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Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Page: 36

Mr RANDALL (11:46 AM) —I am very pleased to speak on the Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 2) Bill 2007 because, like the member opposite, we are very determined to ensure fairness and equity as a result of this bill, particularly for grandparents and relatives who care for children.

Before I get to that section of the bill, it is obvious that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has made a number of sweeping statements which have to be addressed. I need to bring them to the attention of the House because if you allow these things to go unchallenged people might actually believe them. I suspect that the more the opposition make these statements the more they tend to believe them. The member opposite refers to the fact that Australia has a skills crisis. Yes, there is a shortage of skills in this country, not because this government has not made provision—in fact, it has made strong provision for this sector over the years—but because we have an absolute boom in the economy. This economy is growing at a rate which has never been seen before, and we are sucking up skilled workers like we have never seen before. I am pleased to say that just the other day I was able to introduce into the House the bipartisan report of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration entitled Temporary visas ... permanent benefits: ensuring the effectiveness, fairness and integrity of the temporary business visa program. The report helps to address the current skills shortage because of the huge demand for skilled workers in many sectors across Australia.

We know that several years ago, under the Prime Minister’s direction, the federal government took measures with regard to the Australian technical colleges, which are operating very well. I have one of the campuses in my electorate; the other part of the campus is in the seat of Hasluck. I visited the college recently and I noted each one of the young year 11 men and women there were delighted to be involved in skills training at that level. This is in contrast to the situation under the state governments, which have underfunded the TAFE sector—and, in fact, have taken funding out of it—and have done their best to drive down the vocational education aspect of skills training.

Do not take any notice of what Labor say; judge Labor not on what they say but on what they do. We recall the famous Bill Hunter ads years ago when Labor were in government, ‘job ready, here we come’. They cost a fortune—talk about political advertising! But these people did not come through apprenticeships; they came through short-term, temporary skill training centres. As I have said in this place before, they did a three-month brickie course and came out as a brickie—that sort of thing. As a result, these people were underskilled when they were put into the workforce.

When we first came to this parliament as the government, there were just over 100,000 apprenticeships in this country; now there are close to 500,000. This government has nurtured apprenticeships in this country like never before, and that is our way of upskilling this country. So when the Deputy Leader of the Opposition prattles on about this sort of stuff, we know she is ideologically bent because she is not telling the truth on this issue, because this government has a proud record on upskilling the workforce.

In some respects the opposition are trying to talk down the economy. They would like to see the boom in the mining sector, which is very strong in this country, cease, because that would suit their political purposes. Can I give you a tip? The fact is that even the most pessimistic commentator says that the boom in Western Australia will go on for at least seven years.

Ms Hall —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. My point of order is on relevance. This legislation refers to changes to the Social Security Act.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. AM Somlyay)—There is no point of order. The member’s speech is relevant.

Mr RANDALL —Talk about upskilling and intelligence quotients—which are on display for everyone to see as a result of that point of order! The fact is that this is about participation in the workforce, which we are talking about, and a skilled workforce, which the Deputy Leader of the Opposition banged on about for some time. I would have thought it is very relevant to this issue.

The opposition spokesman also talked about the 21 electorates that the Brotherhood of St Laurence have identified as having high levels of child poverty. Child poverty in Australia is a relative term. When I was a schoolteacher many years ago, I taught in one of the lower socioeconomic areas of Perth. It was a really tough area—a deprived, poor area. But these kids lived in good housing and, whether or not their parents had a job, they were well fed and well educated.

Ms Hall —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This has absolutely no relevance to the legislation we are debating here today.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.

Mr RANDALL —There you go again, Mr Deputy Speaker: the IQ comes to the top again! Do we recall former Prime Minister Bob Hawke saying, ‘No child will live in poverty in this country by 1990’? Unable to deliver; unable to talk about it. This is the issue the previous speaker of the opposition was talking about, so I think it is quite relevant that I address it.

