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Monday, 30 August 1999
Page: 9396

Mr ROSS CAMERON (6:02 PM) —I listened with interest to the remarks of the previous speaker, the member for Grayndler, who is characteristically passionate. I wish only that his passion were matched by his reason.

It gives me pleasure to speak on what essentially is a fairly routine housekeeping, but sensible and necessary, piece of legislation. The Social Security (Administration) Bill 1999 and associated cognate legislation is a sort of incremental development on the Social Security Act 1991. When you are dealing with a monolith like social security, which involves over 20 individual benefits, many with subclasses, and Commonwealth expenditure of about $43 billion a year which approaches 40 per cent of the total Commonwealth budget, it is inevitable that a level of complexity will be imported into the legislation.

The bill seeks to remedy a particular defect of the one that preceded it, building on the Social Security Act 1991. In 1991 the legislative philosophy was that each individual benefit should be self-contained and that you ought be able to go to each benefit and see the entirety of the administrative provisions governing it. The consequence was to import into the 20 individual benefits a range of fairly generic boiler plate which was the same for each different benefit but repeated on 20 occasions. The consequence was a very unwieldy document. So it is particularly pleasing to see that this bill will be reduced in size by about 500 pages, and it is seldom that a new piece of legislation can boast such a reduction.

The bill gives effect to recommendations of the Guilfoyle report and makes numerous technical amendments, none of which could be described as revolutionary in character. Most of them are practical, commonsense measures that hardly bear mention in this place. But debating this legislation does provide an opportunity to revisit some of the fundamentals of the way welfare is delivered in this country. I have to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am standing here today with a feeling of considerable optimism. There have been certain trends, certain developments in recent times which I think should give all Australians some encouragement in that what this government is beginning to do is not simply to refine the manner in which existing welfare services are delivered but to actually challenge the welfare mentality in such a way that we can reduce the number of Australians who are reliant on welfare.

It is particularly pleasing to see that the sort of policy direction that the government is taking in these areas, which have been broadly summarised under the heading of `reciprocity' or `mutual obligation', is receiving a warm echo from others on the other side of the chamber and from sectors of the community which traditionally have not been supportive of this type of policy change. In that regard, the member for Grayndler is considerably out of step with the more enlightened and progressive thinkers on his side of the parliament.

I want to run through three or four of those areas before moving to the most critical, the most pressing, area of welfare reform in this country which relates to Australia's indigenous community. If we take this concept of mutual obligation and look at how it applies to the Newstart benefit, which is one of the 20 benefits that the bill addresses, we have seen the introduction under the Howard government of what is described as its signature policy—being Work for the Dole. We might debate about the merits of the name itself, but the program has received an overwhelming endorsement from participants and from the community organisations that administer the program.

It is about building a partnership with the community. It is not, as characterised by the member for Grayndler, some kind of an attack on those benefit recipients. On the contrary, the doctrine of mutual obligation is designed to ensure that we do not create pockets of poverty which are fed by a welfare benefit but which never actually result in a change in the person's circumstances. In that regard, the very name `welfare' at times to me has an Orwellian overtone to it. We name a program `welfare' when in fact it can cause a corrosive, destructive impact on a person's life. For those who went under former programs for month after month, for year after year and, in many cases, for generation after generation never breaking the cycle of dependence, mutual obligation is a breath of fresh air. It is the government saying to these people: your life is important to us and welfare must do something more than feed you. Welfare, if it is truly to be true to its name, must actually empower you.

In the area of employment benefits, I was recently in Japan and I met with a representative of the Democratic Socialist Party of Japan, which is the most left-wing party in Japanese politics with the exception of the Japanese Communist Party, and the member of the Japanese Diet asked me the question: `How long can a person remain on unemployment benefits in Australia?' I said, `Well, to date, they can remain indefinitely,' and she was frankly stunned by this revelation. She asked me, wide-eyed, `How do you ever get people off unemployment benefits?' I had to confess to her that we had a whole substratum of Australians across the age bracket who had never worked. She was offended by this policy on the basis that it was not serving the interests of the unemployed. I had to agree with her—with a critique coming from the left of Japanese politics—that we had to introduce a greater level of reciprocity into our unemployment policies.

