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Monday, 14 October 1996
Page: 5345

Mr BROUGH(5.46 p.m.) —The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 1996 is certainly fundamental to this government's program. We have heard a lot in this debate. We have not debated this bill since last Thursday because there has been so much filibustering in the time in between which has delayed this debate.

This government has already committed $48 billion to the social security budget for the 1996-97 year, or 37 per cent of all budget expenditure. That equates to $2,500 for every man, woman and child in Australia. So, if we are going to divide it up that way, $2,500 will be expended on every person in Australian society today. It is an enormous amount of money. It is the job of any federal government of any colour to ensure that that amount of money is spent wisely and it is accountable.

We should look at the social security system that Australia has developed over the years before we look at this bill in detail. Australia's welfare system started at around the turn of the century with the establishment of the old age and invalid pensions. Our next major welfare measure was the wide-ranging welfare measures introduced for returned servicemen as part of the Department of Repatriation in 1918. It was further comprehensively increased in the 1940s when we created benefits for children, widows, the unemployed, the sick and those in special circumstances.

The social security system has continued to change and evolve ever since. It is important to remember when you look at this bill and subsequent social security bills which will inevitably be introduced into this place that social security, the thought behind social security and the means by which it is to be funded are always evolving and changing. The term `social security' was first used only in 1935 by the Roosevelt administration. So it is not as though it has been with us for hundreds of years. It is a relatively new term.

It is important to understand where Australia sits with social security. There are two systems widely recognised throughout the world. There is the universal social security system. Places like Sweden have that system. It predominantly says that the benefits are available to all citizens. We do not have that sort of a system in Australia. We do not have a tax system to support it either. We have what is known as a residual system where government intervention to enhance the welfare of citizens is limited and occurs only when the private market and the family are not able to produce the desired outcome. That is considerably different from the universal system.

I believe that a social security system in this nation must be flexible, adaptable, equitable, responsible and, above all else, accountable. The measures being introduced today go a long way towards ensuring that our social security system, our social security net for those most in need, will meet those requirements.

The member for Sydney (Mr Peter Baldwin), who opened this debate on behalf of the opposition, spoke of the successes of the previous government in maintaining the adequacy of the basic social security safety net. He talked about targeting assistance and continually improving compliance measures. That is exactly what this bill is aimed at doing. Savings are achieved mainly through measures to target assistance to the most needy and tightening administration. He indicated pride in the low administrative costs of Australia's social security system when compared with overseas arrangements. This bill makes administration costs even lower. So we have bipartisan support there.

The member for Newcastle (Mr Allan Morris) spoke about this same theme. The terms he used throughout his speech were `nasty' and `vicious'. He referred to this as being `a nasty, mean and vicious exercise'. He used combinations of those three terms throughout his entire speech. Mr Deputy Speaker, I put it to you that they are not the emotive terms that we should be using when referring to Australia's social security safety net. I think a more responsible level of debate is required if we are going to come to the conclusions that we inevitably must do—that Australia requires a safety net for its poor and for those who cannot look after themselves in any adequate form.

The member for Newcastle spoke about the widows pension. He suggested that the measures relating to widows and partners could not really be assisting widows because we are expected to yield $22 million. He said this $22 million was being taken off widows and partners, but that is just simply not the fact. The fact is that those savings are almost entirely from savings in administration. Wasted money; money that the opposition, the then Labor government, really took no note of. That $22 million can be better spent delivering services rather than administration.

I turn to some of the measures that are contained in the bill. There are some 24 schedules in the bill. I would like to speak briefly today on some of them. The first one increases the flexibility of the carers pension. I think everyone in this House would agree that Australia is a better place because of those people who undertake to help those less fortunate in the community as carers. I acknowledge the valuable work that carers do throughout this nation. They create a better quality of life for the people they are caring for and they also take a burden away from the public purse. They should be commended.

This bill has two measures which will assist them. One measure extends the number of hours they can do in paid or voluntary work from 10 to 20 hours per week. The second measure increases the number of days that a carer may temporarily cease caring in a calendar year without affecting their qualifications for the carers pension from 42 days to 52 days. I hope that in future bills addressed in this House carers will be even more considered in relation to the social security safety net.

