Artists on Newstart are punished by a punitive one-size fits all approach to employment rather than a system that supports their unique work. Eliza Berlage talks to former Newstart recipients about their experiences.
With an undergraduate arts degree in creative writing under her belt, writer Van Badham enrolled into an honours degree at the University of Wollongong to further develop her practice. But when arrangements with her supervisor fell through she was forced to withdraw from the course and apply for Newstart.
“Centrelink didn’t have ‘writer’ on the dole at that stage so they put ‘journalist’, they also put ‘judge’,” she says noting the inaccuracy. “It was kind of funny because I was registered as an 'unemployed judge'."
That was about the only amusing side of Badham's situation. She was now at the mercy of a system that didn't acknowledge, let alone understand the profession she had trained for, in a place where youth unemployment was high.
Badham had returned to Wollongong after being in Sydney for a year, which meant she’d lost a lot of her connections there, and because she wasn’t a student anymore she wasn’t eligible to take up any jobs at the university – the big employer in The Gong after a lot of factories and industry disappeared in the ‘90s. “I was broke, by myself in Wollongong in real trouble… so I picked up a second undergrad degree and became a full-time student again to access the support networks.”
That was the first but not the last time Badham was on Newstart. She’s not alone in her experience. Government data shows people register for Newstart multiple times, while the average length that someone is on the payment is about three years.
Teresa*, a performing artist, said she was on and off the system over the years. “You only go on Newstart because you have to, not because you want to,” she says.
Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter
Teresa has a vast performance history – from cabaret to contemporary dance – she was also a jazz vocalist, has been in theatrical shows as well as TV commercials, but says being on Newstart made her feel disrespected and harassed. “I don’t think they have enough respect for the fact that the arts is a profession, that it is a business and professional artists contribute so much to society,” she says.
“If you are out looking for a job and you have regular job skills then you can get good help, but if you are a performing artist then being on Newstart is difficult to survive on.”
Aside from the pressure of having to fulfil the compliance requirements, Teresa found the payment so restrictive. “It makes you so skint,” she says. “I spent many winters without a heater, and band members, musicians and singers would come over to my house for rehearsals and complain they were cold. But even if somebody donated me a heater I would be worried about that sort of electricity bill.
“There was also one time where I just lived quite literally on rice and beans, which sounds a lot healthier than it is,” she says.
“Centrelink made me feel like my life was a lie, that I was this, broken, unemployable mess” – Van Badham
Both Teresa and Badham told The Music about using credit cards as a stopgap. The second time she was on Newstart, Badham lived in Sydney – even with rent assistance she was still short. “I would buy rounds of drinks for people with my credit card so I could get cash from people to pay the rent,” she says. “It was really fucking dodgy.”
Being on Newstart as an artist is not only psychologically damaging and isolating, it also sometimes means missing out on professional opportunities. Teresa says she had to pass up on being mentored by one of the greatest Australian singers because she was so stressed out. “I was in temporary accommodation and having to apply for ten gigs and not eating properly… By the time I got into stable accommodation she had moved on to something else.”
It is something Teresa says she will regret for the rest of her life: “She would have been a great mentor, in a great venue and she wanted to help me get a grant to make an album. It took me years for me to put together an album with my own money.”
Other people The Music spoke to said they also enrolled in study “to get out of it” and there was a general experience that registering for the payment wasn’t worth the “bother” because “you don’t get any assistance as an artist”.
Badham says she did have a couple of friends who used Newstart to their advantage: “They wanted to be filmmakers so they used the period when they were on the dole to watch the entirety of the Western canon of film.” But for her the experience was just so “psychologically damaging”.
“You just aren’t participating in society and you’re just hustling to survive.”
Badham was on Newstart a second time after her casual university lecturing job was made permanent – which made her ineligible for the position without a PhD. She’d won a prestigious writing award, had an agent looking out for her but still had to go through “this ridiculous job club shit”. “They sent me to a resume-writing workshop and I had a potential book deal, so I think I could write. Centrelink made me feel like my life was a lie, that I was this, broken, unemployable mess.”
While waiting for the book deal to come through she says she had a breakdown in a Centrelink office trying to justify her situation. “I didn’t have the contract in my hand so I had to explain to them that I would be ok but I had to keep living in the meantime. I just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed and the woman referred me to a counsellor because she was worried that I would self-harm or something. They sent me to a counselling unit on Oxford Street and the woman said the system just fails people like you.”
Badham got the book deal, and has since written successful plays and writes regular columns. Like Teresa, she is an artist, who is always looking for work, but is self-sustaining and even finds ways to create employment for others. One of Teresa’s biggest projects to date was a series of blues tribute concerts featuring a line-up of Australian divas at the Sydney Opera House to fundraise for Beyond Blue.
The Greens and Labor have previously talked about the concept of a living wage for artists, as a variant payment from Centrelink, but the Coalition hasn’t given it much thought to date.
“I feel like Newstart is just so cut and dry with treating everyone the same that they are doing themselves a disservice.” Teresa says. “Because if they looked at your work history, and your productivity as an artist, and left you alone they would get so much more work out of you, Australia would get so much work out of you.”
*Name has been changed.
This story was originally published in the September issue of The Music. Head here to read it online.