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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 449

Mr NEUMANN (11:28 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2008. As the member for Shortland said, this bill will make a few technical amendments to social security law and family assistance law to improve the efficacy of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, the SSAT. It does it by way of schedule. Schedule 2 makes some technical amendments to repeal redundant references to the disability wage supplement and the rehabilitation allowance, which are no longer paid under our social security legislation. The disability wage supplement was rolled over and put into the disability support pension in 1997. Schedule 3 makes very technical amendments to repeal redundant provisions and cross-referencing in relation to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Act, Native Title Amendment Act and various pieces of social security legislation.

It is schedule 1 that I really want to talk about today. It makes a number of amendments to improve the operation of the SSAT, allowing Centrelink to make oral submissions to the SSAT in its hearings, and allowing the SSAT to give oral reasons on what are often known colloquially as affirmed cases. It will allow the SSAT members to be appointed for a term of five years, and that is consistent with a whole range of other tribunals and bodies.

It is important to note that as federal members of parliament we probably deal with matters of social security and child support and family law more than any other issues. People also need to understand how and why decisions are made which affect them in their daily lives, whether it is in the case of various types of social security payments made to them, payment of child support or how the family law situation and system interposes upon their lives. About 4½ million Australians receive an income support payment and about 1.6 million parents are in the child support system, which is governed by the Child Support (Assessment) Act and the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act. The federal government makes transfer payments in the income support system, in terms of social security, of about $70 billion each year. That is a huge sum of money. About $2.8 billion is assessed to be paid in child support cases each year, and if every parent who was supposed to pay child support did pay it, then it would be a lot more.

Given the size of the numbers we are talking about and the amount of dollars we are talking about, it is important that the Social Security Appeals Tribunal operates efficiently and effectively because it affects the daily lives of Australians, particularly people in my electorate, including in Ipswich and the rural areas in Oxley. The SSAT is the first level for external reviews of decisions made by the Child Support Agency and by Centrelink that deal with issues of social security payments, family assistance and education and training support. The objects in terms of statute governing the SSAT are that the mechanism of review is to be fair, just, economical, informal and quick. But that said, a lot of the indicia of a court system can be seen in the SSAT. The SSAT was originally established by the then member for Oxley, the former Governor-General, and a very prominent member of Ipswich, Bill Hayden. He established that the purpose of it was to review appeal decisions made by what was then known as the Department of Social Security. It took a Labor government to do that, and Bill is to be commended for the work he did in that regard, as well as other reforms such as Medibank that he brought in during his tenure.

The statutory body, as I said, is governed by the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 and it hears cases. People who have been affected by the decisions of Centrelink or the CSA have a right to apply to the SSAT for a review of that decision. In my previous life as a lawyer, I operated in these areas regularly. Centrelink appeals are lodged after review by the Centrelink authorised review officer of that original decision. It is the same thing under the child support legislation, where a CSA objection officer also hears a review from a departure order which is being sought as a result of an administrative decision made by the Child Support Agency upon application by someone seeking child support. Twenty-eight days is the time to lodge the objection and it costs nothing to appeal to the SSAT, which is important. The SSAT usually conducts hearings face-to-face; people are usually in the same room. The hearings from Centrelink and from the CSA are hearings de novo. In other words, they are not appeals on matters of law, they are not appeals on matters where irrelevant considerations were taken into account or, for example, where material fact was left out. So they are not legalistic, if you know what I mean; it is really to review the whole thing yet again. That is why it is important for people in Australia to ensure that they know that the SSAT hears these things and hears them in a way which is fair and just.

The CSA, the Child Support Agency, is entitled to make oral submissions. It needs to seek leave of the SSAT to do that, but it is entitled to make oral submissions rather than, in the circumstances, in the very legalistic way of giving a brief. The applicant in those sorts of proceedings is entitled to make submissions as well, as is the respondent—and there is scope, usually, for cross-examination. So the SSAT is run in a courtroom like manner. It is also entitled to compel people to appear before it. So we are talking about a body that has tremendous powers and that the average Australian can deal with as a result of decisions made in terms of child support and Centrelink payments.

In addition to simply supplying the information it already has, the CSA has the capacity to comply with requests made under the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act. In other words, the SSAT can exercise powers to compel the CSA to make submissions and comply in terms of the provision of information. This whole process is to ensure that we speedily get through the legal technicalities, get past the legal forms, the rules of evidence et cetera and that a proper consideration or review takes place. It is extremely important that we ensure that the way in which these tribunal hearings are conducted is fair.

Currently, the secretary of FaHCSIA, the secretary of DEEWR or the Centrelink Chief Executive Officer may only make written submissions to the CSA but not oral submissions. That has resulted in a number of adjournments. If you have ever been involved in these types of processes, you can see how adjourning the matter would really irritate people—and that happens whether it is the Family Court, the Federal Magistrates Court or a body dealing with child support reviews. Nothing irritates the average Australian more than going to a tribunal or court and finding they have to go away again because some legal technicality has not been complied with.

This measure brings the SSAT operations under social security and family assistance, in line with the kind of SSAT operations under the child support jurisdiction. It increases the flexibility and efficiency of the SSAT by providing Centrelink with the option of making oral submissions. That is a very important improvement in the operation of the SSAT. It will help in fulfilling its statutory obligation to ensure that it is quick, economical, just and equitable, and informal in the way in which it operates. The more we ensure that these proceedings are less adversarial, the better for the average Australian.

Another change will be on affirmed cases. The SSAT hears decisions of the child support review officer, the objection officer, and Centrelink hears the initial review of the objection. Currently, in cases that deal with social security, they have to give out written reasons. Where decisions are made that simply affirm the decision that was made in the first instance or on review, why shouldn’t they be able to give those decisions orally, and not be subject to the legal technicalities of providing written reasons? A party has the right to request that, and in those circumstances written reasons will be provided. This reduces the time it takes to make decisions, because nothing takes longer in our legal system than the people who preside over tribunals adjourning the case to provide written reasons. Sometimes, months if not years go by before decisions are made by judges and magistrates, and that irritates litigants so much. So the idea of oral submissions or reasons being given in cases where the decision made in the first instance is affirmed is a very significant reform for those people who interface with the SSAT.

The final reform deals with the terms of appointment to the SSAT. It extends the maximum period of appointment from three years to five years, which is in line with many other bodies. So what we are talking about here is increasing the transparency of the merit based selection involved in appointing statutory office holders to the SSAT. It will ensure that they are appointed for a period of a duration which allows them to get across the jurisdiction and get across how they can operate.

I sometimes wonder whether three years is simply too short. We see that in a lot of appointments. Five years allows people to get across the jurisdiction much better when they are presiding, and other agencies appoint on that basis through this parliament and through ministerial decisions.

This is an important reform that we are dealing with today. It might sound technical, it might sound unsexy and it might sound like it is not the sort of legislation that people will go home and read about, but it deals with people’s everyday lives—and the people in my constituency of Blair deal with the SSAT, Centrelink and the Child Support Agency every day. This is a great piece of reformist legislation. It is typical of what Labor governments can do when they talk about law reform. It is typical of what Labor governments can do to help those who are in need, those who face the rigours of legal proceedings, those who face the bureaucratic rigours of big governments. What we are doing here is helping the average Australian to improve their chances in court proceedings and streamlining our legal procedures. That is a great reform, it is a great initiative, and I commend the minister and the government for introducing it.