I am very pleased to be speaking in support of this bill from our government, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Safety Net) Bill 2023, which will be delivering much-needed support to Australians at a time of need. The measures in this bill are good measures that will make a real difference in people’s lives. These are changes that are made in recognition of the fact that our government understands that the cost-of-living pressures being felt by many in our community are real, and that those cost-of-living pressures are particularly being felt by people on lower incomes.
I do hope that that is something that those across the parliament can appreciate, and that they can support our government to get this cost-of-living relief into people’s pockets as soon as possible, to support additional assistance to around two million Australians who receive income support, and to make sure that that safety net that our country expects is there, and which Australians understand is there for all of us if we need it, is an adequate safety net.
I was pleased to see, in this morning’s news, that it seems those opposite will—despite the amendments they’re putting forward—ultimately support this bill. That is an important move, because of course we do know that those opposite do not have a wonderful track record when it comes to supporting those in need. Plenty of people remember—indeed, they cannot forget—the first budget of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government in 2014. That was a cruel budget that seemingly wanted to make life harder for many Australians, including those who needed support the most. It included cuts to family tax benefit B. It included severe proposals impacting people under 30 on youth allowance and on what was then Newstart. It had changes to indexation arrangements for pensioners, a proposal to increase the pension age to 70 and cuts to the senior supplement. It was their first budget, and it was rightly described as a ‘horror budget’.
In contrast, our government’s first full-year budget could not be more different. It could not be more clear where our priorities are. They’re about making sure that we are providing well-targeted cost-of-living relief to Australians, and making sure that that safety net—which is a part of our system and something that all Australians expect and that any single one of us might need to rely on at some point—is there and that it is adequate. I do hope that, as I said, this can be supported across the parliament.
The budget handed down in early May featured, as its centrepiece, a $14.6 billion cost-of-living package, which includes not only the income support measures in this bill but also a range of other measures that I know will make a real difference in people’s lives, including people in my community. That includes our Energy Price Relief Plan, which is targeted support totalling $1.5 billion for bill relief for five million households across the country, including almost $380 million in my home state of Victoria. It also includes important measures to relieve cost-of-living pressures, in our history-making tripling of the bulk-billing incentive—focusing again on keeping those costs in health care down.
So the combined effects of our efforts across single parenting payment, JobSeeker, youth allowance and rent assistance, as well as these investments in health and energy relief, will mean that this is really the first budget in a decade that has included the needs of Australians—particularly, vulnerable Australians—at its centre, and that, for the first time in a decade, a government has looked at Australians doing it tough and thought, ‘Well, that is something we need to address in our budget.’ As I said it is a marked change, a marked contrast to the first budget we got from those opposite, and it does show the values of our government. It does show that our government understands that we are a better country when we have a strong safety net in place. That is something to be proud of and something that, as a member of the Albanese government, I am proud of.
With the amendments in this bill, the rates of JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy, Abstudy, disability support pension and special benefit will increase by $40 per fortnight from 20 September this year. This is an increase targeted at people on some of the lowest incomes in Australia, who, as I said, have the greatest reliance on our safety net for support. While these payments are automatically indexed to reflect changes in the cost of living, we know that times are tough for many income support recipients, who are facing financial hardship to a degree that they haven’t in the past. I, like many members in this House, have heard stories from people who are making very difficult choices about whether they can afford food, whether they can afford electricity or whether they can afford their medications. Those are very real concerns for many people in our country, and those are the concerns that our government is addressing through this bill and through this budget.
The measures our government is introducing will provide additional support to 1.1 million people, including 12,220 people in my community of Jagajaga. With this increase and the indexation changes over the last 12 months, in the past year the base rate of the JobSeeker payment will have increased from $642 to $733, which is a 14 per cent increase. This is over $90 more in people’s pockets each fortnight to help them deal with cost-of-living pressures, and it equates to over $2,300 in additional support each year.
Of course, we are a government who also wants to support people into work. We know that the JobSeeker payment, the safety net that is there, is important, but it is also really important for people to be able to get a job. We also know that that’s not always simple. We know that for some people there are barriers to work, and being able to get and hold a job is not as easy for some as it is for other people in our community. Over the past years with the pandemic, I think we’ve all seen how life can be precarious and how things that have seemed certain, and support that has been there, can sometimes be taken away quite suddenly. We could all find ourselves in a position where we are actually looking to the safety net and to payments such as JobSeeker for support. That is why these measures are very important. It is why it’s important that our country has this solid safety net in place and that we are supporting vulnerable Australians who need it most.
In addition to this, eligible payments, including JobSeeker, parenting payment and Commonwealth rent assistance, will also be indexed on 20 September as usual. This means recipients will receive increases resulting from this bill and from indexation at the same time, and that assistance will continue moving forward. Our government is also expanding eligibility for the existing higher rate of JobSeeker for single recipients aged 55 and over who have been on income support for nine or more continuous months. The higher rate is already an existing feature in our social security system and it currently applies from age 60. The increased level of support for these recipients, the majority of whom are women, is our government’s acknowledgement that older Australians do face additional barriers to work, such as age discrimination or poor health.
