Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Newstart allowance, bushfires – ABC News 24, Richard Davies

Program: Weekend Breakfast, ABC News 24, Richard Davies

RICHARD DAVIES: Well the Newstart Allowance has been in the headlines this week after the Families Minister Jenny Macklin said she could live on the $265 a week benefit. The Government has switched some single parents to the Newstart Allowance, sparking a debate about whether the benefit should be increased. The Coalition has said it is willing to consider a temporary increase to the Newstart Allowance, with some conditions attached. Well, for more on this and some of the other political news of the week I’m joined now by the Small Business Minister Brendan O’Connor in Melbourne. Minister O’Connor thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Jenny Macklin says she could live on the Newstart Allowance. Many can’t. Do you think it is time it was increased?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well that’s why the Senate has enquired about the matter. We’re going to consider the report and its findings. There’s no doubt this Government is very sensitive to those people on low incomes. It’s for that reason we increased, for example, the pension to historic levels – the biggest increase for all times. We did that because we knew pensioners were doing it tough dealing with living expenses. Now we have, of course, to properly consider whether in fact it is in the interest of recipients of Newstart to increase the allowance.

But as you know, our primary purpose and goal is to make sure that those people on unemployment benefits become employed. That is the obligation of the Federal Government to focus on the needs of the unemployed. And the best way to do that, of course, is to find them a job. We’ve created 840,000 jobs. We need to continue to do that. But we will examine, we will examine the levels of the income to see whether they’re sufficient.

RICHARD DAVIES: Is a rise being considered in the Budget coming up in May?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well we’ve made clear that we will, as we should always do, fully consider reports that are determined by the Senate, or indeed by the other chamber. There is a report that is under consideration, as it should be. The decision will be, of course, determined by the Government, one by the other in due course. But we need to properly consider this. There are very significant financial and fiscal implications of increasing income and we need to consider all of those matters.

But let’s not forget, our focus must be looking to ensure that parents get an opportunity to work. The worst thing we could possibly do for not only the parents but for their children is to leave them indefinitely unemployed so that the children grow up in jobless households. That would be a tragedy. And our focus will always be on ensuring people find work.

RICHARD DAVIES: But there are many groups who say that job seekers are being severely disadvantaged by being on Newstart, that they can’t actually afford to present themselves properly for interviews, they’re unable to search properly for jobs and that they’re being trapped in a cycle of poverty because the Newstart Allowance is just not enough to actually let them get a foot on the next run of the ladder.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: That’s why we should examine it. But let’s remember, many of the recipients that are parents that will be on Newstart Allowance, firstly two thirds of those parents were always on Newstart, so this is really bringing the other third into alignment. The second thing is to remember many of them of course would be receiving Family Tax benefits, childcare rebates, childcare payments, rental assistance, it’s not that they’re paid Newstart Allowance alone, there’s a whole suite of forms of income that’s provided by the Commonwealth to assist people.

Secondly Job Services Australia, the emplyment services provider, provides dedicated support to enable people to actually, for example, prepare for an interview, to actually access services they need. Quite often it might mean non-vocational support – people understanding how they should approach an employer so that they can be employed.

So we agree there has to be support for jobseekers beyond the income they receive, but most importantly we need to make sure wherever possible we can lift them out of that situation. It’s not about a handout, it’s about a hand up, so that they can be in the workforce and they can feel good about themselves – and they can get a good income.

RICHARD DAVIES: I suppose a lot of the problem is for people who might find themselves in unemployment for a short period. It’s just that, I don’t know for example, six months, trying to, if you’ve got a mortgage or you’ve got to pay rent or you’ve got other living expenses, trying to survive on that amount of money would be very difficult. The Coalition has reportedly opened the door for an increase in the Newstart Allowance but only saying, Kevin Andrews just said, if it was increased it shouldn’t be a long-term entitlement. Should this be something that people who are new to unemployment, or new to Newstart, that they do get an extra benefit and that helps them get back into work?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I’m not clear, really, what the Liberal party is saying here, whether the Opposition is saying they want to cut off income at a certain point. I mean is Mr Andrews actually suggesting that we should cut off unemployment benefits after a certain period?

