JobSeeker - ABC 7.30

E&OE...

LEIGH SALES:
Senator Anne Ruston is the Minister for Social Services. Anne Ruston, thank you very much for your time.

MINISTER RUSTON:
My pleasure.

LEIGH SALES:
Can I start by asking why are unemployment benefits in Australia set below the poverty line?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Well obviously the first thing you would have to establish is what the actual measure of poverty is but what we try and do in Australia when it comes to setting our working age payments is to clearly balance a whole heap of factors, including making sure that we provide support for people who are looking for work. It's a safety net, it's not a wage replacement. But equally we have a number of other things that we put into our system in Australia to make sure that we support people in other ways whether it be by other supplements, whether it be through things like universal health care and universal education. So you can't compare Australia's working age payment system with those countries overseas because they are quite different.

LEIGH SALES:
I'm going from the OECD definition of the line which says that it's half the median household income of a total population. So, in Australia that's defined as $457 per week and a single person on JobSeeker receives a little over $300 per week. The Government's clearly just recently considered this issue in detail and so I'm just asking why we think that the rate of unemployment benefits ensures that people have to live in poverty?

MINISTER RUSTON:
You have just come up with one definition, but as I've said there…

LEIGH SALES:
It's the OECD's, what I quoted.

MINISTER RUSTON:
There are a number of different factors that play into our working payment system. As I said, not the least of which is the fact that you cannot compare Australia's system with those overseas…

LEIGH SALES:
I'm not.

MINISTER RUSTON:
And I was also going to suggest that there are a number of other things that are in our system in totality. As I said, we have universal health care, we have universal education and also Australia's welfare system, our unemployment benefits, they're a non-contributory system and they are there for the duration of people's need for them.

LEIGH SALES:
One of the things that the government is going to introduce is a hotline where if an employer offers somebody a job and the person offered the job turns it down, the employer can then dob them in. Shouldn't it be a fundamental right for Australians that you can turn down a job? There are a lot of valid reasons why you might think a job is not suitable.

MINISTER RUSTON:
Look that is absolutely correct Leigh and there are a number of reasons why somebody would have a valid reason to turn down a job.

LEIGH SALES:
Let's say for example that they just didn't like the boss, they thought they were a bit sleazy, something like that. Is that considered a valid reason?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Certainly there is an element of requirement that everyone has the right to feel safe in the workplace. But I also think that Australians are more than happy to support people with payments when they find themselves out of work but I think equally there is an expectation if you are able to undertake the job and there is no reason why you can't I think Australians expect that people will take up that job.

LEIGH SALES:
A single person on JobSeeker will receive a little over $300 a week to live on, as I mentioned before. A politician receives more than $280 per day in travel allowance when they are in Canberra on top of their salary. Why is that fair?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Well, as you would be well aware the rate of payment that we are talking about is the base rate and in a number of areas, there are supplements, there are allowances and there are other things that people have available to them because Australia's system…

LEIGH SALES:
Sorry to interrupt you, Minister, but just for the average Australian watching, a politician gets $280 a day in travel allowance, someone on JobSeeker has to live off $300 a week. Why is that fair?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Well certainly the most important thing that we can do as I said, this is a safety net, it's about supporting people while they are looking for work, but the most important thing we as a government can do now that the pandemic is, hopefully, largely behind us when the economy is recovering is we've got to focus on getting jobs so that every Australian can have a job and they can have the benefits that are associated with having a job and the income that goes with it and...

LEIGH SALES:
Don't you want to tackle my question head-on?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Well I think I am tackling your question head-on Leigh and that is that the most important thing that we can do is to provide people with access to jobs so we need to make sure the economy is providing those jobs. That's exactly what we are going to do.

LEIGH SALES:
Is that why you say that you deserve the $280 a day in travel allowance?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Look, I mean this is not an issue about working Australians, this is an issue about taxpayers supporting Australians who find themselves out of work to support them back into work because we all know that people who are unemployed have worse life outcomes than people who're employed and so the most important thing that we can do is to focus on making sure that those jobs are there so people can have the kind of life outcomes you and I enjoy Leigh.

LEIGH SALES:
Regarding the Brittany Higgins matter, how would you describe the way it was handled by the Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Well obviously there's been a lot of commentary around this particular matter. I think Linda has explained herself very clearly about what she knew and what she didn't know and when she knew what she knew. But you know the one thing that is so important and I think Linda's demonstrated this, and that is that Miss Higgins had requested that her privacy be maintained and I think that everything that Linda said that she's done during that period was to respect Miss Higgins' privacy.

LEIGH SALES:
So you don't have any problems with how your colleague handled that?

MINISTER RUSTON:
The information that I have before me, I have no issue with how it's been handled but I would say Leigh you cannot underestimate the pain and suffering that Miss Higgins and a number of other people, whether it be in this work place or any work place. It is absolutely paramount as employers, and I take my role very seriously as an employer and I'm in a privileged position as a politician, to set an example that we not only have to ensure people are safe in the work place, we need to make sure they feel safe in the workplace. So I think it is a very, very important issue and I welcome the findings of the inquiries that are going to be undertaken both independently and internally because we always should strive to do better because if Miss Higgins didn't think she was supported then we have to address that issue.

LEIGH SALES:
You point out that as a minister you take your role as a boss very seriously. The Defence Minister was aware of what happened to Brittany Higgins and yet she didn't take steps to inform the Prime Minister. As a minister, if you were in that position as a boss, would you keep a matter like that from the Prime Minister?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Well, look every situation I think is, you have to assess on its merits but of course the most important thing…

LEIGH SALES:
But minister…

MINISTER RUSTON:
Leigh, the most important thing that I think everybody, well nobody has disputed, is that it was Miss Higgins, it was her story it was her agency that needed to be protected. Now if Miss Higgins…

LEIGH SALES:
But what I am trying to get a handle on, sure, sure, I understand that, but what I'm trying to get a handle on is, you know, you as a minister and the way the Government operates, if an alleged serious crime took place in your office in Parliament House, as a minister, would you consider it your obligation to tell the Prime Minister?

MINISTER RUSTON:
I would consider it my obligation if a crime had taken place first and foremost to make sure that the necessary authorities were advised and in this case the Australian Federal Police were the obvious authority but look I don't know all of the circumstances.

LEIGH SALES:
The Prime Minister is sort of the ultimate authority isn't he?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Well not in a situation of a crime. I mean if a crime is committed obviously the police are sovereign in this respect and the police would be the appropriate place.

LEIGH SALES:
Are you seriously saying if a serious crime was committed in your office in Parliament House, that you wouldn't think that you were obliged to tell the Prime Minister?

MINISTER RUSTON:
Look Leigh I'm not going to go into hypotheticals. I don't know the circumstances that turned around the particular issue you're talking about in relation to Miss Higgins. And so I don't want to go into hypotheticals of what would happen in my office. All I can say is the safety and the feeling of safety of my staff is something that I take very, very seriously. I don't underestimate the pain and suffering that Miss Higgins has gone through and I think it's incumbent on us all to make sure that we absolutely are alive to the issue of making sure our staff feel comfortable at work.

LEIGH SALES:
Anne Ruston, we appreciate your time, thank you very much.

MINISTER RUSTON:
Thanks Leigh.