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Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Page: 20659

Mr LINDSAY (5:01 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker, if I may, I would like to congratulate Senator Kay Patterson on her assumption of new duties as Minister for Family and Community Services. I might also congratulate the Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs and Minister assisting the Prime Minister, who is at the table, on the assumption of his new duties. He will discharge them very well. Senator Patterson is a person with a very strong social conscience. I have known her for some years now, and I know that she will bring to this portfolio the compassion, understanding and policy foresight needed in a portfolio that has such a large budgetary expenditure.

Something many people in Australia do not realise is that this particular portfolio spends, in pensions and income supports, more than $1,000 million a week, which is an awful lot of money, in looking after those who are least able to look after themselves. I heard comments in the parliament this afternoon that the government does not look after these sorts of people—well, $1,000 million a week is not a bad expenditure in this portfolio area. It is money that is increasing week after week and year after year, and the government is determined to always support people who cannot look after themselves and who need assistance from the government.

I was intrigued by the member for Lilley's comments about `Where are the incentives to move from welfare to work?' I would like to report to the parliament that, in this portfolio, last week I took the trouble to go and visit all of the Job Network agencies in my electorate in Townsville and Thuringowa.

Mr Fitzgibbon —How many have you got?

Mr LINDSAY —I have got six. We have got job placement agencies as well. The interest was the number of jobs that are out there and available. In relation to the incentives to move from welfare to work, the Job Network and Centrelink have been asking job seekers to come in and update their vocational profiles, and something like half of them have not been going in. When you talk to the Job Network members, you find that they are desperate. They say, `If these people would only come in, we've got jobs for them.' They took me and they showed me their job boards, and there was job after job after job, ranging from the most menial, unskilled work right through to management, senior management, team leader type work. It is such a pity that the government has these incentives where we will pay job seekers to come in and have their vocational profiles updated, where we will give them whatever assistance they need to find a job—and, these days, things are very flexible for Job Network providers—but they will not come in in the first place.

Mr Deputy Speaker, do you know which group of people are the most unlikely to attend? It is the 16- to 18-year-olds. Why is it that their parents do not say to these kids, `Get off your backside. Get in there. We'll get you a job. We don't want you to be welfare dependent for the rest of your life'? I appeal to parents: if you have got a job seeker in that age group, get them into the local Job Network provider, and they will get a job.

I now want to address a number of matters in relation to the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2003 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2003. I utterly reject the claims from the opposition that this is somehow a brutal and thuggish approach. It is nothing of the sort. It is sensible legislation that in fact protects not only those in receipt of government welfare support but also the Australian taxpayer. After all, it is the taxpayer who foots the bill. The government has got to be careful about how it spends taxpayers' money. It has got to make sure that those who are entitled to receive assistance receive proper and adequate assistance, but it has also got to ensure that money that should not be spent is not spent. Some of the amendments contained in this legislation before us this afternoon do exactly that. There are some technical amendments. There are some amendments that are very specific. They are designed to make sure that we spend taxpayers' money wisely and well.

Labor continue to say that we should not be putting through these amendments, that we should be spending the extra money. They then accuse this government of being the highest-taxing government ever, which is not the case.

Mr Fitzgibbon —It's not? It's a fact, an incontestable fact.

Mr LINDSAY —Labor say that we should be spending more, and they also say that the government has to be careful of taxpayers' money.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —If the member for Hunter wished to speak, he should have reserved his right.

Mr LINDSAY —The mixed messages that float around when this occurs are just amazing, and they should not be floating around. I will now just add a personal view on a matter. The particular matter is contained in an amendment to this bill where it talks about recovering debts that have arisen because of administrative errors. I have a personal view on this and I have some sympathy in relation to this particular matter. If a private business makes a mistake with a customer, it does not go back to the customer years later and say, `Gosh, we made a mistake; we want our money back.' It is the last thing that it would do. If a business makes a mistake, it wears the mistake. I know that legislation has gone through the parliament that deals with administrative errors and the question of whether organisations, such as Centrelink, are able to write off particular mistakes or whether they have to seek to recover them.

I came across an issue in Townsville last week which I thought was most unfair. For something like six years a carer had been clearly caring for their mum and dad and also their disabled brother. They all lived in the one house on the one piece of land, but they all had individual units in this one house and there were no connecting doors. Under the rules of Centrelink, you are not a carer in the sense of receiving a carer's pension, or having the ability to receive one, unless you live on the premises. The problem was that, in truth, the carer did live on the premises but there were no connecting doors. The carer fully disclosed this situation to Centrelink at the time of asking for a carer's payment, and the carer's payment was approved. Several years later Centrelink came back and said to that particular carer: `You weren't entitled to that payment. We've made an overpayment; we would like you to pay back $8,000, please.' I reckon that is very unfortunate. I know it is the rules and I know that Centrelink made a mistake in the first place, but, equally so, I believe that Centrelink have a responsibility not to seek the recovery of that particular debt, that style of debt, when they made the mistake in the first place.

Ms Hall —You passed the legislation.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Shortland will have an opportunity in a second.

Mr LINDSAY —Turning to the bill itself and not the amendment, I do not think there is any argument in relation to the point about compensation payments made by Germany and Austria being excluded from the social security and veterans' entitlement income test. I think that that is perfectly reasonable, and this bill will exclude any such payment from the income test, regardless of the country making it. Ex gratia payments are being made now in anticipation of the legislation being passed, so I hope that it does in fact go through the parliament. This measure is just to update the current policy on income treatment of Holocaust payments.

Another matter that the bill deals with is in relation to targeting social security fraud, particularly where people use the cash economy and false identities to evade detection. I do not think anybody could argue with that. I think the government have a responsibility and a right to make sure that we detect fraud in any way that we can lawfully do so, and this particular measure gives us the legal teeth to do that. It will allow limited access to newly available sources of data on taxation and financial transaction activities to combat this fraud. These sorts of data-matching operations are now getting quite sophisticated and they are working very well. I think the taxpayer will applaud the government for making sure that we are catching any person who attempts to use the cash economy or a false identity to evade detection. I can say—and I checked this when I was reviewing the legislation—that this legislation has been drafted in consultation with the Privacy Commissioner. The Information Law Branch of the Attorney-General's Department has been involved and so has AUSTRAC, the privacy advisory group. I also understand that the Child Support Agency will resume access to financial transaction information from AUSTRAC as well.

I said that I would speak for only 10 minutes, so I would just like to conclude—and allow the member for Shortland to speak—by paying tribute to the men and women in Centrelink in Townsville and Thuringowa. We have three offices in Townsville and Thuringowa. They are all staffed by the most wonderful people. They really look after my office. They really look after our customers and theirs, and they do everything they can to update the way they give exceptional customer service. I want to thank the men and women in Centrelink in Townsville and Thuringowa for the very great work they do on behalf of the Australian government and for their customers.