Last night on Q&A, Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos broke free of the party talking points to call for an increase to the Newstart allowance. Blatantly speaking against the party line is a pretty gutsy move at the best of times, but less than 24 hours before Josh Frydenberg hands down his first budget? That’s certainly a bold choice.

Let’s backtrack a bit. The Newstart allowance is an unemployment benefit that anyone between 22 and 65 can receive if they’re unemployed and actively looking for work. At the end of last year, there were over 700,000 people receiving Newstart allowances. Great, all smooth sailing so far.

Where we begin to run into trouble is the fact that the Newstart allowance hasn’t been raised meaningfully since 1994 – back when Paul Keating was Prime Minister, and petrol cost 66 cents per litre. Yeah, the last time people could actually live on Newstart was when OJ Simpson was first arrested.

Currently, a single adult on Newstart will receive $278 per week. In Australia, a single adult making less than $433 per week is considered as living below the poverty line, so unless an unemployed person can scrounge up another $155 dollars per week – and that’s the bare minimum –  they’re pretty much screwed.

Australian Council of Social Service

Committing to raising Newstart has been a thorn in the side of every government since Keating. A big show was made in late 2018 of raising the allowance by $2 per week, but was laughed down by people actually living on the payments. Turns out an extra gold coin a week wasn’t going to magically solve all their problems. Around the same time, a report released by Deloitte Access Economics suggested raising Newstart by $75 per week would not only help out the people living on the payments, but boost the economy overall. People need money to spend money after all.  

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the Business Council of Australia, and a number of unions all announced their support for the $75 per week increase. Even former Prime Minister John Howard – who is famously not the sort of person you’d expect to want to increase the dole – wanted to increase the dole.

Unfortunately not even the word of the Liberal Party’s personal deity could sway the Government, and Newstart remained where it was.

The natural assumption following this would be that Labor are all for raising the payments. It seems like a free kick really – opposing the Coalition, while boosting social security, and helping the economy. Win / win! Somehow this isn’t the case.

Bill Shorten told the ALP national conference in December that “we believe in the greatness of the Australian safety net… We are the great safety-netters of Australian politics”. And what exactly are the great safety-netters promising? To review Newstart if they’re elected. That’s it.

That brave stance hasn’t shifted since then. Penny Wong told ABC Hobart last month that “We recognise it’s too low but we are not in a position to make a quantum commitment”, whatever that means.

Fast forward to last night’s Q&A. “I think over time it should be higher,” Senator Arthur Sinodinos told the audience.

It’s not often I leave the last word to Liberal Senators, but I think this time it’s deserved.

“If I were in the shoes of someone who was unemployed trying to get a job, I would clearly want a higher level of Newstart while I’m looking for a job.”