A government minister has been grilled in a very tense TV chat over claims he intervened to strike out a bipartisan recommendation to increase the Newstart allowance from a parliamentary report.
ABC Insiders host Annabel Crabb repeatedly attempted to get a straight answer out of Coalition frontbencher Paul Fletcher on the show on Sunday, as she brought up claims – published in the Sydney Morning Herald this week – that Fletcher had intervened in the independent Parliamentary inquiry to removed the recommendation that the welfare payments be raised from $40 a day.
While the former social services minister repeatedly dodged six separate questions from Crabb asking him if he intervened, he instead continuously insisted that the final committee report recommending a review of the unemployment benefits was signed off by all “committee members”
“Before the election you, as social services minister, intervened personally to have a recommendation that Newstart be increased pulled out of the final report of a bipartisan select committee. Is that correct?,” Crabb asked initially.
"It is signed off by the committee members. That is what happened here." @PaulFletcherMP responds to reports he intervened personally to have a recommendation that #Newstart be increased, pulled out at the final report of a bipartisan select committee. #Insiders #auspol pic.twitter.com/pkyQPVC4WE
— Insiders ABC (@InsidersABC) July 27, 2019
To which Fletcher responded: “Well, the recommendations of that report were agreed by the members of the committee. That’s how it always works with a parliamentary committee. It’s a report of the committee, of the members. There were Labor and crossbench members. They signed off on those recommendations.”
It continued on in a similar way from there, as Crabb asked the same question at least five more times – each time getting a similar response.
Getting frustrated at one point, she said: “It’s a pretty easy question,” before Fletcher attempted to say the same again and she added: “No, the point is that it is a fairly straightforward question…”
Fletcher finally explained: “Look, I speak to colleagues all the time. But I’m not going to go into the conversations that I have with colleagues. The point I make is, the standard practice is that a committee report is signed off on by committee members, and that is exactly what happened here.
“The other point I make is that we are completely consistent in our position in relation to Newstart. Our focus when it comes to Newstart, as a government, is on getting people off of Newstart and into the workforce as quickly as possible.”
Eventually giving up, Crabb said: “Sure. Look, it’s totally clear to me from the way that you’re answering the question that you did make a personal intervention, because if you hadn’t, you would have said so quite quickly. Is it appropriate for a minister to intervene at the end of a bipartisan committee process?”
To which he replied: “Again, I’m not going to accept your characterisation there.”
It comes as Scott Morrison faces increased pressure from MPs on both sides to increase the welfare payments.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack rebuffed the idea of raising the unemployment payment this week, saying it’s intended as a “stop gap”, as he told Sky News: “A job, any job will be better than none at all and it will be better than living on welfare and certainly with Newstart, it is that stop gap, it is that safety net measure. It’s not meant to be a living wage.”
The current Newstart Allowance sits at $555.70 per fortnight, or just under $40 a day for a single person, while married couples receive $501.70 per person to cover costs.
While McCormack is not in favour of a suggested rise of $75 a week, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert holds the opposite view, labelling the current payment “unacceptable”.
The politician claimed current amounts do not cover necessities like housing, food and transport and are leaving many living in poverty, news.com.au reports.
“This is unacceptable,” she said according to the news outlet. “In a wealthy country like Australia, no one deserves to be living in poverty.
“I find it utterly shameful that Australia has the second-worst poverty rate among unemployed people in the OECD.”
She added: “We know that poverty can act as a barrier to finding work. By keeping payment rates below the poverty line, Newstart is doing the opposite of what it’s meant to do.”
The comments come after the government chose not to include a raise to the allowance in its 2019 Budget, despite repeated calls for the unemployment payment to be increased.