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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5698

Senator NETTLE (12:40 PM) —I rise to speak on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002. This bill implements the first stage of the government's response to the McClure report on Australia's social welfare system. These measures were announced in last year's budget and have been examined by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, which last month tabled its report highlighting the bill's shortcomings.

This bill increases the requirements imposed on people in receipt of income support under threat of having benefits suspended. With the exception of a few worthwhile measures—such as the introduction of a working credit to assist people moving from income support to paid work; minor financial assistance for language, literacy and numeracy training; and more help with child care—this bill continues the government's misguided approach to addressing long-term reliance on income support, poverty traps and shortfall of available jobs at adequate rates of pay. The Australian Greens support measures to assist people to move into paid work, including providing relevant training and education, but we do not support coercion or penalties which cause substantial hardship to people already struggling to meet their material needs.

Like so much of this government's focus, this bill is couched in terms of providing `incentives for self-reliance' which the government says are missing in the income support system. The government tells us people should be `taking responsibility for their own futures'. The language reveals the government's misunderstanding of the circumstances of Australians who find it difficult to obtain a secure job at reasonable pay that also permits them to meet their responsibilities as carers and members of their community. It blames individuals for their circumstances instead of acknowledging structural impediments to greater work force participation. These include affordable child care, publicly funded education and training, decent wage rates, reasonable hours of work, paid parental leave and creating work in places where people live—not expecting them to move, possibly with a family, to some other place. This language disguises the government's real agenda, which is to create an impression of activity amid a burden of paperwork and interviews. What is required is a serious refocusing on our workplace environment, including the pursuit of sustainable and socially useful work; the sharing of available paid work; and a significant investment in training, education and child care. It underestimates the generosity of spirit amongst many Australians who in general, unlike this government, are not bent on punishing disadvantaged members of our society.

This legislation is based on the policy of mutual obligation, which under this government translates to onerous obligations on individuals and minimal obligations on the part of government. The government argues that people receiving income support should give something back to society in return. But this policy is founded on false premises. People rely on income support when their circumstances prevent them from earning income. They may be mentally ill, physically disabled, suffering chronic ill health, caring for young children alone, or caring for a sick partner or parent, or they may have been retrenched from their job. These circumstances occur through no fault of the individual, and income support is provided so that they have enough to eat and a place to live. It is the minimum that a decent society should provide to those members whom our economic system has failed.

Debate interrupted.