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Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Page: 20669

Mr HATTON (5:53 PM) —I am happy to debate with my colleagues here, along broadly the same lines, our support for the general provisions of the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2003 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2003. But, as indicated by the shadow minister, particular areas of this bill are subject to Labor amendment here and, as has been foreshadowed, in the Senate. They are areas where we think the government provisions are unfair and would be imposed in a way which would cause significant harm and difficulty for those people who are least able to pay. This legislation is a conglomerate, a collection of a series of different proposals in the family and community services area and also in veterans' affairs. It covers a very wide range of matters. Much of it is non-controversial, and it is to the non-controversial parts of this bill that I want to go in the first instance.

Almost all of these measures relate to measures foreshadowed in the 2003 budget. There is also a measure that harks back to 2001. There is a very small measure in the legislation, which we are supporting action on, with regard to the Child Support Agency—which originally had information available to it and has not had that information available for some time. This bill proposes that information from the AUSTRAC database, which takes account of tracking sums of money of more than $10,000 that are taken out of Australia in cash, be made available to the Child Support Agency. Because that database is controlled by the Australian Taxation Office—it is their responsibility; they have carriage of it—previously there was an absolute fit, because the information was available to the Child Support Agency as part of that department. However, in 1998 purely administrative changes were made. Since then there has been an uncoupling of that information.

Labor say that the government is quite right in determining in this legislation that information from the AUSTRAC database should be made available again to provide information about child support liabilities so that those individuals who have since 1998 sought to avoid their responsibilities can be brought to account through this mechanism. The indications from the government are that probably a fairly small amount of money is involved. But the question of principle is very important here. Closing an avenue where people might not have to sign up to their responsibilities is important. It is a clear and simple administrative measure to take, and we are supporting it.

The fundamental basis for that support goes back to the fact that the Child Support Agency was set up under Labor. Previously, many people were in a position where they chose not to continue to support their children after a marriage breakdown, even though they were capable of it. When Labor brought legislation into place to set up the Child Support Agency it was on the fundamental basis that once two people have children it is their responsibility as parents to look to the care and the future of those children and that, if a marriage dissolves, one or either of the partners should not be in a position to forgo the financial responsibility that was occasioned when they were a couple. Ensuring that the system works properly and well is fundamentally important. Making sure that there is no easy way for people to get out of their responsibility is necessary and important, and we support that.

Assurance of support is another relatively minor matter. It is a question of where it is best sought administratively. In my electorate office, over the years the bulk of our work has been with immigration cases and social security. We know those matters extremely well and understand the problems that people often have in dealing with assurances of support and in dealing with the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, and Centrelink. This bill properly proposes that the administration should be in one place: Centrelink. The opposition agrees that that is a reasonable and sensible thing to do. For people who have signed up for assurances of support, having the one agency to monitor all of that not only is sensible but also will help those people who have signed up in the first place. Dealing with different government departments can be difficult. In the city of Bankstown it has become more difficult now than it was in the past because this government closed down our immigration office—as they closed down our Taxation Office. In having to deal with two different departments, people have to travel to Parramatta or the city or other places in Sydney in order to transact their business with the department of immigration. It would therefore be a direct help to them to deal with Centrelink, because they can deal with them directly in Bankstown.

In terms of providing consistent advice and getting the right outcome for people, this is an indication of where, in the two measures mentioned so far, doing things better administratively is important. It is usually very difficult to attain, but we want greater simplicity both for the agencies who are providing the services and for the people who are seeking to avail themselves of those services. We want it to be as simple and straightforward as possible. This is particularly the case, of course, where people have difficulty with English, where they have come to English as a second language, and where they have difficulty in dealing with the intricacies of bureaucratic procedures and approaches. Often in the countries that people have originally come from, the bureaucratic standards and approaches are not what we have in Australia—they are a great deal more lax, more casual and more open to misinterpretation. It comes hard for some people to deal directly with agencies, even though there are translation capacities available to people working in departments. Having one source of advice will be a boon in regard to the manner in which this proceeds.

Another relatively non-controversial matter is the question of people who go overseas for a short period of time. They build up a debt, which accrues whilst they are overseas. This bill attempts to change the social security debt recovery provisions to allow for the full recovery of overpayments that arise when a foreign pension payment is made as a lump sum in arrears. The amendments seek to enable the recovery from that person or the person's partner, and it is expected that all up, while the previous provision was expected to save about $11.2 million, the government expects to save about $14.8 million here. That is a question of tidying up the arrangements that were made and signifying that those sorts of things should be done.

The very first matter, dealt with at the beginning of this bill in schedule 1, is the question of excluding payments for national socialist persecution from income. Currently, the Social Security Act provides that, in terms of moneys provided to people under the laws of both Germany and Austria, people who have been subjected to persecution by national socialism or sectors of that do not have the income they get as compensation payments taken into account. I will talk about what the changes here propose to do—and it is an almost strange set of arrangements, in that the existing law pretty well has the whole situation covered, and those changes were made some years ago. The explanatory memorandum says that it is covered off, but what is being provided for is a series of potential possibilities that may not be completely provided for, and, if that income could possibly be taken into account as income for social security purposes, there is a series of ways in which that will not be taken into account. I have no great problem with it except that it is interesting that it has arisen in this way when the law itself, as it stands, has proven over a number of years to be successful.

