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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1903

Senator CHAMARETTE (4.59 p.m.) —The chamber has before it the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1994, which contains a range of measures affecting a number of areas in the Social Security Act. It seems we will never be free of social security bills. On past and present performance almost every one of them will contain corrections due to previous oversights, bad drafting or the government will be wanting to change things due to unintended consequences. This bill contains what would be described as `the works' if it were a hamburger menu item.

  I am pleased to say, however, that the first part of the bill, the disability wage supplement, fits into none of those categories. It is by any evaluation a positive measure designed to add to the dignity of people with disabilities who are able to participate in employment. The disability wage supplement was announced at the time of the 1993 budget and is now finding its way into legislation. The Greens welcome this move. I know that it is the result of extensive consultation by the government with the disability networks over a considerable period of time.

  The aim of the disability wage supplement is to enable people to maintain a partial income from the disability support pension if they take up work at reduced rates of pay calculated according to their productive capacity. There are, however, some concerns. The legislation has been written in such a way that, if a person participates in the disability wage supplement but then moves out of employment, he or she will not automatically revert to a disability support pension. This defies logic as a person's involvement in the disability wage supplement scheme is predicated on their being a disability support pension recipient prior to entering the work force.

  If such a person was on the disability support pension when he or she began work and moved onto the disability wage supplement as a result of taking up a job, why on earth should that person not be able to go back to the disability support pension without re-establishing qualifications? As the disability support pension is subject to review, let the review process pick up any changes, but for goodness sake do not put people through more hoops, particularly if their self-esteem has been damaged by an inability to maintain a job. I hope to hear that an amendment to address this is forthcoming from the government. The Democrats, through Senator Lees, have also addressed some of the concerns in this area.

  I move on to imprisonment provisions. The bill also incorporates what is now a standard provision in the principal act in relation to penalties for failure to provide information about changes in a recipient's circumstances. New sections relating to the disability wage supplement scheme provide that a person may be gaoled for six months for failure to comply with a notice given by the department. In my view this is utterly inappropriate. It may be seen to be routine, but it is ridiculous to be using imprisonment penalties as enforcement for administrative responsibilities for a group that is already trying to gain some redress through the disability wage supplement scheme. I will be putting amendments before the Senate in relation to this—I believe they have been circulated—and maybe some changes in similar sections, and I will save my detailed remarks for the committee stage.

  I would at this point state categorically that it is absolutely inappropriate to consider putting someone in prison for such a breach of the act. Prison, according to accepted government policy, is a punishment of last resort. I am putting the government on notice that I will use every opportunity to put amendments to such provisions in this and other legislation. Also, something that will be raised in the committee stage of this debate is a recognition that women suffer imprisonment for social security infringements beyond all proportion in relation to their share of the social security measures.

  The bill also amends that section of the act relating to the treatment of shares and other securities held by social security recipients. This section falls within one or other of the `oops' categories that I mentioned earlier. It is significant that these amendments are being introduced with so little fanfare as the provisions as they currently stand in the act were given enormous publicity both by the government and by those who opposed them. Regrettably, the proposed change does not go far enough and it is my intention to circulate an amendment at the committee stage.

  I welcome the move by the government to ensure that people are not kept from their entitlements to social security payments because of a time lag between amendments to the Migration Act and consequential amendments to the Social Security Act. However, it must be said that this situation would not arise if there was not so much tinkering with the legislation going on.

  In relation to pension age for women, I heartily endorse Senator Lees's earlier comments on this issue. I simply wish to add that the Greens will be opposing the measure to raise the pension age for women to 65 years over a period of some 20 years because it will have an adverse impact on women at the point in their lives when they are arguably economically most vulnerable and because the change makes no sense at a time when the effective retirement age for men must be coming down due to the vast numbers of forced and voluntary redundancies being experienced in all sectors of the work force.

  Finally, I speak about tax file numbers. The bill also provided the government with a legislative opportunity to respond to John Malloch's tax file number case. We notice that this has resulted in the redrafting of a portion of the act. While I can understand the desire of the government to close the loophole which came to light in Mr Malloch's case, the response contains something of an overreaction, I think.

  The claimant and the claimant's partner can be requested, to use the careful terminology of the most recent amendment circulated by the minister, to provide their tax file numbers twice—once at the point of making the claim and once when the claim has been decided and they move into the category of being recipients. It has been put to me that the department would not ask twice so it is nothing to worry about, but there are in fact two issues of concern here. The first is that if the department does not intend to ask twice, why give it the power to do so? It simply invites placing additional burdens on people. Surely it is sufficient to have the power to request the number to be given once and once only, whether that be at claim point or recipient point.

  The second issue is the whole matter of the tax file number becoming more and more an identifier, an issue I notice the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills mentioned. This was not the announced intention behind the tax file number when the concept of its broader use was introduced in 1988. If the government wants to make it a universal identifier, it should do so openly.

  The Privacy Commissioner has also commented on this provision. His advice resulted in the amendments circulated, as I mentioned. We are now in a situation where the Privacy Commissioner has objected to the degree of compulsion expressed in the original form of the bill but has allowed that if a person is requested to provide a tax file number then all will be well.

  There is, of course, some absurd logic behind this notion of non-compulsion. A person can refuse to provide a tax file number, but that person will not get the benefit or pension. A person is free to refuse at the expense of livelihood. Of course, we have already had this logic in other aspects of government. It is the same argument the government uses when speaking about the asylum seekers in Port Hedland: `They are not being detained against their will because they can leave at any time they like, as long as they withdraw their application for refugee status and accept being sent back to the country they fled from.'

  I would like to remind honourable senators of the rights and freedoms we were promised by the government when it extended the tax file number system after the Australia card misadventure. We were told that the tax file number would not become a universal identifier, that providing one would be voluntary when dealing with institutions, especially governments and so on. We were told that if we were involved in a financial relationship, such as holding a bank account, we could not be compelled to provide a tax file number, as long as we were prepared to have tax withheld at source.

  We have certainly moved a long way since then. If only people who applied for social security benefits could have such an option. But, no. They are told: `Hand over the number or give up your benefit.' But we should not be too surprised by this development. After all, the Department of Social Security has the same attitude towards the method of payment people must accept. They either have a bank account or they do not get their benefit. Of course, there is some twisted logic which says that it is not compulsory. After all, they can always decide not to apply for a benefit.

  If the government wants to use the tax file number as a universal identifier, then I think the Australian people should be told about it. However, if the aim is to have the tax file number as an identifier only for social security recipients, then the government should be condemned for treating that group in the community as untrustworthy or as somehow people to be put under surveillance.

  Finally, I turn to the family payments rate calculator. Lastly, we have a good news item in the bill. The adjustment to the family payments rate calculator is welcome as a fulfilment of a budget commitment made last year. I believe I have made clear those issues in the bill with which we have difficulties and have indicated to the government where we would like to see changes made.