We have a proud record not only in upskilling the workforce in Australia and getting workforce participation but also in making sure that all Australians benefit. The fact is that the workforce participation rate in this country has never been higher. We have an unemployment level of 4.2 per cent—in Western Australia it has been down to 2.7 per cent but 4.2 per cent is the national figure in this country. The participation rate is unbelievable; it has never been higher. You only have to see this in, for example, the work for the dole programs. They are battling to fill these programs because there are very few people available. They all have jobs.

As we know, the best thing you can do for a worker is to give them a job. Tony Blair said that, and I am sure that sensible members of the opposition, like the member for Batman, would agree: the best thing you can do for a worker is to give him a job. Once you give them a job, they can do things like pay for themselves and get a mortgage. It is great for self-esteem and it breaks that cycle of welfare dependency and the welfare mentality. The best thing you can do is get them off welfare and into a job.

I will give you an example. Just the other day I was at my son’s football game. One of the ladies there was required to attend for 15 hours. I was trying to suggest a job to her. When I saw her the next week, I said, ‘I see you didn’t turn up for that job.’ She said, ‘I was able to get one down the road—and guess what? They want me to do it full time now.’ She went from 15 hours to a full-time job within a week or so because she got into a job. If you get into a job, there is a good chance of getting a job that will give you full-time employment and get you out of that cycle of welfare dependency. That is what we are really aiming for.

The measures in this bill will extend participation exemptions to principal carers who are relatives but not parents of the children. This is an extension of the Welfare to Work reforms which enable principal carers to receive an automatic exemption from participation requirements if they meet the laws and regulations of their state or territory to provide foster care and if they are actively providing foster care in that jurisdiction.

As the minister at the table, Mr Brough, would know, and as you may recall, Mr Deputy Speaker Somlyay, I raised this issue in the party room a couple of years ago. At the time, I had a little trouble getting the relevant minister on the page on this. I am very pleased to say that Joe Hockey, the current Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, was a very big supporter of mine. He wrote a letter supporting my position to the minister, and the now Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mr Brough, also supported that position in terms of grandparents as carers, which was the focus of the original proposal.

To give you the background: I want to make it clear to this parliament that I am not the only person who has been strongly advocating this as a measure but I can assure you that I have been determined to see this and I have helped to drive this through our party room and with our ministers in this government. It really came to my attention when one of my constituents, Mrs Margaret Saunders, came to me and told me her story. I want to tell the story to the parliament again because it really is very relevant to this bill about workforce participation and grandparents and other relatives as carers. This should be called the Margaret Saunders amendment bill, as far as I am concerned, because she was determined to get some action on this point. She lives in Pinjarra and she is a single grandparent. She had her grandchildren on her doorstep because her daughter is a chronic drug user and unable to care for her children properly. The daughter’s partner and father of the children is in the same position.

Poor Margaret was working full time in Pinjarra. Centrelink did not have the relevant permission at that stage or the understanding of where the government was coming from, and it told her that, to care for her grandchildren, she had to leave her job and that, before she could get any entitlements, she had to get rid of all of her holiday entitlements and those sorts of things. It was a devastating blow for this poor lady to take on the full-time care of the young children, who were certainly under the age of 16. They require to be run to sporting events; they require lunches; they require all the care that a good parent will give. Do you really think this lady wanted to give up her life, which she was enjoying, playing bowls and doing all the things that seniors do in their retirement? People live so that they can retire to a certain quality of life. Margaret had this hoisted upon her. I am sure that if you were to talk to Margaret today she would say, ‘I’m happy to do this because these are my grandchildren but, believe me, I would prefer that it hadn’t happened.’ She would prefer that it hadn’t happened because, firstly, she did not want her daughter to be in that position and, secondly, she would have liked to have had a life of her own.

The problem was that she was told she would have to go and register for work. By registering for work, she was going to find it difficult to act in the role of a parent for these two children, who needed her so desperately. So she came to me. I give the Prime Minister a tick here because, when it was brought to the party room, he said to the minister involved, ‘Let’s make sure that this is addressed.’ This is why we are in this place today; we are addressing this issue and it is very important that we do. This legislation gives effect to participation requirements that are in place for the benefit of such a person as Margaret. Earlier legislation has been brought to this place allowing, once the grandparent has been established as the principal carer, for the parenting payments to flow. I will read some of that into Hansard shortly.

