It's such a cliché to say that the true test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable, particularly in a crisis - and how we handle COVID-19 is a test of this.
What is crystal clear right now is that when it comes to our social safety net and its administration, we do not have the systems in place to deal with this crisis.
It was frankly gobsmacking that the government did not include an increase to Newstart in the first stimulus package, despite it having a wide range of support from economists and business as a key way to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
I'm so glad it finally dawned on the government that the public does not accept it's OK to leave people in poverty living on $40 a day. Scott Morrison acknowledged this with the "temporary" increase announced in the second stimulus on Sunday.
People have been suffering in desperate situations for years and years, simply because of the government's ideological opposition to increasing the payment.
It's more and more clear that there will be an influx of casual and gig workers applying for the JobSeeker payment as people lose their jobs.
An increase of up to 5000 staff for Services Australia is a welcome move, but they need to address the systemic issues with Centrelink and the punitive approach to those on income support.
Today we are already seeing people lining up around the blocks and issues with the myGov website.
I have serious doubts about Centrelink's capacity to quickly process a rush of JobSeeker applications, despite the additional staff. There is currently a median 35-day processing period for Sickness Allowance claims, and 15 days for Newstart claims.
A lot of my staff time is spent liaising with Centrelink on behalf of constituents. We help a lot of people who can't get in touch with Centrelink, or with whom Centrelink can't communicate effectively. Of course I am more than happy to assist people. But it should not have to be this way.
As it currently stands, those applying for the JobSeeker payment will have to undertake mutual obligations. This means they have to apply for jobs every fortnight, and report regularly either online or in a meeting with their employment consultant.
The government says mutual obligations are now more flexible, and people can request meetings online.
But even when myGov starts working again, many people do not have the infrastructure to just "go online". Not everyone has a smartphone, computer or home internet, and with libraries and community centres closing down they will have to continue to attend face-to-face appointments.
The only responsible thing is to suspend mutual obligations to flatten the curve of infections and minimise the risk to our health system.
Let's not forget that Centrelink is also meant to be processing over 600,000 robodebts because many of them are illegal.
The COVID-19 crisis is highlighting the ongoing issues with Centrelink and the job-provider system that the government has ignored and been refusing to address for years now.
After this crisis is over, it will be untenable for the JobSeeker payment to go back to just $40 a day. There needs to be a permanent increase. We won't forget the people the government tried to ignore.
It shouldn't have taken a crisis like this for the government to show compassion and increase the JobSeeker payment.
- Rachel Siewert is a Greens senator for Western Australia.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the ACT Health website or federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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