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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 16702

Senator GREIG (2:28 PM) —My question is to Senator Herron, who is today representing Minister Newman. Is the minister aware that the recent McClure report highlighted the impediment that transport costs can be, particularly public transport costs, in getting low income earners and social security recipients back into the work force, particularly when the social security and tax systems combined claw back 88c of each additional dollar earned? Is the minister also aware that these costs have become considerably worse with the significant rises in public transport fares, particularly those by the state Labor governments of Queensland and New South Wales in July? I ask the minister: what will the government do to improve the access of the unemployed to the work force by reducing these transport costs, introducing fairer subsidies and increasing pressure on the states to put their GST windfall revenue from higher petrol prices into reducing public transport fares and improving services?

Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —I thank Senator Greig for the question. It highlights the point that the GST is going to the states and the states have that responsibility, as Senator Greig correctly points out. Currently the government provides a mobility allowance to encourage the participation of people with disabilities in education and training, employment or voluntary activities. The McClure report encourages the participation of people receiving income support and recognises the barriers that may prevent this. The government will consider this issue in conjunction with a range of other issues and will respond before the end of the year.

The government has endorsed the broad directions of the welfare reform reference group's report, the McClure report, because it wants to change the social security system to ensure it encourages and supports economic and social participation wherever this is possible. The government is not seeking to reduce payments or to tighten eligibility criteria or to make community organisations do this for it. The government is committed to improving service delivery and to making the system simpler and the incentives for participation clearer. It has already made some improvements to the incentives for work force participation through changes introduced as part of the new taxation arrangements. At this time, income-free and asset-free areas were increased by 2.5 per cent and taper rates were eased from 50 per cent to 40 per cent for pensioners and people receiving the single rate of parenting payment. People receiving the partnered rate of parenting payment had the income range over which the taper rate applied increased from $60 to $245—up from $140. The income test for the new family tax benefit part A has been relaxed greatly, with a higher free area and a 30 per cent taper. So increases are occurring.

Welfare reform, however, is not cost free. We will assist people in returning to work, through transition support and assistance with participation rates and, more broadly, through programs to assist in building stronger communities. I am aware there has been some criticism of extending the principle of mutual obligation to sole parents and people with disabilities. The proposed participation support scheme outlined in the McClure report suggests more than just the introduction of mutual obligation to a wider range of income support recipients. The McClure report discusses improving financial assistance, improving opportunities for employment and expanding access to effective assistance—among other improvements—to create a system that helps people to help themselves. A recent study by Senator Newman's department demonstrates that many customers want to return to work but are unsure how to do this—for example, for parenting customers, 81 per cent attended the compulsory interviews, and the participants found the interviews very valuable, with 85 per cent recommending compulsory attendance for those who have the capacity. The study shows that attendance at voluntary interviews appears to be ineffective, with only 17 per cent attendance.

The government remains committed to helping parents by ensuring they get the assistance they need to avoid social and economic exclusion, and the proposed changes would extend only to those who have the capacity to participate in social and economic activities. Their circumstances would also be considered—for example, parents with the youngest child between the ages of six and 12 may be required to attend an interview to discuss their future. As I indicated previously in relation to public transport, the government will respond to the McClure report by the end of the year. It is still working through the detailed recommendations, including the one alluded to by Senator Greig.

Senator GREIG —Madam Deputy President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister aware that, according to Access Economics, the Queensland government is set to be upwards of $800 million better off because of GST revenue over the next five years? Is he also aware that the Queensland government enforced the highest increases in public transport fares on 1 July, with Brisbane bus fares rising by 12.4 per cent and train fares by roughly nine per cent? What pressure can the federal government bring to bear to ensure that Queensland uses its GST petrol windfall wisely—particularly, to provide better opportunities for unemployed and underemployed people to access work?

Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —I thank Senator Greig for the supplementary question, because he highlights the hypocrisy of the Labor Party in Queensland. Mr Beattie led the charge against the petrol price increases, but his own hypocrisy has just been exposed by Senator Greig's question. I hope that is taken up. The Labor government in Queensland has made an extraordinary attack on the federal government when, allied with the Labor Brisbane City Council, it has committed the above offence in its own backyard.