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Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Page: 20677

Mr RIPOLL (6:26 PM) —I am pleased to speak on the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2003 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2003. It is one of those bills that more closely represents the true position of many of the constituents in the seat of Oxley and the pain and suffering they go through because of the policies of this government. Most bills that come through this place have an attached doublespeak or nastiness—a more appropriate word to use—contained within the policies put forward by the government, and this bill is no different. This bill wraps up in a sort of fancy wrapping a few good measures, including some administrative changes, that the government needs to implement, and we would support those changes. But it hides within it a whole range of very mean-spirited and nasty measures that should not be supported and are not supported and which are the subject of a second reading amendment by the shadow minister, the member for Lilley.

This bill gives effect to most of the family and community services and veterans affairs budget measures that require legislative changes. This bill also gives effect to a 2001 budget measure upon which the 2003 measure relating to a recovery of overpayments arising from lump sum foreign pension payments depends. The introduction of this bill again demonstrates that the government is only interested in increasing revenue flows, without taking into account the vulnerabilities of those Australians that it will affect.

I will quickly go through what is contained in the bill. It includes the reduction of the portability period for social security from 26 weeks to 13 weeks. That will severely disadvantage many Australians, particularly those Australians who were born overseas and who need to travel abroad for short periods to visit sick or dying relatives or for whatever reason.

There is also data matching with pensions authorities in the Netherlands. That has enabled Centrelink to take huge amounts of money out of the pockets of those Dutch pensioners who have been overpaid as a result of administrative errors and miscalculations over great number of years. This has caused great pain to the Dutch community not only in my electorate but also right across Australia. That has come about from a system that probably, right from the very beginning, was not coping with the type of information it needed when Australia signed a reciprocal social security agreement with the Netherlands. There is also the recovery action by Centrelink in relation to that particular case of the Dutch community, which I believe has severely traumatised many people in that community. Those people have lost trust, lost faith, in their government, in the government that is supposed to govern for all Australians and does not do that.

This bill before us also regulates the recovery of foreign pension payments made as a lump sum in arrears. This change will create heartache in the multicultural communities in my electorate and right across the country, because it is going to be applied retrospectively. The people who receive these foreign pensions were of the belief and understanding in agreements for some time that those payments would not be taken into consideration for recovery purposes at a later date, and now the government is travelling down this path.

What we have seen over the last two budgets is a government that has put in place measures to pursue debt at an incredibly ferocious rate. The ferocity of debt recovery from those who are most vulnerable in our society has been overwhelming. If only the government would apply the same rigour, the same enthusiasm, to other areas which might need some attention: corporate tax arrangements; corporate high-flyers and the payments they get; moneys owed to workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, because of company closures or companies going bust, where superannuation was not paid, and so forth. There are so many areas in which the government could apply the same rigour, the same enthusiasm, to those who are little bit tougher to get maybe but who are probably more important in the long run. Instead, what we see is a government that applies, as I said, this incredible rigour and enthusiasm to going down every burrow and every hole, pursuing the frail, the aged, the weak—those most unable to fend for themselves or defend themselves and most unable to cope with the changes that are being imposed on them.

What we have seen this week is some major changes in the Howard government's frontbench ministry. We have seen the government make some big changes, particularly in the area of family and community services, where we have seen the minister, Amanda Vanstone, removed from her post and given another post. At the end of the day, Minister Vanstone was moved because she failed. She has failed as a minister. She has failed to reform. She has failed to do the things that this government promised it would do—govern for all Australians in terms of welfare reform, not welfare attacks—and hence we have seen this major change.

The government has failed to reform the flawed family payments rules and system. This is a system which has affected almost one million families across Australia, with debts over the last two years of around $1 billion. That is $1 billion that this government is ripping out of the pockets of around one million families. The government has failed to reform that system, a system which needs so much work to make it work for all Australians, to make it work effectively. The minister has been removed from her responsibilities because she has failed to deliver on paid maternity leave, which the government said it would deliver. This was going to be a scheme for all Australian families. The government has got some ideas on how this might work, but it never actually implemented it. It always does something but not what is required.

