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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 8004


Senator NETTLE (9:51 PM) —I rise to speak on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Special Benefit Activity Test) Bill 2002. This bill imposes additional activity test requirements on people holding temporary protection visas who are receiving special benefit, a safety net income support payment. The government argues that the legislation is designed:

... to encourage social and economic participation by treating work force age holders of visas issued for temporary protection, humanitarian or safe haven purposes in a similar way to Australian nationals of work force age ...

It says that these people will be required to be self-reliant and to fulfil a mutual obligation to the Australian community. These arguments are clearly absurd. On the one hand, the government refuses to grant these people, who have been assessed as having a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to their homeland, permanent protection in Australia and access to certain services, like English language tuition. On the other hand, it wants to insist that they fulfil a mutual obligation to the Australian community.

The Australian Greens oppose the use of temporary protection visas to offer a lesser form of protection to some refugees compared with others, simply on the basis of how they arrive in this country. They are not offered permanent protection. They are not permitted to sponsor relatives, including children and spouses. They have no right of automatic return to Australia if they leave the country temporarily. They are not permitted access to most of the settlement services provided by the Commonwealth government. It is disingenuous to argue that holders of temporary protection visas have some kind of duty to the community in the absence of a commitment from the community to facilitate their settlement and provide ongoing protection. How does the government expect the parliament to take seriously its assertion that these measures will assist people to be self-reliant when it refuses to give them any certainty about their fate? In any event, the Australian Greens oppose compelling people to undertake activities in return for income support, although we do support assistance to help people find paid work.

The measures in this bill were announced in the 2000-01 budget in the context of a package designed to discourage what the government likes to describe as unauthorised arrivals. The measures were proposed to commence almost two years ago. Given the context in which the measures were announced and the delay in bringing forward the bill, we wonder whether the government is interested in this bill or just looking for another opportunity to put a wedge between the Australian public and people in need of refuge, as it has done for years. Our suspicions are further supported by the statement in the 2001-02 budget papers that the measures would reinforce community support for the humanitarian immigration program and the treatment of refugees. Is the government suggesting that Australians will support the rights of asylum seekers only if they participate in a punitive mutual obligation program? Instead of pandering to intolerance and ignorance about refugees, the government ought to be explaining to the community why refugees leave their homeland and why it is right and proper for Australia to provide durable solutions for people in these circumstances.

Special benefit was designed as a safety net payment to be issued at the discretion of the secretary for people in need and who did not qualify for another form of income support payment. There are currently around 8,800 temporary protection visa holders— just over half of whom are receiving special benefits. These people are ineligible for any other form of assistance because of their temporary migration status. People of working age who are capable of working and receiving special benefit are currently required to look for work, register with Job Network and report that they have made four contacts in search of work each fortnight. This includes temporary protection visa holders. People obliged to meet these requirements are not subject to fines.

This bill proposes to extend the flawed mutual obligation system, the work activity test, administrative requirements and fines, and the breaching regime. This may cause hardship to thousands of Australians. The government seems determined to ignore calls to reduce the harshness of the breaching system, having rejected so many of the recommendations of the independent Pearce review into the breaching system—despite the overwhelming support for the recommendations in the community sector. While the bill proposes to apply to anyone who obtains a temporary protection visa after 1 January next year, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill was told that, if someone obtained work for a short period, they would be subject to these provisions if they reapplied for special benefit at the expiration of their work contract. Conversely, the proposal to extend language training to temporary protection visa holders will apply only to those people who commence or recommence receipt of special benefit after 1 January next year.

This bill might appear, on its face, to standardise work activity requirements, just as the government is seeking to extend the activity test and fines to older unemployed people and sole parents—a proposal with which the Australian Greens strongly disagree. Even if one accepts that this is reasonable—and the Australian Greens do not—it is preposterous to suggest that this bill is fair. The terms of the special benefit payment are substantially less favourable than those of Newstart or Youth Allowance. People in receipt of special benefit can be paid less than those in receipt of Newstart—the payment being subject to the discretion of the secretary of the department. There is no free allowance—an amount of income that may be earned without losing any proportion of the benefit—and the benefit is withdrawn at a faster rate. For each dollar earned, the special benefit recipient loses $1 of their benefit, while for someone receiving Newstart the withdrawal rate is half of this.

The applicability of the activity test for temporary protection visa holders is also questionable because of the temporary nature of their immigration status. Most of the current holders of temporary protection visas are from Iraq and Afghanistan. Numerous community groups have expressed concern that language will be a major barrier to these people seeking and securing paid work. The Australian Greens would agree with this. The Department of Family and Community Services told the Senate inquiry that Centrelink will ensure that activity agreements made under this legislation are appropriate for the client's circumstances. We are talking about people with limited English language skills who have experienced traumatic events, possibly even torture, and who are unlikely to be assertive about exercising their right to a flexible activity test or their appeal rights, should they be breached.

The government has not been concerned enough to offer people holding a temporary protection visa access to the same level of English language tuition as other people deemed to be refugees. The committee was told that temporary protection visa holders will, under this bill, be offered the opportunity to participate in the language, literacy and numeracy program and that this will be the preferred activity option in many cases under the activity test this bill imposes.

