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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6288


Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (09:35): The legislation before us today is a prime example of this government's distorted, heartless and unfair policy agenda. It is further proof that it is intent on punishing the most vulnerable people in our society, tearing up the Australian tradition of a fair go and creating a new underclass.

The bill before us today aim is to overturn Labor's changes that ensured job seekers who incur a penalty for not actively seeking work or training were encouraged to re-engage with the job market. Currently under the Social Security (Administration) Act, job seekers on a particular participation payment can potentially receive an eight-week, non-payment penalty for serious breaches of the rules. These breaches include refusal of suitable work or ongoing failure to comply with their obligations. In order to encourage re-engagement, Labor included the opportunity for job seekers to have the penalty waived if they took on a serious failure requirement like Work for the Dole, job search training or more intensive job searches. Similarly, the non-payment period could also be waived if it would result in severe financial hardship for a job seeker who cannot undertake one of these activities.

The bill before us today seeks to eliminate all avenues for non-payment periods to be waived. In doing this, it denies the most vulnerable people in the country a second chance to re-engage with the job market. It removes all incentives to get more people involved in job seeking. In fact, not only are job seekers not recognise for taking measures to re-engage; they are actually prohibited from doing this under the proposed legislation. This reveals the lie in the government's stated aim of getting people back into work. It is a mere mask for their true agenda of punishing job seekers. If this government actually wanted people to get into work, wouldn't it make sense to encourage any active measures that job seekers take towards this goal? Banning this type of proactivity in job seekers is an affront to both common sense and compassion. This bill, if passed, will guarantee that once people have got to this point, for whatever reason, no matter how legitimate, the likelihood that they will move into paid work will decrease significantly. Similarly, the proposed legislation removes the potential for Centrelink staff to consider exceptional circumstances or to make appropriate decisions to respond to individual situations.

Who will be affected by these harsh measures? The reality is that those who will be impacted are the most vulnerable of all. They might be the homeless or in the midst of a traumatic domestic situation or they could be suffering from serious health issues. They are very likely to be young people. As history tells us, more than three-quarters of people who will be affected by the bill will be under 30. In short, they are likely to be people who are most in need of government support, the least able to rebound after a setback. The government has spruiked that it will save $20 million through this bill. What they will not tell you is what the heavy social cost of such draconian legislation will be. Nor will you hear them admit what the flow-on costs could be to the budget.

When combined with the government's other harsh and unnecessary plan to force young unemployed people to forego the dole the six months year if they are not in work programs or training, Prime Minister Abbott and Senator Abetz have a recipe for massive destitution and ensuing desperation.

In fact, even after a young job seeker has served out the six-month waiting period, they still will not be guaranteed a full six months of income support, because the eight-week non-payment period could also be required. In this context it is not surprising to hear some in St Vincent de Paul chief John Falzon and warned that the government's proposed welfare changes will plunge job seekers into poverty and force them to choose between charity and crime.

We have received this play out in the United Kingdom, where experts claim that harsh welfare cuts from the Conservative government have resulted in a rise in crime rates of up to three per cent in three years. In fact, Derbyshire Labour Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Charles directly attributed the rising crime rates to the welfare cuts inflicted by the government.

The reality is that some job seekers may be able to turn to family or friends, but many thousands of unemployed people just do not have this luxury. For them, illegal means might be the only option left. But, of course, any increase in crime would undoubtedly weigh heavily on our judicial system. Similarly, our health and social services systems will pay the price if there is a spike in depression, suicide, homelessness and other social problems that often accompany financial desperation.

We should never forget that if the hit on the budget will be bad from this ill-considered policy, the toll on families and local communities will be immense. We can see when it comes to addressing unemployment, this government has forgone sensible, considered solutions in favour of persecution, cruelty and prejudice. They ignore the unemployment data and expert research about the reasons for unemployment in favour of founding policy based on spite and stereotypes. But we should not be surprised really. This is true to form for Mr Abbott and his twisted priorities. Despite the espoused goal of helping job seekers to gain the dignity of work, their words belie their cruel and heartless attitudes to unemployed people.

We have had Treasurer Joe Hockey falsely divide the world into lifters and leaners, with the implication that the latter are just too lazy to go out and get themselves a high-paying job. He then went on to use this divisive construction to play on people's greed in order to fan resentment in a desperate bid to gain public support for his draconian measures. I say to Mr Hockey: 'Unemployment is not a lifestyle choice. The vast majority of job seekers are honest Australians, struggling to find their way through difficult circumstances on an income that sometimes does not even cover the rent.'

While Mr Hockey has been busy maligning the jobless, Mr Abbott headed to Tasmania to glibly tell us that it is not the worst outcome in the world if people have to moved for work. Never mind the fact that young people would have to forego their families, their friends and support networks. Never mind the fact that they themselves might be an integral part of other people's support networks. Never mind the fact that it can cost thousands of dollars to move let alone to meet the daily financial burden of living in a high-cost capital city. Never mind the fact that there is no guarantee of finding work, even if they do move. And those on the other side wonder why people say they are out of touch with ordinary Australians.

