Topics: Strengthening the Safety Net Package
AMANDA RISHWORTH, MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES: I am extremely pleased to report that our Strengthening the Safety Net Bill, which will provide important cost of living relief to Australians doing it tough has passed the Senate. This passing of our Safety Net Bill means that around two million Australians will get extra support from the 20th of September. It will deliver an increase to the base rate of JobSeeker and student payments, and other working age payments, to support those doing it tough with the cost of living. It will also give one of the largest increases of rent assistance – indeed, the largest increase in rent assistance for the last 30 years, helping those that are on the maximum rent assistance rate get extra support. That, on average, will support people with an extra $24 per fortnight. This Bill also expands the eligibility of the single parenting payment, allowing over 57,000 single parents to benefit from a higher rate, because, we know that caring doesn't finish at when your youngest child turns eight. That expansion will increase the amount paid for single parents with children between the ages of eight and 14 and the higher rate of JobSeeker will be extended to those over the age of 55. At this moment, the cut-off is at 60 years of age. That is because we know those older, unemployed job seekers do face extra barriers to finding work. Barriers like discrimination and sickness. Together, this package is a significant investment in our safety net. It is carefully calibrated not to put more pressure on inflation, and indeed, carefully targeted to support those doing it toughest. Now, I do note that the Coalition did vote against an extra $40 of money for JobSeeker and other student payments. They voted against supporting those doing it toughest, and this is characteristic of the Liberal National Party, but not unsurprising. I am just pleased that the rest of the Senate and the crossbench saw how important it was to deliver this cost of living relief to Australians. And now that this Bill is passed the Parliament, these benefits will start to flow from the 20th of September. Finally, I would say that not only will the base rates increase from the 20th of September, but for those payments; like rent assistance, like JobSeeker that were due to be indexed, indexation will also be applied to those rates on the 20th of September. So for a JobSeeker without dependents, that actually means not $40 but $56.
JOURNALIST: Both the Opposition and the Greens wanted to increase the amount people on the payments could work before they have their benefits tapered. How come the Government didn't want to do this as well?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Let’s be clear, what the Opposition proposed was taking away the $40 a fortnight increase for those doing it the toughest and not actually supporting across the board increased payments. They were picking some people over others. What we know is that 77 per cent of job seekers do not use the income free area that is already available to them. That is because they face a range of barriers about getting into work. I mentioned that older workers often experience age discrimination. There is sickness as well that can stop people from working and mental health issues. The barriers are quite extensive, including foundational skills, and language issues. So we as a Government are absolutely committed to supporting people on JobSeeker while they need it, but importantly, supporting them move into employment. The way we are doing that is a comprehensive review through our Employment White Paper that will look at a range of areas and how we can actually reduce the barriers that many on income support are facing. But right now this Bill was about providing extra support for those doing it toughest. Through our White Paper process we will look at how we improve workforce participation and the mechanisms and levers that best work, not just cherry pick thought bubbles, but ones that actually do work.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask why September 20? Where that date came from?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Services Australia do need to make sure that their systems are in place. The advice from Services Australia was that the 20th of September was a quick start date and one where they could get their processes in place. Of course there's a range of changes that need to be put into place. It is also the date of indexation, so it means that both the indexation and the changes can be incorporated into the systems together.
JOURNALIST: The $56 a fortnight increase is still below what the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee recommended the Government increase the JobSeeker rate by. Is there any consideration for movement coming in the next six months to a year?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: The Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee provided a range of recommendations and I'd like to thank them for their work. In terms of the way the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee fitted into the budget process, it was one of the many pieces of information that we incorporated into our Budget process. This is the increase that we believe is targeted. It has been calibrated and to ensure that it is right for the times. That is the increase that we have settled on but it's not done in isolation. Of course, in addition, we have our rent assistance increase. Many people on JobSeeker will also receive that rental assistance increase and many of those on concession cards. There’s working age payments, but also pensioners will receive benefit from our energy relief. Our tripling of the Medicare bulk-billing incentive is targeted to children and those on concession cards. And our cheaper medicines policy flows through for those on payments. There is a number of different areas that we are looking at, for how to provide support. The increase of JobSeeker is one of them. As I noted, It was disappointing that the Coalition did not support that increase. But we are looking right across the board about how we help people in a range of circumstances and a range of situations.
JOURNALIST: Will the Government now look at potentially increasing it for people below 55 considering that we are now looking at a Budget surplus, higher than expected when the budget first came out?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: The social security changes are structural in the Budget. So any changes we make to social security won't go to a Budget surplus in a previous year. It goes to structural changes within the Budget. So any structural changes in the Budget we've got to do in a responsible, well-calibrated way. That's of course, part of our consideration. Part of our consideration is also not adding to inflation. These are all factors that we need to take into consideration. So when we were designing this safety net it was about being carefully-calibrated with those factors as well as the cost of living pressures that people are also facing. This was carefully-calibrated, carefully-targeted and is ongoing. This is not a one off payment that people get, this is an ongoing increase in the base rates of support that people have into the future.
JOURNALIST: While employment rates remain pretty steady at record lows the unemployment rates have actually been increasing pretty consistently over the years. Will the Government consider revisiting and raising the income free area? Specifically that statistic of about 77 per cent actually starts to increase if you see more people on JobSeeker.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Our Government has been absolutely focused on well-paid, secure full-time jobs and obviously secure part-time jobs as well. We want to see people being able to move off income support into well-paid good jobs. And so that has been the focus of our Government, to ensure that happens. We want to make sure that the safety net is strong when people need it, but there is also the opportunity to transition off and get a well-paid secure job. That is the work that Minister Burke has been doing. That is what many of our industrial relations changes are about, making sure people have secure, and permanent full time work. That’s incredibly important. When we look at our work, our Employment White Paper, we are certainly looking at how we overcome barriers and support people and how we support them into work and so it will be a very comprehensive look at some of the barriers into work, some of the barriers around full-time work. Our focus is providing support through a strong safety net when people need it, but supporting them to transition into secure full time employment when that becomes available.
JOURNALIST: So raising the income free area is still on the table?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Our White Paper is canvassing what we think are the best responses. I don't want to pre-empt the work done in that White Paper. It is a very comprehensive look. But as I've said regularly, from the Opposition, this was a thought bubble. They had the opportunity to actually implement this when they were last in Government. In fact, in April 2021, they set the income free threshold. As I said, 77 per cent of people don't even use the income free threshold that is available to them at the moment and that is because they are facing other barriers to get into work. Whether that's foundation skills, whether that's sickness whether that's discrimination. We are looking at the actual drivers and the actual barriers that are put up for people to get into employment and reducing those barriers to support them into well-paid jobs.
JOURNALIST: When is the White Paper due?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: The White Paper is due later this year. Thank you