 1.5 for a while but then turn it around by taking carbon gases out of the atmosphere) the world needs to achieve a 45% reduction from 2010 levels by 2030 and zero net emissions by 2050. To achieve the 2 degree goal we need 25% reduction on 2010 levels by 2030 and to reach net zero around 2070.

Getting to net zero is a massive task that will see the end of economies built on the formula of burning fossil fuels. We need to transform the ways we produce power, do agriculture, construct our buildings, transport ourselves, etc. Which is why we need our government do better than find the path of least resistance to our 2030 Paris target. We need a roadmap to net zero that lifts us above captivity to local and global politics and against which interim targets can be measured.

Under the Paris Agreement the Australian Government is due to report its long-term emissions reduction plan by 2025. Rather than this being yet another report of the Dept of Environment that will get buried in climate politics, we need something that will lift our sights to an incredible act of nation-building. Perhaps a multi year bipartisan commission that brings together climate scientists, economists, the business community, civil society and relevant experts to map the way to net zero, an agreement from all sides of politics to implement it, and that directs a nation-building project that Australians will enthusiastically get behind? One thing seems certain. Politics as usual will almost certainly fail us, the planet and the future.

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