One million Australians to be excluded from Centrelink payments

Around one million Australians in lockdown will be excluded from emergency financial aid and are at risk of homelessness, says a new report.

They won’t be eligible for the federal government’s COVID-19 Disaster Payments even if they have been put out of work by the pandemic.

The government says they’re ineligible because they already receive some form of welfare payment.

The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) report reveals that just under half of these residents are now at risk of homelessness without access to pandemic assistance.

Most have lost jobs in the retail and hospitality sector, where base wages and working hours are already low enough to warrant additional Centrelink support.

Without the extra support to subsidise lost wages, they are struggling to survive on just $350 a fortnight.

The ACOSS survey found every respondent was struggling to make ends meet in lockdown.

“I think it will start being a real struggle to meet the costs of housing,” one recipient told news.com.au. “There’s obviously the risk of having to leave my house and find a cheaper place to live in. There’s so many additional costs involved with moving.

“I think it’s really, really important to consider that a lot of people on welfare don’t choose to be on welfare.

“No-one’s just sitting around doing nothing. Everyone deserves to be treated equally and respectfully.”

Jade, who lost hospitality work because of the lockdown, says: “After $280 rent I have about $40 a week to survive. This barely covers the cost of groceries. On top of that I have medical bills, phone bills, utility bills, car payments and so on.”

So far, more than 640,000 disaster payment claims worth more than $317 million have been approved for people in NSW and Victoria. More than 582,000 claims have been made in NSW since 1 July.

Read: Older workers at greater risk

ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie has called on the federal government to top up any payments of welfare recipients who have lost work.

“We cannot have a two-tier system where people who already have the least … are now receiving almost half as much as other people,” said Dr Goldie.

Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen told the ABC that recipients who had lost work could opt out of their existing welfare payment and, instead, access the COVID disaster relief payment.

However, they would eventually have to reapply for Jobseeker and could face “at the very least” a week without income while claims were reprocessed.

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) says Centrelink’s mutual obligations are also “causing harm” and confusion and should be immediately suspended nationwide now that half of Australia’s population is in lockdown.

Employment and workforce minister Stuart Robert has already suspended mutual obligations across locked-down jurisdictions, but the unemployment union wants the government to go one step further.

“We are now calling on the federal government to suspend mutual obligation requirements in the states and territories not affected by the lockdowns as well – Northern Territory, Queensland, ACT, Tasmania and Western Australia,” the AUWU states.

In order to receive government payments, jobseekers need to meet mutual obligations. This includes applying for 20 jobs a month, meeting with employment providers, attending interviews and accepting a job if offered.

But meeting these obligations in the current climate is unfair and, in some cases, impossible, says the union.

“The priority for the government now needs to be on encouraging and maintaining community wellbeing, not facilitating stress and further exacerbating ill mental health,” said the AUWU.

“Mutual obligations need to take a back seat because apart from being an ineffective regime, they make people sick and cause harm.

“Therefore, we call on minister Robert to tell his job agency goons to back off and treat people with respect during this time of extreme stress.”

Read: Centrelink’s coronavirus debt recovery pause set to end

The union also joined ACOSS in knocking the federal government’s lockdown payment loophole that excludes existing welfare recipients from receiving additional assistance.

“These workers and other underemployed individuals who live in the locked down states are on the edge of their seats, not knowing how they will emotionally and financially cope as they have been excluded from receiving monetary support,” said the AUWU.

“The underemployed in the non-lockdown states are no doubt feeling worried and stressed at the prospect of also being left behind in the unfortunate event that COVID-19 spreads in their communities.

“We are in a public health emergency and everybody in this country deserves to be protected – whether in waged work or not.”

The AUWU also wants another round of one-off $750 payments to all welfare recipients and a wage subsidy to workers losing income from the lockdowns and has called for cashless welfare programs to be suspended, and moratoriums on rent increases and evictions introduced across the country.

Read: End of rental moratorium and pandemic assistance hits Australia’s poor

On cashless welfare, Labor MPs have been accused of telling “bald-faced” lies about federal government plans to move age pensioners onto cashless debit cards.

A ‘covert’ Facebook campaign in which dozens of posts by Labor MPs denounce a plan to roll out the cashless debit card to pensioners, is seemingly based on the party’s 2016 “Mediscare” campaign.

“This is so unfair. Eighty per cent of the pension payment would be put on the privatised cashless card,” read a post from Victorian MP Julian Hill.

Tasmanian MP Brian Mitchell goes a step further, claiming “Scott Morrison’s cashless pension card” would equate to “a private company coming along and controlling 80 per cent of that pension because Scott Morrison says pension is ‘welfare’ and should be more tightly regulated by the government”.

The campaign repeatedly drives home messaging about the government wanting to limit where, when and how pensioners spend their own money.

The government denies age pensioners will be put on to a cashless debit card, even though legislation passed last year allowing the cashless debit card to be used for pensions paid in certain circumstances.

Social services minister Anne Ruston said Labor should be ashamed of lying to age pensioners.

“As I have said over and over, the Morrison government has no plan – and will never have a plan – to force age pensioners onto the cashless debit card,” she said.

“Senior Australians know that only the Coalition can be trusted to protect their interests and their retirement, which is exactly what we will continue to focus on while Labor wastes time playing political games.

“If Labor are willing to make bald-faced lies here, who knows what else they’ll lie about.”

Would you put it past the federal government to put your pension on a cashless debit card? What do you think of the pandemic payment loopholes? Should the rules change throughout lockdown? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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