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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 444

Mr ROBERT (11:02 AM) —I rise to support the minor amendments to laws on social security and family assistance to improve the operation and effectiveness of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, the SSAT. The SSAT is the first level of external review of decisions made by Centrelink about social security, family assistance, education or training payments. As of 1 January 2007 the tribunal is also the first level of external review of most decisions made by the Child Support Agency. By way of history, the SSAT was originally established in 1975 by the Hon. Bill Hayden to review appealed decisions made by the then Department of Social Security. It is now, as we know, a statutory body established under the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 to conduct merit based review of administrative decisions made under social security law, the family assistance law, child support law and a raft of other pieces of legislation.

The Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999 and the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988 set out the powers, functions and procedures of the SSAT. The SSAT is within the portfolio of the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Administrative arrangements of long standing exist between FaHCSIA and the tribunal that have allowed the tribunal to benefit from the department’s administrative infrastructure.

Those going to the SSAT are usually people whose interests are affected by a Centrelink decision or a Child Support Agency decision and who want to apply to the SSAT for a review of the decision. Centrelink appeals can be lodged at any time after a review of the original decision by the Centrelink authorised review officer. Yet before the SSAT can review a Child Support Agency decision it must first be reviewed by a CSA objections officer. Child support appeals must be lodged within 28 days of receiving an objection decision.

The SSAT generally has the power to affirm, vary or set aside a decision under review. Where it sets aside a decision, the tribunal must either substitute a new decision or send the matter back to Centrelink or CSA with directions or recommendations for further action. Centrelink decisions reviewed by the SSAT typically relate to the following bodies of law: social security law, family assistance law, the Health Insurance Act, the Child Support (Assessment) Act, the Farm Household Support Act, the Student Assistance Act and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. In achieving this mandate, the SSAT’s statutory objective is to provide a mechanism of review that is fair, just, economical and informal, and, most of all, it must be quick. People who are appealing decisions by Centrelink or the Child Support Agency should never be required to hang out for decisions that would take months on end—hence the requirement for 28 days after receiving an objection decision. Appeal applications can be lodged with the tribunal in writing, in person or by telephone, though at present Centrelink can only make written submissions.

This amendment bill, the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2008, will allow Centrelink to be able to make oral submissions to SSAT hearings and allow the SSAT to give oral reasons to explain affirmed decisions by Centrelink in social security and family assistance cases. This will bring these types of cases into line with child support cases, where the SSAT does not have the option to give reasons orally to the parties involved. Allowing Centrelink to make oral submissions in social security and family assistance reviews should—and I emphasise ‘should’—provide greater clarity for complicated or technical cases, and it is imperative that the parliament take its responsibility seriously and review the impact of these changes to ensure that the stated intent of making and providing greater clarity to complicated or technical cases is indeed realised. These amendments, again, should give social security and family assistance cases the same flexibility and efficient approaches which the SSAT uses in the child support system, and it is again incumbent upon the responsible minister, and indeed the parliament, to ensure that that flexibility and that efficiency in approach are realised.

This bill further extends the term of SSAT members to five years rather than the current three-year terms that members serve. This should promote better planning and decision making through greater longevity, and it is again incumbent upon the minister and the parliament to ensure that better planning and better decision making are a result and that greater longevity does reap the rewards that we hope it will reap. Change for change’s sake is always a nonsense, but change that ensures greater clarity in complicated cases, greater flexibility and efficiency in approaches by the tribunal and better decision making and better planning is, on the surface, for the best. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the goals, worthy as they are, are indeed realised.

I have said a number of times in this place that my electorate of Fadden, having grown by 31.6 per cent between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, is the fastest-growing electorate in the nation. As we all know, especially those of us with children, there are always growing pains, and where there are growing pains we need to look at them. Because of the strong growth of my electorate of Fadden, which the library estimates in 3½ years will be 19½ per cent oversubscribed in the numbers of people—

Mr Ripoll interjecting

Mr ROBERT —I am looking across at the member for Oxley. I gather his electorate is going backwards. The electorate of Fadden is indeed going forward at a great rate of knots, so I deal with issues of Centrelink, the Child Support Agency and the SSAT on a regular basis. Because my office is dealing with these statutory authorities and the tribunal on a regular basis, I look forward to seeing greater clarity in complicated cases; I look forward to greater flexibility and efficiency and better planning and decision making. And, with hope for what these changes will do in that regard in the future, I indeed support this bill.