Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1665

Mr BIDGOOD (10:39 AM) —I rise to speak in favour of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. I acknowledge what the member for Lyne has said: these are very difficult circumstances. When you have desperate situations and you look at outcomes and the history of what has actually happened, you do have to come up with urgent and exceptional emergency measures to deal with the current situation. For the people of Dawson and for the people across Australia I would say that nobody likes overt government intervention into the very way they live their personal everyday lives. But sometimes there are exceptional circumstances which require government to take urgent and exceptional measures such as these.

The basic intent of this act is to meet many commitments by the government to the needs of people, not just in the Northern Territory and Queensland. But, as the member for Lyne has rightly said: ‘Are all people equal? Are all people treated the same?’ This act seeks to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act and its application to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, to retain the benefits of the welfare reform and to extend the benefits of income management to the wider community.

It also provides a stronger legislative basis for the current Northern Territory Emergency Response measures and lays the foundations for sustainable development across remote communities in the Northern Territory. It demonstrates our commitment to sustained long-term action in the Northern Territory, working in partnership with Indigenous Australians to develop and drive policies and programs to help close the gap. At the end of the day, the role of government is to help and improve the lives of everyday people whoever they are and wherever they are in this great country. There are clearly statistical reasons that show we have to close the gap—for example, some people’s health is more severely affected than others. We are seeking to address these issues through this act.

On a national scale, this bill also tackles the entrenched cycle of passive welfare through a new system of income management and incentives to support people moving from welfare to personal responsibility and independence. That is the whole purpose—to make people independent and self-sufficient.

The bill reflects the government’s determination to put children and families at the centre of our welfare reform agenda. I do not think there would be anyone in this place who would argue that we must look after the children; they are defenceless, whoever they may be and in whichever community they may be. We need to address those issues very clearly in this legislation.

There are, obviously, a number of controversial issues here. I do not believe that anybody takes these measures lightly; they would rather the situation that people be self-determined and self-sufficient. But as I said earlier, sometimes desperate situations require an urgent emergency response. There were key points in limiting the antidiscrimination laws. In 2008 the government promised it would lift the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, and this bill gives effect to that commitment. The exceptions that will be repealed are the provisions that suspend the operation of the RDA and the Northern Territory antidiscrimination laws in relation to the NTER and related legislation, and also the Queensland antidiscrimination laws in relation to the Queensland Family Responsibilities Commission and the Cape York welfare reform trial. Also the Queensland government has been consulted about the repeal of the provisions that related to the Cape York welfare reform trial.

The Northern Territory government has been advised of the range of measures included in this bill. Northern Territory officials have been closely involved in the development of the amendments to alcohol restrictions. Minister Macklin has briefed the Chief Minister on the proposed changes to the income management arrangements in the Northern Territory. The repeals will take effect from the end of 31 December 2010. This time frame will allow the redesignated NTER measures, which will be implemented from 1 July 2010, to be rolled out.

This legislation will enable a non-discriminatory income management model that targets categories of people who have been identified as at risk of exceptional disadvantage. The legislation will specify that this new scheme of income management will come into effect from 1 July 2010. It will be rolled out on an area-by-area basis across the Northern Territory. There will be a 12-month transition period, which will be completed by the end of June 2011. Initially, income management will be extended to all of the Northern Territory and will be rolled out on an area-by-area basis, in the same way that existing income management schemes were rolled out in 2007. The new scheme of income management will commence across the Northern Territory in urban, regional and remote areas—as a first step in a future national rollout of income management to disadvantaged regions.

The operation of the new scheme of income management in the Northern Territory will be carefully evaluated. The first evaluation progress report is expected in 2011-12. The other income management trials currently underway in Western Australia and Queensland will continue to be evaluated. Future rollout elsewhere in Australia will be informed by the evidence gained from this evaluation activity. That is a key point: it is the evidence of what actually happens that counts here. There has to be a true, honest evaluation of everything that is done. Future implementation will also be informed by other criteria, including the evidence of disadvantage in Australia and consideration of where income management could benefit individuals and families. The Northern Territory has been chosen as a site for initial implementation based on the persistence of high levels of disadvantage and the existence of BasicsCard and income management infrastructure.

The groups that will be subject to income management under the new model are disengaged youth, long-term welfare payment recipients, vulnerable welfare payment recipients, people referred for income management by the Northern Territory Child Protection Authority and people who voluntarily opt in to income management. With respect to disengaged youth, this refers to people aged 15 to 24 who have been in receipt of youth allowance, Newstart allowance or special benefit or parenting payments for 13 weeks in the past 26 weeks.

