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My Newstart conundrum



Recently I was placed on the federal government's Mutual Obligation program, otherwise known as 'Work for the Dole'. This happened as a result of being on a partial Newstart payment for 12 months. I have been underemployed for around three years now and Newstart provided a welcome top-up as I continued to look for more work.

Chris Johnston cartoon has job seekers digging one hole in order to fill another hole.Each Newstart recipient is given a Job Access Provider (JAP) to help them look for work. My JAP informed me that I was required to do 21 hours per week of Mutual Obligation activity. This was in addition to looking for work, made up of applying for at least 20 jobs every four weeks.

My JAP worker assured me that the 21 hours per week would help me to remain motivated and focused on the task at hand: finding work. I replied that I would now have to stop doing the things that were keeping me motivated to satisfy my Mutual Obligation requirements.

I live in Western Sydney. My JAP had me volunteering with a Christian outreach program doing good things in the area for people living with significant financial and personal disadvantage, largely via housing and food initiatives. It is safe to say that many of these people are unemployed.

After four weeks on 'Work for the Dole' I decided that it was best for my own wellbeing to go back to the things I had been doing to remain motivated. This meant coming off Newstart. Fortunately, I have good support. Others are not so fortunate.

The others with me doing their own Mutual Obligation hours were diverse: people living with various forms of mental and emotional disorder deemed by their JAP and the federal government as employable. There were also people with differing physical conditions similarly assessed as employable. Add to this underemployed people and itinerate workers between jobs. One person I spoke to, who was an underemployed casual teacher, said that her Newstart benefit was paying her rent.

A common experience of those I spoke with during this time was that their longterm experience had been one of a slow decent into hopelessness and powerlessness. The combination of an inadequate Newstart while searching for 20 jobs a month plus compulsory Mutual Obligation (as well as, for some, underemployment) had become overwhelming.


"What we now have in this country is a cohort of Australians who will never find work, or enough work."


A recent news report contained an estimation that 28,000 people in Australia have been receiving Newstart for more than ten years and that 60 per cent of all Newstart recipients have been on this benefit for more than two years. That's a lot of job searching and Mutual Obligation required from people struggling to find enough work, or any work at all. In my view, this expectation is quite unreasonable.

Another issue relevant here is the idea of full employment. What exactly is it? The Reserve Bank had been, until recently, operating with the idea that full employment is five per cent, though it might now be lower — perhaps somewhere between four and five per cent. This means that there is little or no work currently available for four to five per cent of the population that are assumed to be work ready, let alone those who, realistically, are not.

What we now have in this country is a cohort of our fellow Australians who will never find work, or enough work. This fact is due to a combination of personal and systemic factors. Either they will be deemed unemployable by potential employers, or adequate employment options are just not there for them.

It is unjust to provide a sub-standard Newstart allowance and compulsory Mutual Obligation to those genuinely struggling to find adequate employment in a system that does not provide enough opportunity for employment. Is there an alternative?

Currently the tax-free threshold is $18,200 per year. What if we were to give all Australians of working age currently unemployed $18,200 a year? Those of us who are underemployed would be given enough money to also have us on $18,200 per year.

For example, if someone is earning $12,000 a year working, they would be given $6200. Any income after $18,200 would be taxed at the normal rate, regardless of whether that income be from Newstart or employment. For the unemployed single, this would guarantee around $674 per fortnight in addition to a Newstart benefit of $555 per fortnight. This would mean that the single unemployed person would be on $32,396 per year after tax, much better than the current $14,985 per year (tax free). This is, of course, before any increase in Newstart.

As for the Mutual Obligation hours, let's not make Newstart dependent on doing these hours, and let's tailor the activities more towards each person and their circumstance. Yes, we might need practical encouragement to remain motivated, however, we may already be doing this for ourselves. Let the system recognise this.



Andrew McAlister is a freelance writer. He lives in Western Sydney.

Topic tags: Andrew McAlister, Newstart, work for the dole, unemployment, underemployment



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Existing comments

The conundrum to me, Andrew, is that many seem to accept a poor Newstart allowance when they could earn much more without any obligatory arrangements to be met by doing other odd jobs such as gardening for instance.

john frawley | 28 April 2019  

Andrew, you like many people have a solid understanding of the tax system and how it might be structured for your maximum benefit. The problem with the solution you propose is that someone else has to pay for all of it.

Patrick | 29 April 2019  

I agree with you Andrew, and I detect you are a very decent person.

