Paul Fletcher dodges questions about intervening in Newstart review

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Then social services minister does not deny report he urged parliamentary committee to drop its call for a rise

Paul Fletcher has repeatedly dodged questions about whether he intervened as social services minister to strike out a committee recommendation to raise the rate of Newstart.

On Sunday Fletcher told ABC’s Insiders that the final committee report recommending a review of unemployment benefits was signed off by its members, but did not deny that he caused a stronger call for an increase to be removed.

It comes as the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, stares down a push within the Nationals to overturn government policy by commissioning modelling on the economic impact of lifting Newstart.

The government is facing calls from within its own ranks – including from Liberals Dean Smith, Russell Broadbent and Andrew Wallace and Nationals Matt Canavan and Barnaby Joyce – to lift the rate of Newstart, a position that was also formally adopted by the Labor caucus this week.

On Tuesday the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that in April a parliamentary committee chaired by Broadbent was set to recommend an increase before Fletcher intervened to warn the final report could not contain the specific Newstart recommendation.

The other members of the committee were the Liberal MPs Kevin Andrews, Bert van Manen, Ben Morton and Rowan Ramsey, as well as the Labor MPs Ged Kearney and Sharon Bird.

“The recommendations of that report were agreed by the members of the committee,” Fletcher said. “That’s how it always works with a parliamentary committee.”

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The Insiders presenter Annabel Crabb asked at least five times if Fletcher intervened or contacted the committee members about the content of the report, but the minister continued to say only that committee members had signed off on the final report.

“Look, I speak to colleagues all the time,” he said. “But I’m not going to go into the conversations that I have with colleagues.”

Crabb said it was “totally clear” from his refusal to deny the report that it was correct he had personally intervened. Fletcher replied: “Again, I’m not going to accept your characterisation there.”

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has repeatedly rejected calls to lift unemployment benefits, and last week warned Coalition backbenchers against pursuing their own policy agendas.

In a further sign of disquiet within the government about the issue, News Corp’s Sunday papers reported that the National party’s policy committee has defied Morrison by signing off on a plan to cost a proposal to boost Newstart.

The modelling will reportedly examine the economic impact of raising the unemployment benefit, but quarantining 80% of the payment on a cashless welfare card, which can only be used for essentials.

This week McCormack shot down calls to raise the Newstart rate from within his Nationals party room, instead urging jobseekers to move to regional towns to find work.

On Sunday he said the National party policy committee “will continue to monitor the Newstart allowance but I believe the most meaningful thing we can do as a government is to provide the conditions under which business has the confidence to employ more people”.

Despite agreeing to call on the government to increase the rate, Labor caucus has not yet approved a proposal for a specific size of increase.

The Labor MPs Mike Freelander and Nick Champion have endorsed calls for a $75 a week increase in the unemployment payment, which has been frozen at $275 a week for 25 years, a reduction of 40% in real terms according to the Australian Council of Social Services.

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