As to pathways for exemption for disengaged youth, exemptions will be determined by assessment against objective criteria, including that a person can demonstrate personal responsibility, life skills and social inclusion behaviour for themselves and their children. The exemption criteria are: (a) parents—for example, parenting payment recipients—with demonstrated parental responsibility of school-aged children. This is demonstrated by regular attendance at school—no more than five unauthorised absences per school term for the last two terms. Parents also need to pass a Centrelink financial and housing stability assessment. With respect to parents of children under compulsory school age, there needs to be evidence of responsible parenting, such as regular attendance at playgroups or other early childhood activity or evidence of regular participation in child health checks, combined with an up-to-date immunisation record. Parents also need to pass a Centrelink financial and housing stability assessment. The second criteria (b) is for non-parents—that is, Newstart or youth allowance recipients. There needs to be evidence of work or study—that is, people have worked 26 weeks in the last 52 weeks for at least 15 hours a week at the minimum wage; and, for study, people are studying full time. Part-time study would not qualify.

The second point in this legislation is the long-term welfare recipients—people aged 25 and above, and younger than age pension age, who have been in receipt of the following payments for 52 weeks in the last 104 weeks: youth allowance, Newstart allowance, special benefit or parenting payments. People in this category will also be asked to seek exemption from income management. For parents and non-parents, the pathways to exemption will be the same as those for those in the disengaged youth category.

The third point is the referral for income management by child protection authorities in the Northern Territory of persons in receipt of the following payments: all social security pensions and benefits, including Austudy, Abstudy, where payment includes living allowance; and DVA service pension. We will be seeking to enter into a bilateral agreement with the Northern Territory government to enable referral by Northern Territory child protection workers. This will be based on the current Western Australia trial but will be tailored to the Northern Territory situation and modified to reflect some lessons learned so far from Western Australia. As to pathways for exemption for child protection referrals, exit will be determined by the Northern Territory child protection workers, although people can seek a review of the decision to apply income management.

A fourth key point is referral of vulnerable welfare payment recipients for income management by Centrelink social workers. People could be referred for reasons including vulnerability to financial crisis, domestic violence, economic abuse and homelessness—for example, people living in the long grass. The relevant payments for this measure are the same as those for the child protection measure. In regard to pathways for exemption for vulnerable welfare payment recipients, exit will be determined by Centrelink social workers, although people could seek a review of the decision to apply income management.

A fifth point is voluntary opt-in to income management. There will be people who would like to opt in. The relevant payments for this measure are the same as those for child protection. No exemption is required for this measure, as people can opt out of voluntary income management after 13 weeks.

People on CDEP on receipt of income support will be subject to income management once they meet the criteria set out above. CDEP activities do not count as paid work. People who are on grandfathered CDEP wages until 30 June 2011 will not be income managed, as they are technically employed.

Currently, there are around 15,000 people being income managed. We estimate that approximately 18,000 people will be compulsorily income managed under the proposals, with approximately 5,000 people covered in the under-25 category and 30,000 people in the 25 years or greater category and the long-term unemployed category. Other key statistics include that an extra 28 per cent will be from the urban areas, around 5,000 people; four per cent from rural areas, 1,000 people; and 68 per cent from remote areas, 12,000 people. Of these, 4,500 are in Darwin. Obviously these are estimates and further work will be done on these figures. In addition to the 18,000, approximately 2,000 people may also volunteer. Referrals by Northern Territory child protection staff are likely to be approximately 100 per year.

The welfare system has historically been providing essential support for individuals in need. It was particularly targeted at ensuring that women and children had access to the necessities of life. Governments have a responsibility to ensure that income support is directed to meeting essential needs, particularly where recipients are vulnerable or unable to fend for themselves. That is a good role for government. A range of sources for these issues include the Report on the Northern Territory emergency response redesign consultations and a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. This report has shown that income management is proving to be an effective tool for improving access to food for children and providing financial security for vulnerable people, and in some of the most disadvantaged circumstances in Australia. That is a good thing. There is evidence to prove it is highly beneficial. These sources indicate that there is a growing acceptance of income management but that people felt hurt and ashamed by the way income management was introduced with little consultation and did not understand why it only applied to Aboriginal people. Income management can act as a circuit-breaker, helping to stabilise the home environment for people by ensuring the basics of life are met.

There is considerable evidence that indicates a range of negative outcomes for people with early and/or long-term dependence on income support, including poor social and health outcomes, financial vulnerability and risky use of alcohol as well as the risk of long-term exclusion and the intergenerational transmission of a welfare dependency. Unemployment payments are intended to be short-term solutions, not a way of life. In line with the government’s policy of earn or learn, income management will provide young people with a tool to help them use these payments responsibly and to save for the future. Those who are engaged in paid work and/or substantial study and those who exercise financial and parental responsibility in relation to their dependent children will be exempted on the basis that they do not require the additional support income management provides.

In conclusion, this is what government is about: helping people who are less fortunate due to exceptional circumstances. The circumstances being addressed here are truly desperate and truly exceptional. We look at the evidence and we look at the history of what has happened and we have to be honest with ourselves as a government and say when things are good and when things are not good. We need to address the tough areas. These are exceptional measures of intervention into the everyday lives of people who are struggling, but the evidence shows that there has been an improvement and that there are benefits. With this in mind, I endorse the bill before the House today.