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Wednesday, 21 June 2000
Page: 15296


Senator BARTLETT (11:24 AM) —I want to put on the record the Democrats' position on this. I also want to respond to the comments the minister made earlier, and I particularly want to respond to the comments the minister made just now about those people who will be able to preserve their portability entitlements. These amendments, as I understand it, are directed at those who will not be able to preserve their portability entitlements as a result of this change. In response to earlier comments from the minister in relation to the committee report, I want to say the Democrats are strong supporters of the Senate process of investigating legislation and other matters because it provides an opportunity to flush out the issues and examine them in more detail. The process also gives us more information and more time to consider the aspects being put forward. Without trying to elicit sympathy from other senators, having a smaller number of senators means the Democrats have a rather large workload and a smaller number of staff to try to keep across all the issues. Occasionally we use the Senate committee process to elicit information without necessarily determining a position in the time frame, particularly when it is a short time frame as tends to be the case with legislation inquiries. I suppose I could put in a minority report, where appropriate, saying we are still considering our position if that made it more clear for people. But on this particular issue, whilst we used the committee process to examine the submissions, we did not determine a position one way or the other at the time, and we did not give any indication of our position in the report. Obviously it would have been a majority report regardless of whether or not the Democrats put our name on it.

Due to my previous experience working for the Department of Social Security as a social worker I am aware of the difficulties that can sometimes descend on people if there are anomalies or complexities that lead to either mistakes or apparent injustices, and that is why I think it is an important principle to try to remove those where possible. As I stated before, I do not necessarily see that most of these amendments that we are considering today contravene that principle or offend it in a particularly strong way. But, as I have also said repeatedly, when we look at issues of consistency and streamlining we need to make sure that people's entitlements are not unnecessarily reduced as part of that process. The much more common experience that I had at Social Security, particularly as a social worker, was dealing with those people who were not eligible for entitlements for whatever reason, mainly because of lack of flexibility in the act. People were clearly in need but, because of the nature of the act in trying to force people into particular boxes all the time, there are always some people who do not fit in neat categories. Often they are the ones who fall through the cracks and have the most difficulties because they are the ones who are not able to get support, and they put pressure back on welfare, community and church organisations to try to assist them. I had that experience in dealing with people. These difficult cases are the ones that tend to end up with social workers. It is dealing with and trying to help these people that I most recall about my experience with the Department of Social Security.

I think a primary focus of any consideration of income support legislation has to be its impact on individual people. Occasionally it can seem like nitpicking to deal with amendments that address the situation for very small numbers of people but, as Senator Schacht outlined, they are still individual people and they can still be, as a result of changes, put in situations where their entitlements are reduced. That fundamental purpose of any income support system—ensuring that, wherever possible, people do not end up in poverty—has to take precedence over other principles. That is what I draw most from my experience working with the Department of Social Security, but I will not dwell further on what is getting close to being ancient history. The Democrats will vote in support of the amendments moved by Senator Schacht.