The Anti-Poverty Network South Australia hosted a conference, “Speak Out! Stand Up! Ideas, Stories, and Action Against Poverty” on October 16 and 17.
The event, part of the nation-wide anti-poverty week of activities from October 11 to 17, was a unique gathering of activists, community workers and welfare recipients who face constant attacks on their rights as they struggle with below-poverty-line incomes and few job openings.
Significantly, it was the only anti-poverty week event organised and run by low-income people.
The event was the result of three months of planning by unemployed people, students, disability pensioners and sole parents, with the support of Uniting Communities.
Interstate groups also participated, including representatives from Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUU), Dole Action Group (DAG), Fair Go For Pensioners, Australian United Sole Parents Network and Homeless Persons Union of Victoria.
At the opening session, “Come out of the welfare closet – Voices from below the poverty line”, welfare recipients on a range of payments spoke about their experiences dealing with Centrelink, job network providers and constant financial hardship.
Nijole Naujokas from the Anti-Poverty Network SA spoke about how the demonisation of those on government payments often silences welfare recipients, as they feel too ashamed to stand up for their rights.
Drawing a comparison with the experiences of the LGBTIQ community, Naujokas said it was critical that those on welfare payments realise they have nothing to feel embarrassed about, that they have done nothing wrong and that have every right to use their voice to challenge how they are treated by government agencies and the wider community.
Multiple speakers emphasised the need to reject the victim-blaming messages that fault individuals for being unable to survive on paltry incomes and find work in situations when there are not enough jobs to go around.
Another key session explored some of the latest assaults on the unemployed.
Owen Bennett from AUU spoke about the bill currently before federal parliament that seeks to give unprecedented punitive powers to employment service providers. The AUU says that, if the legislation passes, those on Newstart will completely lose the right to negotiate a fair and reasonable Job Plan with their employment network provider.
At the moment, you do not have to sign your job plan — which outlines the obligations a jobseeker has to abide by to continue receiving a Newstart allowance — until your second appointment. This allows jobseekers to get extra advice.
But this leeway would be removed under the new law, and with it what little bargaining power unemployed people have to make their job plans as fair as possible.
The AUU has responded to these continuing attacks by launching a special advocacy hotline for jobseekers.
Rebecca Winter from DAG spoke about the true motives behind policies such as income management and work for the dole.
The fact these policies do not achieve their stated aims of improving people's budgeting skills, spending patterns and helping people find work is beside the point, she said. By reducing autonomy and increasing stress for the unemployed, these policies act as punishments that are meant to make unemployed people as desperate to find work as possible, and therefore help drive down wages.
Other sessions at the conference included discussions on:
• Youth poverty, particularly the shocking rates of homelessness experienced by queer youth;
• The punitive “Dry Zone” operating in the parklands in the Adelaide CBD, which has led to the mostly Aboriginal homeless campers being forced to relocate to more remote and less safe parts of the parklands, further away from key support services; and
• Income management, including the newest version of this harsh, failed policy, the Healthy Welfare Ceduna, in which welfare recipients would have 80% of their welfare payments forcibly quarantined on a card. Community activists from Ceduna who are fighting this scheme that will start in the far-western South Australian town in February, were present at the conference.
There was also a mock birthday party marking the 21st anniversary of the last time Newstart allowance was raised in real terms, over and above existing inflation.
Ever since Newstart was raised by $2.95 a week in the 1994 federal budget, it has increasingly fallen behind the average and minimum wages. At $259 a week, it is more than $140 a week below the poverty line and the lowest unemployment payment in the developed world.
[Pas Forgione is an activist with the Anti-Poverty Network SA.]