Who are we leaving behind?

In presenting last week’s Federal Budget, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said, “we will get through this together.” Togetherness is an important value in Australia. It speaks to the basic liberal democratic principle that no-one in our community should be left behind.

While much of last week’s Budget analysis focused on the details of tax breaks and tax cuts, at a basic level the Budget is also a gauge of our country’s commitment to looking after everyone in our community.

If we’re going to get through this together, we can’t accept some people thriving while others are left behind.

But that vision is only possible if we do more than this Budget commits to and protect some of the most vulnerable people who live among us: especially migrants on temporary visas, refugees and asylum seekers.

At the start of this pandemic, we as a country made a profound and humane choice: to save as many lives as possible. On the whole, Australia’s federal, state and territory governments responded to COVID-19 quickly and decisively. This has spared us some of the worst impacts we have seen elsewhere in the world.

However, this global pandemic reminds us that while we may be an island we cannot completely detach from the rest of the world. Australia has a long history of taking seriously its responsibilities as a global citizen. Yet, at a time of unprecedented global instability, when people fleeing persecution need a safe haven more than ever, this Budget saw Australia reduce its refugee intake by about one third.

And for those who make it to Australia to seek asylum, this Budget saw much-needed support being taken away.

There are over 100,000 asylum seekers living in our community, often waiting many years for a decision on whether they will be accepted as refugees. In the meantime, they are our neighbours, colleagues, friends and, in some cases, they are our family.

But they are not always treated equally. They’re not eligible for income support, like JobKeeper, nor the additional welfare safety net programs the government has brought in during COVID-19. Instead, many rely on the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) program for food and shelter – but SRSS has been progressively cut from $139.8 million in 2017-18 to just $19.6 million in 2020-21.

I have heard countless stories of families being pushed into poverty because they have been cut off from SRSS and cannot find work or indeed are unable to work due to chronic ill-health, disability or caring responsibilities.

The Federal Budget commits over a billion dollars for offshore processing of asylum seekers, yet just a fraction of that amount would enable further financial support to prevent thousands of asylum seekers, who live side-by-side with us in the community, sliding into poverty and destitution.

Beyond asylum seekers, around 1.4 million people – international students, working holiday makers, and refugees among others – are on temporary visas in Australia. Most of these people do not have access to the safety net either. Furthermore, many face substantial and often insurmountable barriers to returning home. We need to extend income support for those people in this group who, just like many others in our community, are in desperate need and have no-one other than the Australian Government to turn to.

Many workers on temporary visas are employed in critical areas, like healthcare, aged care and delivering food and provisions. They are contributing to our economy but also to our society.

I fully appreciate that the economy has taken a huge hit from COVID-19, but if we are to get through this together we need to make sure no one is left behind.

How we treat people now lays the groundwork for who we will be after COVID-19. We need to emerge as an Australian community that shows the best of our values-open, fair and inclusive.

We can turn this around. Providing the most basic support to asylum seekers and temporary visa holders living in the community is in all our interests. It would be a lifeline for people who are increasingly desperate.

Australia is a better, stronger country if we face up to inequality, and truly choose to leave no-one behind.

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