Schedule 3 deals with the payment to under 18-year-olds of the sickness allowance, newstart allowance and youth training allowance. This very much goes to responsibility. If a young person becomes ill and is in a household where the household can afford to look after them, I would put it to you that, under our residual social security system, that is a reasonable thing to expect. The taxpayer, the government, will pick up the tab for those people whose parents are unable to assist them, but the measure is in place so that those who are able to look after themselves, in fact, do so.

Schedule 4—a very important one—deals with voluntary work participation for unemployed people. We have heard the opposition speak long and hard about this particular measure, saying that it somehow is going to disadvantage them. They have asked: how could we possibly say that allowing people to do voluntary work was somehow going to assist them when we were, in fact, making savings in this area? Anybody who has studied unemployed people for any length of time will understand the difficulties and the health problems that these people incur after they have found themselves out of work for any considerable time.

This measure will not only assist the unemployed person to regain self-esteem to feel part of the community but also assist voluntary organisations which play such an important part in our community. It will create a sense of worth for those people who are unemployed and, above all else, it will give them the leg up, so to speak, in order to get back into the work force. I am sure that many people in this place, like myself, have been told by unemployed people that, if only they were given the chance to do some voluntary work, they could prove to employers that they had the necessary skills and that they could work. By working for voluntary groups, they will get just that.

Once again, the member for Newcastle had comments to make in this area. He questioned the government's proposal in relation to voluntary work, asking how those people doing voluntary work could be better off if the government expected to save on allowance expenditure. He obviously has not worked it out that, if people are improving their likelihood of work and they get into work, we have to pay fewer benefits. It is not that difficult to understand that if a person is doing something which improves their likelihood of getting back into the work force and that they then do so, the government will not be spending as much on unemployment benefit, but that seems to have escaped the member for Newcastle.

Schedule 5 is in direct response to the commitments we made to the people, and that was the government's commitment to improve and tighten the activities test. We do not run away from this measure. I think it is very important that we do that. It is important that those people who are in need can access our social security system and that those who are blatantly abusing taxpayers' money should be more responsible and, in fact, should be rejected from the system.

I would like to talk a little bit about this activities test and a few of the measures contained within. We have tightened the definition for `unsuitable work'. At the moment most Australians are of the understanding that, if you reject work, you will be thrown off unemployment benefit. That, in fact, is not true. The fact is that people can say that the work certainly is not suitable for them and that that is a valid reason. Whilst there are limitations to that, we are tightening that criterion to ensure that it is fair for all. We have changed the non-payment period for the activity test to six weeks for the first breach and 13 weeks for subsequent breaches.

Anyone taking money from the public purse because they are unemployed has a responsibility to the people of Australia to ensure they fulfil their end of the bargain. Their end of the bargain is that they should be actively looking for work or undergoing training. If they fail to turn up at a place of training, if they fail to fill out the unemployment diaries for their activities test, they have breached what I believe is their fundamental responsibility in receiving that money, and, obviously, they will be penalised in an appropriate manner. No-one who is responsible, who goes to the system genuinely looking for work, is going to be disadvantaged in any way, shape or form.

We are also tightening the activities test breach provisions relating to voluntary unemployment and the refusal of a job offer. This is aimed, I believe, mainly at prevention. I would like to relay a story about a young man who is a couple of years younger than myself. He was a public servant some 12 years ago. At that time, he came home from work and he said to his parents, `That's it. I've tossed it in. I'm not going to back to work.'

Twelve years later that man is still unemployed. The difference is that today he is unemployable. He has been sent to a TAFE college in the last couple of months to learn how to get back into society, let alone how to get back into the work force. He had a good job with the Public Service. He said to his parents at the time, `I am going to get back some of my taxes.' If this measure prevents even one person from doing that, it will have saved a young person's life, who otherwise has wasted 12 years of his youth sitting at home and becoming a recluse.

We have also extended the non-payment period, from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, for moving to an area of lower employment prospects. I would put it to you once again that anybody moving from Brisbane, for argument's sake, to the Sunshine Coast is not serious about work but wants to be comfortable where they are being unemployed. They are not serious about their job prospects but about perhaps the quality of their leisure time. This will not disadvantage people who wish to move to be with family, and it will not disadvantage people who have to move because of illness. Perhaps they have asthma and the area is not conducive to improving that illness. So, once again, you can see compassion being brought in here—the system being adaptable and flexible.

