Poor left behind by Budget but COVID support for region welcomed

Anglican agencies warn that hardest hit by COVID-19 could be left behind

PHOTO: Australian Federal Government

By Mark Brolly

Two leading Anglican welfare agencies have criticised this year's Federal Budget for leaving behind Australians worst hit by the economic effects of coronavirus and those on the lowest incomes. But a Melbourne-based Anglican relief and development agency and a coalition of Christians advocating for the world’s poor have welcomed more than $300 million in one-off pandemic support to Pacific nations and Timor-Leste.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence said people hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic would be left behind by a recession that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg labelled a “once-in-a-century shock”. It said the Federal Government had missed an historic opportunity to bring all Australians along in the recovery from COVID-19 and although it welcomed the Budget's focus on youth employment and training, very little support had been offered to others in need.

BSL Executive Director Ms Conny Lenneberg said the Budget Mr Frydenberg delivered on 6 October fell "drastically short" for Australians doing it tough.

“The Government showed great leadership during this pandemic with initiatives like JobKeeper and the Coronavirus Supplement," Ms Lenneberg said. "But even though this crisis is far from over, the supplement has now been cut. People around the country still need help to rebuild their lives.

“Those who are relying on income support have been given no certainty that they won’t be back on $40 a day come January, even though the Government’s own predictions show unemployment will still be above 8 per cent at the end of this calendar year. This lack of certainty means unemployed Australian parents don’t know how they’ll cover their rent and budget beyond Christmas.

“The Treasurer said in his speech that ‘This is what it means to look after one’s fellow Australian’. But millions of people are not being looked after by this Budget. When we look at the most disadvantaged groups, like single mothers and their children, there is nothing in this Budget that would make them feel that anyone has their back.”

The Brotherhood said that the Parliamentary Budget Office had revealed that the number of single mothers on the former Newstart (now named JobSeeker) skyrocketed from 7.3 per cent in 2007 to 27.4 per cent in 2019. This would only be made worse by the recession, it said, and was why the BSL believed this Budget should have addressed the rate of social security payments. The Coronavirus Supplement was a lifeline for millions of people, but since it was slashed at the end of September, millions had been pushed back below the poverty line.

“It is alarming that at a time when 1.6 million Australians are relying on JobSeeker to get by, the government can hand down a budget that doesn’t talk about social security,” Ms Lenneberg said.

The Brotherhood called for a permanent adequate increase to JobSeeker and the establishment of an independent Social Security Commission to set, monitor and review social security payment rates, much like the one that determined the rate of pay for politicians.

“It’s time to take the politics out of social security,” Ms Lenneberg said. “Making sure this country’s most disadvantaged people can get back on their feet is far too important.”

Anglicare Australia said the Budget was a lost opportunity to meet the unprecedented moment Australia faced and had left people on the lowest incomes high and dry.

The organisation's Executive Director, Ms Kasy Chambers, said people on low incomes were on the frontline of this downturn.

"Many are losing their incomes, and too many are scared of losing their homes,” Ms Chambers said.

She said with 1.6 million Australians out of work and the downturn due to last for years, record numbers of people were at risk of poverty and homelessness.

“There were simple solutions to these problems: raise the rate of JobSeeker for good, and invest in social housing. One-off payments to people on the age and disability pensioners will provide some relief, but they don’t go far enough. Instead of doing what needs to be done, this Budget gives handouts to people who don’t need them.

“We already know that JobSeeker has given a badly needed boost to the economy – people have been spending their payments on food, transport, and essentials for their families. We also know that most people who get tax cuts will save them instead of spending them.

“Instead of locking in the benefits of the JobSeeker boost, the Government is phasing in cuts that will hurt everyone – and bringing a black hole into the Budget for decades to come."

Ms Chambers said building social housing would have kept a roof over people’s heads and given a badly-needed boost the economy, but that was missing from the Budget. Investing in "shovel-ready" projects across the country would have boosted construction by $15.7 billion, grown GDP by $6.7 billion and created 24,500 jobs in the regions that needed them the most.

"This kind of boost is much stronger than lining the kitchens and bathrooms of people who can already afford it.

“Instead we’re back to business as usual – handing out money to people who can already afford to renovate or invest.

“This is completely at odds with the approach that Australians want. Polling released today shows that people wanted to see action on housing, wages, and welfare put ahead of tax cuts and payment to people who don’t need them.

“Investing in housing and incomes is a no-brainer. We will keep calling for action to make the economy works for everyone – and pushing the Government to invest in people who need it most.”

In a statement three days after the Budget, Ms Chambers returned to the need for social housing, saying that 90 percent of the infrastructure projects in the document weren’t ready to get off the ground and about two-thirds could not get going until 2022.

