This year’s budget promised untold cost-of-living relief, with a proposed $14.6 billion cost-of-living relief package. But the reality behind the headlines is that these measures are far too modest and perhaps far too late. Look closely at the so-called relief package that has been offered to our socially and economically disenfranchised communities, to students and the unemployed. It is all too clear that it is not a safety net for all who fall outside the periphery. One of my constituents—Cam—contacted me last year when I was first elected. He implored me to advocate for an increase to JobSeeker and other Centrelink payments immediately, especially during this extreme cost-of-living crisis we have right now.

As I said, that was a year ago. I can’t imagine the struggles Cam would have faced in the last few months. Cam said, ‘The only thing about $45 a day is definitely so mean and just unsustainable for these people on JobSeeker. Don’t forget they were also taxpayers for this country before they became unemployed.’ While I support the government’s move to increase JobSeeker and other income support payments to assist those most vulnerable in our community, I question how a $2.85 a day increase can go towards assisting families in Fowler on JobSeeker, the age pension, the disability support pension, as well as young people studying and looking for jobs when everything has gone up so much.

Fowler has the sixth-highest number of residents on JobSeeker across the country, so many of my residents would have received this small benefit. I also want to make it clear that people who have come to rely on these social services are not and shouldn’t be painted with the brush of being dole bludgers, because we often don’t know the reasons why people end up on that path. There are myriad reasons why people rely on JobSeeker. For example, some people may have lost their jobs during Covid. I know a lot of my community members lost their jobs during Covid and have struggled to get back into the workforce.

Some may also be from a migrant or refugee background and are struggling to integrate into our society. In fact, the Refugee Council of Australia has conducted a lot of research over the years which provided insights into why there are barriers for refugees and migrants to gaining meaningful employment. Studies found that refugees were often forced to choose between learning English and looking for work, and there was a severe lack of support and services for those who wanted to create their resumes or practise skills for a job interview. Put yourselves in their shoes: if you were an engineer, a doctor or nurse in your homeland, you would hope to be able give back to the country which welcomed you with open arms, but you couldn’t because your qualification wouldn’t be recognised. It is a constant battle to get your qualifications accepted. With the red tape, the burden of learning a new language, many have given up on their dreams of practising in their field again and are placed into work for the dole placements, putting them into positions that don’t match their expertise and qualifications. This is not a dignified way to live for anyone.

I have strongly advocated with the government to address our workforce shortages since I set foot here in the House. I have met with various ministers, asking the government to create pathways for these migrants by recognising their prior qualifications so that they can rejoin the workforce.

My community is struggling with the cost-of-living increase in grocery bills, the price of petrol, rents and electricity bills, which have gone up again. Many Australians will be seeing an increase of at least $100 per quarter in their next energy bills this coming winter. I’m not sure how a $2.85-a-day increase in payments for some of the most disenfranchised in our community—those on JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy, Abstudy, special benefit or the disability support pension—can be claimed as fixing the cost-of-living crisis for people. Does the government really believe that they should be absolved of their responsibility to tackle the cost-of-living crisis by their announcement to increase social service support by an extra $2.85 a day. That’s what the $40 a fortnight equates to. At the end of the day, it comes down to what we value as a society and how we look after people who need help the most.

For a student who lives in my community in Fowler, $2.85 isn’t enough money to pay for a return trip to the city. Did you know that the return trip from my area to the city is about $12 to $14, depending on the time of travel? For kids who want to go to the city to work, to do an apprenticeship or to study, it’s just not feasible. That $2.85 per day is not enough to provide the basic needs. People are desperate to put food on the table, and you’d be surprised to know that $2.85 isn’t enough to buy a five-pack of two-minute noodles for students—advertised in a well-known supermarket chain this week for $5. And $2.85 will not be enough to cover the 7.1 per cent indexation that students will have to face from tomorrow, as their HECS debt will increase their student loans burden—the highest rate increase in 30 years.

The government is probably thinking that we should feel grateful that there is some relief. But the government announced a budget surplus and spending in such areas as AUKUS, which amounted to $368 billion over 24 years. That equates to more than $40 million a day, an unfathomable figure compared to $2.85 a day for cost-of-living relief. Forty million dollars a day versus $2.85 a day: I ask you to put those two figures into perspective before we can crow about how much we’re doing to assist those in need in our community.

