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Friday, 15 November 2002
Page: 6500

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) (11:09 AM) — I thank senators for their contributions to the debate, some of which I think have been particularly apposite and demonstrate a clear understanding of what the government wants to do, albeit at the edges there might be some disagreement. It seemed that Senators Bishop and Moore both understood the broad thrust of the measures for parents and for the mature unemployed and recognised that closing access to partner allowance and mature age allowance offers a better chance of providing help to get people moving back into the work force. I was certainly encouraged by what Senator Moore said—that she just wants to make the system work more effectively. I remind her that that is what the Australians Working Together process and package is all about—getting the welfare system to work more effectively. I note that, on behalf of a number of senators, views have been expressed about the current breaching system. I will come back to some remarks I want make about that in a minute. The government clearly does have a responsibility to the broader community to maintain balance in its programs but, as I say, I will return to that later.

Senator Cherry made some remarks that it might be appropriate to respond to. It was not clear to me that he understood that the requirements that are proposed for single parents of teenage children are very modest—150 hours over each six months, which might be lower if needed, depending on the parent's circumstances. There is a lot of flexibility under the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002, with requirements being tailored to individual circumstances. People can manage their own hours of activity over the full six months, so they can do that during school terms and they do not have to do anything during the school holidays; it is really only a requirement over six months that needs to be looked at. There is obviously a much softer breaching regime proposed for the activities required of sole parents and I think that is appropriate.

Senator Cherry was incorrect, I am advised, because he apparently said that there were no additional JET services. If this bill were to pass, by the time the measure is fully implemented there would be more than 400 JET advisers and personal adviser resources focused on helping parents, compared to about 100 or so JET advisers at the moment. Instead of 55,000 parents getting help each year it would be more like 295,000. That is a massive increase in the sort of help that we want to provide to sole parents, who inevitably are asked to return to the work force when their youngest child turns 16. To ignore them up until that time and not give them help until that time is, in my view, close to criminal neglect. Yes, we want to make the annual interviews compulsory, but that is backed by research that such a requirement is needed to reach the people who need most help. Some of the people who need most help do not have the view that going along to an interview will be of any assistance and do not have the motivation to do that. It is cruel and abdicating your responsibility to simply say, `If you don't want to come, that is fine.' It is our job to get help for these people.

I was a little bit concerned about some remarks I heard Senator Harris making in response to Centrelink's constant search for new and better technology to provide assistance. He is apparently particularly concerned about voice recognition technology. Voice recognition technology will be optional for customers to use; they can talk to real people if they prefer. But welfare groups and many people on income support have welcomed the fact that Centrelink is introducing the technology. For many people it will be a lot easier and they will prefer that, but I want to make it clear that they do not have to use it if they do not want to.

I would also like to make some comments about child care. I heard Senator Crossin talking about child care. I share her interest in that and her understanding that there is a need to have significant child care available, because that is one of the key inhibitors of women being able to return to the work force. I think the child-care programs that this government offers can be described as one of the most important parts of our assistance to families. It is not an exaggeration to say that for many of our customers our assistance with the costs of child care is what allows them to in fact go back to work.

Like all of the important programs, it is subject to political scrutiny—and that is healthy. But it is quite wrong to say that this government have cut child care. I will run through a few figures very quickly because I know that child care is not the central part of this bill, but I am very proud of what this government have done. We spent a record $1.6 billion on child care in 2001-02. In our first six years in government—and I hope there are many more—we have spent more than 70 per cent more in real terms than Labor spent in their last six years. If anybody wants to have a debate about which government has been of more assistance to families who are looking for work, I think the government that, in a six-year to six-year comparison, spent 70 per cent more in real terms is going to win that debate.

We have made very significant increases in child care. Child-care costs went down by 9.6 per cent after the introduction of the child-care benefit on 1 July 2000, and I am told that comes from the ABS CPI statistics to June 2002. The child-care benefit provides substantial increases in assistance for most families and, particularly for most low-income families—say, with two children in full-time care—the assistance is around 74 per cent of average centre fees and an average of 85 per cent of family day care fees. The number of child-care places has in fact nearly trebled in the last decade. The reason we have had a mammoth increase in places as opposed to money—although, as I say, a 70 per cent real increase in money spent is very significant—is that a lot of those have been outside-school-hours care places, which were not provided for adequately by the previous government and which are central for women who want to return to work; I think that is Senator Crossin's concern.

