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Government rejects investigation into ACT poverty

The Labor-Greens ACT government unanimously rejected last week a Canberra Liberals proposal for a three-party taskforce to deal with the causes and symptoms of poverty in the ACT, despite backing from the ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS).

The Canberra Liberals raised the idea of a poverty task force – to be chaired by former Labor Chief Minister Jon Stanhope – during last year’s election.

Current Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee moved on Thursday 11 February that the taskforce be set up.

She noted that it had been 20 years since Kate Carnell’s Liberal government set up their Poverty Task Group. In those two decades, levels of poverty, homelessness, and the working poor had skyrocketed, Ms Lee stated. A new commission, she suggested, would build on what had been learnt since 2001.

In her earlier budget reply speech last week, Ms Lee had warned that Canberra could become “a two-tiered society with some of the most vulnerable being left behind and forgotten … a city that is split into the haves and have-nots”.

“If we want to make our great city accessible, sustainable, inclusive of everyone, then we must address this silent and frankly shameful issue of poverty and disadvantage right at our doorstep,” Ms Lee said when proposing the taskforce.

“A poverty taskforce can bring all the best minds, the best evidence, the best heart, and the best backing and credibility to address the underlying causes, the range and depths of reasons to find solutions.”

Poverty in the nation’s capital

There was a political barb to the proposal; Ms Lee suggested that 20 years of ACT Labor government were responsible for the higher cost of living and for thousands of Canberrans consequently living in poverty.

But Ms Lee produced an alarming list of figures. Almost 38,000 people were living in poverty, including 8,000 children; more than 2,500 people in low-income households had trouble providing food; and 9,500 low-income households struggled to pay the rent. People were sleeping rough within metres of the Legislative Assembly, Ms Lee observed. Full-time work was necessary to earn income – but the ACT also had the most expensive out-of-pocket childcare costs in the country, trapping single parent families in a poverty cycle.

Accommodation was too expensive for many low-income Canberrans, argued Ms Lee (as did her colleague Mark Parton, proposing measures to ease rental stress). The median rental for a house was $657, and $473 for a unit, according to CoreLogic. Only 4% of properties were affordable for people on a minimum wage, according to Anglicare; and many welfare recipients could not find affordable and appropriate rentals in the ACT. Between June 2019 and June 2020, the ACT was the only state or territory where rental affordability had declined. Rents for houses and units had increased by 28% and 22% over the last five years, according to real estate industry data – the second highest increase across Australia in capital cities during this time. The Consumer Price Index for rent in the ACT had increased by 7.1% over the past five years – almost double the national increase of 3.7%.

Greens: Taskforce would delay action

Greens MLAs Emma Davidson, Assistant Minister for Families and Community Services, and Rebecca Vassarotti, Minister for Homelessness and Housing Services argued, however, that a taskforce would be unnecessary and delay action.

The government had a better understanding of poverty than it did 20 years ago, Ms Vassarotti said, and its response was based on consultation with community services that understood the root causes, Ms Davidson said. (In fact, as Ms Lee noted, ACTCOSS had supported the taskforce proposal.)

Ms Lee’s proposal would “put aside decades of progress and understanding of poverty and the policy responses needed to address it”, Ms Davidson said. “The ACT government will act on what we already know.”

Ms Vassarotti agreed: “My agenda is to act on the issue, and not to take a step back and repeat the task group work. … Rather than additional analysis, we need urgent action.”

Federal government responsible for poverty in Canberra

Where Ms Lee had suggested that the ACT Government’s approach to poverty was not working, local Labor and Green politicians instead blamed the Federal Liberals.

“The big levers for poverty in Canberra are controlled by the Morrison government,” Ms Davidson said.

Inadequate policies on welfare payments, capital gains tax discounts, negative gearing, inadequate funding for primary health care and the specialist homelessness sector, Ms Davidson maintained, affected poverty and social exclusion in the ACT.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr (Labor) argued that former Finance Minister Matthias Cormann’s fiscal policy had deliberately suppressed wage growth, keeping minimum wage earners in poverty.

The ACT was the only jurisdiction in the country where rental affordability had decreased between 2019 and 2020, Ms Lee replied; could Federal politics be held responsible for that?

“It is not good enough for ministers of this government to come into this chamber and say it’s nothing to do with us, it’s all the Feds’ fault,” Ms Lee said. “If they don’t control any of the levers that will lift 38,000 Canberrans out of poverty, then what are they doing there?”

Similarly, Mr Stanhope said the suggestion was remarkable to the point of absurdity; it completely misunderstood the complex and multitudinous factors of poverty.

Mr Barr believed the Coalition should permanently increase the JobSeeker Payment. “Low levels of social security payments are the major cause of poverty for unemployed people and people on Youth Allowance not just in this city, but in this country,” he said.

Increasing social security payments last year had lowered the poverty gap by 35%, and the number of people in poverty by a third, Mr Barr said, pointing to ANU research; in the ACT, the poverty rate of people on Newstart Allowance or Youth Allowance had fallen from 67% to 7%.

Higher payments, combined with ACT government concessions – including 15,000 pensioner concessions and 31,000 utility rebates – had caused “the single biggest lifting of people out of poverty in the last five decades”, Mr Barr said.

Ms Lee called the three ministers’ response arrogant.

“This again highlights this government’s attitude that they know best,” she said. They had the power to act on an issue that concerned thousands of Canberrans; she was disappointed and saddened to see them say they knew what the levers and causes of poverty were. “If that is the case, why are we in this situation right now?”

“If this is their first display of the ‘new normal’ they campaigned so hard for, then the next four years will be very difficult for our most vulnerable Canberrans.”

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