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JobSeeker recipients sacrificed in $507 billion stimulus spend

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Despite the groundswell of support from across the political and ideological spectrum, the Morrison Government continues to resist calls to permanently raise JobSeeker, writes Tarric Brooker.

WHEN the coronavirus pandemic first began impacting Australians significantly back in March, the Morrison Government suddenly became acutely aware that $550 per fortnight was not enough for the unemployed to live on.

Perhaps it was because all of a sudden up to one in four workers faced finding out exactly how difficult it was to live on Centrelink benefits. Or maybe because the hit from all that household spending going up in smoke was too much for the economy to bear.

Regardless of the reasoning, the change was made and the more than 800,000 Australians receiving JobSeeker related benefits pre-coronavirus suddenly found themselves no longer being forced to live precariously, wondering where the money would come from if the car broke down or the washing machine packed up.

Now as the economy improves and the ABS employment survey shows the labour market recovering, these additional payments are slowly being tapered away. At the end of March, the same old $40 a day Newstart rate will resume and over a million people will once again face a hand to mouth existence.

Despite the Government’s frequent victory laps relating to the economy and labour market, things haven’t really improved all that much for the almost 1.5 million people currently receiving a JobSeeker payment.

The number of payment recipients has been reduced by just 7.7 per cent since the total number peaked at over 1.62 million back in August. At face value, this is quite a positive development — around 125,000 people are no longer reliant on Centrelink unemployment benefits.

Unfortunately, like many things in life, the devil is in the detail. Since late September, the assets and income tests have resumed, this has forced tens of thousands of recipients off of Centrelink’s books, now that they are no longer eligible for Government support.

More still have had their payments suspended or cancelled due to the resumption of "mutual obligation requirements", These include:

  • attending appointments with an employment services provider or Centrelink;
  • job searches, including looking for work and applying for jobs;
  • doing Work for the Dole; and
  • other approved activities such as study, training, paid or voluntary work.

These requirements have often proven in the past to be punitive, particularly when there are few job vacancies for which to apply. Overall, for the approximately 700,000 Australians who have suddenly found themselves on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder since the pandemic began, things aren’t nearly as rosy as the positive headlines would suggest.

According to consulting and accounting firm KPMG, $507 billion in government stimulus has been committed to aiding the recovery of the economy.

Yet despite this enormous expenditure by the Federal Government and the states and territories, there has been no commitment to permanently raise JobSeeker.

To put that into perspective, extending the JobSeeker supplement to its 2.1 million recipients at its current rate of $250 per fortnight, for another 12 months, would cost approximately $13.65 billion — or just 2.69% of the total committed stimulus.

It’s not like "raising the rate" is an unpopular political move, either. Even organisations and public figures traditionally associated with a tight hold on the welfare system's purse strings have thrown their support behind a change.

From the Business Council of Australia to former Prime Minister John Howard, many have spoken of the benefits "raising the rate" would provide, to not only the JobSeeker recipients themselves but the economy more broadly.

Despite the groundswell of support from across the political and ideological spectrum, the Morrison Government continues to resist the calls to permanently raise JobSeeker payment rates.

As this year draws to a close, we are confronted with the strangest of situations. A Government that was defined by getting “Back in the Black” and fiscal conservatism just nine months ago, spending over half a trillion dollars on stimulus measures. Yet, at the same time as JobKeeper-driven corporate profits are being paid out to shareholders through dividends and executives through bonuses, the Morrison Government still hasn’t found a way to support a permanent increase to JobSeeker.

Ultimately, this isn’t just about the economy or driving the ongoing recovery. It’s about people. Regular everyday folks, who through no fault of their own have found themselves at the mercy of the nation’s welfare system. People who deserve to be supported in their time of need and given the assistance they require to get through this challenging time and to get back to work.

Because despite the popularised image of people on welfare payments being “dole bludgers”, almost no one wants to be on JobSeeker if they can help it.

Tarric Brooker is an IA columnist, freelance journalist and political commentator. You can follow Tarric on Twitter @AvidCommentator.

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