I am fully supportive of the regime that we currently have, given that, when I worked for the then Treasurer when he was the member for Blaxland, on his behalf I initiated the basic work which went into ensuring that people who received compensation payments because they had been persecuted by the Nazis—either because of the time they had spent in concentration camps such as Dachau or because they had been forced into slave labour in concentration camps or in factories—would be in a position where they would not lose out because the German and Austrian governments had finally determined to make restitution. It was the case that people used to have those amounts taken into account for both social security and taxation purposes. I argued with the then social security minister, as I put the case to the then Treasurer, that these cases were of such gravity and importance that, despite the restrictive nature and the bureaucratic cast of mind of our law makers, people who had suffered enormously—some to the point of almost having their own lives extinguished, as well as seeing the lives of members of their family, in some cases their parents and grandparents, extinguished—should not suffer further. They should not have to suffer the situation where, when finally some recompense—although not enough, because it never could be enough—was made to them to cover part of the damage that was done to them, there was an Australian set of bureaucratic arrangements which said, `You're getting income from overseas, therefore we'll take that income into account and we will knock down your pension,' or `We'll take this into account for taxable purposes.' It took quite a while because the bureaucratic cast of mind with this can be very strong. The argument was put that there were other people in similar circumstances who received compensation payments for this, that or whatever else and that you could not really extend the whole thing. Luckily the argument was finally won with the people who were responsible for this.

The second set of arrangements needed to be made later. The first set of arrangements was for people who had spent their time in concentration camps. The second set of arrangements where changes needed to be made and put into regulations was for people who had worked in labour camps or labour factories and had suffered. Some of them, at 15 years of age, had virtually served an apprenticeship, giving all their work from the age of 15 to 20 or so for national socialism rather than for themselves or for their country, and they had had taken away from them their future prospects of training in trades or professions and so on—that had been whipped away.

I understand that the particular changes that are being argued for here are being put in terms of what may happen. The payments are not only from Germany and Austria now; as the explanatory memorandum indicates, France, the Netherlands and Belgium have signed up to this as well. Given that they were occupied countries, there is some culpability there because people were taken from those countries to Germany or Poland and so on and made to work against their will.

This seems to be a set of provisions that covers whatever circumstances—for example, payments made by a national government or equivalent of any country or by the government or equivalent of any part of a country, such as a state or province, which is covered—if it is the law of a country or part of a country or it is the law applying in a country. My guess is that where a legalistic cast of mind is taken in the future, as there used to be in the past before I was able to assist in these changes being made, that should be covered off and we should ensure that that will not happen. For all of those people who suffered such degradation and were robbed of their youth and the joy of their lives, any legislation which does this is to be profoundly welcomed and I support it entirely.

As you, Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, would no doubt appreciate, I have found things in this bill that I cannot support in full. In fact, the shadow minister has covered those well in his presentation, as have my other colleagues. But I want to go to some of the particular problems. This is a question of a cast of mind where we do have controversial items—where Labor have said that, in particular cases, it is a question of how you go about things and the attitude that you have that can make all the difference.

People in difficult circumstances—and no matter how well some people might think people on pensions or benefits do get on, I know from the people in my electorate that they are in difficult circumstances—as well as those people who are in low-paid jobs are in situations where they cannot save all that much. We know that there has been case after case where people have been overpaid but where there has been no fraud or no intention of fraud on their part. Where you have a scheme of arrangement where people are allowed to pay back an overpayment over a period of time, attitude and approach are enormously important.

The opposition think that the provisions for how the government intends to pursue them—effectively putting the frighteners on people by putting very heavy-handed debt recovery teams into action—are inappropriate. Through the whole of our period in government and indeed the period up to now where people have had overpayments, questions need to be asked about not just the overpayments but how they arose in the first place.

One of the key problems of this set of specifications in this bill is the question of retrospective payments. Those retrospective payments go back about seven years. If the data matching between the Commonwealth and its agencies was inappropriate seven years ago and if seven years later someone is tagged and told, `You got too much then. Now we're going to make you pay it back with interest. You might have gone through that dough and it may be difficult but we want it back now,' and if it is in the hands of the debt collectors and there are demands that people either refinance, remortgage or sell their house or otherwise put themselves into real difficulty with credit card debt and so on, you have to ask just how viable and sensible that is as an approach.

Labor thinks you will actually do better out of people if you give them a reasonable run. We are not dealing here with people who have committed any intentional fraud whatsoever. It may be that they may have had income that was not taken into account because the data matching was not sufficient or not good enough or the government has changed the way it looks at how income comes to be. But it is also a question of how the approach can simply drive people further down and make their lives far too difficult.

In terms of our approach to this, we have said both here in this House and also in the Senate that given the nature of poverty in Australia, given the nature of circumstances of people and given the fact that the burden in a credit open and credit free society is growing—where the demands to do as others do and consume greatly is ever present and when virtually all the forces in society drive people towards that—belting people over the back of the hand if administrative errors are made by the departments is not the best way to go about things. If you make a reasonable and sensible set of arrangements with people for them to pay back within their capacity, that is a sensible and proper way to do it. You will probably get a lot better cooperation than driving people to the wall.

In the second part of our amendment, we condemn:

the Government's failure to strengthen debt recovery rules to prevent Centrelink pressur-ing the aged and disabled to mortgage or sell their homes or use credit cards to recover debts that have arisen because of adminis-trative errors rather than a deliberate attempt to defraud the Commonwealth.

We know that recovering debt is something that has to be done by the departments, but the whole general approach and attitude should be as human as it is in the first schedule, directed towards taking into full account people's circumstances, whether they are victims of National Socialist persecution or just ordinary Australians. (Time expired)