Jenny McAllister
Thursday, 5 December 2019

For more than three million people, the ‘promise of Australia’ is poverty

Every morning, three million Australians wake up and live life below the poverty line.  

Poverty in Australia today is the consequence of bad social and economic policy decisions, and sustained inaction by the current Government. And while the Government likes to boast about their management of the economy, Australians know through their day-to day experience that the system is not working for them. 

I grew up on the north coast of New South Wales, a region troubled by poverty. Every day, people living on the north coast battle to make ends meet. These are hardworking and resilient people who, in the face of adversity, come together as a community and help one another, despite a serious lack of government support and services. 

Take a single mother with two children living in Grafton, a regional city on the north coast of New South Wales, trying to re-enter the workforce. Her location and circumstances alone significantly increase the likelihood of her and her children living in poverty. 

Finding work is becoming increasingly difficult in Grafton. The unemployment rate is nearly 10 per cent, almost double the national unemployment rate. Limited public transport options make it difficult or expensive to travel out of the area for work. Even if she can find a job, workforce casualisation means it’s likely her job will have limited security. 

While looking for work, the Newstart Allowance and other payments are barely able to cover the basic costs of raising two children alone. She struggles to pay rent and bills and put food on the table for her kids. Her washing machine breaks and she is forced to take out a high interest payday loan to buy a new one. She cannot afford to make the repayments and enters a serious spiral of debt. An insecure retirement in the future is basically guaranteed due to her debt, lack of savings and little superannuation. Yet, the Government refuses to consider raising the rate of Newstart, regulate the payday lending industry or address women’s poverty in retirement. 

The rising costs of living are almost impossible for this woman to meet, particularly the cost of childcare. Under the Coalition, childcare costs have increased by 28 per cent, and many parents – particularly women – are not returning to work because it is simply cheaper to stay at home. The Government has done little to address this and has failed to provide affordable, accessible and high quality early education and care for families in our communities.  

This woman doesn’t have emergency savings or insurance if there was a bushfire or flood in Grafton, a serious reality for people living on the north coast. 

Through no fault of her own, this woman and her children are entangled in a cycle of poverty. The Prime Minister talks about the ‘promise of Australia’; the idyllic notion that all Australians can succeed regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, class or location. The reality is that for millions of Australians, the ‘promise of Australia’ is poverty. 

Australia is a social democratic country with all the levers to tackle poverty; the question is whether the government pulls those levers. The current Coalition Government is running a cruel, inhumane agenda that is entrenching millions of people in poverty. For the past six years we have seen the Government reduce the welfare and social support system to one that is highly conditional and punitive. The Government made it more and more difficult for vulnerable Australians to access income support. Instead, it has been pre-occupied with its ideologically driven obsessions of compulsory income management while pursuing false or inflated debts against vulnerable Australians through its shambolic Robodebt scheme. The Government has missed a golden opportunity to tackle disadvantage and reap the social and economic benefits that come from investing in our poorest people.

John Roskam, Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs, recently said: “Labor doesn’t win as many elections as the Liberals, but when Labor does win it does things”. In the past Labor has built institutions to help lift people out of poverty, including Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Today, we are calling on the Government to increase Newstart as a first step to tackle poverty. 

Labor does not exist to simply win government but to use it. We recognise the power that comes with governing, not only to change our nation for the better, but to really transform lives. From having the opportunity to take up an apprenticeship, feeling comfort from knowing you can get that lump checked without worrying about the cost, or having a decent safety net when you are out of work or retired – these are turning points in a person’s life. Together they are the difference between hardship and dignity. 

As progressives we are united not by a determination to be right in theory, but to do right in practice. In his speech on Labor and the economy, Leader Anthony Albanese stated that Australia needs “an economy that works for people, not the other way around.” There are real people, more than three million Australians, who depend on a Labor Government that can ensure the economy works for them and that there are services and support in place to lift them out of poverty. 

These people are why Labor must win Government in 2022.

About Jenny McAllister:

Senator Jenny McAllister has served as a Senator for New South Wales since 2015. She is currently the Shadow Cabinet Secretary and Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Senator McAllister is also a former National President of the ALP and a member of the ALP National Policy Committee.