Two of Labor’s star candidates in must-win marginal electorates have advocated strongly for an increase to the jobseeker payment, contradicting the party’s decision to scrap its planned review of the benefit if it wins government.
The opposition dashed the hopes of welfare advocates at the beginning of the campaign after confirming it had no plans to review the unemployment payment, as it had planned to do if elected in 2019. It also explicitly said it would not raise the rate in its first budget.
The decision, which puts the opposition on a unity ticket with the Coalition on income support rates, came despite Labor seeking to make cost-of-living pressures a key plank of its election campaign, and amid rising costs linked to record inflation figures.
Earlier this month the shadow assistant minister for the Treasury, Andrew Leigh, said the party had no plans to review the payment, pointing to the Coalition’s decision to lift the base rate by $50-a-fortnight last year.
But two of the party’s candidates in crucial marginal seats in New South Wales and South Australia have publicly called for further increases to the payment following that decision, pointing to the large gap between the payment and the poverty line.
In a speech to the National Press Club last year Andrew Charlton, Anthony Albanese’s handpicked candidate to run in the western Sydney seat of Parramatta, said lifting the jobseeker rate “made good economic sense and was the right thing to do”.
Charlton, an economist and former adviser to Kevin Rudd, was speaking after the Coalition ended the $550-a-fortnight coronavirus supplement in favour of a flat $50-a-fortnight increase to the payment. That was a cut to the incomes of those on benefits who had received a higher rate during the pandemic.
He said it was “very hard to understand” why increasing the payment wasn’t “a big priority”.
During the pandemic Charlton’s consultancy firm, Accenture, conducted analysis of the coronavirus supplement payment which found that most of the increased payment was used to pay bills, buy household goods such as groceries, and pay down debt.
He told the press club the analysis showed the payment had been “life-changing” for recipients, lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty.
“The pandemic helped us answer the age-old question about the generosity of social payments; it taught us that giving more money to lower income people has many positive benefits both to them and to the community,” he said.
“I hope that we get to the situation where we can recognise that lesson of the pandemic, take some of that data and use it to inform better, more generous and ultimately more effective welfare policies going forward.”
Louise Miller-Frost, a prominent South Australian social service advocate and Labor’s candidate in the marginal Adelaide seat of Boothby, went even further, saying the jobseeker rate set by the Coalition represented “intentional cruelty against the most vulnerable, least advantaged in our community” and suggested Australia was “no longer the lucky country”.
The base rate was then about $44 a day, but with recent indexation it is now $46 a day, or $642.70 a fortnight for a single person without children.
“The government has made an informed and deliberate decision to put over 1 million Australian families and individuals into poverty,” the then chief executive of Vinnies SA said in a Facebook post in February 2021.
“They have decided it is OK for children to go without regular meals. It is OK with the government for Australians – those they are elected to serve – to not be able to afford to pay their electricity bill, or buy the medications they need, to be at risk of homelessness, or indeed to be on the streets. Because that is what this decision means.
“This guarantees that nearly 1 million adults – and their children and other dependents – will remain in poverty.”
Asked if she stood by the comments, Miller-Frost told Guardian Australia she wanted to “see an increase to jobseeker”.
“It is a view I have formed through my work as Chair of Anti-Poverty Week and Adelaide Zero Homelessness Project, as CEO of Vinnie’s and Catherine House,” she said.
But echoing comments from the party’s frontbench, she added: “Labor won’t be able to undo nine years of damage caused by the Liberals in one budget.”
Privately, the opposition’s move on jobseeker has been met with dismay among some Labor figures, while Lisa Chesters, the MP for Bendigo, has said publicly that she disagreed with the new position.
Asked in the first week of the campaign if he could live on the jobseeker rate of $46 a day, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said he knew what it was like to “live on a fixed income” given his mother was on the disability pension.
“What we’ve said is we don’t have a plan to increase the jobseeker allowance in our first budget,” Albanese said.
“But what you would do, and I’ve said this on a number of occasions consistently that I’ve been asked, every time governments do a budget, they should look at what is responsible and do what they can to help those in need.”
But Albanese also warned that if elected, Labor would face significant government debt.
Other Labor MPs who savaged the current jobseeker rate last year include Canberra MP Alicia Payne and Wills MP Peter Khalil, who said in March last year the $3.57-a-day increase to benefits was “not even enough to even buy [two] florets of broccoli from Woolies”.
The Greens have pledged to increase all welfare payments to $88 a day, at a cost of $43.7bn in the first year, in what it calls a guaranteed livable income. “Teal” independent hopefuls Zoe Daniel and Kylea Tink, as well as independent incumbents Zali Steggall, Rebekha Sharkie and Andrew Wilkie have also backed an increase to welfare payments.
Comment was sought from Charlton.