Australians have more compassion than our leaders give us credit for | Peter Lewis | Australia news


It has become a national sport to bowl up to Coalition MPs and ask them whether they could survive on $40 per day, the amount unemployed people are expected to live off and which the Turnbull government steadfastly refuses to increase, as though misery were a sackcloth.

The skilful players swerve away from these deliveries, while those who get trapped are forced to back in the proposition out of loyalty to the team.

Meanwhile Labor confines its tax cuts to people earning up to $90,000, a level it says represents a comfortable income; as the ACTU and employers lock horns over what an appropriate minimum wage should be.

At the heart of all these skirmishes is the simple question: how much is enough in modern Australia?

To help resolve some of these debates, Essential has created a new index to understand what ordinary Australian think is required to live comfortably – let’s call it the Punters Comfort Level.

We asked voters to identify the income range that they believed they could live comfortably. We allowed them to define their own “comfort” level, but promoted them to think about their housing, good, energy and clothing costs.

The results show our government MPs are living in a very different Australia to most of the people they represent.

Thinking about yourself personally, what is the minimum you could comfortably live on per week (including rent/mortgage, food, energy and clothing)?
Thinking about yourself personally, what is the minimum you could comfortably live on per week (including rent/mortgage, food, energy and clothing)?

Across the population, $660 per week emerges as the average level of comfort to meet the basic costs of living – not to save or travel or build for the future – but just to keep things ticking over.

A few interesting points emerge when you look at results across age and income. First, while the $600 a week threshold is considered enough for younger and older people, those in the mid-point of their lives, when they are more likely to be carrying the responsibility of children, say they need significantly more to get by.

The second less surprising finding is that the more you earn, the more you think you need to survive, which makes sense given our tendency to load up our commitment to the edge of our capacity to pay.

These findings do confirm that:

  • one, Labor is on pretty safe ground when it pitches $90,000 as a threshold – it’s about three times our Punters Comfort Level;
  • two, the latest minimum wage case increase to about $720 per week is in the ballpark of providing a safety net for working families;
  • and three the Coalition’s assertion that anyone can live on $270 per week is way off the reservation. According to these findings you would need to double that and more to create anything approaching comfort.

Maybe that’s why, when asked, a majority of Australians reject the Coalition’s Newstart freeze and actually support an increase.

The Newstart benefit for a single person with no children is about $270 per week. Do you think it is too high, too low or about right?

The findings do show a sharp divide between the attitudes of Coalition voters and the rest of the public, and notably those voting for the small parties like One Nation and independents.

Maybe that’s because these groups of voters are more likely to have been exposed to the lived experience of long-term unemployment, as is currently being chronicled though the Guardian.

Reactions to a series of statements about the current Newstart debate suggest that Australians have more compassion for those struggling than our leaders sometimes give us credit for.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

The most striking thing about these findings are the high level of strong agreement for an increase in Newstart payments. Typically statements surveys cluster responses around the moderate responses; on this issue at least an equal number are passionate about their views.

Almost universal is support for the proposition that “In Australia, no one should go without basic essentials like food, healthcare, transport and power.” It is enough to make you think people are starting to look at themselves as part of a society, rather than just the economy.

I know – we haven’t put the counter arguments that manipulate disdain for dole-bludgers, or played up the use of “our” taxpayer dollars to support “them” or even tried to contrive the misery as some form of tough love to get people back to work.

Instead, just for once, we have asked people if they would buy the idea that everyone should be looked after in a country like Australia – and freed of the manipulative framing, manufactured prejudice and calculated downward envy, they are totally up for a bit of empathy.

Unlike the Coalition MPs playing “Australia on $40 a day”, they’d support a government that went out to bat for those who need a hand up.

Peter Lewis is the executive director of Essential and a Guardian Australia columnist

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