No one envies the challenges Anthony Albanese walked into when he was elected prime minister just over two months ago. He provided a promising start for reform when he reiterated his governing mantra on election night: “No one held back, and no one left behind.”
Despite his small-target strategy, Albanese has committed to some welcome and significant overdue reforms for this term of parliament, including implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and increasing ambition on Australia’s emissions reduction target.
As the new parliament sits for the first time this week, the prime minister has a golden opportunity to stay true to his election night promise by putting people with the least at the centre of his government’s agenda – creating a jobs and skills agency, legislating an emissions target and introducing laws around domestic violence leave.
Australia’s very low unemployment figures are reason to celebrate. More people in paid work is a good thing – for working people and for the economy. But not everyone looking for a job can get one, not everyone looking for extra hours can get them and not everyone receiving unemployment payments can engage in paid work.
Of the nearly one million people who receive jobseeker payments, almost half are older people, about 40% have a disability and 12% are single parents. Many are finding employers are unwilling to give them a go or offer an inclusive and accessible workplace, despite the large number of unfilled vacancies. Others are simply unable to undertake paid work.
This is why the goal of lifting incomes must go beyond lifting wages – our income support system must be adequate to cover the cost of essentials, not least in a high-inflation environment.
Those getting by on $46 a day – who are already struggling to cover the basics – are switching off the hot water or heating to deal with the rising costs of food, fuel, and electricity. As much as helping those who can work get into meaningful work, we must look after those who can’t.
The jobs and skills summit scheduled for September provides a real opportunity to look at the underlying issues preventing people from getting any or enough decent paid work and to develop an agreed strategy for achieving full employment. Initiative on this front will ease pressure on the budget in a tight fiscal environment, though there is no doubt that the government will need to raise more revenue to meet people’s needs.
As the emissions reduction target is debated this sitting week, parliamentarians must ensure our climate change policies focus on people who are struggling. If Australia is to reduce our emissions at the rate we need to, we must not leave people on low incomes out of the transition to renewable energy. People on low incomes pay four times more of their income on energy bills, yet many are stuck in freezing cold homes because fuel is too expensive to go anywhere.
Australia urgently needs a plan to ensure people on lower incomes, including renters and those living in social housing, can access clean technologies like rooftop solar, batteries, and electric vehicles, and are not disadvantaged by poorly targeted subsidies, levies, and inequitable cost recovery measures. Financial support for people on low incomes is essential, including through increasing income payments and more adequate and responsive energy concessions.
The focus on 10 days paid leave for domestic violence is a welcome step towards addressing the inadequate incomes that prevent women from leaving an abusive partner. Recent research has again shown that violence causes poverty, with a shocking 50% of single mothers who experience violence or abuse in a relationship now living in poverty.
Domestic violence leave is essential but not enough. To ensure all women are safe to escape violence, including those who are not in the paid workforce, the provision of sufficient income support is fundamental. The Australian Council of Social Service and other organisations including Economic Justice Australia have called for the inclusion of adequate income support in the national plan to reduce violence against women and their children. The plan must also commit to building more social housing so women can escape violence.
The government is faced with tough budget choices, but creating a better, fairer Australia is about priorities. From employment to climate to domestic violence leave, it is critical that people who are most marginalised in Australia – people on low incomes – are front and centre so that we truly leave no one behind.
In the past two months, people in Australia have weathered floods and an especially cold winter, amid an energy supply shortage, interest rate rises and increasing rents, food, medicine and fuel prices. On top of this is the rising Covid wave.
The public is willing to give the Albanese government a chance. They are looking to the government for support. We saw this with the calls to reinstate pandemic leave and Covid crisis payments, which was a welcome recognition of the need to support people on low incomes and put their health first amid a surge in cases.
Not everything can be achieved in these first sitting weeks. But in implementing his agenda, Albanese must not lose sight of his commitment to leave no one behind.