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.



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.


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?

Why I Won’t Vote my Values

Why I Won’t Vote my Values

A repost of an article published in June 2016.

The day of the 2010 Federal Election I cast my vote then took my eight year old son to his soccer match. Lachlan’s team was made up of kids from the Christian school he attended, which meant the majority of the parents at his game that day were evangelical Christians. When conversation turned to the election I commented that I had voted for the Greens.

The response shocked me. Mouths dropped open and with exasperated voice a number of the parents asked how I could possibly have voted for the Greens. After all, they were in favour of same-sex marriage! I pointed out that they were also in favour of a strong international aid program at a time the major parties were reducing aid; that they were in favour of considerate treatment of refugees at a time when both major parties were playing some pretty ugly politics with refugees; and that on balance these things swung my vote. It didn’t help. In the eyes of some of these parents it was as though I had voted against God.

So, how should we vote? I see four patterns.

First, some vote purely out of tradition. Their parents voted Liberal and they vote Liberal. Always have, always will.

Second, some vote out of self-interest. Their vote will go to the party that they believe will put money in their pocket and public services at their disposal.

Third, some vote for their moral vision. Their vote will go to the party that they see representing their values.

Fourth, some vote for justice. Their vote will go to the party they believe will do most to promote a just society.

No prizes for guessing that I sit in category 4 and my critics that Saturday belonged in category 3.

I’m not here to spruik for the Greens, the ALP, the Coalition, Family First, or any other party. What I do want to do is open up a simple question: what should influence the way a Christian votes? I’d like to suggest that we need to bring together two things: a Christ-shaped vision for what our communities can be and a clear understanding of the role of government.

First, the gospel gives us a vision for what our societies can be. The message of the gospel is not that our soul can go to heaven when we die but that God is at work to redeem and renew the entire creation. That means renewing and redeeming individuals, communities, economic, social, cultural and political systems, and the planet itself.

Second, government has an important but very limited role to play in moving society toward this vision.

For most of western history we got this horribly wrong. From the conversion of the emperor Constantine until the peace of Westphalia we saw the church and state working in tandem to try and command a Christian society into being. It was an unmitigated disaster.

Cromwell’s England was painted like this

Pointless enjoyment was frowned upon. Cromwell shut many inns and the theatres were all closed down. Most sports were banned. Boys caught playing football on a Sunday could be whipped as a punishment. Swearing was punished by a fine, though those who kept swearing could be sent to prison.

On Sunday most forms of work were banned. Women caught doing unnecessary work on the Holy Day could be put in the stocks. Simply going for a Sunday walk (unless it was to church) could lead to a hefty fine.

During his time as head of government, he made it his task to ‘tame’ the Irish. He sent an army there and despite promising to treat well those who surrendered to him, he slaughtered the people of Wexford and Drogheda who did surrender to his forces. He used terror to ‘tame’ the Irish.

And so the very first call for freedom of religion recorded in the English language came from the founder of the Baptist Church, Tomas Helwys, when he wrote a tract calling on the king to protect the religious freedom of Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists.

Christendom gave way to pluralist liberal democracy. This severely limits what the government can and can’t do. To say a society is liberal means there are fundamental freedoms and rights that must always be respected. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience to name a few. To say it’s pluralist means we accept that we will not all think the same, believe the same or live the same way. In a society such as this the role of government is to ensure every individual and every group is able to share in he benefits of society while pursuing the lifestyle and the values they choose.

In other words, the role of government is to facilitate the common good, ensure public goods such as education, infrastructure and health systems are accessible to all, and to make sure every citizen and every group of citizens is treated justly.

So what does this mean for voting? For me it means I ask two questions

  1. Which party will ensure public goods for all citizens?
  2. Who is excluded, vulnerable or oppressed in our national/globalcommunity? Which party will secure justice and inclusion for them?

The question I won’t ask is which party will legislate my personal vision of morality. It is not the role of the government to force people to live by Christian ethics. It is the responsibility of Jesus followers and the church to live in such a way that people see the merits of following Christ and living his way. I will endeavour as best I can to live virtuously and I will vote for justice.

That lump of coal stunt looks even more lame now

That lump of coal stunt looks even more lame now

Last year Scott Morrison, then the Treasurer, carried a lump of coal into Parliament during Question Time, where he brandished it about, saying

“This is coal. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you…It’s coal that has ensured Australia has for over one hundred years enjoyed an energy advantage that has delivered prosperity”.