This amendment bill will ensure that the principal carers who are relatives but not parents of the children can access exemptions from the activity test or participation requirements in these circumstances, which is only fair. I understand that there are something like 50,000 people around Australia in this position. Some of the notes say 22,000 but I suspect that there are people who have not even registered—so there may be a lot more. This issue came home to me nearly two years ago when I was watching a morning program on Channel 9. A group of grandparents came on that program to explain their circumstances and what they had to do to care for their grandchildren. Minister Brough rang Channel 9 to address this issue because there was a misstatement of their entitlements. As a result, we were able to make sure that people understood that this government was addressing the issue.

In July 2007 Centrelink policy guidelines were clarified to make it easier for grandparents to gain access to principal carer status if they were the main carer of their grandchildren. Centrelink carries out the assessments, but there is a bit of misstatement going on. In fact, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition was incorrect when she said that they had to have a court order to have this entitlement flow on to them. A court order is not required, although it was previously. One of the reasons that a court order is not required now is that the states were so slow—through the department of community development or whatever the relevant term is in each state—in assigning the children legally to their grandparents.

You can understand why there are sometimes difficulties. For example, in Margaret Saunders’ case, the father of the children, as much as he did not want to care for them, wanted the money—he wanted the family payments, probably to feed his drug habit. He wanted access to the family entitlements but he did not want to care for his children. Obviously that sort of messy situation has to be clarified. A court order is preferred but, because the states were so slow in delivering many of these court orders so that grandparents could have permanent care of their grandchildren, Centrelink—through these amendments—will now make the determination. Centrelink will make the determination by drawing on a range of information about the living and care arrangements of the child so that the grandparent can be the principal carer of the child. Of course, Centrelink would take a court order as a favourable piece of evidence.

This bill provides an automatic exemption for up to 12 months, and this is a renewable exemption. So it is easily rolled over if they can establish that the conditions remain. Grandparents receiving activity tested income support payments who are not principal carers but who are providing care on an informal basis also have the opportunity to receive an exemption for up to 13 weeks if it can be established that they are caring for their grandchildren and it affects their ability to work or to search for work. I highly endorse this amendment bill, and I know that there would be nobody in this House who would not do the same.

In Western Australia there are a number of organisations—for example, Grandcare, grandparent support groups and referral services, and Grandpower for Grandkids—that deal with these issues. They provide a lot of information to grandparents. Of course, there are foster homes and foster carers get family entitlements such as the family tax benefit and other benefits if they foster children, but why wouldn’t you have a blood relative care for the children? Why wouldn’t you have someone who actually has an emotional bond and a connection with the child rather than putting the child in a strange house? No matter how well meaning those foster carers are, it is never going to be the same as having another family member care for the child. We should give family members the same entitlements that foster carers receive for looking after children who are in desperate need. Not all of these children have parents who are drug dependent; there are, of course, other reasons that they are in need of care—for example, their mum and dad might have been killed in a car crash. This bill relates not only to grandparents but also to blood relatives who can establish that they are entitled to receive the same benefits.

This is great legislation. The opposition said that it was high time, but we never heard them mention it before. But I am really pleased that they are supporting it, because right across Australia there are many grandparents who should be entitled to not only the family tax benefits but also other benefits. There is now a benefit called the Grandparent Child Care Benefit, which covers the full cost of approved child care for up to 50 hours per week. And, believe it or not, grandparents can even get maternity payment to help with the cost of a new baby if the child is with them within 13 weeks of birth. Grandparents are also entitled to the maternity immunisation allowance so that the child can be immunised. There is also a carer’s allowance for children with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. Carer’s payments may be payable in addition to the carer’s allowance if they are caring for a profoundly disabled child.

So all the entitlements that parents can receive—healthcare cards, parenting payments et cetera—will be available to the grandparents of Australia. It is an outstanding piece of legislation. It saves people having to register if they are performing the role of a parent. I totally endorse this bill, as I am sure the rest of the House will. It is good legislation and we need to get it through this parliament before we conclude. (Time expired)