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‘We’re stuffed’: Newstart recipients caught in NSW bushfires left destitute

On the left is a picture of a raging bushfire on the right is a picture of a Centrelink sign with logo
Newstart recipients caught amongst the NSW/QLD buyers reveal their struggles. Source: Getty

Genevieve Cheathan and her partner have a two-and-a-half year old daughter, are expecting another child in February and both receive Newstart benefits.

But Cheathan finds it hard to be excited at the prospect of a new child due to the stresses the bushfires have caused her and her family.

She took to Twitter to explain the hardship of being on Newstart during this difficult time.

Combined, Cheathan and her partner receive $1450 a fortnight, or roughly $700 a week.

“It sounds like it’s generous - and we’re very grateful for it as well - but when you’re looking at the average house cost being around $350, it does make budgeting very hard,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“It’s hard to be too excited at the moment,” she said.

So tough in fact, that the chief executive of Good Shepherd ANZ, Stella Avramopoulos last week told the Senate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart that financial counsellors don’t even see a point in creating a budget for their clients.

"Many tell us there's actually no point in helping a client on Newstart to do a budget because there's not enough money whichever way they cut it,” she said.

To save money, Cheathan and her partner rent an old farmhouse for $230, but it has been compromised by the NSW bushfires.

“That farmhouse is an absolute tinderbox, and only about a kilometre from the Mount Nardi fires, so for health reasons and the possibility of flare ups, we’ve moved into my mums nearby,” she said.

But not wanting to overstay her welcome in the small two-bedroom granny flat, Cheathan tried to return to her house - but the clutch on her car died.

“We don’t have any money to repair it or to get a new car,” she said.

“We could do things like apply for a low-interest loan or super financial hardship to get a payout...And hopefully we can get a car which will help other things happen, but it’s tough at the moment.”

No assistance for evacuated Newstart recipients

Centrelink is providing emergency funds to some bushfire victims in affected areas.

Assistance is available to anyone who can show they have experienced a loss of income, or have been adversely affected as a direct result of the NSW bushfires in August, September, October and November 2019.

But the two forms of emergency assistance available to Australians, Disaster Recovery Allowance and Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment, aren’t available to those who were not directly affected, but still needed support.

“Because there’s no actual fire damage to our house and no one has died, there’s no other support,” Cheathan told Yahoo Finance.

“It just goes back to the whole thing about Newstart being ridiculously low - it just makes me shudder.”

Cheathan visited the evacuation centres for disaster relief, but it was for short-term accommodation - and little else is provided in the way of assistance.

“I had friends who ended up staying about two weeks in a motel with their two dogs, two kids and parents - they’re absolutely displaced, that’s for sure.”

And given the location and the state of the farmhouse, Cheathan is seeking to move - which would add $120 to her current rental payments.

“That’s groceries pretty much, and we’re already having a tough enough time meeting our needs, and so to have to move...there’s just no support available,” she said.

Meeting mutual obligations still up in the air

Earlier this month, the Unions questioned whether Newstart recipients would be required to meet their ‘mutual obligation’ requirements in order to continue receiving welfare payments.

These requirements include attending appointments with job providers to prove they are still actively seeking work.

“Will people affected by bushfire activity in NSW & QLD be exempted from mutual obligation requirements? Does Centrelink have a position on this in legislation?” The Australian Unemployment Union asked.

In the past, Centrelink has suspended payments for failure to meet mutual obligations, despite recipients informing Centrelink they couldn’t attend appointments.

And it’s something Cheathan has been left wondering about too.

Her partner, who was put on Newstart payments after falling ill a few years ago, was placed on a ‘Category C’ payment, which means he isn’t required to look for work like other recipients.

But despite filling in the correct forms and providing medical certificates to Centrelink, her partner still received a message saying he was required to show he had applied for jobs.

“He’s just been made exempt,” she said. “Regardless of the bushfire situation, they’re just changing the goalposts all the time, no matter if the information you provide is valid and correct.”

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