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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 454

Mr RIPOLL (11:50 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2008. This is a good bill. It makes a number of needed amendments and draws into line things that are widely supported and acknowledged across the parliament and the community as things that would make the current system work a lot better. The primary purpose of this bill is to amend the current social security and family assistance laws in relation to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, the SSAT. While the system that we have in place could work better, it currently performs well. There are always opportunities for problems to arise and for incorrect decisions to be made. Sometimes, better systems need to be put into place. But it is good that we actually have an appeals mechanism so that people can appeal decisions that are not in their favour.

The original Social Security Appeals Tribunal legislation was introduced by a former member for Oxley, the Hon. Bill Hayden, so it would be remiss of me not to mention him in my comments today. It was Bill Hayden who reviewed the appealed decisions made by the then Department of Social Security. Putting in place the SSAT system was a great move forward in ensuring that decisions made in the bureaucratic process are the right decisions and that people have the opportunity to seek more information and to challenge decisions or better understand why decisions are in fact correct. The SSAT has since become a statutory body. Under the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 it conducts merit reviews of administrative decisions made under social security law, family assistance law, child support law and various other pieces of legislation.

The amendments in this bill will allow the Social Security Appeals Tribunal to give oral reasons on affirmed social security and family assistance cases. It will review cases that affirm the decision made by Centrelink and it will bring those jurisdictions more closely into line with child support and how those systems work. It is important that that change is brought forward and used. In the discussions we have with our constituents, often cases arise where there is miscommunication or misunderstanding or somehow people just do not quite comprehend what is going on around them. Sometimes that cold letter informing people of a decision by a department does not meet people’s expectations. It is certainly a harsh method. I can understand that that is necessary—obviously, these things need to be clearly spelt out—but giving an oral submission and sitting down with people and discussing these things will enable them to better understand what the decisions are, how those decisions come about and how the system works. I think that is a step in the right direction, and I support it very much.

As in the child support sphere, the oral decision arrangements will be subject to the right of the parties to request written reasons if they prefer. I think that needs to be there also as a backup system to confirm what people have heard orally. What has been explained to them can also be provided in writing. The SSAT amendments to allow Centrelink to make oral submissions to the SSAT also mimic the child support arrangements, which will bring in continuity and similar arrangements across a whole range of those legislative areas and the departments and services that people access. That is very important in getting people to understand how they work. Often the people who access one of those areas will automatically have access to all the other areas as well. I think it is important to cut down the complexity of the systems that are in place by making them uniform across the different departments.

Centrelink will now be able to ask the SSAT for permission to make oral submissions to it, and the SSAT will be able to order Centrelink to make oral submissions as well. This will increase the flexibility and efficiency of the SSAT and it will help to avoid costly and inefficient adjournments. I think it is a sensible way forward. It is obviously supported by everyone in this place. It is something that I am happy to be a part of. The new power will generally be used in complex cases where further explanation may clarify a complicated or technical matter and assist the SSAT to reach a preferable decision. The amendments to allow SSAT members to be appointed for a term of up to five years, in place of the currently allowed term of up to three years, will also bring the SSAT in line with government policy that appointments of statutory office holders are generally to be made for a period of five years for reasons of stability, efficiency and good governance.

The remaining amendments in the bill are purely technical in nature. They do not raise any substantive issues or matters, but they do tidy up the legislation by repealing redundant references, correcting cross-references and addressing similar matters. All in all, I am more than happy to be part of a government that makes these changes and tries to address some of the issues by making people’s lives a bit easier. Any appeals they make about departmental and government decisions will be easier to understand, and I think that is a step in the right direction. I fully support the bill.