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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6292


Senator LINES (Western Australia) (09:50): I rise to speak on Labor's opposition to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014. Labor opposes this bill and we do so because Labor supports a just and reasonable job seeker compliance system—a system which encourages job seekers and supports participation for those in receipt of participation payments.

Job seekers need to be encouraged into work. They need to be supported into work with appropriate training and, yes, there does need to be some kind of penalty regime but not a regime which has such harsh consequences as the ones being proposed in this bill before us.

We have seen that the Abbott government is a government which just cannot properly explain its policies. We have seen that over and over in the last 12 months. In this place, we need to look no further than the recent examples by Senator Abetz as he stumbled to try and make a link between women's reproduction and breast cancer, and family planning matters and breast cancer, until the Prime Minister had to intervene. After that, we saw Senator Brandis absolutely fail to explain to the Australian public the security issues that he wants to introduce around metadata. It is not just Labor saying this: you only need look to the Sunday papers, great friends of the Abbott government, who I think gave Senator Abetz and Senator Brandis a 'C' and a 'D' for their efforts. These are the people trying to impose harsh penalty regimes on those in our society who are the least able to defend themselves.

This is a government which is determined to make life tougher for most Australians through its harsh and unfair budget. This is a government which pays off mining companies at the expense of every single Australian worker—8.5 million Australian workers sold down the drain by the Abbott government in its desire to deliver to just a handful of mining companies. It did that by freezing 8.5 million Australian workers' superannuation entitlements, not for a year, not for a few years but for the next seven years. This is a government which is trying to pretend that somehow this stolen superannuation entitlement will magically appear in the pay packets of those 8.5 million workers.

Just yesterday, after it had stolen the superannuation entitlements of 8.5 million workers, the government publicly attacked the Community and Public Sector Union for its wage claim of four per cent a year. Make no mistake: this is a government that will attack the first union to make a claim for that stolen superannuation to go into the pay packets of workers. The government wants us to believe that somehow, magically, once it freezes superannuation, people's pay packets will suddenly increase. What a lie by the Abbott government.

After it has punished everyone else in our community, except those at the top end, it wants to punish further some of the most disadvantaged in our community by its harsh job seeker penalty regime. In respect of this social security bill, I am just wondering—and I am not alone in wondering; the Australian public is wondering and I am sure that 8.5 million Australian workers this morning are wondering—just who does this government represent? Let us have a look. The government does not represent the homeless because there is another program that has not only been frozen but has lost the capacity to actually invest in housing affordability for the homeless. That was done way before the budget.

What about ordinary working Australians trying to find affordable housing? I have read what Mr Abbott said on that. He somehow thinks that if the housing market is buoyant that means it will translate into affordable housing for ordinary Australians. I do not know where that logic comes from but that was a comment made about six months ago by Mr Abbott: that, yes, somehow the market will take care of those who cannot get into the housing market. Perhaps he has not seen what is happening in Western Australia, and he certainly has not been visiting Western Australia, but I can tell you that for young couples, for singles, for those who are currently not in the housing market, whether it is rental or purchase, there is no hope that those people will be able to afford a house as the buoyant market in Western Australia gets further and further out of their reach. What about pensioners? They have been punished too. Despite those promises before the election that there would be no cuts to the pension, we have now got pensioners being punished in this country.

Let us look at another group—working Australians, the 8.5 million of them punished yesterday over their super. They have been punished if they use child care, because the childcare benefit for those on the lowest incomes has had the wage eligibility aspect frozen too. Is there anything that this government has not frozen? So into the future we will see low-income families—and heaven help them if any of them lose their job—have their super attacked and now they will be paying more for child care.

But it does not stop there. What about the kind of promise that women's super will somehow be protected? The maths has been done on that and obviously the government did not bother to do the maths before it decided to cut the bonus payment to low-income women. Those women, through the combination of the effects on their super imposed by the Abbott government, will be about $10,000 worse off at retirement—$10,000 dollars. And somehow the Abbott government is trying to pretend that you will have more money in your wage packet each week. What? I have never heard such nonsense in all my life in trying to pretend that the money that has been stolen from super is somehow going to appear in people's pay packets.

But it does not stop there. What about anyone who needs to go to a doctor? Seemingly, the government is absolutely determined to try to get their GP tax through, and what we saw yesterday from the Palmer United Party is that they are willing to do anything to get their names in the headlines for a few days. So watch this space, Australians, as the Abbott government tries to impose a big tax every time you get sick and visit a doctor.

I heard Senator Cormann or one of the other government senators on the radio this morning, saying, 'No, no, we are not increasing the cost to go to a doctor. After you have been 10 times, you will revert to the Medicare payment and you will not be charged a fee.' But how do you find the money for the first 10 visits when everything else is being attacked?

Let us now get to the unemployed, the last group—

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order. Last time I looked this was about social security legislation; it was not about GP costs. Senator Lines is ranging far from the topic under discussion, if I might say so.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Back ): I have heard your point of order and I do not rule in favour of it. Please continue, Senator Lines, aware of the topic.

Senator LINES: The government is so embarrassed and so on the nose over its harsh, cruel budget that it wants to try and stifle discussion and cut down comment. I am trying to put these harsh social security penalties into context, because they do not sit out there in isolation. The government would like us to believe that, somehow, those who have been unable to participate in employment have to be punished. Somehow, the whole of the Australian public, unless you are wealthy, unless you are a mining company or a big business, have to be punished. Job seekers are the last in a very long list of ordinary, everyday Australians—fighting to make ends meet, working hard, looking for jobs—to be attacked by this government.

