One woman has spent most of this month walking around the streets in Queensland's marginal seats, asking voters what matters to them. She thinks both major political parties would be surprised to learn that even the comfortable, the well-off, believe we have a serious problem with poverty in this country but it's not the problem politicians think we have.
"There is an out-of-date view that demonising poor people resonates with the community," says Cassandra Goldie, chief executive officer of Australian Council of Social Services. But politicians seem to have missed one important change in Australia over the last ten years.
Everyone, every single one of us, knows someone, a friend, a child, a distant relative or a close one, who is out-of work, in insecure work, who is on Newstart, who relies on the disability support pension. And those same people are being monstered by government decisions, government inaction, on a daily basis.
We know them and we hear them, unlike successive Australian governments.
There are the very people who governments, one after the other, have chosen to shove to the margins. Except they are no longer marginal. Through the upheaval in our economy, these folks are no longer on the margins and by god they are sick of being treated like criminals.
That criminalisation occurs across the population, no matter what the welfare benefits are. The (mainly single) mothers on ParentsNext. The folks who were victimised by the government's catastrophic robodebt campaign. The thousands of people who are turned away from their rightful entitlement to the disability support pension. Australians, young and old, for whom eligibility for Newstart appears to be at the whim of the government of the day; and the poor sods who work at Centrelink have to pick up the pieces.
Goldie is pretty clear on the problems. We have the lowest unemployment payment in the OECD. We compete with Britain to have the toughest set of conditions and compliance for welfare; and that's not just the 20 jobs you must apply for monthly to be eligible for Newstart or the 'good parent' ticklist necessary for ParentsNext. And it's not just the barbaric requirements to prove that your child - still - has Down Syndrome in order to be eligible for all the relevant supports.
"We have a social security horror show," she says, which is getting more and more inhumane because of automation. It's not possible to reason with bots.
And it's all for nothing. Australians are not welfare fraudsters. New research from the University of Wollongong's Scarlet Wilcock says welfare fraud was always low and now even lower; at about 0.02 per cent of the entire welfare population.
Like Goldie, she too points out that welfare recipients have been demonised. A few years back, she analysed the way in which Australian governments and Centrelink officials spread a consistent image of a deceitful and selfish 'welfare cheat'. Wilcock says that gets ramped up as the idea of 'personal responsibility' for both crime and poverty.
But Wilcock too has seen a change, particularly since the #notmydebt campaign.
"There has been a more diverse conversation about poverty and welfare since the robodebt saga. It's like there is more space to talk about the problems with system and whether it's fair and accessible, including in mainstream media, in a way that I haven't seen for a long time," she says.
Take the surprising admission by Liberal party senator Arthur Sinodinos who took his appearance on the ABC's Q&A as an opportunity to say that Newstart should be raised "over time". Swear to heaven, that was the happy Q&A surprise of the program's entire run. Yet not even that persuaded either the Coalition or the Labor Party to include an increase to Newstart in their budget statements last week. Budgets, as Sinodinos said, are all about choices, yet neither party chose to support the poor and the vulnerable.
I asked Cassandra Goldie of ACOSS what she thought about Labor's proposed review. "We do not need a review in order to know that the base rate of Newstart needs to be increased," she said.
After all, there wasn't a review in order to promise these massive tax cuts promised by the Coalition and now matched and increased by Labor.
Newstart matters more than we think now - because it's also a safety net for the vast number of Australians whose jobs are unpredictable from week to week, from year to year.
Jim Stanford of the Centre for Future Work tells me that over 50 per cent of employed people in Australia experience one or more dimensions of insecurity. They don't get sick leave or holiday pay, they might not even know where their next shift is coming from. And the process for eligibility - not just for Newstart but across all our welfare benefits - are punitive in the extreme. People get tossed off for minor infractions. The system hurts the very people it is meant to help.
Australians have for too long suffered under this concept of mutual obligation - the idea that a welfare recipient should earn welfare, should do something to get that benefit. But governments must now recognise the obligation is one way, the obligation of governments to care for and to nurture those who need help.
We need an increase to Newstart and we need a universal increase to the level of compassion shown by politicians. Fine for Sinodinos to make a casual remark on TV. Now we need policy, strategy and actions to overturn years of persecution of the poor.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.
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