The minister has failed to address those punishing effective marginal tax rates that are hitting working families harder than anybody else in the community. I am not talking about the corporate high-flyers who earn huge six-figure sums; I am talking about ordinary Australian families, who today if they are earning the average income are struggling to survive. They are struggling to survive in a new world, a new economy, a Howard economy under a Howard government, a Howard world where those who work hard are punished, where those who work overtime are punished, where those who do the right thing are punished. You cannot meet the requirements put forward by this government. Nobody can. The reality that nobody can is evidenced by the number of families that it affects—all of them. How can everybody get it wrong? The reality is that they do not get it wrong. The reality is that the system just does not work. The reality is that the system that is put in place by this government is designed to not work. That is the belief I have. I think the belief that most Australian families have now is that they are part of a system that is designed against them. It is not designed to help, aid or make life easier. At the end of the day, that should be the charter of the government, the charter of the departments: to try to assist, to try to help. What is the point is of having family tax benefit A or B if it is not there to assist people? If it is there to make them more frustrated, to incur debt for them, to make life hard for them, what is the point of having that system there? That is the reality of what is happening in Australia right now.

If you visit a Centrelink office, go and look at the queues, go and look at the frustration, go and talk to the people who have to stand there for two to three hours to be served—not because people at Centrelink are not doing their job but because the people at Centrelink cannot do their job, because they are not too sure what they are supposed to do. They are not sure what they are supposed to do, because the government changes the rules every fortnight. Every fortnight there is some policy change, there is some regulation change or there is some sort of new rule. It is so complex that if you asked three different people in any Centrelink agency, and in fact in the department, the same question exactly—a very simple one, correctly worded, but the same question—you would get three different answers. There would be stark differences—not just an interpretive difference but a complete difference at opposite ends of the spectrum. There is a dichotomy of information in organisations such as Centrelink. No-one is too sure what the rules are. They change often. They are very complicated. In fact, when I look at them I sometimes have trouble interpreting exactly what the government is driving at. What is that rule exactly? When you ask somebody in Centrelink to explain it to you, they have problems explaining it.

Take that concept and apply it to people in the community—people who may have literacy problems, who may be frustrated by the system, who have got better things to do, honestly, than spend two hours in a queue only to be told when they get to the front of it that they stood in the wrong queue and that they are actually supposed to talk to somebody in the other line. If Centrelink staff cannot themselves digest, interpret and apply consistently across the board the rules, the regulations, the mile-high stacks of volumes of government legislation, the policy, the attitude and the correction of the way it is meant to be implemented, how are ordinary people walking into those places—who have got much better things to do, like looking for employment, if that is what they are doing—meant to do it? How are they meant to fill out those super-complex forms?

I have a copy of the package in my office, which I have had a brief look at. It is about the new system—again, another new system—the filling out of forms, the reporting of income and how it is supposed to be all made simple. Just from a cursory look, just flicking through it, I thought: `My God, I'm going to need an accountancy degree to fill this out 100 per cent. It's going to take me hours.' It would literally take me hours to do this. I looked at it and thought, `How frustrating it must be to have to do that.' And not only do you do it once—it is not like tax where you do it once a year—you have to do it every fortnight. Every fortnight you have to subject yourself to this process that annoys you, makes you angry and causes you to have all sorts of rage. At the end of the day, it just frustrates people.

This is what the government and the minister, who has now been removed and gone off unfortunately to another area where she will probably do the same thing, do. They are punishing Australians. The real question you need to ask is: what are the government punishing these people for? That is the question you need to ask the government. They are punishing them for working overtime. They are punishing them for reporting what they estimate they are earning. The evidence is there that, no matter how hard you try—there are even those who deliberately now overestimate by two or three times to try to get out of this problem—you are punished. You do not want a debt at the end of the year; nobody wants a debt. Do government ministers want a debt at end of the year? No. People just want to get their payment, keep life simple and do things honestly. That is what the majority of Australians do; they are honest and want to do the right thing. In all the discussions we have, in all the policies we make, it is not about catching criminals or people who are dishonest; it is about the mistakes that are made—and they are usually made because the system itself does not work.

We are also going to see that the 30,000 parents who are caring for children with disabilities are just weeks away from having their care allowance payments removed and reviewed. These people do not have enough on their plates—that is what the government must think. They must think that parents caring for children with disabilities have a really easy life. It is a smooth, easy life, where they get up and just do whatever they want to do on a daily basis. The reality is so different. The reality is that these people have so much care to give, so much love to give and so much work to do to give their children a good shot at life and to do the best they can. All they ask of the government is to be on their side—that is all. They do not ask for a lot. The money they get is not a lot, so it cannot be that. All they ask for is somebody to be on their side, for somebody to care as they care.

