Perth group organises against poverty

A Perth protest against the federal government's proposed drug testing of welfare receipiants. Photo: APN/Facebook

The Anti Poverty Network (APN) Perth’s Graham Hansen spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Chris Jenkins about poverty in Western Australia and the key campaign areas APN will focus on this year.

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Can you briefly describe what was happening in WA when APN Perth was formed?

Western Australia is still living in the shadow of the mining boom and the bust that followed. Some people became exceptionally wealthy from the mining boom, but many did not. Even people who had well-paid jobs in the mines found themselves facing unemployment and with debts they could no longer repay when the bust came.

More than 17.5% of Western Australians are currently living in poverty. That is about 360,000 people. A further 150,000 are at risk of falling into financial hardship should they face an unforeseen crisis, like a medical emergency or a car breakdown. Perth has the second highest number of people in Australia living in severe poverty, considered to be those earning less than 30% of median incomes.

In the middle of last year, a group of us came together to discuss forming a grassroots activist group focused on the issue of poverty in WA. Since then, our Anti-Poverty Network has held speak-outs against the mandatory drug-testing proposal, a demonstration in the city for Anti-Poverty Week and a film screening of [British director Ken Loach’s] I, Daniel Blake.

Why is a grassroots campaign group like APN is needed to respond to poverty?

It’s pretty clear that we can’t just wait for government to decide poverty is something it might need to take action about. There hasn’t been a significant increase to the Newstart Allowance in more than 20 years, while the cost of living continues to soar.

A study last year by the University of NSW, the Australian Council of Social Service, Catholic Social Services Australia and United Voice showed that Newstart and Commonwealth Rent Assistance are about $96 a week short of what is needed for a single person to meet a basic standard of living.

However, the failure of our social safety net is not simply the result of miserly governments not raising the rate, although that is a significant part of it. There is also a profound element of social sadism that has been built right into our country’s approach to social security, forcing those who need support to suffer in a punitive, compliance-driven system that seems to have been set up to make them fail.

We have given this system social licence. That will not end while politicians and the media see more advantage in pushing the “bludger” narrative than admit that a level of unemployment is an inherent aspect of the economic system they promulgate and benefit from; that racism and the patriarchy still place enormous barriers to accessing work; and that continued cuts to education and training mean people are unable to get the skills and experience they need.

I don’t see that changing any time soon. Making the system actually work for people requires us to mobilise on a grassroots level, working collectively to shift perceptions and bring everyone together who knows that what exists currently is simply not good enough.

What are some of the key campaign areas APN plans to focus on this year?

Our primary focus this year will be the continued inadequacy of income support. Inspired by the example of the Anti-Poverty Network in South Australia, we will be running campaigns to convince local governments to support an increase to Newstart Allowance and Commonwealth Rent Assistance — beginning with the City of Fremantle. We will also be providing support and solidarity for actions opposing the paternalistic Cashless Welfare Card.

How would you respond to anyone claiming welfare is a federal matter and not the concern of locally elected councils? 

It is true that income support is a federal government responsibility, but its failure to ensure that it is providing an allowance sufficient for people to live on places enormous strain on the services and supports provided by state and local governments, as well as not-for-profits. Local government should be rightly angry about this jurisdictional “cost-shifting” and join with us in pushing the federal government to increase income support. 

Beyond that self-interest, local government is also the level of government closest to the community. We are not just talking about their constituents, but their friends, neighbours and the people they interact with on a daily basis. Local governments have an important role in amplifying the voices of their community and that is what we are calling on them to do here.

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