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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20011

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON (2:42 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Would the minister advise the House of growing participation rates? What is the government doing to ensure that more Australians participate in the work force? Are there any alternative policies?

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) —I thank the member for Blair for his question. I can assure him that the Howard government has helped to bring unemployment down to 5.8 per cent, which is a 13-year low. Also, its policies are helping to encourage record numbers of Australians to join the work force. This government believes that the best form of welfare is work and the most effective way to tackle poverty is to encourage more people into sustainable jobs.

Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released new figures showing that 74.2 per cent of all Australians aged between 15 and 69 had worked at some point in the 12 months to February 2003. This is the highest percentage of people in the work force ever recorded. Notwithstanding this success, there are still too many people of working age who rely on social security for the majority of their income. In particular, there are far too many people on the disability support pension with little likelihood of ever re-entering the work force. In any one year, just two per cent of disability support pensioners find full-time employment. When he was on the backbench, fixing the disability support pension was one of the member for Werriwa's big crusades.

Mr Latham —It still is.

Mr ABBOTT —He said then:

Something ... needs to be done about the outrageous growth in the Disability Support Pension ... which is now paid to more than 550,000 Australians. It is being used as a way of shifting people off the dole and artificially lowering the unemployment rate.

Mr Latham —It is still true.

Mr ABBOTT —He still thinks it is true. He went on to say—and I presume he still thinks this is true:

I think blind Freddy out there in Australia can see that we don't have one out of eight Australian men in their fifties disabled, totally incapable of work ... Everyone knows that the system is being abused ... The whole emphasis of welfare policy should be much more on capacity than incapacity.

That is what the member for Werriwa said, and he is quite right. Like the member for Werriwa, this government wants to emphasise what people can do, not what they cannot do. Incredibly, given the views of the member for Werriwa, modest changes to the disability support pension arrangements from the budget before last are still blocked in the Senate. The member for Werriwa has a serious credibility problem here—you cannot campaign for something on the back bench and then ignore it when you are on the front bench. The member for Werriwa lacks either integrity or authority. Either he did not believe what he said then or he lacks the capacity to persuade his colleagues to do what he wants. The member for Werriwa says that he wants the Labor Party to be the party of economic responsibility. There is a simple test for the member for Werriwa: persuade the Labor Party to change its views on the disability support pension. If the member for Werriwa cannot persuade his colleagues on this point, he lacks the capacity to be an effective shadow Treasurer—and he will have proven that he is much better at muscling up to Sydney taxidrivers than he is at taking on his own colleagues.