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Forging a more resilient and brighter future: a rousing call to address growing inequalities

Introduction by Croakey: While much media coverage of the federal election campaign so far has focused on “gotcha moments”, a webinar convened today by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) put the focus on many critical policy concerns and determinants of health, as summarised in this Twitter thread.

Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of ACOSS, presented a compelling argument for the next Federal Government to tackle poverty, growing inequality and climate change, and to restore a sense of optimism about our future. Her presentation follows below.


Cassandra Goldie writes:

Thank you all for being here this morning, and for taking the time out of an incredibly busy day, week, month and year to participate in this event.

While I will certainly touch on the Federal Budget, I would like to place it in a broader context – namely the journey we’ve been on over the past three years, how this journey also reflects where the country has been over the past two decades and what we at ACOSS believe this Federal Election campaign should be about.

Setting the election scene: living in the disaster era

Each election sends the country along a certain trajectory. When people cast their ballots at the 2019 Federal Election, no one foresaw what the next Federal Government, and the country, would be dealing with in the ensuing three years.

We have been living through a series of disasters, one rolling into another. For many, although not all, we have to reach back to the Second World War to find an equivalent time when we have been so clearly and constantly reminded about the fragility of our way of life.

The catastrophic megafires of late 2019 and early 2020 burnt approximately 46 million acres including heritage forests, farmland and coastal towns. At least 3,500 homes were lost alongside thousands of other buildings, and tragically 34 people perished.

We had barely extinguished the last bushfire early that year when we became aware of the first cases of COVID-19. We’ve spent over two years fixating on case numbers, death rates, lockdowns and border closures. We also spent most of 2020 and 2021 desperately avoiding each other in an attempt to avoid the virus.

As we predicted, people with the least were often being left behind, with extraordinary community leadership making the difference in keeping people safe. Fast forward and now COVID has swept through our neighbourhoods, our schools and our homes.

At the start of April, there have now been over 4.5 million cases of COVID-19 in Australia, with almost half a million active cases at this point in time.  At the time of my remarks, there have been over 6,500 deaths due to COVID-19, two-thirds of which have occurred in the last four months alone.

Just under 2,000 deaths have occurred in aged-care residences. People in our most disadvantaged areas have been dying at three times the rate of those in our most advantaged areas.

We were still grappling with the spread of Omicron across the country when we were confronted with devastating floods, especially in the Northern Rivers region straddling New South Wales and Queensland.

The events were unprecedented, but not unpredicted. We are still taking stock of how destructive this set of flooding has been, but already 25,000 homes and businesses have flooded across the two states, and 3,600 homes in northern NSW alone have been deemed uninhabitable.

Every person has been affected in some way by one or more of these catastrophic events, none more so than those who were already experiencing poverty, disadvantage and hardship before these disasters took over our lives.

The lost two decades

It is important to remember that, for those with the least amongst us, life was already perilous before 2019.

For 20 years, Australia’s wealth grew enormously. We avoided recessions that bedevilled the rest of the world, we lived in an unrivalled era of national prosperity. Yet successive governments never wholeheartedly tackled poverty or inequality, nor did they ensure every person living in Australia could access the economic and social supports they needed to thrive.

For the majority of people in Australia, living standards increased significantly over the last 20 years, while people on low and very low incomes fell further and further behind.

As the ACOSS and UNSW Poverty and Inequality Research Partnership found, from 2000 to 2021, Australia’s median household income grew by 45% in real terms. The minimum wage rose by only 23.5 percent. For sole parents with a child under eight, their income rose by 27.2 percent in this period, while the income of sole parents with children over eight rose by just a shocking 7.9 percent.

That’s 7.9 percent over a twenty-year period.

And that is why, shockingly, we know about 40 percent of the children in single parent families living in poverty in the one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

During this time, our social protections were eroded or deliberately cut especially income support and housing for people on low incomes.

Despite a great period of wealth generation, we now have one of the lowest levels of investment in social benefits amongst industrialised nations as a percentage of GDP, in fact the sixth lowest – well behind counterpart countries in Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. We also have the ninth lowest revenue base to fund investment in essential services and supports.

