Topics: JobSeeker increase, Commonwealth Rent Assistance, Safety Net Bill, consent laws, sexual assault in universities, child protection, the Voice
DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Amanda Rishworth, welcome to the program.
AMANDA RISHWORTH, MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES: Great to be with you.
DAVID SPEERS: So, your plan to lift the rate of JobSeeker by $40 a fortnight as announced in the Budget we know, but there was also meant to be an indexation increase on top of that. You’ve been waiting for the latest inflation data. Are you able to now confirm what that increase will be?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Our policy design for the increase of JobSeeker made it very clear that the $40 would be applied before indexation. Indexation is due on the same date as our increase, on the 20th September. I'm able to confirm the rate of the increase to JobSeeker will be $56. So, JobSeekers over a fortnight will get $56 extra. In addition, that extra indexation will also be applied to our Commonwealth Rent Assistance that we announced in the Budget – 15 per cent increase on the maximum rates and inflation applied after. So, the support that people will get through that, if they're on the maximum rate will be between $18 to $37 extra a fortnight.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay, so just on JobSeeker, the $40 plus $16 from indexation, what's the rate of that indexation that you've settled on there?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: The rate of indexation is being calculated at 2.2 per cent for the preceding six months from January to July.
DAVID SPEERS: So, only a 2.2 per cent increase in indexation. How did you arrive at that?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: That's what the CPI figures are for the six months. JobSeeker is indexed every six months. In March there was a 3.7 per cent indexation applied. So, there's been two indexations. But, importantly, we didn't do the indexation and then add the $40. The $40 was incorporated, so the full amount, including our increase to the base rate, has been applied. We're looking at maximising the support that people do get.
DAVID SPEERS: I'm just wondering that indexation rate, even if you put the two of them together, you're only getting to around 6 per cent over the year. A lot of basic costs for people on JobSeeker have gone up more than that. In fact, we can show you some of them. Here you can see over the twelve months, food and non-alcoholic beverage up 7.5 per cent, rent 6.7 per cent, gas more than 22 per cent, electricity more than 10 per cent. So, is what you're doing enough?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: There is the indexation, but we've increased the base rate of JobSeeker as well by $40 a fortnight. But that's not the only cost of living measures we've taken, as I said Commonwealth Rent Assistance – the largest increase in Commonwealth Rent Assistance – that goes to 1.1 million Australians who will benefit. As a result of that, we've got our energy price reductions, which will focus on concession card holders and of course our tripling of the bulk billing incentive, which is focused once again for those on the lowest incomes, those that have children. So, you've got to look at these cost of living measures in their entirety.
DAVID SPEERS: So, you've just announced the JobSeeker increase will be $56 and the Commonwealth Rent Assistance, which I think was a 15 per cent rise, was it in the budget. So, that'll be a bit more?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: That's correct. It’s 15 per cent and inflation so 17.2 per cent.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay. What about some of the other payments like single parent payment and so on? Have you worked out those figures yet?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: We haven't worked out those figures. Some of the other payments, like pension and Parenting Payment (Single) has a choice of indexation indicators. We've got to work through those. But CPI, of course is particularly high at the moment, and so it is likely that CPI will be the highest of the number of indicators that are looked at.
DAVID SPEERS: When you were making this decision in the budget on the $40 you set up a group called the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee which brought together business unions, social security experts, economists and so on to give you specific advice on this. It recommended lifting the JobSeeker rate to $875 a fortnight, 90 per cent of the Age Pension, they said. Just remind us why you said no to that?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: The Economic Inclusion Committee was providing very specific advice on the level of JobSeeker to inform the budget process. Of course the budget process has to take in a range of different factors, including responsible structural adjustments. But also, as the Treasurer said, making sure that we're not adding to inflation. There is a lot of issues that we do have to weigh up in a budget process…
DAVID SPEERS: So you couldn't afford it and you were worried about pushing up inflation?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: There was a number of aspects that were considered in our careful calibration of the Budget.
DAVID SPEERS: Are they the two reasons though?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: There were a number of factors considered in why we would increase JobSeeker but also rent assistance, also restoring single parenting payment. There are a number of actual issues we addressed…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] I'm just trying to ask what those are. Affordability
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Our focus across the board of our Budget was helping, particularly those doing it the toughest. We are providing cost of living relief across the board, but of course those doing it toughest was where our focus was.
DAVID SPEERS: I’m just asking why you couldn’t do what your experts were asking you to do. It’s because you couldn't afford it, is the answer?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well there's competing different viewpoints but of course the budget is one of those, budget considerations is one of those and we carefully calibrated in a number of areas, rent assistance being another area. Of course the single parenting payment – that was not a recommendation necessarily from the EIAC, it was a recommendation from the Women's Economic Equality Task Force. So, we had advice coming in from a range of different areas.
DAVID SPEERS: I think they were all saying go beyond where you did but obviously your argument at the time was the Budget was in deficit, you were worried about what you could afford. Turns out though the Budget is going to be in surplus more than $20 billion for that financial year as the Treasurer has said. Is there room for any further relief now that you can see the size of this surplus?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: The changes we're making, whether it's to rent assistance, JobSeeker or otherwise, are structural changes. They're ongoing increases that will be applied. So, when you talk about the surplus from last year it's a very different circumstance to the reforms that we've made which are ongoing and structural. Now we have calibrated these to be responsible to help people that are doing it tough but also that they are sustainable into the long term.
DAVID SPEERS: So, what do you say to those who no doubt will welcome any sort of increase but still facing these increasing costs, inflation is still rising. Will there be any further help this financial year?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, what we have coming in of course is this extra support flowing on the 20 September. That is of course if our bill, our Safety Net Bill passes the Parliament in the next fortnight.
