​The Brotherhood of St Laurence has criticised the Gillard Government for failing to increase the Newstart allowance for the unemployed in the 14 May Federal Budget and called on all parties to outline an adequate benchmark for the payment and to publicly commit to a schedule for achieving it.

Anglicare Victoria also warned that low-income families would continue to slip further behind without a national response to issues of affordable housing and adequate income, although it welcomed the big spending and reform commitments around disability and education in the Budget – the last before the 14 September Federal election.

Foreign aid and Australia’s policy on refugees and asylum seekers also drew criticism on Budget day, with Melbourne Assistant Bishop Philip Huggins, the Vice-Chair of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, flying to Canberra and appealing that there be no cuts in overseas aid to places “producing” refugees because of war, conflict and chronic poverty.

“Aid helps people make a future in their own land, not join the 30 million people already displaced globally,” Bishop Huggins said.

“This is Australia’s moment to be a sign of hope to the global family. We have political stability, a strong economy, healthy intermediary organisations between the individual and Government, separation of powers, media and religious freedom, a flourishing arts community and much else! How we manage the matter of refugees and asylum-seekers can give hope and show what a great civilisation looks like in the 21st Century.”

Anglicare Victoria’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr Paul McDonald, said: “While we welcome reforms to education and disability, we firmly believe the role of Federal Government is to ensure all Australians have access to an acceptable standard of living and this Budget fails to deliver that to the bottom 10 per cent of our community.”

The agency had previously called for Newstart to be raised by $50 per week and for a national review of affordable housing, including the adequacy of public housing stock, the effectiveness of Rent Assistance and barriers to the creation of affordable private rental stock.

The Brotherhood said Newstart payments were insufficient to enable unemployed people to live securely, let alone enable them to properly conduct their search for work.

Mr Tony Nicholson, the Brotherhood’s Executive Director, said the present rate of allowance failed to keep job-seekers out of poverty.

“We are concerned about the widening gap between Newstart and pensions, which do better at providing a minimum acceptable standard of living,” Mr Nicholson said.

“Unemployed people include those with low levels of education and limited job experience, single parents, people with disabilities, indigenous people and those who grew up in jobless households. Our research shows these are the very people who have benefited the least from Australia's enviable economic growth over the past decade.

“We welcome the $300 million allocated in this Budget for measures to help job-seekers in transition to work, but we now call on both parties to pledge a much greater investment to build the capacities of the long-term unemployed.

“This is not a 'cost'; it is an investment in social infrastructure that is as vital as building roads and ports.”

Anglicare Victoria’s Mr McDonald said the Federal Government seemed to have a blind spot on affordable housing.

“Every week new evidence emerges that shows housing in Australia is unaffordable to low-income families and they are forced to forgo other essentials to get by yet there are no measures in this budget to ease that burden,” Mr McDonald said.

“The shift away from the provision of public housing towards a private market solution hasn’t worked and the problem has been compounded by various and complicated tax concessions and grants.

“We need to get back to basics and look at providing our most vulnerable people, including young people leaving care and single mums, an adequate income and an affordable, safe place to live.”

The Brotherhood’s Mr Nicholson said the $14.3 billion funded by an increase in the Medicare levy over seven years for Disability Care Australia, formerly known as the National Disability Insurance, would help some of the most disadvantaged Australians.

He said the Brotherhood also acknowledged the $9.8 billion for schools and urged state and territory governments to follow the lead of NSW and sign up to the new arrangements.

The extension of the Youth Connections program for grassroots organisations to reengage young people in education or training was also most welcome, Mr Nicholson said.

Anglicare Australia’s Executive Director, Ms Kasy Chambers, said one of the few surprises in the Budget was the replacement of the Baby Bonus.

“Anglicare Australia has long publicly stated that this is flawed policy that has little reference to child well-being,” Ms Chambers said. “The measures in tonight’s Budget complete the targeting of this policy through first means testing, through replacing some of its benefits through the Schoolkids Bonus, through the implementation of Australia’s first Paid Parental Leave scheme and now replacing it completely. Unfortunately, whilst it was very poor policy, some poorer families will have come to rely on it as a valuable part of their income and some short-term readjustment may be painful.”

The President of the Uniting Church in Australia, the Revd Professor Andrew Dutney, urged politicians and policymakers from all sides to do more for the most vulnerable people at home and abroad.

“I warmly welcome the decision to fully fund DisabilityCare Australia and the support it will extend to people of disability, their families and carers,” Professor Dutney said. “This is an important spiritual landmark in the history of our country and in our commitment to those who need help.”

But he expressed concern about the Federal Government’s continued punitive approach to asylum seekers and its decision to postpone its promise to increase aid to countries not as lucky as Australia.

“My greatest concern tonight is not the national deficit, but the deficit of justice and compassion in a number of policies – particularly in relation to asylum seekers.”

The Micah Challenge coalition, an international movement of Christians advocating against poverty and injustice in support of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, expressed deep disappointment that, for the second year in a row, the Government had delayed its commitment to increase overseas aid to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI), pushing the target date back another year to 2017-18.

It said that coupled with last year’s delay, $4.8 billion was being eliminated from planned aid expenditure from 2012-16, while a further $375 million from the aid budget would be used for onshore asylum seeker support.

Micah Challenge’s National Coordinator, Mr John Beckett, said while the Government’s decision to raise aid levels to 0.37% of national income in this year’s budget was welcome, it was outweighed by the delay, which equated to a significant cut in planned overseas aid spending.

“This is no light matter,” Mr Beckett said. “The aid money which our Government had promised to the world’s poorest could have saved 2.4 million lives or helped 10 million children go to school.” 

The diversion of $375 million of overseas aid into domestic asylum seeker programs made Australia the third largest recipient of its own aid.

The Australian Christian Lobby also criticised the delay in promised funding to the world’s poor, saying it breached an election promise.

ACL’s Managing Director Mr Lyle Shelton called on the Coalition to block the cut in aid but was concerned it would wave it through as it did last year.

Mr Shelton said while ACL believed governments should balance their budgets, they also should honour their promises.

“Despite our budget deficit, Australia is a wealthy country and it should be able to deliver a balanced budget whilst being generous to the world’s poor,” he said.

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