The calls and emails to my office that we get from people trying to survive on Newstart are among the most challenging that we receive. People speak without hope. We're often their last resort and they don't expect anything to change. They just want someone to know how difficult it is not only to get by but to retain your dignity and look for work when there is simply not enough money to pay for the basics, let alone for the train fares to take you to where there might be a job. I'm not at all surprised to read in The Guardian this week that people report they often go without food. Our local community food programs are booming because of the demand, and volunteers are unable to keep up. These are not programs I want to see expanded. I'd like to see them go out of business due to lack of customers, but I can't see it happening any time soon. Organisations like Hawkesbury Community Kitchen, Hawkesbury's Helping Hands, the Salvation Army in Windsor, Gateway Family Services in Blaxland, Earth Recovery in Katoomba and neighbourhood centres across the electorate are just a few of the groups doing incredible work.
I don't understand why those opposite are so reluctant to admit there's a desperate need for Newstart to increase. One volunteer of St Vincent de Paul Society in Windsor told me:
As an active member of the society, I have seen countless Newstart recipients call on us for help because they simply cannot afford the day-to-day cost of living. The current rate pushes too many into poverty, financial stress and housing insecurity, and diminishes their health and wellbeing. Payments have not kept pace with rising living expenses, and, unless they are increased and properly indexed, vulnerable members of our society will continue to be left behind.
That sums up how many feel, including Christians in my electorate, including congregation members from Springwood Baptist, who say they see a need for the rate to be raised. Carmel from Blackheath tells a similar story:
I'm aware of many people in the upper mountains, 55 years and over, who have become unemployed or sick through no fault of their own and are trying to live on Newstart. They comply with the undertaking of their 15 hours of volunteer work each week and contribute in various other ways to the local community and to their grandchildren.
As we all know, this group have no expectations of ever finding work. They must live frugally, possibly until they hit pension age, and it's a life where there's no extra money for a haircut or movie ticket, so maintaining a positive mental attitude is the challenge.
And Carmel is spot-on in describing this group. Despite the mythology that the Prime Minister and his conservative buddies like to perpetuate, the majority of people receiving Newstart are between 55 and 64 years of age. They're people who may have been made redundant; women who may have spent their lives raising a family, or they've lost their jobs or left them at some point due to illness or caring responsibilities. I know of several instances where people were previously on a disability payment, reflecting an injury or illness, and they've now been shifted to Newstart. But when you consider that there are eight people for every job available, their chances of landing one are slim. Older men who come to speak with me talk of the despair of being out of work, with job agencies offering them little if any prospect of a job. This tells me we're creating a bigger problem by failing to treat them with dignity.
MPs are often asked if they could live on $40 a day. In fact, it's $39.30. And in spite of some subsidies for housing, it's still inadequate to live on—not just for a week and not even for the year that those opposite have been claiming is the average. In fact, the average length of time for all people on Newstart is 156 weeks, or three years. I'm grateful to AAP FactCheck for that data.
An OECD study shows that more than half of Australia's unemployed are now living in poverty. That puts our jobless population as the second poorest in the world when judged against 13 comparable nations. I've also heard the argument from the Prime Minister that Newstart is increased in line with the CPI. Well, any economist will tell you that doesn't cut it. We have a situation where costs of essentials are rising; things like rent or a mortgage, medical costs, insurance, power bills, child care and education. It feels like a Monty Python sketch, where we have a government so intent on ignoring economic logic.
Increasing Newstart doesn't just alleviate poverty; it would stimulate the economy exactly where it needs to—in local shopping centres right across the country. And it would create jobs. When you have people like former Prime Minister John Howard, the Business Council of Australia, Deloitte Access Economics, small business groups, a parliamentary inquiry made up of all parties and a raft of conservative politicians—including the former leader of the National Party the member for New England—all calling for an increase in Newstart, it's time to show mercy and raise the rate. I'd really urge those opposite to think about the damage we are doing to people who are trying to survive on payments on which they cannot subsist. I had the experience of having 16 days in limbo, and therefore about six weeks of not being sure how to cover bills. Now I knew I was coming into a job that was incredibly well paid. Our wages have gone up extraordinarily in the last 15 or 20 years, yet Newstart hasn't.