Senator Nettle in her remarks is quite wrong in suggesting that the government wants to blame people for their own circumstances. The burden of assisting people under this bill is on the government. This is a bill that is going to cost the government money. We are investing in people on welfare and trying to help them, and there are very significant protections in the bill to ensure that penalties are applied only as a last resort. I have dealt with the remarks Senator Crossin made, but I welcome her acknowledgment of the added protections that are provided in the bill for sole parents.

It is wrong to say that interviews with Centrelink are meaningless. Of the parents on welfare when their youngest child turns 16, half are still there five years later. If anybody here wants to be in that position, fine, but I do not think anybody does. The government is committed to providing better assistance for those women during the period their child is 13, 14 and 15 so that the transition back to work is a lot easier and they have a better chance. The current system does almost nothing to help them. Senator Collins did not address the bill terribly much, so I do not think it is worth responding to her remarks. I think it is important to recognise, though, that the recent changes to administration of breaches reinforce the application of penalties only as a last resort. Those changes were announced in February and introduced in July; they have not had even five months to work.

I will now go to the breaching issue. I think it is fair to say that the government was listening to what the Labor Party wanted to say with respect to this bill and was considering changes it wanted to make. The Democrats wanted things that were a bit further out of field and the negotiations with them were not looking as though they were going to be as fruitful. This bill has been available for a very long time, but yesterday we were advised by Labor that, unless some changes are made to the breaching system outside of what we are talking about in this bill, the bill will be split—and it follows, obviously, that Senator Cherry would not like my saying this—and there will be some cherry picking out of the bill; those bits that will cost a lot will go through and the other bits will be held up. Mr McClure, in his assessment of welfare reform, made it very clear that cherry picking was not on. His message at that point was for the government: do not just pick out the bits you like; recognise that, for welfare reform across the board, you have to make significant changes; you have to have the carrots and the sticks, and you have to move together.

We have put forward a package that essentially does two things. It introduces a working credit—and I acknowledge the apparent support for that—at very substantial cost at a time when there is not a lot of money around in any event. This government are not like the previous government; we do not want to put Australia back into debt. We have spent the first six years of government paying off something like $60 billion worth of debt. That is $60 billion that, had it not been racked up in debt, could have been spent on other things. I believe the annual debt interest repayments—not the principal—were up around $4 billion, $5 billion or $6 billion. That is money to pay for promises made earlier to keep other politicians comfortable. It is very easy for a government to spend, to put the country into debt, so that it can appear popular. But, in the end, somebody has to pay it back.

Make no mistake: I urge colleagues on the other side of this place to understand that every minister in this place understands very clearly what they could have done with $60 billion over the last six years if we did not have to pay off Labor's debt, if we did not have such high interest bills. You can pick any portfolio you like, give them whatever portion of that $60 billion you like and regret what has not been done because previous people just spent—because it makes politicians popular to spend, and someone else has to foot the bill later. We will not do that. We are in a difficult economic situation. We have got the economy on track: mortgage rates are down, interest rates are down, unemployment is down. That is why we intend to keep it on track. We do not want another recession, we do not want young people, the least successful or the least well trained—the most vulnerable—chucked out into unemployment, as inevitably happens when you do not run the economy well and you fall back into recession. We will not let that happen, so we will keep our budget in order.

We come to this chamber with a bill to spend a lot of money investing in people on welfare and we find at the last minute—the bill having been around for months and months—that some people on the other side want to play games. They say, `We don't like what you're doing in another area of welfare and, unless you change it, we're not going to let these changes go through.' Be that on your heads if that is what you finally choose to do, because you are actually saying to a government that keeps the budget in order, `Unless you cater to our whims to spend more, unless you go soft on welfare compliance, you won't get these changes.' We will argue that case. These changes spend money on people on welfare. They invest in them. They do not take money from them. They do not increase the amount of money they are given either. They invest in people. Both of these measures do that. They give people a greater chance. If you want to reject that, you do so. You go and tell the electorate that, because you could not go softer on welfare compliance, you have rejected the opportunity for welfare reform in a balanced package. You go and tell them that and see how you go.

