Campaigns fail on Newstart

Simon Cowan

03 May 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

One contentious issue that has many motivated activists, but received relatively little attention from politicians in the election campaign, is the adequacy of Newstart as a welfare payment.

It has been presented as a moral challenge: that a wealthy society should do more for those in poverty. The rate of Newstart has also been negatively contrasted with the rate of the age pension, as the Newstart payment is far lower.

So why has this campaign received relatively little support — even from Labor, which has merely promised a review post-election?

First, voters aren’t highly motivated by it. The fact there is so little support politically for the campaign itself is evidence that raising Newstart is a relatively low priority for voters.

Moreover, in many ways, the question of whether one could ‘live’ on the base rate of new start misses the point.

Though much attention is focused on the long-term unemployed who ‘live’ on Newstart, most people still transition on and off the payment within 12 months.

Which means for the average Newstart recipient it functions largely as it was intended to: as a short term transition payment, supplemented by savings and credit — not a payment designed to be lived off for several years.

In some ways, the design of Newstart as a transition payment reflects the historical perspective that long-term unemployment was primarily a moral failing.

Particularly for men, the expectation was that you would be employed for the overwhelming majority of your working life; and if you become unemployed, you would diligently and rapidly secure new employment.

This attitude persists today and — though not as correct as once it was due to the emergence of involuntary unemployment as a more significant issue — it persists because there are elements of truth in it. These elements are never addressed, other than disparagingly, by those bent on increasing the welfare state.

Of course, it may be that ACOSS and others campaigning on Newstart convince the next government to raise the base rate. However, given how long the current campaign has lasted — without success — it may be that a new approach is needed.

This means, even though there are good reasons not to view welfare in moral terms, as long as the campaign to increase Newstart is itself couched in moral terms, those promoting it must address the moral conflicts.

They need to acknowledge the genuine moral concerns at the heart of the adequacy of welfare, rather than pretending the only moral approach is to spend more and tax more.

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