The good news, from Scott Morrison’s government: the fears over the axing of the JobSeeker stimulus in December have been spared. Instead, the extra money to the old Newstart welfare payment lives on until March, one year after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in Australia.
The bad news: another $100 per fortnight will be chopped from that payment, reducing it to $150 per fortnight on top of the old Newstart rate of $550 per fortnight, Morrison and his government’s minister for families and social services Anne Ruston announced on Tuesday.
And the unsettling news: after March, it’s anyone’s guess as to where that payment will be sitting, with government figures being non-committal as to whether any further cuts will take place.
That last point can only raise the anxious fears of those living fortnight-to-fortnight on JobSeeker, afraid that it may mount a return to the $40-per-day pre-pandemic Newstart levels.
As it stands looking ahead to the next round of JobSeeker cuts as of January 1, and ending on March 31, its recipients are looking at receiving $734.50 per fortnight, or a clip of $51.21 per day, down from $834.50 per fortnight and $59.91 per day respectively.
In the wake of the government’s announcement, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) fears that amid over 1.4 million recipients reliant on JobSeeker and a unemployment rate of 6.9 per cent through to the month of September, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), and under-employment rates at 11.4 per cent, the Morrison government is filling these groups of people with dread in a pandemic- and recession-filled job market, instead of giving them hope.
“Cutting JobSeeker will lead to greater financial hardship for the hundreds of thousands of working people who are currently out of work due to the pandemic and recession,” said Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president.
“Rather than supporting working people through the worst economic downturn in a century, the government has reverted to ideological attacks on the unemployed – arguing that payments which allowed unemployed people to afford food and rent were somehow ‘holding them back’,” she added.
The ABS’s updated employment, unemployment and under-employment figures are due out next week, with unemployment figures topping one million persons in July and projections are tipped to remain that way by December 31 based on a predicted unemployment rate of 8.75 per cent.
Morrison and Ruston defended the future cuts, spinning them into an insistence that it may inspire the jobless and under-employed to get back into the job market successfully, despite many areas of the country drowning in applicants per job available – a 16-to-one ratio in metro areas on average, and a 23-to-one ratio in particular rural and regional areas.
“My number one priority is to get more Australians into work,” Morrison said when announcing the JobSeeker changes.
“As the country is safely reopening and businesses starting to return to full steam, we need to connect those seeking work with available jobs.
“When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia, we acted decisively by boosting our health response and putting in place more than $257 billion of direct economic support measures to cushion the blow, and today that support continues for those Australians that need it,” he said.
But instead of cushioning the blow, according to O’Neil, all JobSeeker recipients can sense is a ticking time bomb.
“We need to create secure jobs for working people and support unemployed people so that they can find a job. Poverty rates for the unemployed only makes losing a job more traumatic [and] it does nothing to help people find work,” she said.
“People who have lost their job in the midst of a pandemic need certainty and ongoing support – cutting this payment and only extending it until the end of March gives them neither,” added O’Neil.
Meanwhile, Ruston was left to assure the public that the Services Australia – formerly known as the Department of Human Services and colloquially known as Centrelink – would still be there for those needing support as the economy recovers out of the pandemic and recession.
“We have temporarily put arrangements in place so that our social security safety net is not just for people who have lost their jobs, but it is also supporting people who have had their hours or income reduced,” Ruston said, about the extension of the JobSeeker program which will cost the Morrison government $3.2 billion on top of the initial $257 billion investment in JobSeeker and JobKeeper.
“As the jobs market improves, we want to encourage people to re-engage with the workforce because we know that even a few hours of work a week while on payment can have a dramatic impact on the pathway off income support,” said Ruston.
While Ruston’s statements may be construed to infer that a person taking any job aids the government’s aims on unemployment and economic recovery, her shadow opposite number Linda Burney maintains that Labor will continue to fight over the next 6-7 weeks to keep the JobKeeper stimulus at $250 per fortnight, to avert any cuts.
And Burney and Labor – while O’Neil and the ACTU push for the government to “return the JobSeeker payment to the original coronavirus supplement rate” of $1115.70 per fortnight – will also fight for a permanent increase to the old NewStart payment, which has remained at its current rate since March 1994.
“Labor will be moving amendments in the Senate [Tuesday], which have been entrained for quite some time at arguing that the JobSeeker rate – the increase of $250, which is what it is now – should remain, at least until the end of JobKeeper in March,” Burney told Sky News on Tuesday morning.
“The other immediate reaction I have is twofold. Firstly, the government has not announced a permanent increase to JobSeeker, and everyone from the BCA are arguing that’s very necessary. And secondly, is that the Government’s own figures tell us that there are going to be an additional 300,000 people at least on JobSeeker by Christmas, which makes it 1.8 million Australians,” she added.
Multiple advocacy groups, ranging from the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) in a recent advocacy paper and multiple non-profit charitable organisations to Burney’s ALP colleagues themselves, will applaud Burney’s attempts to legislate a permanent raise to NewStart/JobSeeker, seen as currently sitting below the rates of poverty.
Burney’s commitment on the matter will be worth following, at least as a compassionate attempt to help Australia’s jobless and under-employed better cope with a state of poverty.
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