Let us look at this last group, the job seekers, the most vulnerable in our community, that the government wants to impose a harsh regime on. There is no doubt that we should have a carrot-and-stick approach, and that is what Labor had. That is what Labor had. But, no, the Abbott government has to take it one step further, because its whole job seeker program is about punishment. It is about punishment. Somehow, jobs are going to magically appear through the government's trickle-down economic program. Well, let us see what happens in the future; let us see if these wonderful jobs materialise.

In the Kwinana strip in Western Australia, there is very high youth unemployment. These young people are some of the people that this government is seeking to attack—not help or support through appropriate training programs or by having a penalty regime that rewards people when they get back on track, that helps people to get back on track. No, this government has a single step: put one foot wrong and that's it; you will be without any money at all.

Let us have a look at what happens to these people who fall foul of the government's penalty regime. Taking money from people who are disadvantaged in the job market: how does that help? How do we get people into employment when they are no longer receiving a benefit? How do we get them into an appropriate training program? Because work for the dole is a joke. It does not work anywhere in the world. Let us have a look at that. Cleaning windows at the community centre: how does that skill people up for a job into the future? Taking just any job is not going to help either. If I live on the Kwinana strip in Western Australia, is the government really suggesting that I up sticks and take a fruit-picking job in Tasmania? How do I get there? Where is the money for that? I am already being penalised by these harsh penalty measures, so how on earth will that happen? I know: like every other failed program of the government's, it just happens magically! It happens by magic! It is somebody else's problem.

So what happens when a person is penalised and is without any income? What happens about the rent or the mortgage that they might have to pay? How do they get food into their cupboards? How can they even afford to comply with this regime if the local Centrelink office is a bus or train trip away? Does the government just expect them to be picked up by yet another government department—or the non-government sector, which is already overloaded?

I can tell you that, in the southern suburbs of Perth, community services are pretty thin on the ground. The Salvation Army operate out of Rockingham, which is close to Kwinana, but I am not sure how someone on an income of nil, someone getting no money at all because they are being penalised, would actually get to Rockingham. How do they get the bus fare? How do they manage to get from the place they are living to the Salvation Army to get the assistance they need? Or is that just going to fall to yet another department?

This regime being proposed by the Abbott government is completely out of order. To punish the most vulnerable in our society by denying them a benefit is not going to work, and there should be the sort of regime that Labor had in place where, once people complied, the benefit started to flow. But, no, this government is saying, 'No, you've done the wrong thing. You'll serve your time.' Where is the carrot in that to attack those who are most in need of our help and just say, 'That's it'?

Being harsh to people will not lead to them getting jobs when youth unemployment and other areas in our community have already got very high levels of unemployment. I just do not understand how that will work. These measures, don't forget, go along with the six-month waiting period so we are creating this whole new harsh regime which says to those seeking work, 'Guess what? If you're out of work, it's your own fault.' That is what we are saying—'It's your own fault you're out of work.' And not only that: 'If you don't take a job or comply and go and scrub the windows in the local community centre, imposing a regime on an NGO that is already struggling, then we 'll punish you further because we'll apply penalties and you'll miss out on your benefit.'

If that is not blaming the job seeker, then I don't know what is—I really don't. How do you put in place Work for the Dole in a place like Kwinana that has got such high youth unemployment? How does that happen? I will not hold my breath, because it is not going to happen. That is for sure.

The non-compliance measures the government is trying to tighten are Labor's initiatives from when we were in government. Our purpose was to allow job seekers the opportunity to re-engage in the participation process. So what has happened to that? How does the job seeker re-engage from a position where they have got absolutely no money? Talk about knocking a person down when they are already down—this just takes it one step further.

The provisions that we put in place were successful in helping job seekers re-engage with their job service providers and assisting with participation while they looked for work. Our provision encouraged job seekers to find suitable offers of employment—and there is a raft of academic research that says that, if you take a job seeker and force them to take a fruit-picking job or some other kind of job that they are not well suited to, it just does not last.

What we know about some of the jobs that Senator Abetz talks about is that they are casual jobs. So are we seriously asking a job seeker to move to wherever in the country to avoid a penalty and pick up any job at a great cost for six or four months, and then what?

This is a government that has no plan. It is not able to develop good policy that is fair and, yes, has some sort of penalty in it. Labor is not saying, 'Let's throw it all away,' but we had a regime in place that was working because we believed that job seekers need to be supported to be able to participate and get a decent job, a job they can hold into the future.

The Abbott government's ideology is well and truly showing in this proposal: we have to punish people, because that is what is needed here. This will fail and fail dismally and, not only that: this bill has the potential to do real harm to individuals. I bet the Abbott government hasn't taken a second to think about that. At the end of this harsh penalty regime are real people with lives and complicated situations who need to be supported. They need to be well supported so that they are in a fit state to be able to get a job, a job that will last them for quite a few years—not a seasonal job, not a casual job, not a Work for the Dole job but a decent job. And we are certainly not going to see jobs magically appear as a result of the Abbott government's market based, trickle-down, 'it's someone else's problem to find these jobs' approach. The jobs will not magically appear, and I would urge the government to re-look at what Labor had in place—to have a penalty regime but to have a regime whereby there can be some kind of reassessment, some kind of re-evaluation, so that people are not harmed by this harsh, cruel measure.