Across South Australia, local governments are sticking up for residents who are out of work and living in poverty. This is part of a grassroots campaign being led by the Anti-Poverty Network SA with support from SA Council of Social Service and Uniting Communities.
In early August, the City of Port Adelaide Enfield became the first council in Australia to publicly support an increase to Newstart Allowance. Since then, six more councils — three metropolitan and three regional — have also decided to advocate for financial relief for struggling unemployed people.
At $269 a week, Newstart is $160 a week below the poverty-line: it is less than 41% of the minimum wage and less than 18% of the average wage. It has not been raised in real terms for 23 years, which is part of the reason why Australia ranks second-worst among developed nations for poverty among the unemployed.
Not only is Newstart outrageously low, while there is a lack of jobs — there is 1 job for every 17 job-seekers — recipients are spending longer on the payment: 70% of Newstart recipients receive the payment for more than 12 months. Newstart is not a short burst of pain, but a long period of suffering.
Compounding this is the growing number of people with serious health issues — more than one-quarter of Newstart recipients have a diagnosed disability — and the number of sole parents on the payment due to the reduced access to the Disability Support Pension and Sole Parent Pension.
Beside Port Adelaide Enfield, the six councils supporting the campaign to raise Newstart are: Streaky Bay; Kangaroo Island; Copper Coast; Clare Valley and two of the state’s most populous councils — Onkaparinga in the south and Playford in the north.
Playford Council, with 5700 unemployed residents, has an unemployment rate of 14%. This is the highest level of unemployment of any local government in SA and is one of the highest unemployment rates of any local government in Australia. Within its boundaries is the Holden factory which is scheduled to close in mid-October. This will only exacerbate the serious, long-term jobs crisis facing the state.
The power of the campaign lies in the dedication and courage of local job-seekers including Wendy, Sarah, Claudia, Brendan, Bonnie, Amethyst and Aidan who called, emailed and met with mayors and councillors and willingly shared their stories of financial and personal hardship and job-searching in a depressed labour market.
They handed out fliers, put up posters, letterboxed and door-knocked. Critically, they showed up at council meetings in large numbers to keep their representatives accountable.
It has been claimed by some that since Newstart is a federal payment, councils cannot, or should not, take a position on whether or not it is adequate. This “roads, rates, and rubbish” concept is a narrow and conservative vision of what local government can do, and is worth rejecting.
Of course, councils do often take public stands on social and ecological issues including marriage equality, coal seam gas mining, renewable energy, cashless welfare and drug-testing. The most recent and controversial example of this has been the growing debate around moving away from celebrating Australia Day.
Why shouldn’t local governments advocate on behalf of their residents — particularly those who have the least power and resources — and represent their interests and values, even if the issue is outside their jurisdiction?
It is a sign of how undemocratic, remote and inaccessible the other two levels of government are perceived to be. Their lack of responsiveness, the extent to which big business dominates the political agenda and the deep bipartisan consensus that exists across so many issues mean citizens are turning to councils to be their voice on many important matters.
Poverty — a local issue
In any case, there should not be any doubt that poverty and unemployment are local issues.
The low rate of Newstart has profound impacts on the job-seekers, whose mental and physical health, quality of life and ability to effectively search for work suffer while on the payment. But it also has profound impacts on local communities, local economies and on the council community services and programs that increasingly — after repeated government cuts — support those who are struggling.
How can a significant section of the community which is unable to eat well and regularly; is unable to afford to leave the house often; is often excluded from their community and social support systems and have no disposable income not be a local issue?
Unfortunately, not all councils agree that the disadvantage experienced by unemployed residents on Newstart is something with which they should be concerned.
The City of Salisbury with 6300 unemployed people and an unemployment rate of 9% has twice refused Anti-Poverty Network SA’s request to speak to a meeting. Both times we were told the issue was “outside council’s jurisdiction”.
Incredibly, even while other councils were passing motions on Newstart and writing to the federal social services minister Christian Porter and human services minister Alan Tudge, a push is needed just to start a conversation with the Salisbury councillors.
Things came to a dramatic head on September 25 when more than 30 unemployed people and other welfare recipients with signs and placards representing Anti-Poverty Network SA packed the gallery at Salisbury Council to watch council pass a motion by Councillor Beau Brug (overruling Mayor Gillian Aldridge who previously refused our request) to allow local job-seekers to address the October Salisbury Council meeting.
It was a long, intense night, and a four-hour wait for our moment despite our item having been listed near the start of the agenda. But we won our right to speak.
On October 23, we hope Salisbury Council will join the growing number of councils standing up for their unemployed residents and sending a strong message to the federal government about the need for Newstart to be raised. If you live in Salisbury, consider contacting your councillors.
[Pas Forgione is a spokesperson for Anti-Poverty Network SA.]