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Local councils helping lift the unemployed



There have been substantial campaigns against the harsh proposals to change the income support system, particularly since the 2014 budget. Each time, these measures have been stopped only to reappear, zombie-like, a few months later in another bill.

Chris Johnston cartoonThe community sector, led by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), has lobbied and campaigned against the changes, and has been successful at stopping some of the proposals. Where they haven't been able to make a dent is in the campaign to raise the rate of Newstart. The Newstart payment is now $538.80 per fortnight, with rent assistance of $133.00 per fortnight if eligible. This is below the basic amount budgeted by a new low-income living wage, and well below the poverty line of 50 per cent of median income.

The campaign to raise Newstart has been going for longer than the one against the zombie welfare cuts and included building coalitions with unlikely bedfellows. The Business Council of Australia, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and ACOSS came together in 2012 to lobby hard for an increase. More recently, the Public Health Association of Australia added its voice to concerns about the health impacts of living in poverty — as did KPMG in their agenda for reform — and the Brotherhood of St Laurence launched its Share the Pie campaign.

Yet in a recent speech, Minister for Social Services Christian Porter railed against the politics of envy, saying that 'more money in welfare payments (is) a lazy means of demonstrating more compassion' and dismissing calls to raise Newstart. Human Services Minister Alan Tudge went further, saying 'it is a good safety net to ensure that no one need go hungry or without clothing, shelter and the basics', despite evidence pointing to exactly that being the result. Tudge said he'd like business groups and the welfare lobby to 'examine the underlying issues of modern impoverishment as much as they argue for higher payments'.

Given the intransigence of the federal government, and the unlikely willingness of the opposition to do anything different, what should come next for the campaign to raise the rate of Newstart and give people living below the poverty line some hope?

In South Australia, a group of people living on income support is working together on a different kind of campaign. The Anti-Poverty Network of South Australia is 'a voice for and of people living in poverty' aiming to 'highlight the personal experiences and insights of people on low incomes'. They have been working with local councils to ask them to advocate on behalf of those community members who rely on income support.

Pas Forgione, the coordinator of the group, says councils 'are caught up in these issues because they run community services that support unemployed people'. Over the last few months, the group has worked with ten local councils to ask them to listen to the unemployed members of their communities, and to represent them. Clare and Gilbert Valley, Copper Coast, Kangaroo Island, Mount Gambier, Onkaparinga, Playford, Port Adelaide, Enfield, Salisbury, and Streaky Bay Councils have all debated motions and heard from people living in poverty.


"This was the first time they were hearing from unemployed people, but also the first time that many unemployed people were engaging with local government." — Pas Forgione


'It was important that mayors and councillors hear from unemployed people in their community about being broke, skipping meals, not being able to afford to go anywhere, spending three quarters of their income on rent,' said Forgione. 'For many local governments, this was the first time they were hearing from unemployed people, but also the first time that many unemployed people were engaging with local government.'

The campaign has built the confidence of a group of people that are not often listened to about their experiences, and what would make a difference for them. 'Most of our members are new to the world of campaigning,' said Forgione. 'They are getting involved because their lives are at stake and it has had an extraordinary impact on them.

'People have spoken publicly for the first time about their experiences, and hearing other stories about being unemployed has helped people not to blame themselves. One member said that he had made 435 job applications before he found a position, and had internalised that there was something wrong with him, rather than the labour market.'

Campaigns and debates about Newstart are rarely led by the very people most affected. Academic Philip Mendes says in his recent book Australia's Welfare Wars that 'this relative political marginalisation reflects, particularly, the fragmented nature of people who are unemployed and, hence, their failure at either a local or national level to develop a sense of collective identity or solidarity'.

Perhaps the campaign in South Australia is the start of seeing this change. 'It has been so important for people to see local government saying that people are suffering because they don't have enough money, not because they can't manage their own money,'said Forgione. 'This was the first time that unemployed people saw well off people sticking up for them — standing side by side.'



El GibbsEl Gibbs is a freelance writer specialising in the area of disability and social services and has over 15 years experience in the community and NFP sector, as well as politics. Find her on Twitter @bluntshovels

Topic tags: El Gibbs, disability, Newstart, unemployment



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Existing comments

South Australia, you little beauty. Tears in my eyes as I read this, El.

Pam | 29 November 2017  

Thank you for this glimmer of hope El Gibbs. I do hope the idea spreads to other states. Hard-heartedness is the defining quality of our current national regime.

Janet | 29 November 2017  

Just read this terrific article on 22 January. Those of us who are relatively comfortable have a serious responsibility to take this message further afield, wherever we are. Amazing what a bit of solidarity can achieve - even if it's virtual solidarity spread around Australia!

Anne Shannon | 22 January 2018  

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