Canberrans on Newstart are not only struggling to makes ends meet in a high-cost city but also dealing with the shame of not being able to afford basics, ACT Labor parliamentarian Suzanne Orr said on Thursday.
Ms Orr gave evidence on the first day of hearings on the unemployment benefit, where researchers from the Australian National University, the Australian Institute and the Mental Health Foundation all called for an urgent increase to a payment that said was entrenching people in poverty.
Labor senator Deborah O'Neill said people were already "bruised and broken" by ending up on the unemployment benefit and the punitive treatment they received at the hands of officials "just disables them".
Ms Orr recounted a second-hand story she heard on Wednesday night of a Canberran too ashamed to invite people over because she could only afford instant coffee. When the jar of coffee had been dropped and shatter, the Canberran had been doubly ashamed at having swept it off the floor, removing shards of glass to reuse it, unable to afford the cost of another jar at the supermarket, Ms Orr told the inquiry.
"That's the desperation that people are driven to," she said.
The inquiry briefly ignited when Senator O'Neill accused Liberal senator Hollie Hughes of advocating limiting the time people could access Newstart.
"With the line of questioning you have undertaken I am very, very concerned. The demonising of unemployed people in your government is disgraceful and now you're saying time limitations," Senator O'Neill said.
She was referring to Senator Hughes's questioning of the Australia Institute, which presented data showing Australia's payment lagged well behind other OECD countries, which have much more generous payments for the first years of unemployment, but where payments are only available for a limited time.
Senator Hughes said she had never suggested it as an option for Australia and was being badly misrepresented.
"What was your policy in regard to Newstart?" she demanded of her Labor counterpart. "A review of a review with no budgeting? I think the Australian people have clearly spoken on that one."
Bureaucrats from the departments of Human Services, social services and employment faced two-and-a-half hours of questioning, much of it from Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, who wanted to know whether the public service had given any advice on Newstart driving people into poverty, which was itself a barrier to getting a job, and on what a boost to Newstart would do for the nation's economy.
Treasury officials were a no-show at the hearing, so the second question could not be answered. Social Security deputy secretary Nathan Williamson said he was not aware of any research on the impact of poverty on getting a job, and he said Australia, as a long-standing position, did not have a definition of poverty.
Senator Siewert: "There is plenty of research around that shows that Newstart is too low ... and that people are living in poverty. Have you seen that research?"
"We are aware that there are a variety of views on Newstart," he answered.
So have you provided advice to government on the low rate? she asked.
"I think it's fair to say that the government, including through our advice, is aware of the reviews that are in the public domain," Mr Williamson said.
Senator Siewert asked him whether the lack of an official poverty line was a problem for the department, a question that had Mr Williamson flummoxed.
"Um, I'll say no," he said.
The senator persisted, asking whether any agency at the table was addressing poverty as a barrier to work, a question met with a long pause before Mr Williamson told her the department took into account a range of considerations when it advised the government on any benefit.
At another point, Senator Siewert tried the direct approach with employment deputy secretary Nathan Smyth.
"Mr Smyth, do you consider poverty a barrier to work," she asked.
"That would be me giving an opinion, Senator," he responded.
Senator Siewert also challenged the officials about the government's insistence that Newstart is a transition payment between jobs.
Government figures show the average time people are on Newstart is 159 weeks.
"That's a significant period of time, is it not?" Senator Siewert said.
"It's a little over three years," Mr Williamson responded with some precision.
"So how can we still keep calling it a transition payment ... Three years is not transition anymore," Senator Siewert persisted, eventually getting this response from Mr Williamson: "I would say that if someone is on Newstart for three years that is quite a long period of time and understandably there are probably some complex barriers involved with those individuals."
Asked how the department learned about vulnerabilities that might make it difficult for someone to get a job, Human Services manager of the older Australians Brendan Moon said it was usually when they breached their job plan.
While the department did an initial phone interview with people applying for Newstart, it could be a challenge to elicit information about mental health issues.
"If I've got poor mental health I'm not going to declare on the phone," Senator Siewert told him.
"It is a challenge, Senator," he agreed, "It can be difficult."
Also on Thursday, ANU researcher David Stanton told the inquiry that a single person now received $360 a fortnight less than someone on the aged pension, with the difference between the two widening significantly over the past two decades.
Academics Dr Francis Markham and Professor Jon Altman from the ANU said the rate of Newstart was having a profound effect on the Aboriginal community, with up to half the life expectancy gap due to poverty.
In a submission to the inquiry, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said tenants on Newstart in public housing were falling well behind in their rent. Newstart was less than 10 per cent of the average wage in Canberra, a high-earning city, he said.