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'More data' needed for permanent JobSeeker rate decision: PM

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UPDATED: Prime Minister Scott Morrison says his government is waiting for more data before deciding whether to permanently increase unemployment payments or return them to the pre-pandemic $40 a day at the end of March.

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JobSeeker payments were effectively doubled by a “coronavirus supplement” after the pandemic struck, hitting jobs, businesses and the economy.

But the supplement has been  wound back in recent months and is due to be axed entirely on March 31.

Welfare groups, Labor and the Greens have called for the base JobSeeker rate to be lifted, saying it is below poverty level and not increased in real terms for decades.

The government has consistently refused to speculate on whether it would permanently lift the rate, with Morrison saying yesterday that any decision was waiting on “some further information on the labour market” from December.

“Not all that data is in,” he told the National Press Club.

“We haven’t made those decisions yet, and we are looking at the many issues that relate to where people are at and their needs.

“The Australian labour market is coming back and I think it is coming back far more strongly than I think many anticipated but it still got a long way to go.

“Workforce challenges … going forward are I would have to say one of the biggest, if not the biggest single economic challenge we have in this country.

“The labour market is very sensitive to all these issues and of course the settings that sit around the unemployment benefit.”

He said analysis of the coronavirus supplements would determine which industries might receive further financial support.

According to the Services Australia website, a single Australian with no children currently receives about $715 per fortnight, which includes a $150 coronavirus supplement.

The supplement will be axed from April 1, dropping the equivalent low-income rate to about $565 per fortnight.

The prospect of reducing the rate back to $40 a day has come under fire from the Greens, with Family and Community Services Senator Rachel Siewert saying it would have a “devastating” impact on the Australian community.

“Living on $40 a day, well below the poverty line means going without food, it means going without medication and it means finding meaningful work becomes further and further out of reach,” Siewert said.

“Mr Morrison says that the Australian people won’t let the virus break our spirit, but taking JobSeeker back to $40 a day is breaking our hearts.”

The Australian Council of Social Service has reiterated Siewert’s calls for an increased rate, urging the government for a rise of at least $25 a day more than the old rate of $40 a day.

Meanwhile the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) is pushing for a return of the old rate for people who became unemployed during the pandemic.

Under ACCI’s proposal, the $150 fortnightly supplement would be retained for people out of work for more than a year.

The employment group also wants a “new financial support mechanism” for businesses that continue to be “significantly impacted by government restrictions,” following the end of the JobKeeper payment in March.

In a statement, ACCI said financial assistance was particularly vital for tourism and events businesses, which were facing “a dire future after across-economy support ends””.

“The most important thing governments can do to provide support for business is to address the uncertainty and disproportionality of restrictions, offer a pathway to reopen international travel, and roll out the vaccine effectively,” it said.

“In the meantime, it is only fair that businesses receive support to prevent them going under through no fault of their own.”

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union has condemned the ACCI’s comments on JobSeeker payments, calling them “heartless and divisive”.

“It’s cruel and offensive to suggest that people who have been unemployed for three months can somehow live more cheaply than those unemployed for 13 months,” The AUWU said.

“We want to know why an organisation representing health services, charities, arts bodies and ethical businesses, some of the worst hit by the pandemic, is advocating to destroy people’s lives even further after such a horrible year.”

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the boosted JobSeeker amount had strengthened the economy and helped recipients during the depths of the pandemic.

“It’s one of the factors that’s given Australians such huge retained savings at present,” he told ABC radio on Tuesday.

“But there are many stories out there of employers struggling to get people to take jobs that are vacant.”

Labor has advocated for a permanent increase in unemployment benefits but refused to nominate a figure.

The opposition is set to pressure the coalition over JobSeeker and JobKeeper wage subsidies when parliament kicks off for the year on Tuesday.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese has called for targeted support for sectors like tourism that will continue to struggle beyond March.

“It’s easier to keep jobs and businesses going than it is to see them collapse and then try and restart again,” he said.

Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said domestic tourism was showing a quite strong rebound, but targeted and temporary support was being considered.

“We’ll have more to say on this in coming weeks and months,” he told the ABC.

-with AAP

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