I was pleased to see the Minister for Employment Services today giving an account of the impact which the Work for the Dole program has had and the extent to which it has been taken up by literally hundreds of thousands of Australians. Reciprocity involves 14 different programs in which a person on a benefit can put something back into the community, can be re-engaged with the local community, rather than simply turning up every two weeks and picking up a cheque.

I would like see us go further. It is my view that there is some wisdom in the approach taken by some states in the United States which say there is a limit on the amount of time that a person can receive an unemployment benefit. That for me is not so much a fiscal measure but, ultimately, poverty largely has to do with a way of thinking. What we must do is challenge that way of thinking.

If you take the question of the sole parent benefit, another one of the 20 addressed by this bill, I am pleased to see this government's initiative in relation to vouchers for marriage counselling to encourage people as they venture out. I do not claim to be an expert on marriage, but the idea of underlining to newly married couples the desirability of staying together and of designing your welfare system around that desirable goal seems to me to have merit. Every time you see a family breakdown, you see a greater likelihood of reliance on the welfare system. And, sadly, once in that net, there are many people who simply never emerge from it.

In some parts of the United States, benefit receipt for a parent is dependent on the child achieving a certain attendance record at school. In this problem of intergenerational welfare, we saw that often the children of welfare beneficiaries, for one reason or another, did not attend school consistently enough to attain basic levels of literacy and numeracy. In that area, I look from the Minister for Employment Services to the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr Kemp, and I salute his pioneering efforts in the areas of literacy and numeracy. It is pleasing to see a former Labor minister, Bob Collins, coming to the minister's defence in relation to his indigenous literacy and numeracy policy. An article in the Australian of 24 August 1999 states:

Mr Collins said he had recently told Dr Kemp . . . "the package was absolutely on the mark" for indigenous people.

He urged the government to press ahead with its plans to ensure that young indigenous Australians actually acquired a sufficient grasp of literacy and numeracy to take their place in the community.

In relation to the age pension, today the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation gave a glowing account of increased investment by young Australians in the share market. This is characteristic of this growing spirit of self-reliance. Every person who makes adequate provision for themselves and their family today is a person who will not be needing to look to the age pension in a decade's time or a generation's time. It is very pleasing to me to see the level of share ownership in Australia grow from 15 per cent in 1991 to 20 per cent in 1994, to 34 per cent in 1997 and up to 40 per cent today—making us the second highest in the world with the genuine prospect of overhauling the United States as the largest share owning democracy in the world if the sale of the further 16.6 per cent of Telstra takes place as we anticipate. It was especially pleasing to see that people on low to middle incomes—those in the $30,000 to $50,000 income bracket—were the most highly represented among new share owners.

If we go to the area of invalid and disability pension entitlements, again I am not addressing the concern from a fiscal expenditure angle. My principal worry is not the size of the deficit because, under the inspired leadership of Treasurer Costello, we have seen Australia for the first time in some decades return to a position of surplus. My concern is the actual impact of the policy on the life of the beneficiary.

Just this week I visited one of my constituents in his home. He had been a lifetime public servant in the New South Wales government. At about the age of 55 he was subject to a deteriorating relationship with his manager in the government department, which created a stalemate between them. It is true that my constituent suffered from some ailments, but certainly nothing that had prohibited him from working over the previous 35 years. At that point, under the deal under which he left the department, it was simply arranged that he would get a permanent disability pension.

The problem I have—aside from the equation of cost shifting from the state government to the federal government—is that the disability pension tends to validate the fear in the mind of the recipient that they have nothing to contribute. We have seen a worrying rise in the number of disability pensioners to 555,000 in Australia, and that is 2½ times more people on disability benefits now than in 1976—despite an improvement in the nation's health. The cost of supporting them has risen from $3 billion to $7 billion.

Ms Hall —You are just covering up the number of long-term unemployed.

Mr ROSS CAMERON —The opposition has criticised the government in this area for using disability benefits as a mask for unemployment. Frankly, I confess that I feel some apprehension on this question. I am apprehensive that, where a person is struggling to find a place in the labour market, the disability pension is held out as a kind of cure-all, and we see more and more Australians in the situation—again it is like the Hotel California—where once you get on you basically never get off. We have got to work harder to find different options and different alternatives.