He went on to describe the Opposition as suffering from the malady of  coalaphobia and possessing an

“ideological, pathological opposition to coal as being part of our sustainable and more  certain energy future.”

Yesterday the  international body responsible for updating our knowledge of climate change, the IPCC, release its latest report on keeping temperature rises below 1.5 degrees. Their report included this paragraph:

In modelled 1.5°C pathways with limited or no overshoot, the use of CCS would allow the electricity generation share of gas to be approximately 8% (3–11% interquartile range) of global electricity in 2050, while the use of coal shows a steep reduction in all pathways and would be reduced to close to 0% (0–2%) of electricity (high confidence). While acknowledging the challenges, and differences between the options and national circumstances, political, economic, social and technical feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage technologies have substantially improved over the past few years (high confidence). These improvements signal a potential system transition in electricity generation (IPCC SR15 SPM p33)

The report notes that keeping temperature rises to 1.5° would have significantly fewer impacts upon the planet and the well-being of its people then a rise to 2°.   The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is likely to  diminish in size at 1.5° temperature rise,   but at 2° would  likely disappear completely.

This has  certainly wiped the smug tone from the government’s defence of coal,  but not their determination to see coal as an ongoing part of Australia’s energy mix  long into the future.  The conversation we should be having is how we  will replace coal with renewable forms of energy over the course of the next  couple of decades.  We have time to do it and to do it right. Instead we have a government burying its head in the sand, denying the IPCC report has any significance for us, and declaring support for the coal industry.  I think we all know who the pathological ideologues are.

Protecting the right to discriminate. What should the marriage equality legislation do?

Protecting the right to discriminate. What should the marriage equality legislation do?

The nation has voted for the recognition of same-sex marriage, and the challenge in the coming days is to legislate it. Many Christians are calling for a raft of provisions that protect their right to discriminate.

The principle that it is unlawful to discriminate against somebody on the grounds of their sexuality is already part of Australian law. The Sex Discrimination Act was modified in 2013 to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status as grounds upon which  discrimination is not permitted. It applied to employment; education; provision of goods and services; providing accommodation, housing or land; membership and activities of licenced clubs; the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs.

There are a number of exemptions to the Act. Religious bodies and educational institutions are exempted if the discrimination is necessary to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion, or necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

It’s important to point this out, because it seems that some Christians are under the impression that they currently have the right to say and do whatever they like with regards to gay, lesbian, intersex, bisexual, transsexual people and that somehow the recognition of same-sex marriage is going to strip them of these rights.

If you run a small business, it has been illegal since 2013 to refuse to employ somebody on the grounds that they are gay or to refuse to provide a business service to a person on the basis that they are lesbian. Marriage equality hasn’t changed this. If a gay couple walk into a shop today and order a naming day cake to celebrate the adoption of a child, it is already illegal for the  shopkeeper to refuse to bake the cake on the grounds that s/he doesn’t approve of gay people adopting children.

When members of Parliament sit down to thrash out the legislation on same-sex marriage, they have no mandate to either tighten or loosen the antidiscrimination laws nor the exceptions to the anti-discrimination laws. If there is some tweaking that needs to be done in order to maintain the law, it should be so. But there should be no fundamental rewriting of the antidiscrimination legislation. Religious bodies and educational institutions should continue to be free from provisions of the anti-discrimination legislation if the discrimination is necessary to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion, or necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion. Churches and schools should remain free to discriminate in employment where the staff position is necessary to maintaining their religion. The marriage equality legislation should not be used as a mechanism to remove these exemptions.

Neither should the marriage legislation be used as a mechanism to extend exemptions to places they don’t currently exist. For example, the suggestion by Christians that business operators should not have to bake cakes for gay weddings, or wedding reception businesses run by Christians should be free to refuse venue hire to gay couples would represent a repudiation of the current antidiscrimination legislation. When Christians argue for this to be part of the legislation, they are asking our parliamentarians to do something they have no mandate to do.


Why Parliament & Not a Plebiscite Should Resolve the Question of Same-Sex Marriage

Why Parliament & Not a Plebiscite Should Resolve the Question of Same-Sex Marriage

The modern world has been distinguished by what David Bentley Hart calls a “tilt to freedom.” Beginning with the demand that kings be subject to the law, there has been a steady process of enlarging people’s freedoms and a consequent diminishing of the coercive power of the State and of one human over another.

