THERE is a "compelling" case for boosting the $245-a-week Newstart unemployment allowance, according to the man who chaired the Senate inquiry.
But he decided against recommending that it be done. West Australian Liberal Chris Black, one of three Coalition senators on the six-person inquiry, said he held back, knowing the Coalition might itself soon be the government.
"I am confident it may soon be our role," he said after releasing the report. "We would have to fund what we recommended. It would have been easy to say, let's beat up on the government, let's make them look like fools and say Newstart has to rise, but as the alternative government we have to be responsible." The two Labor Party members of the inquiry recommended an increase in Newstart.
The one Greens member recommended an increase of $50 a week.
"It's put the government in a happy position," said Senator Black. "It's a recommendation of their own senators that there should be an increase, and they are the ones who hold the purse strings. They can cut other spending or run up more debt in order to do it."
The Australian Council of Social Service's chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, said her members were "obviously disappointed" that the committee had failed to recommend an increase, but pleased it had agreed that Newstart was too low. "We understand the budgetary constraints, but stopping people languishing on unlivable payments should be a priority," she said.
Senator Black said he had repeatedly asked witnesses where the money would come from.
"Around 35 per cent of government spending is on social security. We asked continually where, within that, did witnesses think we could make savings to lift Newstart, and nobody was able to assist us.
''I put the question about the 16 per cent of the budget that is spent on health, and the 8 per cent spent on education, and there was agreement from witnesses. Nobody wanted them touched.
"There is no doubt the evidence we received was compelling. Nobody want's to see a circumstance in which a family isn't able to feed its children, no one wants to see that in Australia. But we can't fund these things by running up debt."
The committee has recommended lifting the amount Newstart recipients can earn from work to the equivalent of six hours a fortnight at the minimum wage. The concession would be paid for by savings within the social security budget.
Another recommendation would make it easier for Newstart recipients to obtain seasonal work and still stay on the benefit.
Recipients who lost the benefit when they took up work would stay on the government's computer system for a year to "keep their place in the queue" for assistance finding a job.