Over the past 10 years we have seen the proportion of mature-age recipients of JobSeeker payments significantly increase. The evidence has shown us that 81 per cent of people aged 55 or over stay on the payment for more than a year and over half of them are on the payment for five years or more, so there does seem to be a difference in this group of recipients. These changes expand access to around 52,000 Australians aged 55 to 59, who will receive an increase of $92 per fortnight, including 640 locals in my community. That will mean less pressure on the budgets of those individuals. It will deliver much-needed relief for them.
Our government also knows that single parents can find it very tough to balance caring responsibilities and full-time work, study or looking for work. The balancing act for those people doesn’t end when their child turns eight. The demands of parenting don’t just go away as children get older, but they do evolve. We know that as children get progressively older single parents are generally in a better position to take on more paid work. By the age of 14, kids have typically settled into high school and, hopefully, need less parental supervision. With the changes in this bill, we are expanding eligibility for parenting payment (single) to parents with a youngest child under 14. Some 57,000 single parents will be better off by at least $176 per fortnight, including 735 single parents in Jagajaga.
We know that the rising cost of rent is one of the biggest issues that Australians are facing at the moment, so another measure included in this bill and in our budget is our 15 per cent boost to the maximum rates of rent assistance. We are providing additional support to renters with the largest increase to Commonwealth rent assistance in more than 30 years. Around 1.1 million households will benefit from an average increase of around $24 per fortnight. This includes recipients of JobSeeker and other working-age payments, student payments, the age pension, disability support pension, family tax benefit and veterans payments. In my community, 6,590 households will benefit from these changes. With this 15 per cent increase since May 2022, the maximum amount of rent assistance for JobSeeker payment recipients who are single and living on their own will have increased from $145 to $180—a 24 per cent increase. This is $35 more each fortnight to help people on low incomes pay their rent. As a package, this is a substantial investment in making sure that Australians are able to keep up with some of the cost-of-living pressures and making sure that our safety net is adequate.
In the lead-up to any budget, there is always a balancing act. There is always a lot of work going on to try and make sure that you get that balancing act right. That is absolutely what our government has tried to do in this budget. We are making sure that we are providing the cost-of-living relief that so many Australians need, while also making sure that we’re not adding to some of the pressures in our economy. We do know that inflation is a genuine issue at the moment, and we do have to make sure that our budgets are being crafted in a way that ensures that we as a government are not adding to those inflationary pressures. We recognise that this is important work. It is the work that the people elected us to do; it is the work that people rely on Labor governments to do. They do trust us to provide the safety net that should be there for our country.
Our government is doing this in a measured and considered way. We did establish the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee and the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce. Both of these have provided really solid advice to the government, and they will continue to do so for upcoming budgets and more broadly, of course, on relevant issues across government. I know that our government will continue to consider the advice that those groups give us, and we will consider these payments from budget to budget, as we would for all areas of government. Labor governments do believe in a strong social safety net which is there for all Australians, if they need it. Our government is demonstrating with this bill that we understand that cost-of-living pressures are real. We understand that too many people in our country at the moment are having to make difficult choices that they shouldn’t have to. We don’t want people left in a position where they are deciding whether they can have a meal or whether they can turn the heater or the lights on tonight.
Our government is giving targeted support to make sure that those people who are vulnerable in our community and those people who are doing it the toughest get the support they need. We are doing this as part of a broader budget which will also support all Australians with things like energy relief, support for health care and support for our GPs. We do recognise that now is a time of need in our communities and that, as a government, we have a responsibility to try and help people meet that need. The measures in this bill, such as the increases to payments including JobSeeker, youth allowance, disability support pension, parenting payment and rent assistance, coupled with the wider cost-of-living measures that are included in our budget do bring together what is really the first budget in at least a decade to put vulnerable Australians and those in need front and centre. I know that these changes to payments together with the tripling of the bulk-billing incentive and the energy relief plan will make a difference to people in my community and to communities across the country.
I again highlight the difference from the approach we saw from those opposite over nearly a decade. As I said, they came into government and in their first budget, in fact, proposed some very serious changes to many of these payments which would have severely impacted many people’s lives. We saw over a decade a lack of interest in supporting those Australians who do need it most, and a lack of understanding of the very real consequences of some of the decisions in this place and how they play out in people’s lives.
Our government does understand that these are decisions that have real impacts on people’s lives, and that all Australians benefit when as a community we support each other and all Australians benefit when we have a strong safety net in place. At a time of high cost-of-living pressures, our government is doing all it can to make sure that we support those who need it most and support people right across our community.