The fundamental principle underlying this is the equality of human beings, by which is meant that a person’s value and a range of fundamental rights comes from belonging to category of human. (In the past value and freedoms were linked to other categories such as anscestry, gender, culture, skin colour or religion). This does not suggest that all human beings are the same – we have diverse genetic endowments and diverse socialising – but that we choose to treat all human beings as if they have a common value and a common set of rights.

On this basis we assume that all people should have equal access to the privileges and benefits of our society. No-one should experience discrimination on the grounds of something incidental to their being human – eg race, religion, gender, sexuality – unless distinctiveness in a particular area is requisite for the type of grouping envisaged. For example being a woman is reasonably seen as a pre-requisite for belonging to a women’s group and sharing the faith of a particular religion pre-requisite for a leadership role in that religion.

This means that the social institution of marriage should be accessible to members of the LGBTIQ community on the same grounds as those who are heterosexual, unless it can be demonstrated that there is something about marriage in of itself that would preclude same-sex couples. Those who oppose marriage equality do so on the grounds that there is in fact something about marriage itself that makes it suitable only for opposite-sex couples. I find their arguments unconvincing and cannot see any grounds upon which it is reasonable for the state to continue discriminating against LGBT people on marriage.

But my point here is this. The question of whether there is something about marriage that makes it inherently applicable only to opposite sex couples cannot be decided by popular vote, which is what the plebiscite will effectively turn out to be if it is held. The only question is, is there something inherent to the institution of marriage as understood and practised within Australian society that excludes it from applying to couples of the same sex? If there is, the Parliament should refrain from legalising same-sex marriage even if the majority of the population are in favour of it. And likewise if they find there is not, the parliament should legalise same-sex marriage.

Has Malcolm got his Mojo back?

The Federal government released its 2017/18 budget last night. On first glance it represents a radical departure from the infamous “lifters and leaners” budget  delivered by the Coalition just a few years ago. As a commentator in one of our broadsheet newspapers noted, this is much more the sort of budget we expected from a Malcolm Turnbull prime ministership.

The underlying narrative  has shifted from the notion that we are spending too much  and must therefore make cuts to spending, to a recognition that we can increase  revenue and maintain our spending while simultaneously reducing our deficit.   Two significant revenue raising measures have been introduced –increased tax  on the banks and a Google tax to make sure that multinationals don’t evade paying taxes, and an increase in the Medicare levy by .5%. These measures,  along with the increasing government revenues that flow from a growing economy, are being used  to ensure the National Disability Scheme has the funding it needs,  to restore gonski style funding to the schools,  to increase funding for homelessness,  and some pretty decent infrastructure projects. Alongside this there is the now apparently mandatory projection of substantial increases in defence spending out over the next 20 years.

I’m quite astonished to see the Coalition government increasing revenue  and spending, but I welcome it warmly.  It strikes me that  we squandered the opportunity of the boom years. With rivers of gold pouring into Treasury,  the boom was surely a time to stack away hundreds of billions of dollars into sovereign  wealth funds that would then generate income for the time when the boom wore off  and we faced the challenge of maintaining our living standards at the same time as our population was ageing. Instead we delivered year after year of tax cuts. A return to revenue raising will allow us to have the services we demand of government.

If there’s been a turnaround in the domestic narrative, the budget shows there is no turnaround in our global narrative. The foreign affairs and Department of Immigration portfolio statements use all the language of being a good international citizen, yet $300 million has been slashed from an aid budget  already sorely depleted; there is a welcome increase in the number of refugees we will settle to the order of two and half thousand more per year, yet  considering we face the worst displacement crisis of history  and Australia assumes such a small fraction of the burden of care, it seems very inadequate to the scale of the crisis. Moreover we will continue to expend well over $2 billion a year on offshore detention and preventing boats from arriving in Australia.  There is no indication government will engage in the work required to build a genuine regional framework that will provide a long-term  approach to providing protection for refugees and asylum seekers. And yet again there is no indication that we will up the ante on climate change.

Has Malcolm got his Mojo back?  It certainly looks that way,  at least when it comes to domestic policy. We may even be seeing glimmers of the Scott Morrison who entered Parliament a small liberal and humanitarian.  Internationalism? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Receive a weekly email of my posts

You have Successfully Subscribed!