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Wednesday, 24 May 2006
Page: 221

Dr STONE (Minister for Workforce Participation) (6:09 PM) —in reply—In summing up this debate on the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006, I want to thank all the members who have contributed. However, the member for Lingiari seemed to be obsessing about someone blaming those on CDEP for not wishing to work or for being recipients of welfare on the CDEP program. I can assure the member for Lingiari that, while he might have those preoccupations, not many others do—and certainly not this government. I am very keen to make that clear. Indeed, our CDEP reforms have been very much welcomed both by Indigenous communities themselves and by those agencies that have worked long and hard to help all Australians into real jobs.

This legislation will ensure that the policy intention of the welfare to work changes contained in the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Act 2005 are fully realised and consistently applied. Terminology and provisions in the social security law need to be replaced, amended or repealed to clarify the policy intention of certain welfare to work measures. These measures relate to working age payments. They include allowing payment-partnered recipients who have a temporary incapacity exemption to have access to pharmaceutical allowances, and allowing single, principal carer parents who are grieving the death of a child and are receiving Newstart allowance or youth allowance to continue to receive the same rate that they were receiving before their child died for another 14 weeks after the death of that child.

This legislation demonstrates the government’s commitment to giving people of working age every opportunity to move from welfare dependency into work. These reforms recognise that the best form of support to any Australian, particularly an Australian family, is to assist that family or that individual into real work. For the first time, the Social Security Act will provide for the assessment of people’s capacity and availability to work. This is a shift from the old paradigm, in which people were assessed first and foremost on their level of incapacity or their lack of availability to work. This approach led to many Australians of working age being condemned to a life of welfare. Indeed, welfare has been an intergenerational experience for some Australians, up to the third generation. There are currently some 2½ million Australians of working age in this country who are not in part- or full-time work, and in a time of significant labour shortages this is a real concern for the Australian government. People who are on welfare have aspirations like all other Australians: they want to have choices in their lives, they want to take a holiday, they want to do the best for their children and they want to participate in a local economy which will bring them status, workmates and a whole new set of experiences that life on welfare cannot deliver.

Of course our government continues to insist—as all nations with our capacity to pay will always insist—that there is a strong safety net for those who need welfare. But we as a society should never presume that working age people on income support do not have the same desire that employed Australians have to succeed in life and participate in our nation’s prosperity. We as a government intend to help all Australians of working age to work to their capacity in work that they are able to undertake. No-one denies that the government must preserve a well-targeted social safety net. As I said before, that will always continue to be our government’s intention. In fact we have strengthened that safety net, but at the same time we are encouraging working age people to find jobs and remain employed. At a time of record economic growth and employment growth, there has never been a better time to provide the very important assistance and support for people of working age to enter the labour force in secure, paid employment.

There are also a number of other important reasons for seeking to increase labour force participation. We have a rapidly ageing population. Skilled and unskilled labour shortages are with us now and we know they will continue. Indeed our Intergenerational report and our Workforce tomorrow research has made it quite clear that our country, like others, must face up to the ageing population challenge of baby boomers moving through to their retirement ages in a substantial cohort.

Many businesses are struggling to fill vacancies and satisfy demands for their goods and services, and the work they have is not always at the most highly skilled end. There are also a great number of jobs available in the economy today for people who, if they have the characteristics of, for example, integrity and loyalty a work ethic and dedication and commitment to the job, can be trained on the job and become highly productive workers. I refer to the retail and manufacturing sectors, or it could be in hospitality or in tourism. There are positions in Australia now that our long-term unemployed, parents returning to the workforce, Indigenous Australians and those with a disability have the capacity to fill today in our various regional and metropolitan economies.

So the challenge of implementing welfare reform is to get the right balance between mutual obligation and government support. This must be accompanied by appropriate incentives and support mechanisms to ensure that job seekers are provided with the services they need to get them into work. The government believes that these reforms strike the right balance. Most Australians agree that it is not unreasonable to expect people who are available for and capable of work to participate in the workforce. As I mentioned in relation to the ageing population, we indeed have both economic and social reasons to assist those who can to be either part- or full-time workers in our economy.

I would like to table an amendment to the explanatory memorandum. The reason for this amendment is that the financial impact statement in the explanatory memorandum referred to the Department of Human Services as having costs for these measures. As there are no costs to the Department of Human Services, the reference to that department needs to be deleted. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.