If Labor Won’t Review the Rate of JobSeeker, Who Will?

There’s just too much debt to help welfare recipients living below the poverty line, Albanese says.
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Photo by Brent Lewin / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Australian welfare recipients will be left to live below the poverty line for at least another 12 months – no matter who wins at the federal election – after Labor ditched its promise to push for an increase to unemployment benefits. 

Labor’s decision to backflip on a 2019 election promise to push for a review of the JobSeeker payment was announced first by Labor’s Shadow Minister for Treasury, Andrew Leigh, on Tuesday. 

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“We don’t have a plan for an independent review at this stage,” Leigh told the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) conference on Tuesday. Instead, Leigh said the party would focus on its “social housing commitment.”

Leigh suggested that because the JobSeeker rate was increased by $50 a fortnight last year – the first permanent increase in decades – Labor’s focus would be better given to a “whole package” of cost of living assistance measures, not just unemployment benefits. 

“So it was a modest increase put in place. Certainly living on JobSeeker is a challenge. And that’s one of the reasons we need to make sure we’re thinking about rent assistance and the adequacy of social housing,” he said.

 “It’s that whole package … making sure we have appropriate support around people who are most vulnerable.”

For a party that has spent the better part of the last three years begging welfare recipients to trust them, ditching plans for a rate review was a bold move. 

It was one Labor leader Anthony Albanese was left to answer for on Wednesday morning, when he argued that Labor hadn’t “dumped anything”, before contesting that his government would have no choice but to kick a JobSeeker rate increase to the bottom of the priority list if it is able to form government after the federal election because of the amount of debt it will inherit.

Then, he turned to anecdotes about growing up poor.

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“We haven’t dumped anything. What we’ve said is we don’t have a plan to increase the jobseeker allowance in our first budget,” Albanese said. 

“JobSeeker is $45 a day, or $642.70 a week. And that $642.70 a fortnight is obviously a lot less than I earn. So I know they’re doing it tough. But the truth is, if we’re fortunate enough to form government, we will form government at a time when debt is heading towards a trillion dollars.

“You can’t repair all of the damage, or do everything that you want to do, immediately.”

Critics were quick to swarm the opposition leader, who has almost daily reminded working class voters that he, too, was once poor, lived in public housing, and is somehow, even now, a relatable figure in Canberra, lobbying for a better life for those doing it as tough as he once did.

Among the earliest was ACOSS CEO, Dr Cassandra Goldie, who on Wednesday said that people on JobSeeker have become a political football, caught up in a scare campaign about budget deficits.

“How can anyone claim to care about the cost of living without addressing the inadequacy of JobSeeker, which is not enough to cover the cost of food, rent and essential medication?” Dr Goldie said in a statement. 

“And how can the major parties commit to spending $16 billion a year on the stage three tax cuts, most of which goes to people on higher incomes, while condemning millions with least to facing hunger and homelessness?,” she said. 

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In abandoning calls for a review of the rate, which have been mounted by Labor consistently over the last four years, the party hopes it can avoid a dogfight with the Coalition on income support, as the unemployment rate is on track to sink to the lowest level in about 50 years. 

Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler said the decision was more in line with Labor’s “much more focused, more modest agenda”.

“I think the pressure that Labor put on the government was a very big part of the reason why the government didn't cut the job seeker rate back to $40 a day and instead locked in a $50 a fortnight increase,” he said.

The move has, unsurprisingly, been described by others as a signal to moderate, or even centre-right voters as part of a play for marginal votes. It will leave the Greens and a handful of independents alone in campaigning for a review of the rate of JobSeeker – or, at least in the near term.

In late March, Greens leader Adam Bandt announced that his party would move to raise pensions, JobSeeker, and youth allowance payments to $88 a day if it comes away from the federal election with balance of power in the House of Representatives.

“If Liberal and Labor want to argue pensioners and job seekers should be living in poverty, bring it on,” Mr Bandt said in March. “With the cost of living soaring and inflation a looming problem, raising the rate of income support is the urgent economic stimulus that will help lift wages from the bottom up.”

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Independent senator for South Australia, Rex Patrick, said Labor can’t just spend its time in opposition supporting an increase to the rate of JobSeeker to get people out of poverty, only to then u-turn during the election campaign.

“All too often Labor says one thing and then backflips. This is a classic example. Very obviously they are letting opinion polls and focus groups determine their policy priorities,” Patrick said.

“One way or another, however, this critical social issue must be dealt with. Millions of Australians cannot be left on an allowance that is well below the poverty line, especially while soaring prices and rents make their position all the more untenable.”

As it does, Labor will join the Liberal Party in standing aside and watching along as out-of-work Australians descend into an unliveable lethargy. Or, according to Albanese, at least for the next 12 months.

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