Fighting for their future: An inside look at the grassroots struggle to raise Newstart

Protesting for a Newstart raise has been a long struggle for welfare advocates (Image Source: SACOSS)

By Thomas Kelsall | @Thomas_Kelsall

As the level of wealth inequality in Australia continues to grow, so does the role of welfare advocacy groups in our community.

With an estimated three million Australians living below the poverty line, the demand for advocacy, counselling and advice is stretching these groups to their financial limits, and the complexity of Australia’s welfare system is making the jobs of welfare rights advocates increasingly difficult to navigate.

This is in addition to the high level of personal distress involved in regularly engaging with those Australians who have hit rock-bottom.

The South Australian Anti-Poverty Network is an example of a local welfare organisation dealing with an increased workload, and as community organiser Claudia Ienco explains, the group’s advocacy is primarily focused on one goal.

“Our biggest demand at the moment is for a raise to Newstart Allowance,” Ms Ienco said.

Newstart is an income support payment available to unemployed workers in Australia.

The current rate is $555 a fortnight (roughly $40 a day), and the program has become a huge source of contention for welfare rights advocates across the country.

As the payment is significantly below the national poverty line, many Newstart recipients quickly find themselves in financial trouble.

The Anti-Poverty Network aims to build support groups for those struggling to make ends meet, giving potentially stranded Newstart recipients a social group to lean on.

“We build a lot of community connections and support for each other, which helps people on low incomes to know that they’re not alone,” Ms Ienco said.

“It can be really isolating being on such a low income; you’re missing out on social gatherings and means of social support.

“It exacerbates a lot of issues like depression and anxiety through the financial stress, but also through the stigma as well; it’s hard to keep feeling like you’re still living with dignity.”

Social stigma is a key theme welfare advocates confront on a daily basis.

Sociological research into perceptions of Australian social policy shows that negative views have emerged about “welfare dependency” in the Australian public, and previous governments have contributed to this stereotype with inflammatory political rhetoric.

In a society that tends to characterise welfare recipients as “dole bludgers”, receiving Newstart payments can be a source of personal shame and social exclusion, while also undermining the efforts of welfare advocates to lobby for rate increases.

Ms Ienco said it is a mixed bag when dealing with the public perception of raising Newstart.

“There’s plenty of outsiders who think Newstart is good enough as it is and say ‘why is anyone complaining?’ thinking that the people on it are at fault,” Ms Ienco said.

“I would love to think that the majority polls of people who think Newstart should be raised is a sign that we’re moving forward, but there’s definitely a lot of work that needs doing there.”

The process of moving forward on Newstart has certainly been a slow one, as the rate has not been raised since former Prime Minister Paul Keating provided an increase in 1994. In the 25 years since, the income level of Newstart has not moved, only keeping up with the pace of inflation.

This is despite the lobbying efforts of even the strongest Australian welfare group: the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS).

ACOSS is widely regarded as the nation’s leading welfare rights organisation with an operating budget of more than $2 million a year.

Despite this, the interest group has still been unsuccessful in its longstanding mission to raise Newstart, failing to persuade the Gillard Government to reform the policy despite an extensive media campaign from 2011 to 2013.

However, with the support of groups like the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU), the Raise the Rate campaign made a series of breakthroughs in the 2019 election.

This included gaining the support of all federal crossbenchers, successfully lobbying the Labor Party to commit to a Newstart review, and having the Australian Local Government Association—the representative body of every Australian Council—pass a motion to raise Newstart.

National Vice President of the AUWU Hayden Patterson attributes these successes to the collaboration of like-minded groups on the issue.

“ACOSS are calling for a raise of $75, the Anti-Poverty Network are calling for a raise of $100, and at the AUWU, we’re calling for a raise to the Henderson poverty line,” Mr Patterson said.

“By standing together with these groups that have a similar message and highlighting the importance of getting people out of poverty, we’re actually making more of an impact.”

Although last month’s election result has most likely delayed action on Newstart for another three years, welfare advocates are convinced the foundations are in place for change in the near future.

Ms Ienco at the Anti-Poverty Network said the organisation’s successful lobbying of various local councils has given group members confidence in collective action despite the Coalition’s victory.

“People collectively push for that change and influence that change; they know they’ve done it before by getting local councils on side to raise Newstart,” Ms Ienco said.

“So there’s been the despair of the election result along with the knowledge that we can still keep fighting.”

Mr Patterson also said the mere presence of Newstart on the national agenda is a major sign of progress for the movement.

“In 30 years, Newstart has never been an election issue,” Mr Patterson said.

“Because everyone was working so much together, and because we’ve had so much momentum over the last 12 months, for the first time ever, Newstart was an election discussion item.

“That’s what makes me think that we’re starting to get somewhere.”

At what point the grassroots effort to raise Newstart finally reaches its goal is yet to be seen, but if recent trends are anything to go by, the campaign is the closest its been in its 25-year history.

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