DAVID SPEERS: Do you think it will?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I'll be urging everyone in the Senate to pass our Bill. People need relief now and I'll be urging the Senate to pass our Safety Net Bill. It is really a matter for the Greens, for the Coalition, for the crossbench whether that bill gets passed but we've been pretty clear that we want to provide this support…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] And that's it for this financial year?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: … and we want it flowing from the 20th September. Of course, in addition to that we have energy relief flowing which people will start seeing in their bills from the 1st July. Of course the tripling of the bulk billing incentive, rent assistance – it is really a pretty wholesome package to cover a number of areas.
DAVID SPEERS: Let's turn to another aspect of your portfolio a Senate inquiry into consent laws was held during the week. A consistent theme was the complication of different legal definitions of consent in different states and territories. Now, harmonising them would help but I suppose only if it's best practice that's being applied. What would you like to see?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, I'd like to see that we do work together with states and territories to see strong consent laws. I think that is really important but we also know that there is a lot of educative work to do out there on what consent means. The research does show that people are confused. People have different interpretations of what consent actually means and indeed, a lot of people don't want to talk about it. If they can avoid talking about consent, they will have those conversations with their children either. So, this is a big area of need that our country needs to tackle for education but also for laws to be consistent.
DAVID SPEERS: Just on some of those laws, should the age of consent be 16 or 17?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: That is absolutely a matter to work through with what states and territories…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] What’s your view?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: When we're actually talking about consent. What we're actually talking about is a positive conversation that both people engaging in sexual intercourse or any intimate activity are actually both willing participants. That's actually the nub of it. It's not the age of necessarily that's where the focus is, It’s when we're talking about consent…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] But does that age matter in law?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: The age matters in law between jurisdictions…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] But what do you think?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: To be honest, that is a matter for states and territories to work through. When we talk about consent, what we're actually talking about is making sure that young people as well as older people have a proper understanding about what it means to give consent to intimacy.
DAVID SPEERS: Are you talking about affirmative consent? In other words, active consent being given rather than assumed consent because the states differ on this as well. Where do you stand on this?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: That's something that is actually being discussed at the moment…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] What’s your view?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I want to work with states and territories about what that looks like. I think we need strong consent laws.
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Affirmative consent? I’m just asking if you support this?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: One of the issues around this area is it is a very grey area and for example, there's been established situations where a woman's been passed out and someone thinks it's okay then to sexually assault them.
DAVID SPEERS: Which is why many argue affirmative consent is important. Yet in states like your own South Australia, that's not the law as I understand it.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: They are currently working across the board on reforming their consent laws as well.
DAVID SPEERS: Can you take a position on this?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I want to work with states and territories. I think, for example, harmonising the laws across the country is critically important. But we need to educate people about this. There is such a poor level of education and I'm telling you, milkshake ads, which is what the previous government thought was consent education, it just won't cut it.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, speaking of education, big focus of those hearings during the week was universities and what's going on with some shocking numbers. The last national survey found 275 students are sexually assaulted in university settings every week. And that survey was done at the peak of COVID when presumably a lot of students weren't on campus. Is it time to get some more accurate data about what's going on at universities?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I do think there needs to be transparency about what's going on at universities and right across the country.
DAVID SPEERS: A new national survey?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I'm going to work with the Education Minister to look at what can be done.
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] But you do want a new national survey?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: What I want to see is those numbers reduce on campus. I want to see the numbers of sexual assault and sexual harassment reduce…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] I'm sure everyone does but should we have some more accurate data on this? A new national survey?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Data is key. Data is key to making sure that we can actually deal with the problem. But it's not just about more data. What we need to see, and universities are in a really unique position for this, is actually interventions. Interventions to actually ensure that younger people starting university have information on consent, understand what sexual assault is. And universities are in a unique position. And quite frankly, I don't think universities have been doing enough.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, it's interesting you say that because before the 2019 election, Labor promised an independent taskforce to hold universities to account for what's going on with sexual assault and harassment on their campuses. There was the threat of penalties and even withholding funding, if they weren't doing enough. Tanya Plibersek said at the time ‘the time for excuses, the time for talk is over’. What's happened to that commitment?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Myself and Jason Clare have been working very closely together on what universities can do. We've now got a new National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children and it's clear that everyone's got to take responsibility, including our universities.
DAVID SPEERS: Do we need an independent taskforce, as Labor promised back then?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I want to see universities take the responsibility seriously. I want to see them actually intervene to make sure that they're providing education on campus and I want to see them work with the government on this. I know that Minister Clare is very interested in continuing that conversation with universities…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Is a taskforce on the table?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I will work with Minister Clare on this, but what's really clear is the status quo is not good enough.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay, final one. Minister child protection. One of the close the gap targets is reducing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. You've commenced a formal partnership of what's called shared decision making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders on this. Can you explain how that works and how it also might work alongside an Indigenous Voice?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: For the first time ever the Ministerial Council on Child Protection, which involves me as the Commonwealth lead but also every state and territory, agreed to work in a different way to reduce the number of children in out-of-home care. And that is including equal numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders meeting and making decisions with Commonwealth and state and territory Ministers co-chaired together. Aboriginal leaders on this have said they have finally got hope for the first time that we will implement things like the Indigenous Child Protection Placement Principles. So, this is a new way of working, of actually sharing power. This is an exact example of how the Voice would work – providing advice and intel and information. One of the things that's come out from that process is unlike what seems to be in the wider community, this sense that every bit of advice the Voice will provide will be combative, I, and I know the Ministers around the table have found it really helpful. It has guided what we can do to make a difference and it is going to lead to practical changes on the ground. So, this is a really good example of doing things differently, of providing a Voice and ensuring that we actually get practical outcomes.
DAVID SPEERS: Amanda Rishworth, thanks so much for joining us today.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Thank you.