University students Max Marland and Ebony Martinesz exchanged marriage vows in a ceremony surrounded by close friends in front of Parliament House earlier this week. They married not for love, according to the newly wedded couple, but because Marland is unable to access government support while undertaking studies at the Australian National University (ANU).
The government currently deems students under the age of 22 to be dependent, assessing their eligibility for study support on family income, relying on an assumption that parents can and will support them throughout their studies, excluding thousands of students who may otherwise be eligible.
In Marland’s view, this assumption is flawed and dangerous, as it leaves students reliant on their parents, making them vulnerable to harm and exploitation.
“They call it welfare. This is not welfare. Welfare is being able to pay for rent and food… It’s not just surviving. It’s allowing young people like us to do more than that, it’s allowing them to go beyond the day-to-day, its young queer people having the chance to live freely and young folks who have experienced harm to live in safety,” he said.
Despite a longstanding campaign from the National Union of Students (NUS) to lower the age of independence to 18, the government did not make any changes in its Federal Budget handed down the night before. For students who are eligible, Youth Allowance payments is equivalent to $37.89 a day for students living out of home, far below the $69 Henderson poverty line.
For Marland, his financial situation makes studying full-time without support untenable.
“It is a bit of a struggle at the moment, the way the Centrelink system is working. It’s really messed up. I would have to get married to get assistance,” he said in his vows.
“The Centrelink system isn’t broken. It’s working exactly how it was intended to, to provide as few people with as little assistance as possible. And I really need that help.”
This experience is familiar to Martinesz, who was also excluded from Youth Allowance due to assessment of parental income conducted during means testing of dependents.
“We are getting married for the age of independence. 22 is too high, it is not independent. You move out at 18, you can join the army at 18, you can drink at 18, how are you not classed as independent then?” Martinesz said.
“I don’t have time to gain my independence, I live out of home already, I live in the regions, and my parents can’t support me. I don’t have an option. When we say for richer or for poorer, we really mean for poorer.”
After the nuptials, Greens MP Steven Bates offered a toast to the couple.
“We’ve already seen what people are having, being forced into doing, either getting married or staying in recent relationships in unsafe houses, just because they don’t have that economic freedom to be able to support themselves independently,” he said.
“What we saw last night was the government essentially abandoning young people at the end of the day, they managed to find $40 billion over the next four years to subsidize fossil fuel companies, but nothing in the budget to increase the rate of Youth Allowance, the pension, the DSP [Disability Support Pension], anything like that, to $88 a day above the poverty line.”
Bates linked the government’s commitment to follow through on the Stage Three tax cuts, a legacy of the Morrison government, estimated to cost $254 billion over 10 years, as the reason why the government was not increasing income support.
“And it’s unfair and it’s unjust and it needs to stop. What the Greens are calling for is raising the rate of income support to $88 a day,” he said.
“What that does for you is it gives you the freedom to partake in your pracs, your internships, anything like that, without also having to worry about working 40 hours a week to be able to put food on the table. It stops you being forced to choose between rent and food, transport and anything else. It gives you choice.”
“So I want to say congratulations again to the couple today. I’m sorry you have to go through this, but I understand why you’re doing it.”
Photo credits: Thomas Sargeant