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Govt talks up dole penalties as Newstart pay debate bites

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UPDATED: The Federal Government has reignited the “dole bludger” stereotype amid debate about the adequacy of unemployment benefits, releasing figures showing a majority have payments suspended because they miss appointments.

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The data released by Employment Minister Michaelia Cash show nearly four in five of 744,884 Jobactive participants had payments suspended at least once in the 12 months to the end of June.

Payments can be suspended if people miss or turn up late to appointments with their service provider or behave badly during the meeting.

One in 12 job-seekers had racked up 10 or more suspensions in the year and one person had payments suspended 52 times.

Cash said the figures show the penalty and demerit system is working as intended because people re-engage after copping the punishment.

“The Coalition takes the mutual obligation of welfare recipients very seriously,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.

“When participants have their payments suspended up to 52 times in less than a year, they are not living up to what the taxpayer expects who are giving their hard-earned money to the government.”

The Australian Council of Social Services labelled the figures alarming but said it had predicted similar results.

“I hope the minister understands that when you have the kind of findings that she’s released today, it is the system that’s the problem, and the automation has become brutal for people,” chief executive Cassandra Goldie told reporters in Canberra.

Labor frontbencher Jason Clare said while people on Newstart should follow the rules, the government was depicting recipients are “dole bludgers”, “surfies up the coast” or “pot-smoking hippies”.

“The truth is very different,” he told Sky News.

“The biggest group of people on Newstart are older people in their 50s, in their 60s. They are not old enough to get the pension but they are finding it really hard to get back into the workforce.”

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation has also weighed in, saying many Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people face a daily decision of whether to pay their bills or feed their family, as they are unable to afford both.

“It is unacceptable that while over the last 25 years there has been a drastic increase in living costs there has been no increase to Newstart,” acting NACCHO chair Donnella Mills said in a statement.

Jobactive is the government’s employment program and places requirements on job-seekers such as attending regular meetings with providers and applying for 20 jobs a month in order to keep their welfare payments.

Most Newstart recipients are required to be on it.

The program has been criticised for wasting job-seekers’ time, with a Senate committee in February slamming it as “not fit for purpose”.

In many cases, participants were missing paid employment to attend appointments with their Jobactive provider, the committee said.

And a March survey of people looking for work found two-thirds said Jobactive hadn’t been helpful in their situation.

A new Liberal senator who led mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s indigenous jobs program called for reforms to the program in his first speech on Tuesday, worrying it involves too much unnecessary training.

“Failure in this policy area is not an option,” he told parliament.

“The training for training’s sake issue not only wastes an enormous amount of taxpayers’ dollars but it completely depletes the trainee of any sense of pride and aspiration.”

An overhaul of the program that would allow people to search online for jobs is being trialled in Adelaide and the NSW mid north coast.

The release of figures around Jobactive comes as momentum is gathering in the push to increase the $277-a-week Newstart payment.

Several Coalition backbenchers, including former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, had added their voices to those from Labor, the Greens, business and welfare lobby groups, seniors, doctors, the Reserve Bank, and the Country Women’s Association saying the payment is inadequate.

-AAP

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