Australia’s budget has ‘gaping hole’ in funds for DV victims, environment and housing, advocates say

<span>Australian Council of Social Service CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie, says the funding in the 2024 federal budget was inadequate for the needs of low-income people.</span><span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Australian Council of Social Service CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie, says the funding in the 2024 federal budget was inadequate for the needs of low-income people.Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The federal government’s decision not to further increase funding for jobseeker, housing and domestic violence is a “gaping hole in the heart of the budget”, advocates have warned, with politicians and civil society dismayed there was not more cost of living support announced on Tuesday.

The treasurer, Jim Chalmers, said the budget’s cost of living package was “substantial” and targeted at “middle Australia”, listing the revamped stage-three tax cuts, $300 energy bill rebates, a slight increase to rent assistance and freezing medicine prices as the highlights of its response.

But Chalmers dodged a question about when the Labor government would consider a long-urged increase to the jobseeker unemployment payment. Australian Council of Social Service CEO, Cassandra Goldie, was alarmed the government hadn’t done more to address cost of living pressures and the violence against women crisis.

“We did not get the solutions that were the right one for the scale of the challenges that we face,” Goldie said.

“There is a gaping hole in the heart of the budget.”

All households get the energy bill relief, and all taxpayers get a cut to income tax – an average of $1,888 per taxpayer. There are targeted measures for some on government payments: a 10% increase in the maximum rate of commonwealth rent assistance, worth $18 a fortnight for eligible singles; an extra $55 a fortnight for those on jobseeker with a “partial capacity to work”; and freezing maximum prescription co-payments for medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The social services minister, Amanda Rishworth, told parliament “Labor will always do what it can do to provide people with more support, ease cost of living pressures and put downward pressure on inflation”.

But Goldie savaged the changes as inadequate, in the face of “exorbitant” rising prices.

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“We are a very wealthy country. We are so wealthy, that this is a budget that is going to spend, from 1 July, $26bn per year in tax cuts … and this is the same budget that has cruelly denied the desperately needed increase to social security, jobseeker and Youth Allowance,” she said.

“We’ve got a lot said about $300 as a rebate going to everybody … it’s going to cost this budget $3.5bn. Imagine what our community sector would have done with $3.5nn to help people.”

The Jenny Macklin-chaired Economic Inclusion Advisory (EIAC) report recommended raising rent assistance and the base rate of jobseeker to help low-income and welfare households. As part of the renewed focus on the domestic violence crisis, advocates said raising the rate would allow more victims of violence to escape, while the sex discrimination commissioner, Anna Cody, said it “will stop homicides”.

Goldie’s reaction was replicated across the social sector. Anglicare called the rent assistance increase a “Band-Aid” and the lack of jobseeker increase “unfinished business”. Mission Australia said it was “dismayed” at the absence of a greater rise, while the Greens party claimed the budget “betrays” those on low incomes.

“We cannot ignore the fact that the government has powerful safety levers and they are in control of how and when they are used,” said Single Mother Families Australia.

Chalmers was asked at the National Press Cub lunch about what economic circumstances would have to be present before Labor would further increase jobseeker. He did not directly answer, but noted the 2023 budget’s $20 a week boost to that payment.

“Good Labor governments with hard heads and warm hearts into the future will do what they can to always help the most vulnerable people in our society,” Chalmers said.

Warringah independent MP, Zali Steggall, said she was “very disappointed” the budget didn’t have more for domestic violence, beyond national cabinet’s recent extension of the leaving violence payment.

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“I know from talking to many in the sector, they’re very distressed the government hasn’t stepped up to reflect in the budget the level of crisis in the sector in addressing demand, especially for women’s legal services,” she said.

“I do not accept what’s delivered is sufficient. We will push for more. Business as usual is not acceptable.

“The system in dire distress. The government pats itself on the back and moves along, that isn’t acceptable to me and many on the cross-bench.”

Goldstein independent MP, Zoe Daniel, said she had heard “outrage” from the domestic violence sector, planning to launch a petition calling for government “to properly fund programs to end violence against women.”

Guardian Australia understands cross-benchers may pursue parliamentary procedural moves to demand the government make more contribution to domestic violence.

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Scientists and conservationists also sharply criticised the government for not addressing a long-term funding shortfall needed to protect nature, which a state-of-the-environment report found was in poor and deteriorating health.

The top nature-related spending highlighted by the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, was a re-announcement of $176m to establish two new agencies, Environment Protection Australia and Environment Information Australia.

Funding for both was included in last year’s budget.

The Biodiversity Council, an independent science organisation set up by 11 Australian universities, said the budget was “one of the worst in recent years” for new environment spending and noted Chalmers did not mention nature protection and recovery in his speech on Tuesday.

“Continuing to run down our natural capital will ultimately come at our peril,” lead councillor, Prof Sarah Bekessy, said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s chief executive, Kelly O’Shanassy, said nature spending was inadequate and projected to “drop disastrously”, and the government did not have a plan to meet its promise of no new extinction. “Meanwhile the threat of extinctions continues to grow,” she said.