Protesters have ambushed delegates at Labor’s National Conference this morning, demanding an increase to a controversial welfare payment.
Protesters have ambushed delegates at Labor’s National Conference this morning, demanding an increase to a controversial welfare payment.

Welfare payment ‘grossly inadequate’

THE Labor Party's National Conference has started in Adelaide this morning, and the economy is high on the agenda.

Four hundred delegates and 1000 observers have converged on the Adelaide Convention Centre to debate Labor's policies on tax, superannuation, housing and trade.

But they were joined by dozens of protesters from the Anti-Poverty Network demanding an increase to the Newstart Allowance.

As delegates entered the venue, they were serenaded by a choir singing a reworked version of Gough Whitlam's famous political jingle "It's Time".

"If Newstart was a pollie's wage it would have been raised by now," one sign said.

"All we want is a fair go," another read.

Newstart has not increased, in real terms, for more than 20 years. Its approximately 700,000 recipients currently get $273 a week, which is all the more striking when you consider it's just $39 a day.

Earlier this year, a report by Deloitte Access Economics found raising Newstart would have a range of "prosperity effects" and lead to 12,000 more people being employed by the 2020-21 financial year, along with a rise in wages.

Deloitte concluded the allowance had not risen in line with national living standards for a quarter of a century, because it was indexed to prices rather than wages.

"Newstart has shrunk as a share of average wages, median wages, the minimum wage and the age pension," it said.

The report was commissioned by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), which has long lobbied for an increase.

"There is an unprecedented consensus that Newstart is grossly inadequate, from unions to business lobbies, from charities to local councils, not to mention former prime minister John Howard, former federal Liberal leader John Hewson, and the ACT and NT Chief Ministers," the Anti-Poverty Network said this morning.

"The Labor Party National Conference is Labor's chance to catch up with the two-thirds of Australians who support raising Newstart by committing to an immediate increase of at least $100 a week.

"With unemployed people struggling with rent and electricity, skipping meals, being unable to see a dentist, and experiencing stress and isolation, an increase to Newstart must be an urgent priority for a Shorten government.

"Unemployed people cannot afford to wait for much-needed financial relief."

Labor's current position is that it will review the level of Newstart as part of a wider examination of the welfare system.

Bill Shorten has publicly indicated he believes it needs to rise.

"It is, in my opinion, too low," Mr Shorten said in October.

"Of course we want people to get off the dole and get a job, but this sort of simple view that you starve people to get them off the dole, it's not as straightforward as that. Our priority is to make sure people find a job and make sure that we encourage people to work, but at the same time, I'm not going to start kicking a person who is down in the head, am I?

"We don't know what the number we'll come up with will be at the end of the review, but I'm not going to say that someone on $260 a week is doing it easily. They are not."

"We welcome Mr Shorten's acknowledgment of what has been clear to the community, unions, business and experts for a long time - that $39 a day is not enough to cover the basics of life. We need more than a review," ACOSS' chief executive Cassandra Goldie told at the time.

"We don't need a review to know that Newstart is trapping people in poverty. We need a clear commitment to immediately increase the single rate of Newstart by at least $75 a week."

She said there was "broad agreement" across business, unions, politics and the wider community that the benefit needed to be increased.

"Most people receiving Newstart live below the poverty line. It is very hard to look for a job when you don't know where your next meal is coming from or how to put food on the table for your kids," Ms Goldie said.

"Many of us are a job loss or relationship breakdown away from relying on our social security safety net and 70 per cent of voters believe Newstart should be increased."

The government has reacted to the debate by focusing on the cost of increasing the benefit.

It has repeatedly said Labor needs to "come clean" on whether it will commit to a $3.3 billion annual increase in social security spending.

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