RICHARD DAVIES: I don’t think they’re suggesting you should cut off unemployment at a certain period. I think it’s more of a leg up to start with that’s…

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: You probably read the same newspaper that I did, but let me just say Richard that I don’t think it is very clear what they are suggesting. Our view is that people do and should receive income support if they are unemployed. They should be provided assistance through employment service providers and government agencies like Centrelink. And as I’ve said to you, we should examine this matter and examine the findings of the Senate enquiry and we’ve said we will do that. But there are fiscal implications and we need to consider those because we are fiscally responsible for those decisions. But it’s certainly a time to look at it, we’ve said we would, and we will make decisions in due course.

RICHARD DAVIES: So you think this is going to be turning into, probably, an election issue as we go into an election year?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I’d like to know firstly, what the alternative view is – I’m not really clear, as I said to you I’m not clear as to what the Opposition’s view is on this. I understand from time to time Mr Abbott has suggested that there be a period of time where someone receives income and they do not receive unemployment benefits, but if that’s not the case I’m sure he can clarify that.

This Government has said that it does support income that is adequate and decent but we need to look at the findings of the Senate report and we have to focus on ensuring we do everything we possibly can to get people into the workforce. It is not in their interests for people to be unemployed over the longer term, so we have to consider those implications.

RICHARD DAVIES: That’s the sort of approach, I don’t know the full details of what the Coalition is offering, but do you personally think that perhaps people who find themselves caught out, caught in unemployment, may actually have access to perhaps, I don’t know, extra income in the short term whereas the Newstart Allowance would obviously continue right through? Sometimes it those short term issues that people face where you suddenly go from a wage and then having a very low amount of income while you are really trying to find work – something that actually helps people get back into work?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well quite often when people have just finished work they do have some income from savings or from a redundancy if they were made redundant, so each circumstance of course would differ. I’m actually certainly happy to contemplate those things but we should look at this dispassionately making sure we look at the findings of the Senate report, consider that, and of course, in the end, consider what’s in the long-term interests of recipients of Newstart and for parents.

What we do know, for example, single parents in this country have a very low participation rate in the workforce compared with other OECD countries. That is not in their long-term interests, it’s not in their children’s long-term interests. We also do provide funding in the forms of pathway funds where each jobseeker does receive extra support to look for work. So there are other forms of support that occurs and we should be considering all of those things if we’re going to contemplate the findings of the Senate report.

RICHARD DAVIES: It certainly is something that is garnering a lot of debate and discussion. But just moving on to another matter we have seen the devastating fires in Tasmania. What sort of assistance will the Federal Government be putting ahead? You’re also Minister for Housing and Small Business, what sort of help will the Government be giving to these devastated communities?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well the Federal Government is always at hand to assist in the case of emergencies or natural disasters. Indeed the Prime Minister has already indicated she has been involved in what has happened in Tasmania, and of course has the capacity to deploy resources to provide support to agencies in States where they are confronted with fires.

We’ve seen some awful fires occurring in Tasmania and indeed other parts of the country. And we’re always at hand to provide support there’s of course it would depend upon the circumstances but we will of course contemplate what is required.

As I say, I haven’t been briefed on this matter but the Prime Minister has already been speaking publicly on this issue and I’m sure she and Attorney General, or Acting Attorney General who is in fact the Federal Emergency Management Minister as well will also be working with State counterparts to make sure that the Federal Government is there to work hand-in-hand with State and Territory Governments to confront these really difficult times over the summer period.

RICHARD DAVIES: Small Business Minister Brendan O’Connor thank you very much for joining us from Melbourne.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Yes, thanks very much Richard.