THURSDAY, 14 NOVEMBER 2019
SUBJECTS: The need to increase the rate of Newstart; the economy slowing under the Morrison Government.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: As we come into the Christmas season, we know that many Canberrans are doing it tough. This is a place where housing is relatively expensive, and where the food bank that we're in today serves some 600 people a week. It's great to be here with Ruth, who manages the food bank program for Communities@Work, and my colleague Linda Burney to talk about the challenges of poverty and disadvantage in Canberra.
The great work that's being done by our local social services providers unfortunately isn't being matched by the federal government, which has resisted calls to raise the Newstart allowance. Raising Newstart would not only benefit people who are without work – it would also put much needed money into the economy at a time when economic growth is looking fragile. I’ll hand over to Linda to say a few words.
LINDA BURNEY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FAMILIES AND SOCIAL SERVICES, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS, MEMBER FOR BARTON: Can I thank Andrew for the invitation to come to Fenner today, and thank Ruth and the many wonderful volunteers we've met here this morning for providing such an essential service to the Canberra community. I think many people who don't live in the ACT see Canberra as a place of great privilege, but we know that it isn't. There are many people who are doing it tough, hence the importance of this particular pantry and the importance of the work of community services, and the importance of the work of Ruth and her volunteers. I want to acknowledge that, and we are calling obviously for an increase in the rate of Newstart. As Andrew said, that will put stimulus into the economy, but it will also mean that the people who are really, really doing it tough have more disposable income and that’s very important.
JOURNALIST: How much should the rate of Newstart be raised by?
BURNEY: Labor is not stating an amount at this point in time. We are a long way from the next federal election, and we want to be responsible in terms of understanding what the fiscal circumstances are at the time when we need to think about what any rate increase would be. But the more important thing is that we are calling on the Morrison Government, who have the resources right now and understand right now - as many of their backbench in the Coalition have articulated - that there does need to be a rise in Newstart. And we are calling on the Morrison Government to do exactly that.
JOURNALIST: Right now, groups say maybe that an increase of $100 would help [inaudible] right now?
BURNEY: As I said, Labor is not putting a figure on it right now. From Anthony Albanese our leader right through, there has been an articulation that there should be an increase. We will not be rushing into nominating an amount until we have a better idea of what the circumstances are closer to the election. But what we do understand, as is evidenced here today in Gungahlin, and evidence here today that there is a need right across the board for an increase to Newstart.
JOURNALIST: With an increase to Newstart, what difference do you expect that would make to people in this situation?
BURNEY: Well, it will do two things. An increase to the rate of Newstart will mean that families who are living on this social security payment will have more disposable income. We know that people are going without medication. We know that people are going without meals. We know that there are parents who are electing not to eat so their children can eat. This is an unacceptable situation in a first world nation like Australia. And the second thing of course is that if there is an increase to Newstart, as Andrew has indicated, it will stimulate the economy immediately. Because people who have not very much in terms of material circumstance now will spend the extra money, which will mean an immediate increase to stimulate the economy now.
JOURNALIST: What are your concerns for the ACT if nothing’s done?
BURNEY: Well, the ACT - and I think Ruth is probably the person to speak about that, and Andrew more than me - we know that it is an expensive place to live and the idea that there aren’t people doing it tough, the idea that there is no homelessness in the ACT is a fallacy. I’d invite two people who know a lot more than me about those particular issues to make comment.
JOURNALIST: So Ruth, just a rough figure, how many families and individuals are you supporting each week?
RUTH ZANKER, COMMUNITIES@WORK: Between Tuggeranong and Gungahlin, we actually see 700 visits to the Community Pantry in a week, and this financial year we saw over 32,000 visits all up.
JOURNALIST: In terms of demand, how full are your shelves? Or how quickly are they emptying before you have to restock them?
ZANKER: Things come in really quickly and they also go out really quickly. Not many things that are donated last more than a week between our storerooms and our shelves.
JOURNALIST: Can you describe some of the demand at the moment, especially leading into Christmas? Is there an increase?
ZANKER: There is an increase at this time of year. What we see is that people have just had those heating bills from winter come through and that impact is huge for people. They're actually thinking about the lead up to Christmas and what that looks like as well. Christmas has its own pressures attached to it. So we actually give out gifts, as well as extra food at this time of year.
JOURNALIST: As far as struggling on Newstart payments, what are some of the stories that clients have been telling you, or what have you hearing through being here about the struggles that they’re going through?
ZANKER: We’ve seen people come in just to ask about food, but it turns out that they actually need more than food. They need information and referral services. They just need that listening ear that’s actually not going to judge them as well. We find that they’re actually eating less, they’re taking less medication, so we're hoping that medical scripts and things like that as well.
JOURNALIST: If there's no improvement soon, do you - are you concerned about the demands and maybe possibly having to turn people away at any point?
ZANKER: Communities@Work have that commitment to Canberra and the Canberra community, and we have never been at a point where we’ve turned someone away. We’ll do our upmost to keep supporting the Canberra community the best we possibly can.
LEIGH: We know from the work of the Australian National University that raising Newstart would be one of the best things that Government could do to address poverty directly. The challenge of deprivation across Australia is real, and that will become even more acute if the economy continues to slow. One of the best ways of supporting people in poverty, one of the best ways of supporting the Australian economy, is to raise the rate of Newstart.
JOURNALIST: There’s been calls for the federal government to increase the payments, but they seem to be standing pretty firm. Why do you think that is?
LEIGH: I'm not sure why the government is so keen to hand out money to multinationals and so reluctant to raise the of Newstart. The Business Council of Australia, a range of Liberal Party backbenchers and state representatives are calling on the government to raise Newstart. It’s the right thing to do, the decent thing to do, and the economically sensible thing to do.
JOURNALIST: What are you most concerned about if nothing’s done soon?
LEIGH: Newstart is too low. People living on Newstart are languishing on the poverty line. We do need to make sure it’s increased for the sake of the most vulnerable members of the community, and to do so right now would also give welcome stimulus to the economy.
JOURNALIST: As far as today goes, what was the purpose of this visit? What do you hope to take away?
LEIGH: This is an opportunity to engage with local charities and social service providers. I do it on a regular basis. I had a breakfast in my electorate office with a range of Canberra community sector groups just a month ago. It's important now to hear their stories in the lead up to Christmas, and recognise the important work they're doing and how that can be supported, if the federal government was willing to put more resources into tackling poverty. Thanks so much.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.