The ACT’s main political parties have to gone to war over how to handle poverty in the national capital, with the Canberra Liberals calling on former Labor Chief Minister Jon Stanhope to head its proposed poverty taskforce and Chief Minister Andrew Barr ridiculing the proposal and attacking his opponents’ four-year rates freeze.
Opposition Leader Alistair Coe said he had written to Mr Stanhope asking that he consider leading the taskforce under a Liberal Government but he was still waiting for a reply.
“Given Mr Stanhope’s extensive experience in government and strong links to the community, he is well placed to select members of the team and lead the task group’s strategy,” Mr Coe said.
“Mr Stanhope is widely respected and his commitment to social justice is well known.”
Mr Stanhope is also a trenchant critic of the Barr Government, but his views have been dismissed by the incumbent Chief Minister as out of touch.
Comment was sought from Mr Stanhope.
Mr Coe said the taskforce, which the ACT Council of Social Services has backed, was needed because poverty in Canberra was hidden and a comprehensive strategy was required to deal with its causes and symptoms.
But Mr Barr says the answer is already clear from the Commonwealth’s raising of the Newstart rate for its JobSeeker program during the pandemic.
”We don’t need a taskforce, we need action, and we know exactly what the actions are to raise people’s incomes,” he said.
”That’s what’s needed, not another commission of inquiry that will spend years coming to exactly the same conclusion.”
Mr Coe says poverty is not as obvious or visible in Canberra as other cities, but according to ACTCOSS there are 37,000 people and 6000 children in low-income households and 26,000 living below the poverty line in the ACT.
He says the taskforce would work with the community sector, government, businesses and other stakeholders and develop recommendations for responding to the growing challenge.
Mr Coe said Labor and the increasing cost of living had made Canberra unaffordable for many.
He says the latest rental affordability report from Anglicare, which shows that there are no properties in the ACT someone on income support could afford to rent, reinforced the need for a taskforce.
Mr Barr countered that new research from the ANU showed that the increased income supports during the pandemic had lifted significantly more Canberrans out of poverty and housing stress.
He said it was the single most effective measure to reduce poverty over the past six months and, when combined with the ACT’s concessions, had resulted in the most significant reduction in poverty in modern Australian history.
But he feared for those low-income people if the Commonwealth decided to scale back JobSeeker payments at the end of the month.
”The issue is income support, and living on $40 a day is not possible. That’s why the rate has to rise,” he said.
Mr Barr said the ACT did what it could but he laid the blame for poverty at the Commonwealth’s feet as it was responsible for the Newstart rate.
But Mr Coe said after 19 years in power Labor did not know how to address poverty in the ACT.
”If they do, then they are being negligent because they are not putting in place strategies that were working,” he said.
He would not say whether he backed raising the level of Newstart payments, preferring to focus on expenses in the ACT such as housing, particularly for the working poor who do not qualify for public housing.
Mr Barr also questioned the Liberals’ priorities for making their rates freeze central to their election campaign.
“Those [low-income] people are supported through public housing, free public education, free public health and through the range of other community services that the ACT government funds and what does Alistair Coe want to do? He wants to cut the resources of government to help those people,” he said.
Mr Barr said Mr Coe had not clarified how he would pay for the rate freeze, which he said would benefit the richest Canberrans.
”His stated position is to collect less revenue and we know where that revenue mostly comes from – it’s high-income earners, the top 20 per cent, the richest Canberrans, and it’s that money that is then redirected to support the poorest Canberrans.
”So you cannot be serious about a response to poverty if your objective is to deliver tax cuts amongst the richest Canberrans.”
Mr Coe again would not spell out how his rates freeze would work or whether he would do the same for business but said retaining more households and businesses in the ACT instead of losing them across the border would boost growth.
He was unable to supply actual data to support his claims that significant numbers were leaving the ACT due to high costs.
ACTCOSS CEO Dr Emma Campbell agreed that poverty was masked in Canberra and said any inquiry must conduct a full analysis to understand Canberra’s demographic changes, increasing complexity of needs and the changed Canberra geography that has led to gaps in service provision for many vulnerable people.
The leaders will do battle over social policy tomorrow when ACTCOSS will host the first Election Leaders Forum at Hotel Realm, which will be steamed online.