The Greens have moved to establish a Senate Committee inquiry into the “nature and extent” of poverty in Australia, as the federal government continues to swat away questions about cost of living relief and increased welfare payments.
On Wednesday, Greens spokesperson for social services, Janet Rice, referred the matter to the Community Affairs References Committee for an inquiry, which would be expected to hand down its initial report at the end of October next year.
“When 5.1 million Australians are barely scraping by on Centrelink payment rates below the poverty line, and millions more are facing cost of living pressures and the crushing stress that goes with it—something is deeply wrong and needs to be fixed,” Rice said in a statement.
“I’ve heard directly from countless people about how poverty has an acute impact on nearly every aspect of their lives: not being able to afford nutritious food, an education, housing, the resources to get a job, and on their physical health and mental wellbeing,” she said.
According to the motion, the inquiry will investigate the rates and drivers of poverty in Australia, including the relationship between economic conditions and poverty; its impact on employment, housing, health and education; and, the ways it impacts different demographics and communities.
It will also look at the relationship between income support payments and poverty, and the “mechanisms to address and reduce poverty”.
Antipoverty Centre spokesperson and JobSeeker recipient, Jay Coonan, told VICE that he hopes one of its outcomes will be a measure of poverty fit for the 21st century, which welfare advocates have been demanding for decades.
Australia’s current poverty measure is more than 50 years old. Even by those standards, millions of Australians today live well below the poverty line.
“I look forward to participating in it, but like all Senate and House Commissions, I have doubts as to how it will change material conditions for the better,” Coonan said.
“Poor people have been failed too many times by government inquiries, and there is no time to wait,” he said.
“The low rate of welfare payments is killing people. Poor people are dying by suicide at extraordinary rates. People are being forced to stay in or return to violent homes. We are skipping meals and healthcare at an unprecedented rate and the cost of living crisis is only making things worse.”
The news comes less than 24 hours after the Albanese government said it has no plans to raise the rate of JobSeeker in its October budget, even as new data warned cost of living pressures had emerged as the leading “risk factor for suicide” in Australia over the next 12 months.
In a survey of 1,000 Australians conducted by Suicide Prevention Australia, 70 percent of those asked about the source of their distress reported feeling “elevated” levels as a result of the social and economic circumstances they face, compared to how they felt 12 months ago.
According to the survey’s results, which were released as part of the annual State of the Nation in Suicide Prevention report on Tuesday, 40 percent said that cost of living pressures and personal debt were causing them distress.
Speaking about the report at an event in Parliament House on Tuesday morning, prime minister Anthony Albanese said Australia’s suicide rates are an “ongoing stain on our national conscience”, The Guardian reported, which “we need” to do better on.
Welfare advocates and jobseekers themselves were quick to point out that it wouldn’t take the prime minister much effort at all to curb cost of living pressure by lifting more than 1 million people out of poverty and raising the rate of JobSeeker.
Just months before the survey’s results were released, the Albanese government’s new employment services platform, Workforce Australia, had been the source of widespread fear and anguish, as job seekers around the country were unable to log into the platform, while some struggled to use vital location services, and others were dead-named.
Jeremy Poxon, a spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) and welfare recipient, told VICE the government already has “more than they need” to make meaningful policy improvements, “which they could do at the click of their fingers”.
“People can’t eat inquiries and reports, sadly,” Poxon said. “The problem isn’t that the government doesn’t know about what’s happening to people—they know the scale of suffering.
“The problem is that they fundamentally believe these people must starve for the good of the economy,” he said.
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