All Power to the Poor: Poverty, Welfare, and Resistance in Australia Today

Good morning everyone, my name is Andrew Beitzel, and I’m the coordinator for Anti-Poverty Network Queensland. Before I begin, I want to recognise the traditional owners and custodians of the Turrabul and Juggera people and their lands on which we meet, pay my respect elders past, present and emerging, and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.

Anti-Poverty Network Queensland acts a voice and support network for people in poverty, and especially people on welfare payments. We attack poverty through two angles: direct advocacy for people on Centrelink, and political campaigning to fight back against poverty. We’re different to other organisations in that we’re run by people in poverty, and we believe that poverty is political, not something that’s inevitable. I myself have been on Newstart for nearly two years now, and I certainly haven’t been able to find work in that time.

We exist as an organisation because we’re living through a poverty crisis in Australia. As it stands, ACOSS reported this year that 13.2% of the population, or three million people, are below the poverty line in this country. That’s one in eight people in this room, in poverty. It’s even worse than you think – 17.3% of all children in Australia, or 739,000 thousand children, more than one in six, live below the poverty line. That’s the harsh reality of Australia today. We’re one of the richest countries in the world and yet, the gap between rich and poor is clearly wider than it’s ever been.

But surely, the government is on top of this. Surely they’re doing something about it and helping the poorest in Australia? We are a rich country after all, why wouldn’t they be?

Well, as most of in this room on Centrelink will know, that’s just not the case.

Centrelink is perhaps, one of the worst and most humiliating social services you can be on. Social security and many other public services were sold off and privatised during the 1990s by the government, under both John Howard and the Labor party. Since then, the welfare system has been in a slow, miserable decline. Newstart payments are, according to the Melbourne Institute, currently $355 below the poverty line every fortnight, and payments haven’t been raised in 24 years. If you’re on Newstart, you’re probably under the poverty line, or at best, right on it.

Poverty is expensive. Newstart payments aren’t enough money to live off with the sheer prices of basic living, with skyrocketing rent, power bills and food. I myself have roughly $100 to live off each fortnight from Centrelink, minus the cost of those utilities, and I share a house with two other people. If I had any emergency expenses crop up, I wouldn’t be able to pay them. I’m lucky enough to live near public transport, but if I didn’t, I wouldn’t even be able to run a car.

I’ve been trying to find work for two years, and yet I feel like being on Newstart is a license to be harassed and put down by the government, and by the media. We’re constantly questioned and belittled just for surviving and accessing a service we’re entitled to. Not to mention the difficulty in navigating the welfare system - payments are almost impossible to apply for alone and without knowledge that often isn’t given to us. Disability Support Pension payments are practically always rejected the first time they’re applied for, even if there’s documentation from a doctor about your circumstances. There’s no telling how many people are wrongfully on Newstart when they should be receiving payments like the DSP. And even when you’re on the DSP, in some cases, you still have to look for work.

We’re forced to live off nothing, and then we’re sent to Job Search agencies to meet our “obligations” to find jobs that aren’t even there. There’s 17 job seekers per job, and yet we’re told we’re the problem? I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard from people about their job search agencies. Understaffed incompetence, discrimination towards people based on their race, or gender, or sexuality, people being forced into unsafe work by job agents, I’ve even heard cases of assault.

My own experiences have been grim: my mental health has been ignored and rejected, I’ve heard racist comments from job search agents, and I’ve been forced to admit personal information about myself that I felt I had no choice but to give them if I wanted to keep getting my payments. You feel like you’re under interrogation at appointments, like if you make one false move you’ll be cut off or denied your payment.

Welfare has become utterly unfair, and it’s failing the most vulnerable people in our society in poverty. Did you know people on Newstart are actually entitled to an employment fund? Your job search agency is supposed to pay for things like driving lessons and clothes for work interviews, but they don’t tell you that so they don’t have to spend the money. Job search agencies receive money per jobseeker on their books from the government, and as a result they’re more interested in lining their pockets then doing their jobs.

And when Centrelink and job search agencies aren’t malicious or greedy, they’re incompetent. How many of us have waited for months to hear back about a payment, or been booked into a job search appointment that we didn’t know about? How many of us have queued at Centrelink, just to be told to go home and call, and when we go home and call, we wait on the phone for hours, just to be told to go back to Centrelink or somewhere else on the phone and queue up all over again.

If the quality of the system wasn’t bad enough, every year the government announces another scheme to make life as hard as possible for people on welfare. We’re put into work for the dole and forced to work 25 hours a week in unsafe work conditions for zero pay. It’s so bad, people are dying. An 18 year old jobseeker, his name was Josh Park-Fing, was killed at a work for the dole site in 2016 because of unsafe work conditions. 18 years old. That is the dire condition, and injustice of this system. Across Australia, the cashless debit card is being rolled out, quarantining 80% our payments to a card that can only be spent at shops like Coles and Woolworths. We can’t even go out and spend our money wherever we want. Even worse, Scott Morrison recently came out and said he wanted to force people to take work out on farms for Newstart – hard labour for no pay, with no concern or worry about the condition of the welfare recipient. The list goes on and on.

