New England MP Barnaby Joyce has reinvigorated the debate over welfare assistance, breaking ranks with the government to call for an increase to unemployment benefits under the Newstart allowance.
Mr Joyce said he felt compelled to speak out for his constituents because the regional electorates of his party rank among the poorest in the country.
"The Nationals represent a lot of struggling Australians... They live without the basic essentials of life you take for granted.
"You can't stand back and say, well, that's proper. You got to say, 'Let's have a look at it, let's look at it through their eyes, and see if that's something further we can do,'" he said.
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Mr Joyce said people on Newstart lived in regional areas because they need more affordable rent, but those areas lack the services they require.
"I know and they know the best outcome is always a job. You will have so much more freedom and a better style of life, and greater regimentation in your life, we know that. But if you can't do that, if you can't find work, we can't be cruel to people."
Conservative commentators including former PM John Howard and Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott have called for an increase raise the Newstart rate.
The government has resisted the pressure. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today in Dubbo, NSW that he had "no plans" to increase Newstart, focusing instead on getting people into employment.
"How good are jobs?" Mr Morrison asked media at a press conference.
Nationals Leader Michael McCormack endorsed Mr Morrison's comments.
"The best form of welfare is a job. Newstart is a stopgap measure for people who are transitioning between jobs," he said.
"The most meaningful thing we can do as a government is to provide the conditions under which business has the confidence to employ more people."
The Australian Council of Social Services has campaigned to 'raise the rate' of Newstart payments by about $10 a day, which would take the minimum payment from $280 to $355/week.
ACOSS Principal Adviser Dr Peter Davidson said higher unemployment payments would benefit country towns, which he argued get less benefit from the government's tax cut policy.
"Research shows that the government's tax cuts disproportionately benefit inner city areas, while regional areas are set to receive the least benefit. That's because incomes are higher in the cities," said ACOSS adviser Dr Peter Davidson.
"An increase to Newstart, on the other hand, would provide relatively more support for regional and rural areas compared with cities.
"So it's not surprising that politicians representing regional areas, including Barnaby Joyce, Matthew Canavan, Bob Katter and Helen Haines, have come out in support of an increase to Newstart."
Country Women's Association of Australia president Tanya Cameron backed ACOSS raise the rate campaign, arguing it would benefit the unemployed and regional economies.
"If all of the people who are most disadvantaged had an extra $75 a week, they would spend it locally. They aren't driving out of town to spend up.
"That's money which would be spent in local areas when towns are struggling with the drought, and a lot of businesses in town are struggling. It just makes sense to inject money into those businesses are struggling."
Mrs Cameron had a message for rural politicians.
"Get on board and support their constituents, particularly in communities that are adversely affected by the drought. This is an easy way for government to get some funds into those communities," she said.
Foodbank found in a 2018 report that increasing Newstart would inject $4 billion into the Australian economy, deliver 12,000 new jobs in the first year, and of the top 20 local government areas to benefit would be regional areas.
People in the bush are 33 per cent more likely than people in the city to have accessed food relief in the past 12 months, and 1.5 million people in regional Australia accessed food relief in 2018, Foodbank said.
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