I recently spoke in this place about the outrageous comments from the member for Braddon, Mr Whiteley, who showed both ignorance and spite in comments on this government's unemployment programs and harsh budget measures, where he said:

It is my very strong view that some of our young people just need an extra prod.

Some people will cry a little longer than others but it is for their own good in the long run.

This attitude is not only a vicious and cruel but it is absolutely unproductive and has no basis in current knowledge about what works to reduce unemployment. The same article quoted the advice from the Minister for Employment, Tasmanian Liberal Senator Abetz, who said that our young people should just go and pick fruit. Minister Abetz went on to say that people can be taught fruit picking 'in five minutes', deriding the knowledgeable observation from the Farmers Association chief of Tasmania, Jan Davis, that farm work, including highly seasonal fruit picking, is not unskilled and it is not grunt work. Senator Abetz continues to present a shallow and simplistic solution to Tasmania's unemployment challenge, ignoring the complex and multilayered issues contributing to the unemployment rate in Tasmania. It is not surprising that leading Tasmanian economist Saul Eslake denounced Senator Abetz's attitude when he said:

Statements like that reflect the degree to which people who make them are out of touch. It reflects a blinkered view and predetermined attitudes.

But if the words of those opposite are bad, their policies are even worse. Rather than listening to expert opinions and decades of research, this government appears to draw from a deep well of prejudice, ignorance and fear when devising their employment policy. The running theme is cruel and harsh measures that punish people for circumstances that in the large majority of cases are completely beyond their control. At the same time as they are demonising unemployed people and taking away their entitlements, they have the audacity to shut down excellent and proven skills training initiatives such as Youth Connections and sack the hardworking productive local employment coordinators everywhere but in Geelong.

They put all their eggs in the basket of Work for the Dole, a program that has already proven that it is the least successful way to get people back to work. In fact, the evidence suggests that far from creating employment outcomes, Work for the Dole could actually discourage people from finding further employment. University of Melbourne Professor of Economics Jeff Borland undertook an analysis of the outcome of the Howard government's Work for the Dole scheme. He found that those who took part in the scheme spent longer on income support payments after they had done the scheme than those who had not. Professor Borland said that the results were not surprising as they mirror the findings of similar research undertaken in the US and Europe.

Even worse, we now learn that not only is the Work for the Dole scheme ineffective, but that the government cannot even get it off the ground. In Tasmania the trial Work for the Dole scheme was announced by the government on 1 July with plans to place 2,000 Tasmanians in the first year. Despite the government's hype, only 40 job seekers were given placements in the first two months across the entire north-west, west coast and north project areas—a complete failure by any measure. Instead of providing job seekers with support, the modus operandi of this government seems to be bullying, threats and intimidation. Its actions reveal a deep vein of hostility towards jobless Australians with no consideration of the circumstances surrounding their situation.

Mr Hockey and Mr Abbott need to learn that you cannot bully and belittle someone into work. It just does not work that way. John Falzon from St Vincent de Paul perfectly captured the problem when he described this government's employment policy recently on Q&A when he said:

These measures will not help people into jobs but they will force people into poverty. You don't help someone into a job by making them poor, whether you're young, old, a person with a disability, a single mum, you're not going to be helped into a job by being put down. You don't build people up by putting them down.

Australia deserves a government that will fight for jobs and support workers and job seekers alike.

The twisted priorities of this government were again on display yesterday with the farcical scenes in this chamber on the mining tax, a mining tax that the CEO of the Tasmanian Minerals and Energy Council yesterday described as being 'pretty neutral for Tasmania'—pretty neutral because no mining operation in Tasmania actually pays the mining tax. This is because the tax only applied to coal and iron ore companies when their annual profits hit $75 million. How does this relate to this bill? For years Senator Abetz, his three amigos in the other place and the other Tasmanian Liberal senators have consistently said that the repeal of the mining tax will create jobs in Tasmania. Yet on the day of the repeal, the CEO of the Tasmanian Minerals and Energy Council clearly stated that this is unlikely. Senator Abetz has claimed for years that the repeal of the mining tax would create jobs in Tasmania when in fact all the repeal does is take a significant amount of money out of the payments and tax incentives out of the Tasmanian economy and gift all that to the owners of mining companies.

Everyone knows, even Senator Abetz, that the price of iron ore has plummeted while the Australian dollar has remained at high levels. These global economic changes have been the major negative influences on mining investment in this country.

Despite these global economic changes, this government and their friends in the Palmer United Party just want to make it harder for Tasmanians to make ends meet. This government is making it harder for Tasmanians to find a job. This government's employment programs have been an absolute failure and their response is not to go back to the drawing board but to punish Tasmanians who find themselves out of work with cruel proposals like those in this bill.

In closing, I simply ask those opposite: when will the government learn that it needs to focus on creating jobs and stop punishing the jobless?