All the while, Indigenous people suffer the most across Australia, and especially in the Northern Territory through the “intervention”. I’m Indigenous, and we face greater poverty than any other group of people in this country, despite only being 3% of the population. We’re treated like children, we’re killed more, we’re imprisoned more, and we’re impoverished more than anyone else. In the NT, Indigenous people were restricted to the Basics card, and forced into work for the dole through the Community Development Program before it was carried out nationally.

There are people falling through the cracks there and never coming back up - they miss an appointment or fail to meet their work for the dole hours, and simply disappear off the system without pay, alone. There’s no inquiry or royal commission – because Indigenous people are always subjected to punitive welfare first before the rest of Australia. We’re nothing but test dummies to the government, and we’re not considered people by them at all. It’s an appalling, racist disgrace.

Do you think Scott Morrison has ever looked at his bank account with $50 left in it, and wondered if he could survive off that for another week? Has Bill Shorten has ever had to delay a power bill for a month because the rent was too high to pay on time? I can guarantee you that Pauline Hanson has never had to pay back a Centrelink debt because of a mistake created by a poorly trained, understaffed and underfunded public service. It’s reflected in their politics and their speeches: to them, we’re just dole bludgers, lazing around doing nothing but draining the system, wasting the government money. Perhaps they should look at their own exorbitant daily expenses and their annual wages, and think twice about calling us the bludgers.

They cut and sell off our services where it’s so needed, and have the nerve to then attack us for being poor when we’re denied access to what’s keeping us afloat. The message is clear: they’re on top, and they don’t give a damn about poor people. Labor or Liberal, Prime Minister to Prime Minister, politician to politician, they’re all part of a government and a state that never changes the circumstances for us in poverty. They only thing they care about is how much money they and their friends in business can make by screwing the people and selling off every public service that belongs to us.

The cost of living is too high, and nothing is done by the government about it. Social security has become a for-profit industry. Electricity prices are allowed to skyrocket to unpayable heights. Landlords are allowed to evict with impunity, and raise rents as high as they want. Developers are allowed free reign in cities to bulldoze, destroy, and do whatever they want without community support. Homelessness is growing while private million dollar apartments are built over public housing. Transport is sold off to the highest bidder and made completely unaffordable and inefficient. Unions are attacked and demonised for standing up for their workers. Industry is allowed to collapse because of the “free market” and workers are laid off from stable jobs.

Canberra thinks they can get away with it. We’re not going to let this happen. We’re going to fight back for our dignity, our respect, and our livelihoods. This here today proves that we’re not going to let them. Because nothing can stop us when we stand together, as people in poverty. It shows through the work that we do! We spent a year, every week going down to Logan, every week talking to people on Centrelink, every week organising our community. We put on community days, we brought and empowered poor people together, and we fought for a raise to Newstart by $390 a fortnight to above the poverty line. We went to the Logan Council, mind you, a council representing 300,000 people and stretching out over 950 kilometres, we told them to support a raise, a raise the government owes us after 24 years, and they put through and passed it because unemployed people demanded it. If we could do that alone, starting with 10 people on Centrelink, with no money, and only the sheer drive and understanding that we deserve better, then what else can we achieve?

Because the power is in our hands, not theirs. Politicians don’t rule us, we tell them what to do. And if they won’t give it to us, we’ll take it. People have power, not individuals. When we organise together as unemployed people, we can get what we want. We support each other, fight for each other, get each other on the payments we’re entitled to, demand the respect we deserve and stand up for everyone at the bottom through fighting for a better welfare system. Poverty is not our fault, it’s the fault of the government, and the fault of a system that favours profit over all. We are worthwhile, we’re not bludgers, we’re not useless, or lazy, we deserve a good life and we deserve a decent living. When we are empowered, when we fight back, we can create a system that provides for everyone. Poverty isn’t inevitable – it can be removed and fought against. And what could be more powerful than a community of people coming together, to stand up and support each other, and to fight back against what keeps us on the bottom of the chain? From welfare rights, to housing security, to renationalising public transport – anything that creates poverty, we can change for our benefit. What more can I say? All power to the poor. Thank you for listening.

Andrew Beitzel is a Gubbi Gubbi/Kabi Kabi man, residing in Meanjin/Brisbane. Andrew coordinates for Anti-Poverty Network Queensland, and is involved in struggles for the poor against homelessness and poverty. Outside of politics, you can follow Andrew's extremely online Twitter at @fernandre3000

Photograph courtesy of Anti-Poverty Network Queensland, credit to Julia Grace Photography Brisbane