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The independent agenda in practice!

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Nick G.

Anti-poverty campaigners in South Australia are winning the support of local government authorities for an increase in the Newstart Allowance.

This is despite the objection of many Councils that the Newstart Allowance is a federal matter and not a proper matter for them to involve themselves with.

The Anti-Poverty Network (SA) is seeking Council support for a $50 a week increase in the Allowance.

Newstart – $269 per week, $160 per week below the poverty-line – is less than 41% of the minimum wage and less than 18% of the average wage. It has not been raised in real terms for 23 years, which is part of the reason why Australia ranks second-worst among developed nations for poverty among the unemployed.

Sky-rocketing energy bills are really hurting the poor. Two families known to a person writing on the APN’s FaceBook page, had a $1000 and $1300 quarterly power bill each. That’s about $100 a week. For a person on $269 to lose $100 leaves $167 a week. Assuming a rent of say $100 (if you’re lucky!) leaves $59 for everything else.

Neither the Labor Party nor the Liberals, both of which have been in office during the 23 years of the real term freeze in the Allowance, have covered themselves in glory. Both administer capitalism on behalf of the real rulers despite lazy newspaper talk about this or that party being “in power”.

The determined action of struggling workers to demand moral support from their local council is an important part of the independent agenda of working class Australians.  They are not waiting for a Labor government to act for them, and they know the Liberals won’t, so they are doing it by and for themselves.

So far, seven Councils have voiced support for the Newstart Allowance to be raised. They are a combination of rural councils (Streaky Bay, Kangaroo Island, Copper Coast and Clare Valley) and metropolitan (Port Adelaide Enfield, City of Onkaparinga, and the City of Playford). In each case, working class activists in each council area have written to and lobbied local councillors, carried out mass work with local residents, and attended Council meetings to advocate their cause.

Bonnie D., a resident of the Onkaparinga Council in Adelaide’s south, told her Council about her circumstances.

“Life on Newstart is a lifestyle of deprivation I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy,” she said.   “Whilst I consider myself fortunate to be born and living in Australia where we do have this public safety net available, it has become increasing aware that Newstart has failed to keep up with inflation and the cost of living upon our shores.”

She described how an increase in Newstart would help her. “Well, to start with I would be able to afford to feed myself and my 15 year old son healthier food and more of it.  I often go without as he requires being a competitive swimming athlete a high nutritional meal plan.  He is one of South Australia’s top athletes in his age group and his chosen stroke of Butterfly.  He has represented SA only recently in the National Championships and will be again next year as well.  I am very fortunate to have a family that help support my son in realising his dream to become an Olympian swimmer.  If I didn’t have this support from my family I would be finding it a struggle just to send him to swim training once a week.  As the costs for him to train 7 times a week plus gym sessions are completely unattainable for me to provide at this point in time.  That’s one way that poverty affects real life people and families.  It puts road blocks in their path to success especially our most important asset the youth.”

She then described a common feature of life for people on Newstart.

“I recently was facing homelessness as many people do that live upon Newstart.  I have been living in the same small modest house for the last 6 years.   I’d like to point out that paying for my rental house cost me a fortnight over 78% of my available income.  When I received a letter from my real estate agent that my lease would not be renewed as the owners wish to renovate the property.  My little family, of myself my son and my 2 dogs were unable to acquire suitable and affordable housing.  I had the horrible decision to make by separating us all.  My son was to live with my parents along with my pets and I was to couch surf with my friends until such a time I could establish secure housing for us all.  I consider myself lucky that I have wonderful friends and family that I can turn to as a lot of people don’t.  If it wasn’t for them I honestly have no idea what would have occurred.”

Getting Council support has not been easy, and in some cases, difficulties and obstruction have had to be overcome.

A case in point is Salisbury Council which, along with Playford Council covers much of the northern working class suburbs of Adelaide. Residents of both Councils are much affected by the closure of General Motors Holden at Elizabeth. Playford, with 5,700 unemployed residents, for an unemployment rate of 14%, has the highest level of unemployment of any local government in South Australia. However, the City of Salisbury, with 6,300 unemployed people, for an unemployment rate of 9%, twice refused Anti-Poverty Network SA's request to speak at a Council meeting.

“Both times we were told that the issue was ‘outside the Council's jurisdiction’ and therefore not something it could hear about,” said Anti-Poverty Network coordinator Pas Forgione (winner of the 2014 Spirit of Eureka Award for his work in working class areas).

Things came to a dramatic head on the night of Monday 25 September. Over 30 unemployed people and other welfare recipients packed the gallery at Salisbury Council with signs and placards to watch Council pass a motion presented by Councillor Beau Brug (overruling Mayor Gillian Aldridge, who previously refused them their speaking requests), allowing local job-seekers to address the October Salisbury Council meeting.

It was a long, intense and fiery night, with the Mayor filibustering and moving the agenda item to the very end of a four-hour meeting, but the group prevailed and won its right to address the next Council meeting.

Pas Forgione believes that it is poor people fighting poverty that is the reason for the campaign’s success to date.

“The power of the campaign lies in the dedication and courage of local job-seekers, who called, emailed, and met with their mayors and councillors; who willingly shared their stories of financial and personal hardship, and job-searching in a depressed labour market, who fliered, postered, letterboxed and door-knocked; and, critically, who showed up at council meetings in large numbers, often composing over half the audience, to keep their representatives accountable.”

Local government is, in a sense, the closest to the people.  It is important that Councils represent the interests and concerns of their residents, even if their role is pretty much confined to the traditional areas of roads, rates and rubbish.

“Perhaps it a sign of how undemocratic, remote and inaccessible the other two levels of government are perceived to be – and are – their lack of responsiveness to the wishes of ordinary people, the greater extent to which big business dominates the political agenda and the deep bipartisan consensus that exists across so many issues that citizens are turning to councils to be their voice on many important matters,” said Forgione recently.

The Anti-Poverty Network is not confining its activities to winning the support of local government. 

In about two weeks’ time it will host an Attack Poverty, Not The Poor: Anti-Poverty Week Conference, just over two weeks will hold a Trek For Jobs, Justice, And Dignity, a 15km walk from Port Adelaide to the city for jobs, justice and dignity.  The latter draws on the legendary Beef March held by unemployed during the Great Depression.

This is great stuff, and is really putting some meat around the bone of an independent working class agenda. It all has our complete support!


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