The community of Fowler have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country and some of the lowest incomes. Many people on JobSeeker payment understand that it’s not meant to replace a wage you earn, and they would rather be working or running a small business to earn an income. Being productive and having an income brings with it freedom and dignity which a government support payment cannot match. With over 840,000 people on JobSeeker, of which more than 75 per cent had no reported earnings, this means that our government has failed to reduce the barriers for these people to get back into the workforce when many workplaces and industries are crying out for workers.

As I have mentioned previously while debating the workforce incentive scheme, the government should not only incentivise pensioners to go back into the workforce but extend a similar scheme to those on JobSeeker so they can work part time but not be penalised and lose out on their small JobSeeker payment. I therefore support the opposition’s call for the government to increase the income-free area to $300 a fortnight, to allow jobseekers to earn more and still retain the full JobSeeker allowance. Just imagine the potential revenue from people going back to the workforce part time. Yes, I applaud any measure which has the potential to help families put food on the table and send their kids to school. I’m glad to know that the government has acted on the advice of the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee and the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce in the implementation of this budget and the cost-of-living measures, but they simply aren’t enough.

I welcome the highest single rate of JobSeeker payments to single recipients aged 55 and over after nine continuous months on payment. This change means recipients aged from 55 to 59 will receive an increase of at least $92.10 per fortnight, or $46.05 per week. But the fact remains that anyone over the age of 55 who is unemployed for more than nine months with a family and children to support knows only too well how far an extra $46.05 a week will go on a weekly budget, especially when you put that amount of money in the context of housing, which we all know is one of the biggest problems we face in this country.

According to the Reserve Bank, rent inflation for apartments with new tenants was 24 per cent over the year up to February 2023. This has led to greater demand for rental properties, causing price volatility, with rent increase becoming more common and, on average, larger. In my electorate of Fowler over 42 per cent of people rent their homes, and of that number more than 45 per cent spent over 30 per cent of their total income on rent. Rents are steadily increasing and rentals are becoming increasingly difficult to secure. As you can imagine, in an area like Fowler the demand for rentals is high, and with prices on the rise I have been calling on the government to help out our most socially disadvantaged by providing greater Commonwealth rental assistance. Since I came to parliament I have asked for an increase in Commonwealth rental assistance. So, I was relieved when the government announced in the budget an increase in the maximum rate of Commonwealth rental assistance of 15 per cent, the largest increase in 30 years. This will enable approximately 1.1 million households to see an average increase in rental assistance of around $24 per fortnight.

While I welcome this increase, this small amount will not plug the huge rental increase for renters. I’m glad the government has made provisions to support single parents by $176.90 per fortnight, or $88.45 per week, until their child reaches 14 years of age. As I understand it, this is reversing what the Gillard government had implemented, and I thank the Minister for Social Services for acknowledging where previous governments got it wrong and for righting some of the wrongs of the past. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a long way from solving the deeper issues that many single parents face every day. This so-called safety net is filled with holes, and we need safeguards to protect our people. It’s just not enough in an area where just over 20 per cent of our community earn a total household income of $650 a week. It’s hard to imagine how they will make ends meet over the cold winter months. For these people, turning on the heat to stay warm will simply not be an option this winter.

Just yesterday my office received a call from a constituent from the next electorate. She lives just outside my area, but she was so angry and frustrated, and was adamant about venting, that my office listened to her grievances. Her name is Angela, and she told us she lived with her son. She was terribly upset at us—yes us, the politicians of this country. She told my staffer in no uncertain terms that it is a disgrace for us all to sit here in parliament playing a blame game on the cost-of-living crisis. Instead, she needs help. She says she doesn’t need to watch this blame game when she has just received a $580 energy bill. She asked my staffer to explain how that could be possible when it’s just her and her son living at home. She wanted to know why this was happening to her. She was desperate, but she was grateful she had enough money to go and buy a loaf of bread that she could eat with her son. While I’ve listened to stories like this, I’ve felt so hopeless that I couldn’t provide people like Angela with immediate support to help with her electricity bill.

These are not just stories; they are real people. They are Australians like you and me and everyone here today. The ones who are struggling the most need more than a few dollars a week. I believe it is up to us to deliver solutions to a country that is drowning in disillusionment. We have a responsibility to ensure that our people are safe, warm and fed. Right now, many are not.