The language, literacy and numeracy program provides 400 hours of tuition with the opportunity to have a further 400 hours, but it is focused on finding work, not on the full range of settlement needs. Community workers have expressed concern that the program is not tailored to the special needs of these refugees, in contrast to the program that the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs funds and operates. Refugees granted permanent protection in Australia are entitled to 510 hours of tuition under the Adult Migrant English Program, which the government treats as a settlement service. As temporary protection visa holders are not entitled to settlement services, they are not entitled to tuition under the Adult Migrant English Program.

This simply illustrates the unfair treatment of temporary protection visa holders. They ought to have access to settlement services, including English language tuition, by virtue of their assessment as refugees, not as a condition of receiving modest income while Australia provides temporary protection and they wait for three years to learn if they will be granted permanent protection. Of course, under a further tightening of immigration law, those who arrived after September last year will be denied access to permanent protection at the expiration of their temporary protection visa if they spent as little as a week in a third country in which the Australian government assesses that they could have sought protection.

Under the guise of bringing temporary protection visa holders into line with other people of work force age required to work for their income support, the government is further entrenching its unfair treatment of temporary protection visa holders. For example, the bill permits temporary protection visa holders to continue to receive special benefit while undertaking full-time study, but it continues to require them to pay full fees, unlike refugees offered permanent protection, who are treated like Australian citizens for the purposes of tertiary education fees. People in receipt of special benefit who are not temporary protection visa holders will be treated more favourably than temporary protection visa holders in terms of the requirements imposed on them if this legislation is passed, including having their payments withdrawn if they fail to meet activity test requirements.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman, who has examined the social security breaching regime and receives complaints about the way it operates, has described the obligations imposed under the existing breaching regime as complex and considers that the risk of being fined for not fully understanding those obligations could be greater for people with language and cultural barriers. The Refugee Council of Australia has identified a number of other obstacles to temporary protection visa holders looking for and obtaining paid work, including the lack of local work experience and referees, the understanding of the Australian workplace and a lack of recognition for their skills, educational qualifications and experience.

There is nothing in this legislation to indicate that the government proposes to address these matters. On the contrary, the government's half-heartedness about this measure was laid bare in evidence that the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations gave to the Senate inquiry into this bill. Asked about temporary protection visa holders not having access to intensive job searching assistance, a departmental officer responded:

... the policy judgment has been that, given the uncertain period of time for which these people will be in Australia, it is not appropriate to provide access to the more thoroughgoing and expensive intensive assistance regime.

The Refugee Council also notes that, unlike other members of the community who are established, temporary protection visa holders do not have savings to fall back on if they are fined or a network of family and friends to help them. This means they will be further at risk of experiencing hardship if their payments are withdrawn.

There is no exemption period from the activity test proposed to acknowledge that temporary protection visa holders need time to establish themselves in the community. The more onerous activity test would apply immediately upon being released from detention and granted special benefit. This is in contrast with the current 13-week exemption for refugees who are granted permanent protection. This is a serious anomaly. Temporary protection visa holders face the same demands after being released from detention, such as finding secure accommodation, without which they run the risk of having mail from Centrelink go astray, which could result in them being fined; learning how to manage the day-to-day activities in a strange place and unfamiliar culture; and dealing with trauma associated with their experiences that caused them to seek asylum outside their home country.

The Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Bill Jonas, has expressed serious concerns about this bill. He told the committee inquiry that the failure to provide the same level of settlement services to holders of temporary protection visas could lead to significant long-term difficulties for them. He also said that the bill might contribute to the further marginalisation of this already disadvantaged group, exposing these people to even greater hardship and discrimination and possibly breaching the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act. We agree with Dr Jonas's view that genuine mutuality would entail providing temporary protection visa holders with the kinds of settlement services currently denied to them.

The measures in this bill and the government's general approach to asylum seekers who do not arrive with valid visas on an aeroplane contrast sharply with the government's proposal to permit families to buy temporary or permanent settlement for their parents. There are 22,200 parents seeking to migrate to Australia, with just 500 places available in the current migration program. The government has decided to expand this by 4,000. But most of the new places—indeed, 3,500 of them—will go to people who can afford to outlay around $40,000 for each adult seeking to migrate.

The Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs argues that the high fees are designed to safeguard the public interest because older people can become a drain on the Australian health and welfare system. He described this sum of money as a fair contribution to these costs and said that during community consultations people indicated they were willing to make a fair contribution to the costs associated with the migration to Australia of their parents. How many of these 22,200 families will be able to find this amount of money, particularly as they struggle with a regressive goods and services tax and the funding of services that this government has decided are no longer the province of the state to provide? Family reunion is an important part of Australia's migration program, and the Australian Greens support the expansion of family reunion migration. Imposing these sorts of fees on people seeking to bring a parent to settle in Australia is unreasonable.

The Australian Greens will not support the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Special Benefit Activity Test) Bill 2002. We will support amendments that improve the bill but we will not support the legislation, because it entrenches a discriminatory refugee policy and extends a flawed and harsh system of mutual obligation to one of the most vulnerable groups within our society.