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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2870

Ms KATE ELLIS (Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and Minister for the Status of Women) (9:10 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The bill introduced today delivers on our government’s election commitment to modernise Australia’s welfare system and introduce tougher measures to ensure more unemployed people are getting back into work.

Our government believes that the task of managing the Australian economy is important in that it ensures that all Australians who are capable of work, have the opportunity to do so.

The Prime Minister has said that a job provides far more than just a pay packet and she is correct.

With it, a job brings dignity and purpose to a person’s life; it provides economic security for a family now and into the future; and it connects people with their communities, building a more socially cohesive Australia.

It is because we understand the value of having a job that when the global financial crisis threatened the jobs of so many Australians, it was this government that stood up and took action—saving hundreds of thousands of Australians from losing their job.

Our stimulus strategy created work opportunities for small businesses, tradespeople and suppliers in communities, towns and cities right around the country.

Australia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was five per cent in February 2010—around half that of the United States and of most European countries.

But with our economy returning to strength and our mining sector booming, now is not a time for complacency. It is a time to turn our sights to what still needs to be done.

There remain too many Australians who are without a job, some for a full year or more; too many Australians who are not engaging in mainstream economic and social life; too many Australians who are capable of work but have to rely on unemployment benefits.

We know that most job seekers are genuine in their efforts to find work.

For most, unemployment is temporary. But for some, unemployment has become long term. The government is willingly doing its part to ensure that those people are supported financially while they look for a job.

The government has advanced major reforms to Australia’s employment services that are providing much more effective assistance to job seekers. The greatest reform associated with the introduction of the new disability employment service has been the uncapping of program places, resulting in an additional 72,000 job seekers with disability accessing this service now compared with the previous coalition government. Also, Job Services Australia is delivering more tailored and flexible employment services with a particular focus on disadvantaged job seekers. As a result, since Job Services Australia began operating, 36 per cent of more than 686,500 job placements were for the most disadvantaged job seekers. Engagement by job seekers with those services is vital and that is what this bill is about.

For many years the rate at which job seekers attend appointments with employment service providers has been around 55 per cent. While some job seekers may unavoidably need to miss an appointment because they are genuinely sick, start a job at short notice or have other valid reasons, I believe that attendance at appointments—appointments designed to help job seekers get into work—can and must improve. This is why we made an election commitment to strengthen the compliance system.

This bill will introduce suspension of payment for job seekers following an initial failure to attend an appointment.

As soon as Centrelink is advised that a job seeker has missed an appointment with their employment services provider, or if the provider believes that the job seeker has become disengaged from an activity they are supposed to be participating in, Centrelink will suspend the job seeker’s payment. Job seekers who have been identified by Centrelink as vulnerable, such as those who are homeless or who have a mental illness, will not have their payments suspended in the first instance.

When Centrelink contacts the job seeker, another appointment will be booked for them. As part of this contact with Centrelink, if the job seeker agrees to attend the rescheduled appointment Centrelink will immediately release the job seeker’s payment, and they will get back paid. At that contact job seekers will also be very clearly advised by Centrelink that not attending the next appointment may result in both a suspension and a penalty through loss of payment.

All job seekers will be required to attend a rescheduled appointment—regardless of their reason for missing the first appointment. If the job seeker attends the rescheduled appointment, they will not be penalised.

However, if the job seeker does not attend the rescheduled appointment, payment will again be suspended. This time—if they do not have a reasonable excuse—they will lose payment for each day from the second missed appointment until they do attend a rescheduled appointment.

There will be no back payment for this period. This penalty will be deducted from their very next payment.

This bill is not about punishing Australians who have a valid reason for missing an appointment. Suspension is not about punishing job seekers for punishment’s sake. The job seeker is either paid back in full or payment resumes when they do what is required of them.

But these changes will give the job seeker no choice but to agree to re-engage with employment services and be serious about finding work—if they want to receive income support.

We want more job seekers actively engaging in work experience activities, in training, in participation programs so that they are getting the skills and experience that they need to find a sustainable job into the future.

Under current legislation, penalties for failing to reconnect cannot be deducted from the job seeker’s payment for the fortnight in which the penalty is applied—penalties must be deducted from a later payment.

The effect of this delay has been to disconnect the penalty from the failure to attend an appointment. By making the penalty more immediate we can provide a more direct deterrent for job seekers who are not taking their appointment responsibilities seriously.

This government is committed to lifting workforce participation and extending the benefits of work to more Australians of working age.

We will continue to do all we can to provide income support recipients with opportunities to work and in return we expect them to take responsibility for making the most of those opportunities. We are proud of our efforts, striving for record levels of participation in the Australian workforce.

The Australian economy is forecast to grow, with Treasury estimating real GDP growth of 3¼ per cent over 2010-11. Sound management of the Australian economy during this period has involved investment in infrastructure for our long-term benefit as well as job creation measures targeting our regions with high unemployment.

All Australians on income support should have the opportunity of work—but with opportunity comes responsibility—and with this bill we are going to firmly expect that people meet those responsibilities.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Ms Ley) adjourned.