There is a saying that an emergency does not change a society, it reveals it. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed much about Australia, and the Hunter.
There are currently more people unemployed in Newcastle and the Hunter than at any time since this data has been collected. If not for the $550 per fortnight supplement to JobSeeker, formerly called Newstart, a record number of people in our region would be living in poverty on the old rate of $40 a day. Meg, of Newcastle, is in her 60s and has been unemployed for five years. She has experienced life on the old and current rates of Newstart and JobKeeper. Bravely, she told us how the increased fortnightly payments of $1115 had changed her life.
"I can now buy medication, pay bills, and eat properly ... We can buy fresh food locally, and replace worn out underclothes and socks. And we have money in our account on the next payday," she told a Hunter Community Alliance survey. She was also able to buy second-hand parts for her car, which her son then fixed. That will surely help Meg find work when jobs return.
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In other words, Meg can live a life of dignity and with meaningful participation in society. She isn't alone. About 27,500 people in Newcastle and the Hunter were unemployed last month; a figure that's likely to continue climbing. Those people can put a roof over their heads, buy fresh food and medication, and have some freedom to retrain and plan for their futures because the current JobSeeker rate means they are not living at the very margins of society.
But Meg and tens of thousands of Hunter people are at risk of falling into poverty if JobSeeker payments are cut to pre-COVID-19 rates in September, as the Morrison Government intends. If JobKeeper is also cut as intended, and employers can no longer retain roles currently being subsidised, the number of people on JobSeeker and in poverty will climb further.
These payments were timely responses from the government and kept the economy ticking over. More importantly, they kept Australians out of poverty. How those payments are cut, or reduced, will have long-lasting effects. The Hunter's leaders shouldn't sit back and wait for decisions that affect our people to be handed down. We need to advocate for our communities.
On Friday, June 19, 22 leaders of diverse civil society organisations, large and small, co-signed letters demanding a permanent increase to JobSeeker, the disability and age pensions, widened eligibility to millions of temporary visa holders and casual workers not receiving any income support.
Among the co-signed were: the Bishops of the Catholic and Anglican dioceses; Chair of the Hunter's Uniting Presbytery; heads of CatholicCare, Community Disability Alliance Hunter, and Samaritans; The Wilderness Society Newcastle; Hunter Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service; Newcastle Climate Change Response; New Economy Network Australia; Amnesty International Newcastle; and others.
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This broad group of organisations had not been in a habit of working together. Necessarily, that's starting to change. Hunter Community Alliance brought them together to share the diverse experiences of our communities thus far in the pandemic. Forty community leaders representing 33 organisations took part in the process.
They were united in voicing that the most vulnerable in our society are being further marginalised by the COVID-19 response. We heard church and community welfare services are stretched as they try to help people in precarious circumstances. They also held common concern for what the economic recovery may look like.
We wanted to do more just than share concerns. We decided to agitate for positive change. There was consensus that a permanent increase to JobSeeker at the current rate of $1115 per fortnight, would have long-term, positive effects. It would support the newly unemployed, and build resilience in vulnerable citizens; it could relieve burden on service providers and charities; and it will charge an effective and socially responsible economic recovery.
The letters were sent to Prime Minister Scott Morisson, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, the Minister for Families and Social Services, Anne Rushton, and other MPs and senators. We sent letters to all Hunter region MPs a week before the opposition MPs came out in support of our demands in the Newcastle Herald. We are hopeful that Nationals' Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen will also advocate for this, as his party leader has.
These letters are a modest contribution to a growing national campaign. But they reveal something about the Hunter: that we can overcome ideological, political or philosophical differences to work together for a common good.
The pandemic has revealed that government income support prior to the crisis was inadequate for a life lived with self-esteem, contribution and hope. This has been true for many years, but now millions of Australians have first-hand experience of unemployment, and this may remain the case for sometime to come. We have also seen that Australians can respond to lift up those of us who need support. We have seen that no Australian is immune from crisis, or the risk of losing their livelihood. Here's hoping the government sees this too.