Tom Studans from the Australian Unemployed Workers Union steps up to the microphone to talk about Newstart payments that have not risen in real terms for a quarter of a century.
Sixty people occupy the hall. They’re here in answer to an unemployment and welfare crisis. The Sydney Street Choir – a group dealing with homelessness, mental illness, addiction and social disadvantage through “the power of song” – have just bawled their way through a re-worded version of the Whitlam-era, ALP election anthem “It’s Time”. Later they give us a guts-and-glory reading of the Beatles classic, “Help”. Between those two songs a string of people who’ve been on Newstart give us their testimonials.
Raise the rate campaign
The Addison Road Community Centre Organisation is launching the “Raise the Rate” campaign at Gumbramorra Hall in Sydney tonight. They are partnering with the Australian Council for Social Services to push for a significant increase to Newstart payments by $75 a week.
A lot to ask? After 25 years, maybe not.
When you’re on a standard Newstart payment of $278 per week, it won’t be long before you’re unable to keep up with the rent, pay your electricity and phone bills, or buy essential groceries. You can’t figure out how to get a job because you don’t even know how you can live.
The pressure from the privatised “job providers” to comply with their routine twenty-job-applications-a-month “contract” – along with attending their box-ticking interviews in the name of vocational supervision – is so grinding it can crush you. Bad luck if you’re young and living in a failing regional centre; or if you’re over 50 and out of a job. And God help you if you’re a single parent.
There are now over 800,000 Australians on Newstart, Youth Allowance or related income support. They join some three million living below the poverty line, many of whom have casual and part-time jobs, fearful of sliding back into a punitive Newstart system, and willing to accept the most unreliable employment conditions to scrape by.
While the AUWU’s Tom Studans speaks, candidates for the inner west Sydney seat of Grayndler in the 2019 federal election sit listening: Jim Casey of the Greens and Paris King Orsborn of the United Australia Party (UAP). With them is Andrea Leong, leader of the Science Party (and herself a candidate for the Senate), present tonight on behalf of an absent Majella Morello, who is running for Leong’s party in this electorate.
Neither of the two major parties is present. That’s unsurprising. But it is still disappointing, one more indictment of a seemingly broken political system. Labor has at least promised “a review” of Newstart. The need is urgent.
Mr Studans tells the crowd that a colleague of his in the AUWU killed himself and there are many cases like this. He believes this death is directly connected to Newstart.
“We can’t prove a causal relationship,” he says, “because we can’t ask a dead person.”
Anyone who has been on Newstart does not find Mr Studans’ claim hard to believe. Suicide ideation is a common by-product of being caught up in Newstart. Most people here just shake their heads and understand.
Mr Studans states it openly: “Our bodies and our lives have been sold out. We say enough!”
Andrea Leong from the Science Party acknowledges Mr Studans’ speech. “People are valuable,” she says. “The problem is, ‘welfare’ has become a dirty word. It’s been corrupted But its real meaning is connected to well-being, for us as individuals and for our society as whole.”
The cruelty factory
Jim Casey of The Greens calls Centrelink and Newstart “The Cruelty Factory”. Everyone knows the system has little to do with getting people employed and much to do with driving them away.
“It’s designed to break people. The most vulnerable and the most weak are forced to cop it sweet. And yet we have never been wealthier as a nation. The top 1 per cent of the population have as much as the bottom 70 per cent.”
The UAP’s Paris King Orsborn asks for a minute’s silence for Mr Studans’ lost friend. She feels strongly about unemployment and Newstart from “personal experience”. It’s why she attended tonight, her first ever political meeting, as a candidate.
Addison Road Community Centre Organisation CEO Rosanna Barbero thanks the Sydney Street Choir for raising our mood. She explains how Addi Road “works in the community. We see how people are doing it tough. The powerlessness they feel in the system. And how so many people are down on themselves because of it. It’s why Addison Road Community Centre Organisation has got behind this cause.”
Mark Mordue is Communications & Media Adviser for the Addison Road Community Centre Organisation.