6.5 million reasons why confusion is set to reign at Centrelink

People receiving government income support may receive the $750 bonus, or be encouraged to apply for sickness benefits, only to discover they have been moved on to the JobSeeker payment – whether they are able to work or not.

Mar 13, 2020, updated Mar 13, 2020
Queensland's unemployment is storming back

Queensland's unemployment is storming back

Under changes planned well before the pandemic, various income support payments including Newstart, Sickness Allowance, Wife Pension and Bereavement Allowance will be axed next week, with the majority of welfare recipients set to be transferred onto JobSeeker payments – even those not required to look for work.

Aimee McVeigh, who heads QCOSS, Queensland’s peak body for the social services sector, said it would be a confusing period for vulnerable people already at risk of poverty and homelessness.

QCOSS chief executive officer Aimee McVeigh

“Pretty soon we’re going to have those seven Centrelink payments rolled up into the one JobSeeker payment,” McVeigh said.

“People clearly not seeking work, such as those who have lost a partner or need sickness payments, will be moved on to that payment. JobSeeker is a very confusing name for them.”

Some 6.5 million recipients of income support payments are due to receive the $750 bonus, which is based on the current payment definitions, between March 31 and April 17. But the definitions will change on March 20, when more people will be moved on to the JobSeeker payment.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has encouraged recipients of the $750 bonus to spend it wisely, however McVeigh said the time was right for a $95 increase to Newstart, not only to better support those at risk of poverty but provide a longer term boost to the economy.

“Lots of Queenslanders are doing it really tough and finding it difficult to pay for basic services and the things they need,” McVeigh said.

Amid concerns for the casual workforce, who lack sick days, Morrison on Thursday suggested they had a safety net that would allow them to self-isolate

“They can access what is currently called the Sickness Payment,” Morrison said.

“That payment is going through a change of name, but it’s the same payment. And what we’ll be doing is waiving the waiting period for people to access that, what is currently called the Sickness Payment, will be called the Jobseeker payment, but it is a Newstart level payment.”

McVeigh said the changes were confusing but “the bigger problem is that it is only $40 a day” and might be a disincentive to casual workers staying home to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese used a speech in Mackay on Thursday to warn that “as the virus spreads and people are urged to self-isolate, our casual workers will be among those most vulnerable”.

From March 20, welfare recipients will be moved to alternative income streams including JobSeeker, Age Pension, Carers Allowance and the Disability Support Pension (DSP).

In Queensland, almost 500,000 people currently receive the age pension, while more than 155,000 receive the Disability Support Payment and 123,000 the carer allowance. Another 155,000 are on Newstart.

A spokesperson for the department, Services Australia, said the changes first announced in the 2017-18 budget were “part of the Government’s commitment to making Australia’s welfare system simpler and fairer”.

“Services Australia has written directly to all affected recipients advising of the upcoming changes and has information available on its website and telephone lines,” the spokesperson said.

Australian Council of Social Services CEO Cassandra Goldie said she wanted to ensure those who needed income support understood they could still access payments.

“A key concern is that people won’t know that there is an allowance for bereavement or an allowance for illness once the payment becomes known as the ‘JobSeeker payment’,” Goldie said.

“We urge the government to ensure that there is clear, easy to access information out there for people who need these payments.

“We also urge the government to review take-up of these payments over time to detect if there has been a decline in claims, and quickly address any decline.”

With Jessica Bassano

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