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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2062


Senator HUMPHRIES (12:32 PM) —The Social Security and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010 enables weekly payments for certain members of a class of people who receive social security periodic payment, family tax benefit or the baby bonus. It is intended to target people who are assessed as being vulnerable, such as those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The measure was foreshadowed in the homelessness white paper, The road home: a national approach to reducing homelessness, which was released in 2008. The amendments allow the secretary of the department to identify at-risk individuals, generally by discussion with them, who may benefit from weekly rather than fortnightly payments. The class of people from whom the individuals might be drawn will be determined by a legislative instrument to be made by the minister, which will then be laid before the parliament.

I think it is important to note that a trial of this scheme with around 1,700 disadvantaged welfare recipients was conducted some years ago under the Howard government in 69 Centrelink customer service centres by the then Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and Centrelink from October 2005 to April 2006. We took the view, shared it seems by the present government, that greater flexibility in tailoring welfare assistance to the needs of citizens is a positive thing.

For some individuals, the option of weekly payments will be a valuable and appropriate fallback. The government has made it clear in the bill that it has no intention of weekly payments becoming a mainstream measure, reserving it for those who are regarded as highly disadvantaged and at risk, for example, of becoming homeless. The coalition support this bill and support action that will help people who are, regrettably, living on the streets move into more permanent accommodation. We believe that, in the process of taking people from homelessness to a home, we should give people not merely shelter but the tools to live independently.

The issue of homelessness in the Australian community today is a very complex and multifaceted problem. From discussions with people who are homeless and from talking to agencies who assist people who are homeless, it is clear that there are many dimensions to this problem. Accordingly, we have some misgivings about the nature of the government’s overall response to homelessness. The Prime Minister’s pledge to halve homelessness by 2020 is unrealistic or, at least, lacks the apparent trappings that would describe the way in which the government will actually deliver on this very significant, perhaps even bold, promise. For example, the Prime Minister has recently announced—when attempting to lift the profile of the government’s pledge to halve homelessness—further assistance to the Personal Helpers and Mentors Program which, while very welcome, amounted to the equivalent of only around $33 per homeless person per year. I do not need to tell people in this place that $33 per person per year is barely enough to buy a homeless person a roof over their head for one night, much less for one year. It is true that the Rudd government’s tokenism is no alternative for real action on an issue that the Prime Minister himself has described as ‘a national obscenity’.

The Prime Minister and the Minister for Housing have conceded that the rate of homelessness has risen since this pledge was made. In a recent report in the Australian entitled ‘Kevin Rudd losing the fight on homelessness’, a number of welfare agencies that are closely involved in addressing the issue of homeless people in a very practical and personal way indicated that in their estimation the rate of homelessness had ‘significantly increased’ since the Prime Minister’s pledge, a view conceded by the housing minister. We believe that the Prime Minister must explain why we should take his promise seriously when his promises to fix the hospitals or put a computer on the desk of every secondary student or turn back illegal boat arrivals are promises that remain unfulfilled.

This is a very significant problem, not well served by grandiose and empty flourishes which remind all who hear them of Bob Hawke’s now notorious commitment that ‘by 1990 no child will live in poverty’. It is wrong to promise dramatic improvements without the architecture to actually deliver them. As I said, service providers who work with the homeless every day tell us that things have, if anything, got worse since that promise was made. Homelessness in Australia is a complex interaction between a range of factors including mental illness, substance abuse, family breakdown, domestic violence, social isolation and a shortage of physical facilities. Fixing one element alone, were that even possible, will not fix the suite of problems that may leave a person homeless.

The government’s failure to deal with the housing affordability crisis, which the Prime Minister described as ‘the ultimate barbecue stopper’ before the last election, places enormous pressure on all other areas of the housing market. Less affordable homeownership means more stress on private rentals, which means more stress on social housing, which in turn can have a bearing on the quantum of emergency and other housing accessible by people on the streets of our cities. To the extent that we are talking about a shortage of beds—and, as I said, it is much more complex than that—it follows therefore that fixing housing supply at every level needs to be part of our response to homelessness in this country.

As I said, the coalition do not oppose this measure. We believe it is a good measure that will assist many who are at risk of homelessness to better balance their budget by containing the consequences of unwise decisions they or those around them might make. It is an important measure but it needs to be supplemented with the necessary social support, planning and other measures to ensure that what has been promised to the homeless is indeed delivered to the most vulnerable people in our society. On this question, these Australians certainly deserve less talk and more action.