I touched on the question of Aboriginal literacy and numeracy in the area of education. I note for the House that I had a discussion recently with my colleague the member for Blair, who has considerable experience in indigenous affairs, particularly in the Northern Territory. The member for Blair spoke to me about a school which was built for the 330 young people who lived in a town. They found that only 30 of the 330 children attended on any individual day, and the great difficulty for the teachers was that it was a different 30 each day.

I recognise there are a whole range of complex cultural issues that impact on an outcome such as that. But clearly, when you have put down the infrastructure to look after 330 students and you find that you are only actually teaching 30 in a day, you have a serious problem. Attendance has got to be a critical focus of our energies in this regard. In my view, we should look at a certain attendance level being a mutual obligation for receipt of particular benefits.

In the area of public housing, I see what is perhaps the greatest abuse. It is not difficult to give the speech on rights and on the fundamental right to shelter. But you see a situation where the number of total outstanding applications has grown from 140,000 in 1985 to 221,000 in 1997. The evil of the program is this. The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs looking into housing assistance found that over 12 per cent of the applicants were waiting more than five years for public housing. In my electorate, it is routine to wait six or seven years for public housing. The problem is that you have to get under a poverty threshold in order to qualify for public housing. So we are saying to 221,000 people waiting five years to get into public housing, `Stay poor.' We are providing a powerful economic incentive for 221,000 people to stay poor. That is not enlightened social policy.

I stand, as I say, for the first time in my life with a degree of optimism about indigenous affairs in Australia. I feel optimism because of a change in the tenor of the indigenous leadership themselves. We in this place benefited last week from a maiden speech, which will be remembered as one of the great maiden speeches delivered in this place, by Senator Ridgeway. He said in that speech:

It is fundamentally important that the federal government move away from the surrogate role which undermines the achievement of self-sufficiency . . . It is vitally important to the concept of self-sufficiency that, in time, communities must reduce their dependence on government funds in exchange for increased political and economic rights.

That speech by Senator Ridgeway followed another landmark speech by an indigenous leader, which I suspect may be remembered as the most significant speech delivered by any Australian this year. That was a speech delivered by Noel Pearson to the Brisbane Institute on 26 July 1999. He opened with the words:

Like my elders and colleagues in Cape York, I am worried for my mob. We seem to just hold on to our ideals as a matter of philosophy and intellectual debate in the academies whilst the real society and economy unravels in front of our eyes, driven by the public policy ascendancy of those who accept that the growth of an underclass is the unfortunate but inevitable result of larger economic forces about which nothing can be done.

It is the `give up' mentality behind much of our welfare which is the most corrosive aspect of it.

Noel Pearson went on to say:

Negative welfare is a mentality that accepts that welfare resources to able bodied people should not involve reciprocity. It should be provided as a matter of social right.

He is really here articulating the view of the member for Grayndler. He goes on to say:

It is a mentality that accepts that the capable, responsible, powerful state should serve programs to the incapable, irresponsible, and powerless people on the ground.

The speech created considerable national comment. I refer, for example, to the response by Paul Kelly in the Australian , who said:

Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has blown the whistle on the failed Aboriginal policies of the past generation by declaring that his people want the right to work, not the right to welfare.

Mr Pearson's recent speech to the Brisbane Institute is an assault on progressive Aboriginal orthodoxy and an attack on the urban based, Grayndler based—that is my insertion—political culture that has shaped policy and is an admission that the Aboriginal leadership needs to find a constructive basis for dealing with the Howard government. Nicholas Rothwell in the Australian observed:

There is a new mood in Australia's relations with its first peoples. Federal and state leaders are responding eagerly to the indigenous voices explor ing the idea of a new compact—constructive engagement, not political confrontation; less dependency, more self-empowerment.

Finally, Mark Latham has contributed very substantially to this debate, and I salute his intellectual leadership. He said:

Two weeks ago in Brisbane, Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson fingered the central failing of Australia's welfare sector: it operates under the suspicion that the poor are hopeless.

This government does not accept that the poor are hopeless, and neither should the rest of Australia. (Time expired)