Ricci Bartels highlighted her experience with Newstart during the ABC's Q&A program.
Ricci Bartels highlighted her experience with Newstart during the ABC's Q&A program. Contributed

Finding herself the accidental voice for Newstart voiceless

SPEAKING out on national television on the devastating experience of being forced onto Newstart has been a surreal experience for senior Ricci Bartels.

Ms Bartels was in the audience of the ABC television show Q&A where she spoke up about her experience of being caught in a downward spiral of unemployment and welfare, when all she really wanted to do was to get a job and pay her own way.

And, it was particularly disconcerting for Ms Bartels, who had spent a good deal of her life employed in positions where it was her job to empower people.

"I have spent my whole life empowering people," she said.

"I was helping people to speak and act for themselves.

"Here's this woman who has done this most of her working life and suddenly, when you are forced onto Newstart, you have been disempowered, immediately. That is like jumping off a cliff really, until you gather yourself."

Ms Bartels said the opportunity to speak out came about by accident. Members of the audience were invited to submit questions for the panel to consider, and hers was the first chosen.

Speaking on Q&A, the 66-year-old said:

"What would you or how would you suggest people like me have a go to get a go?"

Ms Bartel said that, put in a nutshell, her Newstart experience was the worst time of her life.

"The loss of dignity. The loss of friends because you can't go out, you can't socialise. Not eating proper foods even though I suffer various ailments.

"I am a very skilled person," the articulate senior said.

The original story on the reaction to the Q&A program was posted on the Seniors News Facebook site, prompting a deluge of responses from people who had been in a similar position, or known others who had experienced similar frustrations.

One woman commented: "I have been through that too and I was 63. The most degrading time of my life. I was so pleased when I finally reached 65 and got the aged pension because I had very little of my savings left. Being on Newstart is a health hazard...I got depression, and getting breast cancer was the last straw. Politicians have no idea what living below the poverty line is like."

Another said: "Same story here. I did voluntary work which I enjoyed, to make the hours required to get Newstart. But the whole system is humiliating. I even applied for a job with Centrelink and here's the rub ... I didn't get it because I was "too empathic".

And this observation from another: "I recently stood at a food counter where an elderly lady was buying three slices of meat. When the assistant accidentally put four pieces on the scales, she told her to take away the extra piece because her budget did not allow it! Oh, God. In our country! Of course, I paid for her purchase but she was not trying it on. She genuinely was balancing what she had with what she needed."

As Ms Bartel said:

"It's not about me - I'm not unique.

"I have heard far worse, horrific stories of people on Newstart."

But her television appearance has given a voice to many seniors.

"The sloganing of this government, particularly this 'have a go to get a go', has really been grinding me down when I hear it every five minutes," she said.

"The other one that grinds me down is 99 per cent of people receiving Newstart get additional supplements. I know the main additional supplement, 100 per cent of people get it, is $4.40 that they tried to take away at one point."

The largest number of people on Newstart are aged 55 to 64 and they are on it for three or more years.

Ms Bartels herself was on Newstart for over three years.

"I could not find a job no matter how hard I tried," she said.

It's now 25 years since Newstart, previously called the Dole, was increased by the Federal Government.

Dr Kirsty Nowlan, a Benevolent Society executive director and leading voice in the Raise the Rate campaign, said Newstart has only been indexed.

"It moves with the level of CPI, but it doesn't move at the level of wages," she said. "It has declined relative to both the pension and minimum wage."

Ms Bartels said the feedback from her appearance, across the various social media platforms, had been "surreal". Over 180,000 people had viewed the Q&A segment on Facebook.

She is refusing to give oxygen to the trolls nor responding to the various shared stories and supportive comments.

"I want to stay on message as all this could be lost very quickly," Ms Bartels said.

"The impact is mind-blowing.

"I didn't expect it and I don't want to take credit, but I think it has really pushed it up there."

Ms Bartels has been on both sides of the fence. The high-level administrator, who previously worked in the public sector, as a volunteer board member of the Australian Council of Social Services, deputy chair for the Settlement Council of Australia, and in the private sector, was forced onto Newstart when she was 62.

"All my life I have been a social justice activist," she said.

"I was offered a speaking platform and I want this on the agenda for both parties to start thinking about - not sloganing, not headlining numbers that we are not given the back story to."

Ms Bartels believes that an increase of $75 a week, which is what the Raise the Rate campaign is calling for, is needed.

"The other side of the campaign is to raise the rent subsidy," she added.

Even though Ms Bartels is now on an Aged Pension, she plans to continue actively supporting the work of Raise the Rate as she sees the failings with the current situation with Newstart.

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