Community Groups Warn That Welfare Changes Will Increase Homelessness
22 March 2018 at 4:55 pm
Community groups have warned that the likely changes to Australia’s welfare system will push more people into homelessness, after the Turnbull government’s controversial welfare reform bill passed the Senate.
The welfare reform bill has faced severe backlash from health experts and welfare groups since it was first introduced in June 2017, and concerns remained even after it removed drug testing trials from the legislation.
The bill finally passed the Senate on Wednesday, bringing in tougher penalties for persistent and deliberate non-compliance of welfare obligations.
It will include a new demerit-point regime, which could halt welfare payments for up to a month, while drug and alcohol dependency will no longer be accepted as an excuse for not meeting requirements.
Welfare Reform Bill passes Senate. It introduces a demerit point system for breaches of welfare obligations. Will enable early identification of those who need help but serious consequences for those who are taking the taxpayer for a ride. @cporterwa @SenatorCash @DanTehanWannon
— Alan Tudge (@AlanTudgeMP) March 21, 2018
Long-time critic of the bill, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, said the bill contained a range of measures that would hurt people with disability, bereaved people, those struggling with addiction, and older and unemployed Australians.
“We cannot let the measures in this bill that will affect older Australians, people with complex health issues, people who are bereaved and those who will have to struggle with the new compliance process pass by unnoticed,” Siewert said.
“Schedules 13 and 14 remove temporary exemptions from mutual obligation or activity requirement for people struggling with addiction and make changes to reasonable excuses. People will be able to be kicked off income support for having a health issue.
“Yet again, the [government] blatantly ignored the evidence the committee has heard over and over again during the inquiry process that drug and alcohol addiction is a health issue that must be treated through the health system.”
The Australian Council of Social Service also expressed disappointment that the legislation passed the Senate.
ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said the bill will “worsen the lives of people experiencing disadvantage”.
“This bill will increase already shockingly high homelessness numbers. More than 80,000 people stand to be cut off from payments after just 12 months of this new legislation,” Goldie said.
“We call on our political leaders to raise the rate of the lowest payments, and give people a decent chance of finding paid work.”
— ACOSS (@ACOSS) March 21, 2018
Pas Forgione, the convenor of the Anti-Poverty Network SA, told Pro Bono News he agreed with ACOSS that the legislation will push more people into homelessness.
“There’ll be a number of job seekers who will be [hurt] by the new demerit points scheme and will have to deal with an extraordinary cut to their income,” Forgione said.
“I think the government does not appreciate how devastating it is for someone who’s already on a very small income to begin with – let’s remember that Newstart is a very paltry $269 a week – and to say to someone on that paltry income ‘we’re going to cut your income for a week or for a fortnight or for a month’ will be [distressing] for people.
“I’ve got no doubt that they’ll be people who’ll end up homeless, who will have to skip meals. There’ll be people who even if they do not end up homeless, will fall significantly behind in their rent, which will put a black mark against their name and make it harder for them to rent in the future.”
Former Social Services Minister Christian Porter, told Pro Bono News in December that the welfare reform bill aimed to help people break the cycle of welfare dependency.
“The welfare reform bill before the Senate is the next critical step in reforming the welfare system to get even more people to break the cycle of welfare dependency,” Porter said.
But Forgione said the Anti-Poverty Network SA was “entirely against the idea of a punitive welfare system”.
“The welfare system should be there to protect people from poverty. Where there are people who are not engaging with services, we should be having a conversation about why that is,” he said.
“And the fact is that there are many unemployed people out there who are losing hope. They face a labour market that is deteriorating and it’s completely understandable that many of them start to feel like they’re banging their heads against the wall and not getting anywhere.
“Those people who start to feel demoralised and disengaged should not be punished. We should recognise that their circumstances are grim and they face a labour market where there’s one job for every 10 job seekers and if they give up, the answer is not to clamp down on them and cut off their only source of income.”
Forgione added that the legislation would put a further strain on homelessness and welfare services in Australia.
“We know that since the 2013 federal election roughly $1 billion has been cut from the community sector. So I think for the sector it’s going to increase the strain,” he said.
“They’ll be a growing number of people who need to access services and won’t be able to access them.
“I’d like to see the kinds of welfare reforms that make the system easier for unemployed people to use. I’m so tired of the fact that every time the government talks about welfare reform, it seems to be a code for finding new ways of cutting off people’s payments.”
The bill will now go to the House of Representatives, for the Senate’s amendments to be approved.