Antipoverty Centre’s Kristin O’Connell: ‘The welfare system is stealing people’s present and future’

April 28, 2023
At the Raise the Rate protest outside Anthony Albanese electorate office. Photo: Isaac Nellist

Welfare recipients, anti-poverty campaigners and supporters gathered outside Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s electoral office in Marrickville on April 28 to demand he urgently commit to raising JobSeeker and other payments.

Speakers said Labor government could use the budget to lift millions out of poverty, simply by raising the rate of JobSeeker, Youth Allowance, Age Pension and Disability Support Pension (DSP) above the Henderson Poverty Line.

The current JobSeeker rate is $693.10 a fortnight for a single person with no children: that works out roughly to $49 a day.

Jeremy Poxon from the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) who chaired the protest reminded the crowd that, in opposition, Albanese said the JobSeeker rate was “unliveable” and that “nobody can live on $40 a day”.

“This government thinks it can say one thing in opposition, and then come out and starve millions of people on welfare,” Poxon said. “It’s a national disgrace.”

Kristin O’Connell from the Antipoverty Centre (AC) said there are millions of people in poverty. “Every single person in poverty has the right to determine what’s best for themselves”. “Poverty, and this dated, paternalistic, crushing welfare system denies us that right.”

“The welfare system is killing people,” she said. “It is stealing people’s present and future. It is taking people who are well and making them unwell. It’s taking people who are unwell and making them seriously unwell — driving people to self harm and die by suicide at double the rate of the rest of the community.”

She said it is unnecessary because “we know what works”.

“Beautiful, high quality public homes must be available to all who want one. Centrelink payments must be available to everyone who needs support. Every payment must be above the Henderson poverty line. We know it’s possible to get people out of poverty, because we chose to do it in 2020.”

Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said welfare recipients are being forced to make “tough choices”. “People, every single day, have to choose between putting food on the table or buying medicine; between turning the heater on, in the freezing cold, or paying the rent; between going to the dentist or paying off their student debt.”

Faruqi said it was “absolutely unconscionable” that Labor is committing to spend at least $254 billion on the Stage 3 tax cuts for the rich and $368 billion on AUKUS nuclear submarines, while refusing to raise the rate.

Phoebe Autumn, a welfare recipient, described the difficulties of finding a job while struggling with their mental health and unable to afford a diagnosis. “We’re not getting enough to exist in society … we need our dignity recognised,” she said.

Autumn criticised Labor for promoting the idea that the Prime Minister understood disadvantage and poverty. “What we weren't told was, for the next four decades, this man spent in a party and political system that ensured his comfort and safety while watching ours fail beneath us and harming the most vulnerable among us.”

Jess, a single mum, spoke about the difficulty of raising a child while on welfare payments. “I relied on food banks … but it wasn’t the diet that me, or my child, needed,” she said.

“I hate having to explain that there is no opportunity to do anything fun. She deserves better and I deserve to be in a position where I can give her better,” Jess said.

“In a country as abundant as this, there shouldn’t be one person who is homeless, hungry or unable to pay for basic necessities.”

AUWU president Jeremy Haywood read out a series of quotes from shadow Labor MPs calling for welfare payments to rise. He pointed out that Albanese earns 30 times the current rate of JobSeeker.

Others spoke about their experience of homelessness, the need for public housing, their difficulties accessing the DSP and their struggles with mental health.

At the end of the protest, messages from welfare recipients were delivered to Albanese’s office.

Video: 2023 May Day march in Sydney demands Labor govts support workers' rights, climate action and peace. Green Left.

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