But this government does not care, as evidenced by this bill, which is going to take away the little support that people have. And where it does not take it away, it makes new, very hard and complicated rules and introduces more forms to fill out. It gets to the point where people decide, `Maybe we don't need these payments that badly.' Of course, only a few have that choice where they may not need it that badly and do not want to participate any more. Most do not have a choice; they are forced to participate. Not only do they have all the caring responsibilities, all the angst and anguish that must go with parents caring for children with disabilities, they also have to deal with a government that makes life difficult for them. They must ask themselves: `Why is the government doing this to me? Why does this government hate me so much? Why does it hate my family so much?' Why does it? What is it about this government, about the agenda, and about the ideological persuasion of these ministers and this Prime Minister that make them want to make life so hard for people? I cannot understand it and I am sure they cannot either.

There must be a way that this government can come up with some simpler methods—methods which are rigorous but simple. We all want people to be accountable. People want to be accountable. But you have to make it at least possible for them to be accountable and possible for them to do the job that you require of them. When this government talks about mutual responsibility, it is not talking about a level playing field and a fair trade. It is not talking about that at all; it is talking about a continual change, about continually making life harder and more complex, and about continually shifting the goal posts. That is what it does, no matter what it says. When it talks about other bills—for instance, the `fairer work, more pay' bill—it is the complete opposite. This is what I started with: the Orwellian doublespeak of this government that, by merely saying something is so, it is. We all know that it is not, because it is contained in the detail of the bill, not in the title.

I cannot go on without mentioning one of the interesting things about Minister Vanstone's removal from this portfolio by the Prime Minister, and it is his version of why. The Prime Minister claimed that Senator Patterson, the minister moving into the families portfolio, would have greater sensitivity in the way she deals with the families job than Senator Vanstone had. What does the prime minister mean by that? Does he mean that the new minister will have greater sensitivity than the old minister? That is pretty obvious; it is something that we have known for a long time. The old minister did not have any at all; there was no sensitivity. The old minister did everything that she could to make life hard. There is a litany of comments and views by the minister of her attitude towards people who are struggling. One of the most recent ones that comes to mind is when the minister was being questioned about what would happen to age pensioners if they could not afford to repay to the government the debts that they had incurred through no fault of their own. Her response was simple and one that probably you or I or normal people would never dream of saying. The interviewer asked:

What if they don't have the cash?

Vanstone: Well, we would look at their assets.

Interviewer: So you would be prepared to sell up their family homes?

Vanstone: Well, I would be.

I think that speaks volumes for this government and this minister. Simplicity where it counts for the government is in what you do to rip out the debt from those who cannot afford to pay. What are you going to do with them? Just sell out their homes. If you cannot pay, do not worry, because the government is now looking at a credit card system where, if you owe a debt to the Commonwealth, you will simply pay it back on your credit card. You are already in debt; you already have nothing; you already have no assets; you cannot afford to repay it. It will take it out of your measly, miserly payments every fortnight. And, on top of that, it will add to the woes of this country—already with the largest credit card debt in history—by promoting more debt and shoving people's noses right into it. It is just incredible.

The debt recovery systems that this government is putting in place are beyond belief. It is like something out of a bad novel in which you read about a government that seeks people out and spends a fortune on technology, not to help people but to trawl back through their affairs and find the minute detail, the tiny little errors. These were made through no-one's fault, because the technology did not exist at the time. Nobody knew those debts were incurred. In fact, no-one worried about them, because they were part of the normal system—the mechanisms—of how payments are made. But now the government has the new technology, the new-found desire and the rigour and enthusiasm I was talking about to trawl through and find these small debts. They are small debts but they add up over long periods to a lot of money that people cannot afford. So it is not only happening in the Dutch community, with the Dutch-Australian pension and the guarantees they were given—people are getting letters for debts of $10,000 or $15,000. These people are in the traumatic situation where they want to pay it back but do not know how; they are given a deadline and they are considering how they are going to do it. We are talking about 85-year-olds who have trouble with the language. Does the government take that into consideration? No, it does not. This government is not interested.

Debt recovery is one of the biggest problems we have in terms of what this government is trying to do. If it was debt recovery in terms of trying to seek out businesses that have not paid superannuation for workers before the business goes under, I would be cheering the government and saying, `It is about time you did something positive for ordinary families and workers in this country who have lost everything because of a company that did not pay their superannuation for years and years.' What all this means is quite simple: the government is prepared to put energy, money, effort and enthusiasm, like no-one has ever seen before, into hitting the weak, frail and aged—those least able to defend themselves—and at the same time it shows a blind eye and turns its back on those with the greatest wealth and assets. The government says: `Those people we will look at later—much, much later.' What this government needs to do is make amends and do something that helps ordinary Australians. (Time expired)

Debate (on motion by Fran Bailey) adjourned.