Mr Acting Deputy President, in listening to some of the speakers, you would have thought that this government was a mean and nasty government. I do not walk away from welfare compliance. This portfolio spends one-third of government outlays and, I tell you what, the lady cutting tomato sandwiches for a job and the guy pushing a spanner for a job who have their taxes taken from them do not want the government to say: `Don't worry, that one-third of expenditure goes on welfare. I'm sure everybody will do the right thing. We don't want to get nasty with them, do we? That would be dreadful.' The lady cutting tomato sandwiches and the fellow pushing a spanner do not want you to be nasty, but they do want you to make sure that welfare goes to the needy and not to the greedy. They do want us to make sure that people live up to their requirements if they are going to put their hands out and take money from other taxpayers. That is the case. That is what we will pursue. We will give the money to the needy. We want this bill to pass so more can be invested in them. But we will not go soft on compliance in order to get it.

When this government came to power, if you got breached you got a 100 per cent breach. That was the Labor system: 100 per cent, you are out—not three strikes and you are out but one strike and you are out. We changed that. We softened the breaching regime to make it more sensible. We introduced a tiered system which, I am advised on checking today, was passed in this chamber in a non-controversial bill. Help me: what does that mean? I think it means that it was a bill that went through on a Thursday and no-one objected. In other words, the bill to soften the breaching regime had the support of this parliament. When I see senators on the opposite side neglecting to mention that their parties supported the regime, which was a softening, that their parties supported the penalties that were there, I do not think terribly much of them. Those who know the truth will judge them accordingly for being very selective in what they come and say in this chamber.

We moved to a three-stage breaching system. How does Centrelink—a great agency that has terrible difficulty in dealing with clients—know whether someone who comes to the counter and did not show up for an appointment has got a reasonable excuse? It is not always easy. Someone who is an alcoholic does not always want to say to someone at the counter, `I got so drunk last night that I passed out and didn't wake up and didn't get to my appointment.' You can understand people not wanting to say that or not wanting to say that they have got an intellectual disability or not wanting to say that they got kicked out of the house because they were bashing their wife and they have got to DVO on them and they are now homeless. It is not easy to get that information from people, and Centrelink does its best to do so. We have been working on that. Senators will know that Centrelink's extra care in looking at the vulnerable over the last year has resulted in a significant reduction in breaches. That is not denied by anybody, including ACOSS. There has been a very significant reduction in breaches. What I said in this place—that we would look at that carefully—has clearly been done.

Then we come to the so-called independent review of breaching, the details of which were announced earlier this year. Australians ought to focus on this fact: there were 26 recommendations there; 19 of them have been implemented. So you have got a government that has been elected by the people three times that has implemented 19 of 26 recommendations in relation to breaching, that has taken them down by a third over the last year and still we have people opposite coming in here with a load of claptrap saying: `Unless you go softer, we're not even interested in listening to whether these changes work. They've had five months. We don't even want to know. We're not going to give them 12 months. Either you make these changes or you do not get your bill'—a bill that invests in people.

This is not a bill that cuts welfare; this is an investment in welfare—with simple requirements on sole parents that they will easily accommodate. Is one interview—one interview to help them recognise where they can go and get their skills upgraded or at least maintained—a year too much to ask? Then when their youngest child is in high school there will be five or six hours a week, which most of them would be doing anyway, by way of volunteering and participating in the community—unless of course you over there have a lower view of sole parents than I have. I would be happy to hear it if you do. I would be quick to spread it around. Then there is assistance by way of the income credit.

I am very sorry that this has happened this way. We have been doing everything we can—19 out of 26 recommendations implemented—and we have had sensible discussions, and at the eleventh hour you guys pull the rug out because you want to make an issue of something else, on which we have a better record than you do. If that is where you want to have the argument, let us have it.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Mark Bishop's) be agreed to.