John Whitehead | 29 April 2019  

I totally agree with this suggestion, or some version of it. The concept of a Universal Basic Income has been trialled elsewhere with myriad spinoff benefits for individuals and the economy. It’s time this entrenched treatment of the unemployed as lazy second class citizens was replaced by something better for us all.

Jen Coughran | 29 April 2019  

The system of 'income support' has slowly become a system of oppression of the vulnerable. So many of us don't recognize this until we become vulnerable ourselves. I was on a NewStart for a few months in my late fifties. At the time, I was dealing directly with human beings at Centrelink, and they were able to take my particular circumstances into account. I also had good family support, I had internet connection and I knew how to apply for jobs online. It still took me several months to find a job. (Doing odd jobs isn't really an option, John Frawley - we are required to set up our own businesses to do this, with all the administrative and legal obligations that entails). Now, twenty years on, everything has changed for the worse. The computer rules the system - it dictates your obligations. It makes no allowance for your circumstances - homelessness, no internet, no personal transport, intractable addiction, no family support, no available work, no marketable skills. Centrelink officers have sympathy but no flexibility to moderate the computer's demands. The NewStart allowance is intended only to facilitate job seeking. When there are no jobs available, and no support for the basic human dignity of the unemployed person, NewStart is not humane at all. I'm on an Age Pension now, and it's a struggle - but compared to NewStart today, it's luxurious. NewStart is creating a desperate and hopeless underclass. How long can we live with this?

Joan Seymour | 29 April 2019  

Thanks for your sensitive, thoughtful article, Andrew - it really lays bare how misguided and mean-spirited this system is. I am so sorry you have to endure it. I think your scheme is excellent. very best wishes

Anne | 29 April 2019  

Thank you Andrew, for providing an account close to the daily coalface of what it is like to be long term unemployed, and to be a ‘ customer’ (and not a citizen ) of a Job Access Provider. And thank you for alerting us to the dysfunctions therein, some of which a a direct outcome of Federal Government policies, while some are not. In particular, the wholesale privatisation of employment services ( The CES, now long dead, was a better option), for the reality is that for the Job Access Provider organisations, , bringing in the revenue takes precedence over providing nuanced services for vulnerable long term unemployed people. Many of the long term unemployed do experience a variety of mental health challenges, that in many cases exist prior to their unemployed status, yet which are certainly made worse by the JAP processes of ensued continued failure. The appallingly low NewStart allowance means that people on long term unemployment cannot gain housing in the private rental market, and the Mutual Obligations requirements of them ( eg travel) eat into their meagre allowances. Thus, in our cities, we see increased numbers living on the streets. And of course, this is made worse by the fact that compared with most OECD nations, the provision of government-sponsored social housing falls to the bottom of any list of pressing issues to be continually addressed, in this society that has placed its complete faith in the supposed benefits of the private marketplace to solve such issues.

Michael Faulkner | 29 April 2019  

Having been on "jobs for the dole" myself, I can attest to the de-motivating nature of the "arrangements" made for recipients. A tip from a Centrelink employee saw me turn up at my JAP with a list of volunteer arrangements I'd already made. Bear in mind, this was when I was 65. I volunteered for 3 different organisations : the library, an op shop and a transport service for people needing to go to hospital, medical appointments etc. Occasionally there were too few of the latter, so I had the chance to 'top-up" hours with one of the other 2. I kept my head down and lived through the 2 years. I still do 2 of those 3 jobs while under no obligation. At no stage was there ever an opportunity given to be trained in more skills than I already had, nor was there _ever_ an enquiry by the JAP as to how I was improving my suitability for paid work. It was just a parking station for people, a recognition that there are too many people for too few jobs. John suggests that people earn a bit by gardening. I would like to respectfully ask where an unemployed person, even if able-bodied, is to acquire the tools, expertise, transport, capital, etc to set up what is in effect a small business? Patrick complains that Andrew understands the tax system. Might I suggest that Patrick takes his complaint about using knowledge of the system for their own benefit to someone earning a bit more than Andrew does in the first instance. Or is the problem that Patrick thinks the unemployed ought to be a bit more servile and keep their mouths shut about a system that's manifestly obviously geared for the benefit of the big end of town?

