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Labor flags policy to boost jobseeker but backs away from promise to specify figure

Paul Karp
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Labor has left the door open to supporting the government’s $50 per fortnight increase to jobseeker but going no further before the next election.

On Thursday the shadow minister for families and community services, Linda Burney, refused to commit to a larger increase.

In comments to Guardian Australia, Burney said Labor would work to alleviate poverty “in every budget” and may need several budgets to undo persistent underspending on jobseeker and other welfare measures.

Labor has previously committed to increase unemployment benefits by an undetermined amount above the old $40 per day rate of Newstart, raising expectations it would nominate a figure before the next poll.

Related: Jobseeker: welfare groups say $50-a-fortnight rise a ‘heartless betrayal’

But the government’s announcement on Tuesday of a rise worth just $3.57 per day gives the opposition room to argue it has fulfilled its promise by backing that increase, set to cost $9bn over four years.

While it is unlikely Labor would not do more, given the strength of feeling among its MPs that $3.57 is inadequate, by waiting until after the election to nominate an increase it could avoid a fight with the Coalition over finding tax measures to offset new spending, considered an Achilles heel at the 2019 poll.

Welfare groups have warned that when the coronavirus supplement ends in March job seekers will be plunged back into poverty and once again be forced to choose between basics such as food and medicine.

On Tuesday the Australian Council of Social Service chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, derided the $3.57 daily increase as a “heartless betrayal of millions of people”.

Burney has said that Labor “is not going to stand in the way of people getting additional money … so it is no secret that we will support the legislation that was introduced today in terms of the rise”.

Asked if Labor would go further, Burney told ABC TV that Labor “will work in every budget, every moment that we can on alleviating poverty within Australia”.

In further comments to Guardian Australia, Burney said Labor would “finalise all of our policies before the next election”.

Burney said Labor would need to “address the legacy of the Liberal government’s cuts to social security and its failure to address poverty and a lack of jobs” but it “can’t undo all the damage done by the Liberals in one go”.

“In every budget, a Labor government will make addressing poverty and helping those who need it most, a priority.

“We will balance payment rates against other investments in housing, jobs, health and education.”

The Coalition has defended the adequacy of jobseeker, arguing that by setting it at a rate of $620.80 after indexation in March, it will be 41.2% of the national minimum wage.

On Wednesday Labor backed a Greens Senate motion calling for the government to lift the jobseeker rate above the poverty line, which is estimated at $900 per fortnight using the “relative poverty line” measure.