Finally, in this area we are clarifying the operation of the employer's contact certificate provisions. This will further protect genuine job seekers, who go along to get an appointment for a job and find that the employer is being unreasonable. By doing this, we are ensuring that those people who are genuinely looking for work will be looked after.

Schedule 7 relates to the waiting periods before you can access the social security system. I put it to you that, if someone were working for BHP or at the local pharmacy or anywhere else and they go on holidays and take paid leave, they cannot access the social security system. If they take paid sick leave, they cannot access the social security system or maternity leave or long service leave.

So why is it that at the end of their time of employment when those benefits are cashed out they can then go immediately—or almost immediately under the present system—on to the social security system? It is not equitable that those people—having had that cash in the hand and, for all intents and purposes, being paid to work—should be accessing taxpayers' money during that time.

As I mentioned earlier, this goes to responsibility: to people being responsible for their own decisions and not simply putting a hand out because there is a social security system there. I remind you that we are here with a residual social security system where the private market and the family are not able to produce the desired outcome. This is not a universal social security system.

The same measure also goes towards moves to make more equitable the current liquid assets period. Currently, a person who has $5,000 or a couple which has $10,000 cannot access the system for four weeks, but it makes no provision for someone who has $50,000 worth of liquid assets. The penalty, so to speak, or the period in which they are unable to access the system, is no different, so we are making that more equitable to ensure that it reflects the real amount of money that people have.

Amendment 8, relating to sickness, newstart and youth training allowances, ensures that the system becomes more economical and easier to administer, both for the staff and for the recipients. Schedule 9 also shows that the system has to change and evolve. By this particular schedule we will allow people to phone in when they are on sickness benefits, ensuring that they are not disadvantaged unnecessarily. As the system is now, they may, due to illness, be unable to attend an office. It is not all a one-way street, as those opposite may like to paint it. It is, in fact, a system which is changing and evolving, and it reflects the needs of the Australian social security system.

There are a couple more schedules that I will speak on briefly. Schedule 15 relates to compensation. In no other part of the social security system is anyone—other than aged pensioners—who receives a compensation payment, including a component for economic loss, able to access the social security system during that period which has been set down. This has now been extended to include those persons on the age pension. If they receive a compensation payment which includes a component for economic loss, that will be taken into account when looking at their eligibility for the age pension. Schedule 17 is very reasonable, and I think it has been received quite well by those opposite as well. The health benefits card and the health care card are to be combined, which will mean fewer administrative costs. There will be only one card and less confusion.

Schedule 21 contains the amendments relating to debt recovery. This particular measure relates to the fact that, if you go along to an automatic teller machine and it spits out $50 notes as opposed to $20 notes— some chap had that happen to him the other day—and you do not do anything about it, then you can find yourself in trouble with the law for fraud if you did not notify what happened. We presently have a social security system where the staff are dealing with literally millions of claims every week. If they make a mistake in your favour, in some instances we are not able to recover that debt—debt owing to the taxpayer. Schedule 21 tightens that situation to ensure that it no longer happens.

Finally, the member for Jagajaga (Ms Macklin) spoke about two payments that have been removed, one of which is the payment to enable people to access and get into the education system. She referred to the fact that pensioners were not being excluded. The fact is that yes, these payments received bipartisan support in the employment, education and training committee, but time has gone on and we found that these systems are not necessarily being utilised by all. In particular, one section is being used by sole parents, and the sole parents benefit has been retained for them. But others were not necessarily being used and there was no anecdotal evidence to suggest that they would encourage people to get into work. They have been removed.

This means that we are targeting, once again, just what the member for Sydney said right at the outset we should be targeting. He said that we should be targeting assistance and we should ensure that the compliance costs continue to come down. Social security was once defined by a learned gentleman as being—I will find my quote here in a moment. I seem to have lost it.

Mr Jenkins —I've got something you can use.

Mr BROUGH —I am sure you have. As I said earlier, basically social security is there simply for those in need. It is for those who are in need now—today. It is for people who are unable to be assisted by either their families or by the private sector.

The Social Security Amendment Bill 1996 ensures that our social security system is more flexible and more adaptable and that it is targeted to those who are genuinely in need. It creates the equitableness that we require in society and it ensures that those who are receiving money from the public purse, those who are receiving money from fellow Australians—some $48,000 million this year—are accountable for the money that they take. These are responsible measures; they are compassionate measures. They go a long way to redressing the path that the opposition was taking us down towards a universal social security system without the means to pay for it.