"That isn’t going to fire up the economy or get people back to work fast enough," she said.

“Social housing is ready to go now. Almost 10,000 homes can start construction in the next year – and over 6000 are ready to go within six months. This should be a no-brainer.”

Ms Chambers said social housing would boost the economy while tackling Australia’s housing crisis.

“Even before the downturn, Australia had a shortfall of 400,000 social and affordable rentals across the country. Now thousands more people are being pushed into poverty and homelessness.

“Social housing is the best way to tackle that crisis. It will offer relief for people who are on the brink of homelessness. It also boosts GDP, and creates construction jobs for the regions that need them most. These projects are shovel-ready – and they’re shovel-worthy.

“There is no time to waste. Social housing projects will bring more jobs than renovations, and they can get off the ground more quickly than roads or rail. Most importantly, they offer badly needed help to the people who need it.

“The Government says it wants a jobs-led recovery. It’s not too late to put its money where its mouth is and fund social housing.”

* A peak body for aged care, of which Melbourne Anglican-founded agency Benetas is part, said it hoped the Budget commitments were a downpayment on a better aged care system.

Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) -- which is chaired by prominent Melbourne Anglican Dr Graeme Blackman, the Chancellor of the University of Divinity, a former chairman of Anglicare Victoria and former director of Benetas -- said the issues of ageing and aged care were of national importance and this had been acknowledged this through the investments announced in the Budget.

LASA CEO Mr Sean Rooney said: “We are committed to having the world’s best aged care system as we look towards the Aged Care Royal Commission’s final report in February next year.

“The Royal Commission has heard that the policy, regulation and resourcing that underpins Australia’s aged care system has not kept pace with the needs of older Australians or the expectations of the wider community.

“Evidence to the Royal Commission has recently highlighted deep structural problems with funding for aged care. While this Budget does not address all of these issues, it does lay a platform for the future.”

LASA said the $1.6 billion commitment to an extra 23,000 Home Care Packages was vital to help older Australians age in place, raising the number of packages to 180,000.

“Our elders deserve this because the vast majority want to continue living in their own homes as they age,” Mr Rooney said. “We hope this will help drive down people’s wait times for packages at their assessed level, which has been heartbreakingly up to two years or more."

He said funding included in the Budget for COVID-19 responses was welcome but represented only a partial continuation of measures for the first six months of the pandemic.

* Melbourne-based Anglican Overseas Aid said it was encouraged to see the first budgeted overseas aid increase under the Coalition Government since it came to office in 2013, and that aid to the Pacific in particular had increased.

AOA's CEO, the Revd Dr Bob Mitchell, said: “We are particularly glad that an extra $211 million has been allocated for our Pacific neighbours to respond to the challenges of COVID-19. Australia has a particular responsibility to respond to this extraordinary challenge in our region and we commend the Australian Government for recognising this.”

The relief and development agency said aid for Australia's Pacific neighbours was vital for their flourishing.

"We are excited to continue to work with our partners towards this goal," AOA said in a Facebook post responding to the Budget.

* Micah Australia, through which many Australian Christians advocate for the world's most poor, vulnerable and oppressed, welcomed the fact that the aid budget had been maintained at a time when Australia faced unprecedented economic challenges.

Micah's Executive Director, the Revd Tim Costello, said the additional $305 million over two years for Pacific nations and Timor-Leste was "good news for our closest neighbours whose economies and livelihoods are reeling from the pandemic”.

Increases in the Gender Equality Fund, humanitarian funding (including for the Rohingya) and the previously announced $80 million GAVI-COVAX Facility Advance Market Commitment to improve access to safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccines for the Pacific, Timor-Leste and South-East Asia were also welcome.

But Micah partners expressed disappointment that areas of growth in the aid budget had come at the expense of others as the Government focused on responding to COVID-19 in the Pacific region.

The Middle East and Africa, innovation, climate and the volunteers program were among areas cut and Micah expressed particular concern about cuts to aid in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

The disability budget is only a very small proportion in the aid budget, but this year has fallen from $12.9 million to $9.6 million, which Micah said would have a huge impact on those living in poverty with a disability and facing the fallout from COVID.

The permanent cut in Australia's humanitarian intake by 5000 spots to 13,750 places, saving about $1 billion, was also greeted with dismay, as was the reduction in climate partnership programs from $25.7 million to $20 million.

But a $10.6 million allocation for the next five-year National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery 2020-25 was welcomed.

“We’ve seen promising signs of Australia’s generosity and leadership in the region, such as the $123 million committed for the COVAX initiative, but we are still to see an overall repair of the Aid budget,” Mr Costello said.

* The Anglican Board of Mission Australia announced two days after the Budget that it had recently joined up again with Micah.