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Wednesday, 19 November 1997
Page: 9111

Senator BARTLETT(1.52 p.m.) —When the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Parenting and Other Measures) Bill 1997 was first introduced into the parliament, the second reading speech stated that the bill had two key aims. Firstly, it was designed to simplify income support arrangements for parents, regardless of whether they had partners or not. Secondly, it aimed to reduce the social stigma sometimes associated with being on a sole parent pension. Both of these are laudable aims. However, the Democrats are not totally convinced that this bill goes all the way to achieving those aims. But, inasmuch as we believe that it does, we recognise the value of those aims and support them.

I will look firstly at the simplification aspect. The Democrats have argued for many years that the Social Security Act is far too complex. A simple illustration of that is the measure in this bill to change the name of the family payment back to family allowance. It has taken nearly 50 pages of amendments to make that very basic change. I do not think you need much more demonstration than that of just how huge and incredibly complicated the Social Security Act has become.

The Democrats are convinced that a simpler act would be fairer to both Centrelink customers and the staff who have the very difficult job of trying to interpret this huge and ever-changing morass of legislation. If we could simplify the act, it would also significantly reduce the cost of administering our income support system. We acknowledge that a complex system such as social security does require complex legislation, but we do urge the government to increase their efforts to make the act easier to understand and administer.

One schedule of the amendments made by this bill will replace two existing payments—that is, the sole parent pension and the partner allowance—with a single new payment, the parenting payment. On the surface, this does seem simpler. However, as often happens, if you dig a little deeper, you find that the new payment is in fact paid at two separate rates and under two separate conditions; it just has the single label over the top. So, while there is some alignment of payment conditions, this certainly is not a major step forward in attempts to make the Social Security Act more accessible or simpler for those who have to work within it and receive payments under it.

Turning to the other core purpose of the bill, as expressed by the Minister for Social Security (Senator Newman), that parts of this legislation are aimed at reducing some of the social stigma on sole parents, it should be noted that the way in which the government intends to achieve this goal, according to the provisions contained in this bill, is by putting longer waiting periods on sole parents, imposing a tougher assets test on them and reducing the portability of their payment. I don't think this is necessarily the nicest way to reduce the social stigma.

There are a number of minor improvements for sole parents, which we acknowledge. But, overall, as a result of this legislation, we will see a reduction in support to low income families of more than $6 million a year. That is a bit of a price to pay for having a bit less stigma.

It seems that the biggest benefit for sole parents is a change in the name of their payment. I do not necessarily want to underestimate the value of this, because labels are sometimes quite important in our society. I note that the National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children has welcomed the introduction of a more inclusive payment—one that will be made to all parents whether they have partners or not.

I would like to make the point that, if this is the best the government can do to assist the group of social security recipients who have been shown in study after study to be the group most likely to be in poverty, then we do have a fair way to go. At this point, however, I would like to put on the record that the Democrats were very pleased to receive a number of commitments from the minister's office in relation to this new payment. These commitments were: that the level of parenting payment paid to sole parents would be legislatively pegged to 25 per cent of male average weekly earnings; that sole parents will remain eligible for both the employment and education entry payments—at least while those payments still exist; that a sole parent can continue to receive their payment pending any review of their entitlement; and, finally, that sole parents will continue to receive the more adequate pensioner concession card. These are important measures in terms of reducing disadvantage for what is one of the most disadvantaged sections of our community. The Democrats welcome those commitments from the government.

As I understand it, a further commitment given by the minister's office was that Austudy regulations would be brought on at a later date to ensure that students who are sole parents will remain eligible for the pensioner supplement. I would ask the minister, when she does get the chance to respond to this at some time down the track, if she would put that commitment on the public record for us. These are all vital commitments for the Democrats, and they were instrumental in ensuring our qualified support for this legislation. There are a number of amendments that I propose to move in the committee stage, on behalf of the Democrats, to make the legislation a little fairer. I will talk to those in the committee stage.

I would like to make a point about the legislation's stated aim of reducing the social stigma for sole parents and social security recipients. It seems to me that it is a little incongruous. While this aim is a good thing, it does not seem to gel terribly well with the role the government has played in the media debate over recent months about social security fraud. I am sure all senators would have seen some of the recent headlines trumpeting the crackdown on social security fraud. In a few of the headlines from the last few weeks, the Herald-Sun talked about 200,000 cheats and $1,400 million in rip-offs on welfare, the Adelaide Advertiser talked about welfare cheats being stripped of $369 million, and the Daily Telegraph had the headline `Red Handed: 330,000 welfare payments stopped'.

It seems to me, and to the Democrats, that these sorts of factually incorrect headlines do enormous damage to the way in which the community views all social security recipients. If we are talking about people having a stigma attached to them, I think this has a hell of a lot more of an impact on those people than will changing the title of a few payments. Some of the editorials that followed on from these misleading headlines, giving the impression that there are hundreds of thousands of cheats out there, demonstrate how much damage is done and how much that stigma is still attached to welfare recipients.

In the light of these factually incorrect statements, and in light of the current bill's stated objective of removing the social stigma from sole parent pensioners, it is important to look at what sort of response the stories did get from the minister and from the government. As far as I am aware, we have not once heard the minister stand up and say, `These headlines grossly misrepresent the truth. The level of fraud in social security is not out of control and it is not out of proportion to fraud in any other sphere of government.'

I have not noticed the minister once defending social security recipients in the face of this media misrepresentation, or playing a constructive role in allaying community fears about the level of welfare fraud or reducing the stigma on those who receive payments. To date, I have not seen this happen even once. Indeed, it seems to me, and to the Democrats, that the minister and the government have done the exact opposite and put out very carefully worded press releases which, whilst not quite saying that all overpayments are due to fraud, leave the very clear impression that this is the case. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.