GREG RAY: Unkindest cut of all

IF you were asked whether you could live on the Newstart allowance of $35 a day, what would you say?

If you were honest, you'd probably say you could. (Especially if you already are.)

Although, obviously, you'd rather not.

The Newstart allowance isn't a lot of money, which explains why about 84,000 single parents are unhappy about being shifted off parenting allowance on to the dole when their youngest child turns eight.

Some could lose about $110 a week, which is serious money in a family budget.

People do live on the dole, of course. They live with family members or rent portions of rooms in cheap suburbs. They buy cheap food, go without cars, avoid using heaters or airconditioners, dress themselves from op-shops and go dumpster-diving for out-of-date but safely sealed foodstuffs.

That's in between trying to keep Centrelink off their backs by proving they are spending every waking second in an earnest hunt for work.

When Families Minister Jenny Macklin said in an interview that she could do all that stuff too, she wasn't lying.

But where she went badly wrong, scoring a nasty own goal against the Gillard government, was when her office issued a transcript of the interview that labelled the question and answer as "inaudible".

Let's face it, even if - and we have to doubt this - her own staff didn't have their own clear recording of the interview, plenty of other people had it.

Seems her office staff just decided they'd be better off trying to pretend she never said she could live on the dole.

The honourable thing would have been to issue the transcript as it truly occurred and then face the questions that would have followed.

All she had to do was admit that although she could live on the dole, it would be at the cost of her privileged lifestyle.

We pay Ms Macklin $6321 a week to represent the interests of families at the federal government level. Whether pushing people off parenting allowance on to the dole is a good way to do that job will be the subject of disagreement.

Debate about the dole and other welfare payments is a perennial.

And it's a shame that it always heats up at times - like now - when government revenue is shrinking and business activity is also contracting.

Ms Macklin is only telling the truth when she says we'd all be better off if everybody provided their own income by doing productive work.

But as usual in times like these, the trick is actually getting some of that work.

A year or two ago, the talk from the business heads, who seem to lead much public debate, was that everybody who wanted a job should pull up stumps and move to a mining boom town.

But now the mines are cutting costs and El Dorado is looking elusive. Manufacturing is crook, thanks to the high dollar, and tourism is sickly for the same reason.

Retail is on the bones of its backside because of internet shopping, and even when the retail sector is hiring, it usually wants kids on rock-bottom hourly rates.

Shifting these 84,000 people on to the dole is hoped to save the budget $728 million over four years.

But I wonder if it might create another perverse incentive for some people to simply have more children so they can hang on a bit longer to the higher allowance.

The government claims it is interested in job creation. I would like to see that.

Australia's strong dollar and high interest rates are sucking in a lot of foreign capital.

Why not market 10-year infrastructure bonds, with a modest yield of a few per cent (better than most investors in the rest of the world can get at the moment) and build the Very Fast Train from Brisbane to Melbourne?

Or a national gas grid to restart manufacturing and encourage our vehicle fleet to shift off imported petrol?

How about some positive leadership, instead of mean little spending cuts that you can't even trust yourself to be honest about?


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