Our governments have let poverty worsen, inequality widen, opportunity narrow and disadvantage spread. We squandered a unique opportunity to tackle social justice that few countries are gifted.

Is it any wonder then that heading into the pandemic, we had about three million people living in poverty, including over 750,000 children?

Our actions during the pandemic

Australia headed into the pandemic with deep social fissures. A compassionate national policy response was far from guaranteed. However, in responding to the first wave of the pandemic, as jobs evaporated and Centrelink queues grew, through powerful community efforts and advocacy, we did, in fact do some extraordinary things as a country.

For a precious six months in 2020 as we responded to the Alpha wave, we saw the Federal Government act to protect people’s health, homes and livelihoods. We reduced poverty through the introduction of the COVID-19 supplement doubling the miserly Newstart allowance to the first, more generous iteration of JobSeeker.

Among people in households relying on this level of JobSeeker, poverty fell by four-fifths, from 76 percent in 2019 to 15 percent in June 2020. Among sole parent families (both adults and children) poverty was reduced by almost half, from 34 percent to 19 percent.

After 20 years of procrastination and neglect, overnight we were closer to the elimination of poverty than we’ve ever been before. Simultaneously, the Federal Government introduced JobKeeper which saved over 700,000 jobs, stopping Australia from heading into an economic abyss of foreclosing businesses, empty shopfronts and countless people unemployed.

We also found safe accommodation for people sleeping on the streets. In sheltering 5,000 rough sleepers in March to April 2020, we discovered that ending homelessness was also within reach. Mass hotel bookings saw street homelessness suddenly reduced to near zero in major cities, an achievement rightly celebrated as a decisive intervention on a scale previously unimaginable.

By early 2021, at least 12,073 people living on the streets had benefited from COVID-19 Emergency Accommodation programs staged by NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. Our response was by no means perfect, with about one million people on temporary visas left to fend for themselves, and large numbers also excluded from Jobkeeper, including in the arts and tertiary sectors.

But for a period of several months in 2020, we had transformed our society.

We found that our best and most impactful responses came from government marshalling national resources and corralling different parts of society into action. Australia was a community where those who needed help would receive it. The way government acted showed we utilise our national wealth for everyone’s benefit. And political stakes went up.

Yet frustratingly, despite people benefitting significantly from this type of response, government has since retreated from being so effective, and our window of transformation is shrinking.

Entrenching austerity

As the pandemic wore on in 2021, a sense of community was replaced with a mantra of individual responsibility, government ‘getting out of the way’ and collective measures introduced via a National Cabinet were replaced with increasing fragmentation and division amongst our states and territories.

Now in the third year of the pandemic, as we also grapple with the Northern Rivers flooding incidents, we see social and economic supports being pulled away. JobSeeker is now back to the paltry $46 per day for recipients, an amount that does not lift people out of poverty but entrenches them deeper in it.

Approximately, one million people require food relief each month, including a rising proportion of people who are in paid employment and still cannot afford the essentials. The 2022 Federal Budget was an opportunity to set an agenda for a long-term, durable recovery, yet the flagship commitments amounted to a series of short-term measures that left structural problems unattended.

The $250 one-off payment went to all people including those hit by unemployment but as with the pandemic, not to those people on temporary visas. An analysis undertaken by ANU Associate Professor Ben Phillips revealed that only 15 percent of the benefits from the Federal Budget went to the lowest 20 percent of people by income, the people who needed help the most.

A total of 56 percent of the benefits, or approximately $8.5 billion, went to the top 50 percent of income earners.

Australia’s housing and rental situation, which for two decades had steadily been deteriorating, has now reached an acute phase. The annual rental increases are about eight percent nationwide, and is up a staggering 18 percent in regional communities.

Yet, in the Budget, there was nothing for social housing. For disaster-impacted areas, private rentals were already in short supply before floods and fires. Yet with homes destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, many of us have discovered a complete lack of adequate social housing options for those made homeless by disaster.

