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Wednesday, 24 May 2006
Page: 214

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (5:33 PM) —I rise to support the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006 in pretty much the same manner as the member for Canberra has supported it—that is, with grave reservations. With this bill, the government is attempting to fix its botched job on the substantive bill in December last year when it sought to reform our welfare system in, it argued, an equitable way. I think we can contend that that is not the case. There is no doubt that the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Bill 2005 was a complete failure. Its objectives were, firstly, to ensure that people on welfare were able to participate effectively in the workforce and, secondly, to provide an equitable arrangement for people who are in need of support. Labor believes that people who can work should work and that we should care for those who cannot work. But there has been no significant effort by the government to set up the requirements to ensure that, if we are to shift people from welfare to employment, we can do so in a genuine way.

It has now become a cliche, but it would appear that it is not welfare to work. It is, and it will be for most people, welfare to welfare. People on disability pensions who will no longer qualify will move from a disability pension to the Newstart allowance or something comparable to the Newstart allowance. For them, nothing will change, except there will be a net reduction in the support they receive from the government in order to maintain some quality of life, some capacity to live decently. That is no answer to the problems that have beset us in this area.

Perhaps, before I go to some matters that I would like to raise that I have yet to hear in the debate, I should refer to the reforms that were sought by the government in the substantive bill, because they are of course entirely connected to the amendments that were moved today in the consequential bill. The substantive bill sought to abolish parenting payment for sole parents with the youngest child aged eight or more and for partnered parents with the youngest child aged six or more. Existing recipients, at 1 July this year, will stay on parenting payment unless their relationship status changes or they leave the pension for 12 weeks or more. The bill also sought to abolish disability support pension for people with partial capacity who could work 15 hours or more—which, as we know, is currently at 30 hours—or who could be expected to be able to work at that level within two years, with or without rehabilitation, training or education. Existing recipients at 11 May last year remained qualified. Those granted between that date and 30 June this year will be reviewed.

The substantive bill sought to modify Newstart so that people affected by these changes can be required to seek and accept work of 15 hours or more and undertake other activities as directed by Centrelink, such as an approved program of work. It sought to apply a Newstart style activity test to parenting payment sole parents with the youngest child aged six to seven and to all existing recipients staying on at 1 July with a child aged six or over. The bill sought to remove a number of safeguards from the Newstart legislation and replace them with greater discretion for Centrelink in determining the obligations of recipients. It sought to weaken the suitable work requirement. The definition of ‘unsuitable work’ currently includes work below award wages. This is changed to being below the minimum standards and conditions under the Australian Fair Pay Commission standard.

The substantive bill sought to change the breach penalty rule to provide, among other things, an eight-week non-payment period for failing the activity test or the activity agreement three times in 12 months, leaving a job voluntarily, being dismissed from a job for misconduct, failing to take up a suitable job offer or failing to participate in an approved program of work. The bill was also seeking to increase the obligations of mature age unemployed and very long-term unemployed people on Newstart. Clearly, the Howard government is large on rhetoric and small on reality when it comes to providing the capacity for people on welfare to move to productive employment.

Our concern is that, rather than setting up the mechanisms required, the government has instead placed already vulnerable people in more vulnerable situations. There is clearly no justification for that behaviour, and it is not going to assist in social terms or in economic terms, because it will not arrest the lowering participation of our citizens in the workforce. Indeed, it does not ensure that there will be significant increases in participation. Therefore, it fails on economic grounds. But it also fails on equity grounds, as I have indicated.

This overhaul of the welfare system—the changes to the Social Security Act 1991—will certainly result in awful situations for many people on welfare. But it is also important to note that it also intersects with the government’s Work Choices legislation. I was witness—as indeed you were, Mr Deputy Speaker—to some anecdotal evidence on the possible impacts. We were in a position to speak to people who are currently on welfare and are fearful that they will lose their entitlement under the new welfare arrangements and, in the case of, say, a person on a disability pension, will be forced onto the Newstart allowance because they will no longer be eligible to stay on the disability pension. What of course could happen—and I do not think this is too great a leap to make—is that people will move from their welfare payment to the Newstart allowance and then not necessarily remain on the Newstart allowance because of the increasingly stringent requirements for them to seek employment.

We now know that the most vulnerable person is someone who is seeking a new job or seeking a job. If you are a prospective employee, you are in a very weak position unless you are fortunate enough to have a particularly unique set of skills or skills that are in such demand that they allow you to bargain with your prospective employer. But that will not be the case for recipients of welfare payments who may find themselves no longer paid under that system, put on the Newstart allowance and then offered work but paid in accordance with the basic minima now enshrined in the Work Choices legislation. We hear constantly from the Prime Minister and the government that a prospective employee offered a job on the basic minima, even though workers in that workplace are paid on a higher rate for the same work, will not be coerced to sign an AWA which would give that employee inferior conditions of employment. But of course we know that, if they do not take that job, they will not be a recipient of the Newstart allowance for long under the requirements that are currently in place.

It is important for the parliament to properly scrutinise not only the legislation that is before us and the substantive bill that was enacted earlier but also the way in which the Work Choices legislation and the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Bill interact to the potential detriment of many people currently in receipt of welfare payments. Whether or not it is the intent of the Howard government to force people off welfare and onto Newstart and then force them to take work at the legally lowest possible rate, that will be the consequence of both sets of legislation operating in the workplace.

It seems to me that this legislation and the Work Choices legislation are aimed at the most vulnerable in society. They are targeted at people who may not have much choice, who have not been provided with a great deal of training or support, who may not have a set of skills that give them high employment prospects and who in many cases may not have much of an employment history. Yet these are the people who will be the most vulnerable under this arrangement. It would seem to me that a government that was interested in increasing participation rates in the workforce in this country would be seeking to provide sufficient training and support for people who are able and willing to work. As well as adding new ways of calling people dole bludgers, the government has perpetuated an awful myth—that there is a huge proportion of people on disability pensions, welfare payments or, specifically, the Newstart allowance who do not want to have a meaningful job or, indeed, any job. That is a myth, and it should be challenged. My personal experience, and I think it would be the experience of most people in this place if they were really honest with themselves, is that most people want a decent living and they want to work. And a person with a disability is as likely to want a meaningful job as anybody else, provided it is within their capacities. The nonsense that has been perpetuated that there are huge numbers of people out in the community who are trying to budge on the system is, I think, just that—nonsense.

I will accept, and I think it is fair to say, that there are families who have been unemployed for generations—and not only families but parts of communities. There has been an awful failure by those families to break that cycle, and I think the community has also failed in the way we have attended to that problem. In that circumstance there should be specifically targeted ways to provide assistance and break that culture of unemployment. But in the main, in the general community at large, I think it is fair to say that people want a chance to work, to make a living, to stand on their own two feet and to have the sense of satisfaction that comes from producing and contributing to society and being suitably rewarded. The government, because it does not necessarily have that view about people, seems to want to punish rather than to assist. It seems to want to target or demonise or vilify people who are most vulnerable, rather than trying to find answers to some of the problems that beset the disadvantaged in our community.

Unfortunately the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Bill does not target the root cause of the problems. It fails to provide sufficient assistance for people to shift from welfare to work. Therefore it is my view, shared by Labor colleagues, that it is not a genuine attempt to assist people who want to work. Instead, it is going to punish those people who are already doing it tough. It will push them off one benefit onto a lower benefit and, in the main, they will not benefit in the end—nor, I think it is important to add, will it benefit our economy or our society.