Rupert | 29 April 2019  

Thanks everyone for the comments. I suspect that I am passing through a life circumstance that, for others, is entrenched. While here, I thought I would write a dispatch. We need, I think, to be empath-ically imaginative (compassionate). Whether enough of us in positions to change the system can do enough of this imagining, and what forms this imagining might take, well that remains to be seen. Perhaps 'the system' is a straight jacket until it falls apart (who knows)..... Andrew

Andrew McAlister | 30 April 2019  

Andrew, thank you for your thought provoking article. I, like you am under employed and likely to remain so given that I am 62 and use a walking stick. So, I am in constant fear of the prospect of interfacing with Newstart. I am fortunate that I have a job teaching at a University College but even with an extraordinarily high hourly pay rate my yearly income is around the same as the aged pension due to limited hours and short teaching terms. The teaching is sessional and highly unpredictable but thankfully, for these last five years my work at the university has kept us afloat. Even though my husband has a life limiting cancer and I have arthritis we do not meet the criteria for the NDIS. I have met so many people in similar circumstances. Increasing the pension age to 67 has put such a strain on anyone that has worked in services such as nursing. In our age group we had been working for 20 years before compulsory superannuation arrived and now need to wait seven years longer for the pension- my dear mother who had this same arthritis could claim the pension at 60. Yet, politicians seem perplexed that women are so badly off when they reach retirement age??? Every time I hear the Prime minister announce that the budget is back in the black my blood boils as I think of all the people who are treated so unjustly by the current system. Meanwhile, corporate profits have increased by 22%. Thank you Joan for the heads up about finding your own volunteer work. What a good idea, I met a lady who was required to do heavy work for state forests just months after having a double mastectomy to meet the obligations of Newstart so am worried for my husband and myself. Sorry John, I can’t garden at yours as I can barely walk.

Liliane | 02 May 2019  

My apologies to both Joan and Rupert. I have credited the comments on arriving at the JAP to Joan when it should have been Rupert. So thank you Rupert. Joan, I often read your comments and find them helpful and caring. Thank you too. Liliane

Liliane | 02 May 2019  

Thanks for this thought provoking article. The concept of a Universal wage is probably a more important option in that it removes the need for the bureaucracy of current schemes with an entitlement. Read "Utopia for Realists" by Rutger Bergman - it actually works What we need is farsighted Politian's to imagine a different world and then implement it.

ken tabart | 04 May 2019  

What if one does not have the intellectual wherewithal for an employer to take you on. Borderline problems, anxiety of the first order after over 20 years on Newstart. And no ability to satisfy the reporting obligations if one earns a few extra dollars. Mortifying and depressing by age 40.

Marian | 04 May 2019  

Hi Andrew, not meaning to rain on your parade, whilst I agree with your comments on mutual obligation your comments regarding a working wage of $32,396 would create an unfair burden on the Australian Taxpayer. Also the current Income Test on an income of $12,000 per annum would reduce a Newstart Payment by $200 per fortnight, so the net gain would be limited.

Alan | 07 May 2019  

I recently attended a JAP appointment with my son, in his 20's, unwell and on Newstart but with ongoing current medical issues. To say he was treated as a lower class citizen is quite an understatement. I was quite horrified at how dehumanising the whole thing was. There has to be an answer to maintain dignity in people like him and others commenting here. The entire privatised system is quite obviously geared to the profit of the JAP, and how this equates to a saving to Govt is beyond me. Any Govt who runs a surplus should be ashamed of themselves. If there is surplus to our taxes etc, then that Govt is not using our contributions correctly. If there is a surplus, then there is not enough being spent to support our health, or our infrastructure, or our unemployed or pensioners, etc. I agree that we should pay tax, but then when we need a helping hand, especially those who are too ill or aged to work but not yet eligible in the system for other aid, then we should feel safe and secure, not dehumanised and second class.

Pauline | 17 June 2019  

'Newstart Pensioner' has guidelines observed in letter, not spirit. I thought the manager of my JAP lamenting that I wouldn't fit in a box to be "marketed" was bad enough. A subsequent 'capability assessment' with Centaurlink (sic) revealed I had "mental health issues"! These things are sent to try us. Being bounced between JAP, Centrelink and Dept Small Business while benefits are 'suspended' I liken to 'Fight for the Dole'. The solution offered is 'Transfer'. But the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Your good humour, wisdom and productivity amid the disruption will aid those that follow.

Les Shearman | 17 July 2019  

I receive about $740 per fortnight including rent subsidy etc and my rent is $630 per ft, electricity is $25 per ft (hot water turned off in summer in Cairns), mobile is $15 per ft, which leaves $70 per ft for food and everything else. That is inhumane and the PM (a supposed Christian) on around $600,000 per year and backbenchers on $211,000 per year plus their benefits say that is ok. There needs to be a revolution. As the novel Animal Farm shows, all animals are equal but some are more equal than others...

Gram | 11 September 2019  

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