‘Raise the rate’ campaign needed

Raise the Rate meeting on June 15.

Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) campaign coordinator Pas Forgione outlined why a campaign to “Raise the rate” of the Newstart unemployment benefit is desperately needed, at a June 15 community forum in Sydney’s west.

Forgione presented a graph to the forum charting how the average, median and minimum wage, along with the pension, had slowly risen between 1993-2019, while Newstart payments remained stagnant during these 25 years.

Forgione stressed that the $75 raise to Newstart that the campaign is demanding is a bare minimum first step and not an ambit claim to be negotiated down from.

The forum was also addressed by Australian Unemployed Workers' Union NSW coordinator Tom Studans, mental health advocate Kristy Mounsey, youth advocate Paniora Nukunuku, and Western Sydney Community Forum policy officer Nadiana Albistur. Forum participants including a number of current or previous Newstart recipients.

One recurring theme in discussion was homelessness. In the quarter century since Newstart payments last rose, the cost of housing has skyrocketed.

Rents in Sydney and Melbourne are among the highest in the world. It is very rare to find a home in Sydney where rent is less than the Newstart allowance — unemployed people paying 60% or more of their income on rent are the “lucky” ones.

Another recurring theme was the stress and distress caused by the Kafkaesque compliance regime under which profit-making companies force Newstart recipients to undertake humiliating, time consuming, often expensive and always pointless activities.

It was pointed out that the system rewards the ironically named “Job Service Providers” (JSPs) for punishing jobseekers while giving them no incentive to assist people finding work.

Successive rounds of “welfare reform” have increased the discretionary powers of these entities, with those in Western Sydney having a reputation for being particularly nasty. Even jumping through JSP hoops is no guarantee against payments being suspended or stopped.

The system is predicated on the falsehood that what causes unemployment is people refusing to look for work, while ignoring realities such as there being eight jobseekers for every job on the market.

While forcing people to take any jobs on offer, the system is oblivious to the reality of the gig economy.

For example, making people declare income before they have been paid means their Newstart payments are reduced or cut before they have received any money. Under the current system, finding work for a week can ultimately leave you homeless.

The subject of mental health was also prominent in discussion. Current policy makes it almost impossible to get the Disability Support Pension. This means many people are forced onto Newstart, regardless of their capacity to work.

The unwillingness of Centrelink and JSPs to take people's mental health issues into account has led to numerous cases of payments being suspended.

Discussion also revealed how the system fosters mental health issues. The low rate of Newstart often leads to social isolation, poor nutrition and stress, even when not compounded by homelessness.

When combined with the other attacks on the unemployed, such as “robodebts” (computer-generated demands by Centrelink for debts that are often fictitious but with the burden of proof on the recipient), the results can be tragic. Speakers noted the large numbers of suicides by people who have received a robodebt letter.

Participants at the forum pledged to get involved in ACOSS's July 15-21 “Raise The Rate” Week of Action and to lobby local councils in Western Sydney to pass motions supporting a raise to Newstart.

To date, 31 councils across the country have passed such motions.

[For more information visit the campaign website.]

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