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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 76

Senator WONG (5:16 PM) —The inquiry into the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Bill 2005 and the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work) Bill 2005 demonstrated the extent to which this government is perpetrating a fraud on vulnerable Australians. This inquiry showed that the Howard government is guilty of the biggest welfare fraud in Australian history. This government has talked long and hard about welfare to work. It has a lot of rhetoric about moving people from welfare to work. But the core of its policy, which is encapsulated in this legislation before the Senate, is a reduction in the incomes of vulnerable Australians. The core of its policy is in effect to dump people onto the dole. This is why it is the biggest welfare fraud in Australian history. Despite all the rhetoric about welfare to work, what the committee confirmed was that there was no evidence that the central policy the government is putting forward—dumping people onto the dole—will in fact help people to get a job.

The minor parties and the Labor Party asked the department on a number of occasions to provide us with evidence as to why putting people on the dole would in fact help them get a job. Why was it that putting people on the dole would actually lift the participation rates? What was interesting was that the department had to take the question on notice because obviously they did not have enough evidence to show the Australian people, through the parliament, why lower payments would in fact help get people into work. Then, on the third day of the inquiry, the department came back with references to a number of reports, three of which looked at the effect of an increase in benefit levels, which clearly is not the case under the government’s policy. One report actually looked at abolishing the income support system altogether. I assume that the government is not relying on that as evidence of the benefit of the legislation which is before the Senate.

A range of other problems were demonstrated in the evidence presented to the inquiry. In the short time that I have I cannot go through all of them. One was the inconsistent treatment of Australian families. It is quite clear that different families will have different levels of support, depending on when their parent accessed the parenting payments and on their age. It is also quite clear that, despite all its rhetoric, the government has substantially failed to invest in enabling people on welfare to improve their skills. We all know that the best way for someone to get a job is if they have the skills an employer needs. One example of the government’s failure on this issue is its refusal to allow parents of people with a disability who are dumped onto the dole access to the pensioner education supplement, a payment which assists people who return to training and education. The only answer the government could give on that point was: ‘They’re not on the pension; therefore they don’t get it.’

We also have concerns—and Senator Humphries has alluded to some of these—that so much of what will be effected through this legislation will be in guidelines. Welfare organisations, academics and others presented evidence to the committee which raised serious concerns about things which were so substantive being put in guidelines which were subject to change and may well not be the subject of parliamentary scrutiny. Even some aspects of the Prime Minister’s so-called child care guarantee will be only in the guidelines. In effect, the committee are being asked to recommend supporting the legislation before the Senate on the basis that we hope the guidelines will actually reflect what the government says they will.

I will briefly refer to something that the St Vincent de Paul Society said. They pointed out that 70 per cent of their home visits already, under current policy, are to people with a disability and to sole parents. Referring to people with a disability and sole parents, they said to the committee:

I think they will just find life harder than it was before. I do not think there is any doubt about that. They will come to us more often seeking help and we will do our best to help them—we and others.

Really, I think that indicates just what the core of the government’s policy is. It will make life harder for people with a disability and for sole parent families in this country.

I indicate that the dissenting report was agreed to by the Labor Party, the Australian Greens and the Australian Democrats. I put on record our thanks to the other parties, the Greens and the Democrats, for their involvement in the dissenting report and their support of the position. I also thank the committee for doing a very good job in a very short time frame. I particularly thank Stephanie Holden, who assisted us in our deliberations. I also want to thank the submitters—people from the welfare sector and from the community and academics and others—who, in an extraordinarily short time frame, because of this government’s determination to ram this legislation through, were able to provide us with very high-quality submissions on what is an extremely complex piece of legislation.