Thursday, May 3, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning


Newstart for pollies
Everybody, except Julia Banks, knows $40 a day is too low

Image of Julia Banks

Source

By declaring that she could live on $40 a day, the equivalent of the Newstart Allowance, Liberal backbencher Julia Banks has had what might be called a Joe Hockey moment: when a politician is revealed to be so out of touch with the rest of the community that it is hard to see how their electoral standing can recover.

As treasurer in 2014, Hockey famously declared that poor people “either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases”. This was just a few months after he delivered a budget so unfair and punitive that it proposed people looking for work should wait six months with no income before they could get the dole. Before the budget that almost blew up his own government, he’d been dancing around his office to “Best Day of My Life”, and was snapped smoking a big cigar with finance minister Mathias Cormann. It later emerged that Hockey had wanted to cut harder in the budget, but was restrained by Tony Abbott, who by the end was ready to throw Hockey under a bus himself if it would save his prime ministership.

For Banks, the backlash has just begun. It all started on ABC Radio Melbourne last night, in an interview with presenter Rafael Epstein, who asked her whether Newstart – paid at the maximum rate of $545.80 per fortnight (for those with no dependents), or just under $40 a day – was too low.

“No, I don’t think it is,” she said. Asked where she would live on $40 a day, Banks declined to say, but argued that the payment “was not a supplement for a wage”. “We can’t just keep throwing billions of dollars at Newstart. Then the economy just flags,” she continued.

This week, economist Chris Richardson labelled the rate of unemployment benefits as “unnecessarily cruel” and called for both Newstart and Youth Allowance to be raised by $50 a week. Banks said she did not support Richardson’s proposal to lift the payment, which would cost $3 billion-a-year, saying it would be too costly to the budget.

When listeners called in, accusing her of being out of touch, Banks replied “I am certainly not. I speak to constituents every day and all I can say is the dignity of having a job and finding work is what our policy is about … I was speaking to a constituent the other day who was on Newstart and who now has a job, and that is what Newstart is designed to do.” Banks told Epstein that Richardson’s suggestion amounted to “socialism”.

Calling Chris Richardson a socialist is crazy. Banks is also at odds with the big end of town, which believes Newstart is too low. This morning on ABC’s RN Breakfast, the Business Council of Australia chief, Jennifer Westacott, told Fran Kelly as much, saying “I’ve been on about this for years … you cannot live on $39 a day. I said in 2011 you cannot live on $35 … a lot of these people are shockingly disadvantaged.”

Banks is no silver-spooner, growing up in Melbourne as the daughter of Greek immigrants, who were denied an education and came here with nothing. She worked her way up and spent 25 years as a corporate lawyer, including as in-house counsel to Big Food and Big Pharma.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who wants Newstart lifted by $75 a fortnight, told the ABC she had attempted to live off the payment for a week a few years ago, and could attest that it was “near impossible”. Siewart added: “I am glad there is a national discussion occurring about the woefully low payment that job seekers have to survive on whilst trying to find work. I urge [Banks] to put her money where her mouth is and give it a go for a week … When you factor in the cost of accommodation, utility charges, transport, phone, unexpected costs such as car breakdowns, there is little left for food.”

They’re piling in on Twitter. Journalist Ben Eltham points out that Banks “owns 5 houses, including three investment properties”. Another tweeted: “Before I even googled it I guessed that Julia Banks was formerly a lawyer. Another pollie with absolutely no idea of the struggles of her constituents nor the compassion or understanding to represent them. Shame on you.” An online petition (with 12 signatures at time of writing) calls for politicians’ entitlements to be linked to Newstart: “From the Business Council of Australia to leading economists such as Chris Richardson and the Australian Council of Social Services have all decried the poverty levels of the Australian Newstart Allowance (or unemployment benefit). Meanwhile, politicians like Julia Banks say they could easily live on $40 per day. Let’s make MPs like Julia Banks live out what they promote. Let’s peg the politicians’ ‘away from home allowances’ to the daily Newstart rate.”

It’s not a bad idea. As someone wrote recently, there is a class war on, it’s being waged by the rich, against the poor, and they’re winning.


RETURNING FOR A SECOND SEASON
Episode 13: The C word – class
Richard Denniss and ANU’s Dr Jill Sheppard discuss class in Australia and how it shapes outcomes for both individuals and federal politics.

LISTEN NOW

since this morning


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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.

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