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Thursday, 18 February 1999
Page: 2228

Senator CROWLEY —My question is directed to the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Newman. Is the minister aware that the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Mr Reith, in the cabinet document he released yesterday, indicates that she, Senator Newman, has also been invited by the Prime Minister to extend the concept of mutual obligation? Has the minister's department canvassed Minister Reith's proposal for a `redirect allowance' and to `couch work for the dole in terms of an employment relationship'? What is the response of the minister's department to the idea of giving people's allowances directly to local councils or community organisations, such as the Salvation Army, so that their benefit payment is hidden through make-work schemes? Does this proposal just double up administration processes for Centrelink, having payments paid by remote control, just to hide the real long-term unemployment figure, which blew out by another 11,000 last month to a total of 239,600 people?

Senator NEWMAN (Family and Community Services; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I think it is important to note, before considering the answer to this question, that Mr Reith's paper was a discussion paper.

Opposition senators —Oh!

Senator NEWMAN —That response is amazing coming from an opposition who has no policies and does not have much in the way of discussion papers, except a couple of people who have to publish books to get their views known to the Australian people.

My department has not been involved in drafting the paper on the workplace relations reform options but it has been involved in considering options to assist in the reduction of unemployment. The Prime Minister stated in his federation speech that work is being undertaken to extend coverage of mutual obligations, and that work is ongoing. My department continually reviews the interaction of social security income tests and taxation. Work incentive problems for families with children identified by my department are now being addressed in the tax reform measures that the opposition is not prepared to support. Work on incentives is continuing in my department, as one would expect from a department being led by a government that does have ideas and does have commitments to improving the lot for Australians. But there are no plans to impose limits on the duration of income support for the unemployed despite the wilful and mischievous misrepresentation by the opposition spokesman in his press release. Let me reinforce this point: there are no plans to impose limits on the duration of income support for the unemployed. Access to income support for the unemployed is an indispensable element of the social safety net. The government is unshakeably committed to its maintenance.

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! The level of intervention in the chamber is far too high.

Senator NEWMAN —Madam President, I notice that the noise from the opposite side of the chamber always increases when they do not like the message. But I am advised that the implications of discounted wages for long-term unemployed people have been examined by my department over many years, most notably during the Hawke-Keating years. Discounted wages clearly have implications for work incentives and the level of payments to low income families, but this government is not going to cut the level of income support. We have been very supportive of the Work for the Dole scheme which we are interested in looking at for expansion, but we are not cutting the level of income support. In the last term of the government we promised to maintain the real value of unemployment payments. This term the government has promised to increase payments in real terms by 1½ per cent to ensure that beneficiaries are more than compensated for the cost of living effects of the GST. In other words, people on income support after the introduction of the GST will remain ahead of where they are now.

Senator CROWLEY —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. It seems then, Minister, that we can conclude that you are differing from Minister Reith. In his blueprint to pulverise the unemployed, Mr Reith asserts that, in changing—

Senator Ian Campbell —Do you know your way through the supermarket yet?

The PRESIDENT —Senator Crowley, your remarks should be addressed through the chair.

Senator CROWLEY —I am waiting so that you will be able to hear, Madam President. In his blueprint to pulverise the unemployed, Mr Reith asserts that in changing the definition of work `we could expect to record a genuine increase in measured employment levels in the economy as a whole'. Minister, isn't this just Reith-speak for using the Salvos and local councils to launder unemployment payments?

Senator NEWMAN (Family and Community Services; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Work for the Dole recipients have continued to be shown up and included in the unemployment statistics. There would be no such intention to do that. My department keeps those records, as does the ABS. So the nation has two sets of unemployment statistics to study: one is provided by my department and the other is provided each month by the Bureau of Statistics. Work for the Dole has not been classified as being in employment for the purposes of those studies.