While the Federal Government continues to pour money into immigration detention, our social security system is in dire need of reform. (Image source: Anisha Pillarisetty)

By Anisha Pillarisetty @nishkinsilk

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking at the budget lunch in May, made it very clear that the Federal Government’s 2021-22 budget would “secure Australia’s recovery” from COVID-19. 

But is our economy in safe hands?

Let’s take a closer look at a few things the Prime Minister failed to mention in his speech: the human and economic impacts of big spending on immigration detention, while neglecting the social security system.

What’s going on with our immigration system?

Although many of the latest big budget spends have been welcomed, some have also sparked concern. 

Last year, the Refugee Council of Australia reported that the Government had consecutively blown past their already big budget allocations to offshore immigration processing.

Responding to a question during senate estimates in May, the Australian Border Force revealed that a staggering $6.7 million had been spent on detaining a Tamil family on Christmas Island between August 2019 and January this year. This cost was described by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke as, “money well-spent” on Australian border protection on ABC’s 7:30 on June 16.

The parents, who were granted temporary bridging visas and lived for four years in the Queensland town of Bileola where their children were born, have been denied refugee status despite reporting they had fled Sri Lanka due to threats to their lives.

The children are also considered “illegal maritime arrivals”, as per Operation Sovereign Borders, preventing them from applying for any Australian visas.

Following the Bileola three-year-old developing sepsis and being flown to a Perth hospital, the family is set to be reunited and moved to a Perth community detention.

The 2020-21 budget allocated $1.19 billion to offshore processing, but spending fell short at $818 million – potentially because of COVID-19 restricting movement. Last year’s Home Affairs Annual Report shows a 46 per cent decrease in those being refused entry into Australia, linking this largely to decreased traffic due to COVID-19. 

Although the previous budget estimated that spending on offshore processing would drop to $307.5 million in the current budget, the allocated amount is actually more than double, at $812 million. 

Last year the Government reduced the refugee resettlement program’s cap from 18,750 to 13,750 refugees per year, where it is set to remain until 2024-25. From 2017-2020, the government gradually increased the maximum intake of refugees to be resettled both on and offshore to 18,750 per year, to deal with the backlog of claims from those seeking asylum.

In April, Senior Policy Advisor for the Refugee Council of Australia, Asher Hirsch, said the Government could restart and expand the refugee resettlement program back up to 18,750 places a year immediately.

“We know that it can happen now with a range of initiatives,” Mr. Hirsch said.

“We’re hoping that we can rebuild [the resettlement program], and even rebuild our own economy through increasing our refugee program.”

Instead, $464.7 million or nearly 40 per cent of the $1.27 billion onshore budget has been allocated to expanding Australia’s detention system. In a joint statement, the Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke and the Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews said “this will address ongoing capacity pressures” due to COVID-19 impacting the removal of “unlawful non-citizens”. 

In 2016, nearly 4000 people were being detained across Australia and the onshore budget spend was $1.57 billion. The budget allocation for the coming year has barely reduced by 20 per cent while the number of detainees has decreased by over 50 per cent.

The number of onshore detainees were fractionally lower mid-last year compared to this year, yet there was a $212.2 million blow-out on last year’s onshore budget, bringing it to $1.39 billion.

Meanwhile, in one of the biggest budget cuts, the Federal Government will save $671 million by implementing a four-year wait before new migrants can access government support. 

Who really benefits from our current welfare system? 

The 2021-22 Federal Budget also promises to extend the tax offset for low to middle income earners, but only for a year. The offset amounts to $5 dollars a week if you are earning up to $37,000 a year (or $712 a week) relative to your payable income tax. High-income earners will reap the additional benefit of a decreased tax rate from 2024.

The budget leaves those on JobSeeker, Youth Allowance, or Parenting Payment, currently receiving around $16,016 annually, far behind.

Anti-Poverty Network SA’s Tom Wood said there are around 60 applicants on average for every entry-level job in Australia. 

“And many of the jobs that are available are highly casualised, demand constant availability, and are poorly paid,” he said. 

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union’s Raquel Araya said the rights of the unemployed shouldn’t be separated from the rights of waged workers. 

“By having a reserve army of unemployed workers subsisting on poverty payments, workers in low-income roles are put in their place,” she said.

“Our interest is to see a more dignified social security system, but accompanying that, we really want to see a commitment from the broad left to advocate for genuine job creation.” 

Research from the Deloite Access Economics, released by the Australian Council of Social Service in 2018, shows that raising welfare payments by $75 dollars a week would cost the federal budget $3.3 billion but would pull in a revenue of nearly $1 billion plus costs by kickstarting economic activity. 

Recently, the Government increased JobSeeker by $50, which amounts to an increase of about $3.50 a day. 

Sonia, a long-term unemployed parent, said she has had no luck in applying for jobs as a mother who can only work during school hours.

“How am I supposed to afford childcare while I’m working as well as every other bill?” she said. 

Sonia said the pandemic showed that the Government was capable of lifting people out of poverty. 

“The government was able to give us subsidies that actually made us feel dignified, that we didn’t have to live week to week, that we could still pay our bills, pay our rent, do our food shopping, clothe our children, we didn’t have to ration our medication anymore,” she said.

“And now suddenly in the last three weeks, I’ve found myself needing to link back into charity organisations so I can feed my children and I’m having to call and organise payment plans so I can pay my bills.” 

An April 2020 report, tabled by the Committee on Community Affairs, found that the social security system was “inadequate” and that it “needs major reforms”. It also stated that previous reviews that made similar recommendations had been ignored.

CEO of the National Council of Single Mothers Terese Edwards said, “financial fairness” and “financial safety” are still missing from this budget, as with previous ones.

“[If] you are unemployed, you’re actually doing the biggest, hardest, most difficult, undervalued job in the world – it’s just that we don’t give you credit for it,” she said.