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Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Page: 7836


Mr LAMING (Bowman) (18:21): The opposition support the government on this occasion, even though we appreciate that there is a significant element of retrospec­tivity in what is being introduced. We feel that it does not contravene any fundamental principles of fairness to do so and, on those grounds, we do support the bill. We also want to note that Australia has a long tradition, as previous speakers have noted, of a strong welfare safety net—but also a community expectation that the money has to come from somewhere. Therefore, we are one of the few countries that so effectively, and in such a targeted way, means-test our welfare payments.

Many people do not realise that many of the social welfare economies of the rest of the OECD do not means-test in the way we do. In fact, they are far less progressive in that way. They allow people to take an age welfare payment commensurate with their earnings through their career, something that does not happen in Australia. We never want to forget that many hard-working Australians end up being means-tested out of further state support. Regardless of your view about that, we need to remember there is a significant working middle class that do not get the aged-care support that in identical circumstances in other countries they might well have.

Over the last two decades, we have seen a shift in thinking from the belief that welfare is a fundamental right to the belief that it is, after all, a privilege—that it is first of all collected from other Australians and then paid as part of the privilege of being an Australian. We therefore have laws and expect everyone, from east coast to west coast and whatever their background, to adhere to those. You have to play by the rules. I think the Australian sense of fairness comes out no more strongly than in the idea that one should never abuse payments that one receives through our welfare system.

There are many dimensions to combating welfare fraud and I think every state wants to strike a balance between having strict eligibility tests that are easy enough to understand and that everyone can appreciate and feel are fair and having a robust prosecution policy for those who willingly and knowingly contravene the rules. The fact that there have been over 30,000 prosec­utions is, I think, a fair indication of the latter. Ordinary Australians out there would understand that being a dole cheat or a welfare cheat is not something that is acceptable any more, not something that you can laugh about or pat your mate on the back about. That change has come about, quite significantly, over the last two decades through the policies of successive adminis­trations.

One does not want to have such an invasive and aggressive policy that it deters people from applying for Centrelink support or an approach that it is overly intrusive or punitive. There still needs to be an element of self-reporting and that needs to be encouraged, not dissuaded. What is very important about this amendment is, as the shadow minister has suggested, that there will be no new prosecutions as a result of this change. It just ensures that none of the old prosecutions are brought back for review through, potentially, the new light of a High Court decision.

In all of this, you are constantly weighing up the prima facie case of whether there is a need to overturn versus the public interest. I think most people here, together with most Australians, would admit that it is in the public interest to support the prosecutions which have occurred over the last two decades. The great risk of not standing up to it is that fraud then becomes more prevalent and Australians around the country lose their confidence that this is a welfare system that properly targets those who need it most.

Social security recipients, certainly those in my electorate, understand the rules and will stand by them. But we feel that, if this legislation is not supported, a whole lot of new cases could potentially be opened. The last thing we want is those prosecutions being called into question. While there is not really any understanding of how many of those are potentially coming before the courts, it may only be a matter of days or weeks before that does occur. Were this bill not passed promptly and expeditiously, we could potentially be exposing Centrelink and the Commonwealth to an enormous burden in having to defend cases which, given how much time has passed and the level of detail in the records we hold, would be very difficult cases to defend.

These sorts of changes are, I think, completely in line with what the average person would have thought were held in the first place. Although it now looks like you can basically drive a bus through a loophole, at the time it was extremely difficult for those Centrelink drafters of Commonwealth law to understand that what they were drafting could run contrary to an element of the Criminal Code. That is a very important reason for the changes. We also note that the Commonwealth has ceased prosecuting a whole range of cases that, most of us would argue, should be prosecuted and not delayed. That is another very good reason to continue the great work that Australia has done in avoiding Centrelink fraud—to ensure that that is not derailed.

Finally, there are some changes which make it very clear that people currently making a claim for social security or access to a concession card, people currently receiving social security or who hold those concession privileges and people not currently receiving social security payments or holding a concession card but who have at one time been paid social security or received such concessions will also be subject to these new rules. I think it is completely reasonable that we should support these changes and I think it is very important that Centrelink fraud is never considered a legitimate activity in this country. That is the important reason both sides should be supporting these changes.