A major concern is that this shortage will become a permanent fixture of our national housing arrangements.

We remain a country at the whim of existential challenges, reacting to events, adrift without a clear purpose or a coherent vision.

The pandemic remains at the foreground of our lives even as we rebuild destroyed communities ahead of the next natural disaster. Our deep-seated problems with poverty and yawning inequality, including gender inequality, remain unaddressed. We cannot squander the next decade as we have the previous two. In particular, the threat of climate change is here now, not something to talk or think about for the future.

It is understandable given everything we have gone through, that people would be dissatisfied with how things are currently going.

In 2021, The Salvation Army sought to understand people’s attitudes to social justice. They canvassed over 15,000 people across the country, with at least 100 responses from each of Australia’s 151 Federal Electorates.

However, they found something worse than dissatisfaction, they discovered despair and a sense of hopelessness. Many respondents felt governments had abandoned them and were largely uninterested in tackling the problems that were making their lives harder.

We’re at risk of a divergent Australia that is comfortable with growing inequality, where some people will bounce back and resume a relatively normal life after three years of manic disruption, able to prepare themselves for future uncertainty with little assistance, whereas others will continue to struggle with poverty and hardship, processing the trauma of disasters, desperately searching for government support even as it recedes from view.

We have a budget that has baked in austerity for the future, unless we secure the revenue we need to tackle the challenges we so clearly face. That is the trajectory Australia is currently on, as we move from the Federal Budget into the 2022 Federal Election.

ACOSS vision for election

I want to see this country reinvigorated with the spirit of those 2020 transformations, searching for ways to make them a permanent feature for Australia.

This election is about reigniting a sense of belief in our future and articulating a clear, active and compassionate role for government in improving our lives and tackling poverty, inequality, disadvantage and hardship. The transformations we enacted in 2020 showed that we can end poverty and inequality should we choose to do so.

We know exactly what we need to do. The question is will we do it?

In this election campaign, ACOSS will be articulating why, when electing the next Federal Government, Australia should make that choice.

Our election asks

So let me now present ACOSS’ vision for this country, and what we are looking to create in the life of the next Federal Parliament and beyond.

We want an Australia:

– where income support is adequate so that everyone can keep a roof over their head, food on the table and pay their bills without sacrificing essential items for themselves or loved ones.

– where people who cannot afford private rental properties can access social housing without delay.

– where people can access a decent and dignified job that sets them on a pathway out of poverty and financial insecurity

– where every person is guaranteed access to quality, essential services, including in times of disaster.

– where people live in communities resilient to climate change, with people most at risk leading the change, and able to respond swiftly in an emergency

– and where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have an enshrined constitutional voice, and are able to determine their future in their communities.

As a community I think we have shown that we want an active and compassionate Federal Government, intent on protecting people from hunger and homelessness, seizing the opportunities our challenges present, strengthening our social cohesion as a country.

For the next government to invest in this reform agenda it must be prepared to raise the necessary revenue, rejecting any notions of austerity, largesse tax cuts or ‘small government’ as a path for recovery.

Let me provide some more detail on our proposals.

Income support and the Raise the Rate

We know without doubt that attempts to address the cost of living and end poverty must start with permanent and adequate increases to the rate of JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and other income supports, so that they are above the poverty line. This equates to a rate of at least $70 a day.

This is one of the most positive changes the next government could deliver, especially considering that there are 30 percent more individuals receiving working age payments than prior to the pandemic.

It is impossible for people to lead a dignified and decent life when they are subsisting on the current rate of $46 per day. As we proved in 2020, we can choose to stop this any time, including at the coming election.

We are also calling for the increase of Commonwealth Rent Assistance by 50 percent to ensure people on the lowest incomes, especially single parents, can better cover the cost of rent.

As it was in 2020, these would be transformational shifts that allow people on low income to build a better life for themselves and their families. And achieving them is right within our grasp.

Housing and the Everybody’s Home Campaign

A crucial complementary measure to increasing JobSeeker and related payments is a rapid acceleration of investment in social housing. More and more families are being forced into homelessness and ensuing financial hardship because of soaring rent prices and an acute shortage of social housing.

Regional communities are seeing rents increase faster than in metropolitan areas as people everywhere search far and wide for an affordable place to call home. We are short at least 400,000 affordable homes in Australia.

Approximately 155,000 households agonisingly sit on wait on a list. In this election, we will be advocating for parties and candidates to commit to building at least 25,000 social and affordable housing properties each year in a major attempt to reduce wait lists and help people in need find the shelter they require.

Employment and the historic hope of real full employment

For those struggling with financial insecurity and poverty, finding a decent and dignified job is life-altering.

Approximately one million people are on inadequate income support payments. This includes 760,000 people who are long-term unemployed, 440,000 people aged 45 years or older, 390,000 people with a disability, 120,000 sole carers for children, and 130,000 people from First Nations communities.

Essential services and a real guarantee

There are hundreds of thousands of people who have only managed to endure the megafires, COVID-19 and the flooding because of the extraordinary support provided by community services.

Emergency services have fed and clothed people who have lost everything, and helped them while start the gruelling process of rebuilding after traumatic loss.

What worries me greatly is that despite enormous efforts, the need for community services has only intensified in recent years, and the demand on individual organisations has grown exponentially.

In our Community Sector Survey in 2021, only six percent of organisations said they could always meet demand during the year. The sector cannot continue to be starved of decent, long-term funding.

Climate action and the Fair, Fast and Inclusive Climate Campaign

Only last week did the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issue a chilling warning on how the world is on track to exceed 1.5C warming by the end of this century. We all know that we are already living in a country undergoing a dramatic climate change.

What is critical is how we respond at this stage to protect our communities. While we need to rapidly reduce emissions we must ensure that it is done in a fair and equitable way, one that does not leave people on low incomes with outrageous energy bills or unable to access renewable technology.

We want to see significant improvement in the energy efficiency and productivity of low-income homes. This would have a major national benefit, seeing the generation of more than 23,800 jobs and an additional $4.9 billion added to the economy.

It will also improve the wellbeing of people on low incomes as they save money on their utility bills.

First Nations, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Change the Record and Close the Gap

A hole will continue to exist at the heart of this country without full reconciliation with this continent’s First Nations, and recognition of their unique place as traditional custodians of this land enshrined in our Constitution and in our Federal Parliament.

In 2017, we were gifted the Uluru Statement from the Heart, an uplifting document to replenish our drive towards full recognition of First Nations at the heart of this country. We must honour that gift through reform that genuinely closes the gaps in our society and moves us closer to self-determination.

We must continue transferring control of relevant services to First Nations community-controlled organisations.

We must end injustice towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by ending the discriminatory incarceration of their people, as well as raise the age of criminal responsibility to protect all children and young people, especially young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are disproportionately targeted.

Election choice

Come the next Federal Parliament, ACOSS wants to see an Australia moving along a trajectory that delivers on these proposals. I want to see us using the lessons we have learned through three years of disasters to ensure that we exit this period of time stronger than we entered it.

ACOSS will be working hard with our members and other key allies to deliver our message of reform as convincingly and compellingly as we can throughout the election campaign, to candidates and communities alike.

I’m determined to see Australia make a choice to end poverty and inequality, and instil in people everywhere a sense of ownership and optimism in our future.

Let me finally acknowledge our privilege in being able to convene today to openly discuss how best to govern Australia, including with sitting representatives. Every three years we get to elect the people that make our laws.

No democracy is robust or long-lasting without a vibrant civil society. The work that each of you do each day, helps maintain a strong community sector. That work enriches our civil society. Our civil society holds our leaders accountable, and by doing so, defends our democratic system.

So let me finish by thanking all of you for your incredible, ongoing contributions to our country, for your fervent and unwavering ambition to make it a better place for everyone to live. I know you will all have a powerful voice during the election campaign, and we will all be the better for it.


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