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Friday, 15 November 2002
Page: 6485

Senator NETTLE (9:42 AM) —As I was saying previously, the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 is based on a 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 back something 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, a sick partner or parent, or 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 people whom our economic system has failed. Yet somehow the government has construed that these people owe the rest of us something in return for ensuring that they do not go hungry or homeless. The unfairness of this proposition is evident to anyone prepared to look. As Dr Pamela Kinnear stated in her August 2000 report on the ethical and social obligations of mutual obligation, which was prepared for the Australia Institute:

The imposition of Mutual Obligation requirements on unemployed people is based on the belief that they are able to exercise a degree of control over their situation and thus choose to accept welfare benefits. But in a modern economy subject to structural unemployment, for many unemployed people there is no real alternative to accepting welfare benefits.

Dr Kinnear noted that `only the least well-off in society have obligations imposed on them'. In the meantime, the government is happy to dispense public moneys to other groups without similar obligations.

If we accept that income support is the very minimal obligation we as a society owe then we have to ask what else the government needs to provide as its side of the social contract. The Australian Greens argue that government needs to provide genuine opportunities for people to participate in paid work and to recognise that they may choose to contribute to society in other ways and are entitled to an adequate income. Yet, under this government's construction of mutual obligation, obligation is one-sided. As the St Vincent de Paul Society has noted, the only obligation imposed is on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community. The government has not even adopted the McClure report recommendation of a participation allowance to assist with additional costs, such as transport and education. The government has offered a paltry $20.80 a fortnight to help people undertake language, literacy and numeracy training.

The concept of working for the dole, which this government extends through this legislation to older workers and sole parents receiving income support other than unemployment benefit, is no substitute for proper training and education; nor does it confront the truth about the scarcity of paid work, as to do so would generate an expectation that the government should address that particular problem. But this government's hands-off approach to economic management—that is, `let the market deal with it'—means it will not intervene. This exposes a major weakness in its welfare reform policy, as it claims to prepare people for work that is not available.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics report released last month illustrates the extent of this problem. Around 750,000 people wanted to work and were available to work within four weeks but were not actively looking for work when the survey was undertaken in September 2001. Another 313,000 people wanted to work but were not looking or were not able to start within four weeks. The main reasons men were not looking for work were study and ill health or disability; for women, they were child care and study. That is more than one million people on top of the official labour force of 9.7 million on which the official unemployment rate is based. Almost 82,000 people in this group described themselves as `discouraged job seekers'. Around half of these people were aged between 54 and 64 years. The main reasons they had given up looking for work were: employers considered them to be too old or too young; there were no jobs available in their area or field of work; they had difficulties because of their language and ethnic background; or they lacked the necessary schooling, training, skills or experience.

A couple of weeks ago, the ABS reported that almost 600,000 people working part time wanted more hours of work. Added to these figures, we know there is approximately one job for every seven people seeking employment. These statistics illustrate the kinds of structural impediments that people face. Nothing in the government's mutual obligation policy or in this bill addresses these structural issues. Rather, this legislation offers more of the government's blame and punishment agenda. The Pearce report, commissioned by community groups to review breaches and penalties in the social security system, found that the current system is excessive and harsh. Yet here we have the government proposing to extend the same system to more people. Far from streamlining the income support system, this bill imposes three different penalty systems.

The Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Vanstone, told the Senate some weeks ago that the number of breaches in 2001-02 had fallen by over 30 per cent compared with the previous year and that the number should fall further following the changes introduced in July this year. The Australian Greens consider this to be fiddling with an implicitly flawed system. The harsh impact of the current requirements is all too visible, and the National Welfare Rights Network reported some weeks ago that young people are particularly hard hit. While people aged under 25 years account for one-third of income support recipients, they account for more than 50 per cent of breaches of the activity test and 61 per cent of administrative breaches. Penalties for these breaches reduce their meagre level of income support by at least $24 a week and lead to their benefits being cancelled for up to eight weeks. Welfare rights groups and community groups tell us that imposing financial penalties on people can actually diminish their capacity to look for work and engage in other required activities.

The minister has thus far rejected the Pearce report recommendations to reduce the level of penalties, arguing that the current levels reflect the community expectations. But a survey by the Brotherhood of St Laurence this year showed that the government is indeed out of step with the public on this issue. The Brotherhood of St Laurence, in its submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill, calculated that a sole parent would lose $37.90 a week for 26 weeks for a first offence, face a cut of $50.60 a week for 26 weeks for a second offence and receive no payment for eight weeks for a third offence. Around 95 per cent of people proposed penalties lower than the existing penalties and almost two-thirds believed that the current penalties for the first breach were unfair.

Community groups have asked the Senate not to support the extension of the existing breaching and penalty system until these problems are addressed. The Australian Greens oppose the imposition of penalties based on contracts that people receiving income support have little choice but to sign and which the government can then vary at any time. It imposes hardship on vulnerable people whom we have a duty to assist to meet their basic material needs. The working credit which is designed to assist people in the transition from income support to paid work by allowing them to keep a portion of their social security payment is a good concept but the level proposed is inadequate, bearing in mind that many people making this transition are likely to be facing low wages.

This bill requires people who receive parenting payments and whose youngest child is between the ages of 13 and 15 to attend an annual interview with a Centrelink personal adviser and, from mid-2003, to undertake six hours of approved activity each week, which is to be set out in a participation agreement. This includes looking for paid work, training, education and community work. The secretary of the department may vary the agreement at any time. Failure to enter into an agreement will lead to income support being suspended for 13 weeks, while failure to comply with an agreement will cause an eight-week suspension. Failure to enter a participation agreement under this proposed legislation would also affect the person's entitlement to other financial assistance, such as family tax payment and child-care benefit. The Australian Council of Social Service estimates that these measures will affect 300,000 parents. The proposals presume that raising children is not a sufficiently valuable contribution to society.

The bill also fails to provide adequate provision for people whose child-care responsibilities may preclude them from looking for work or engaging in approved activities. The bill abolishes the mature age allowance and partner allowance, moving older Australians to Newstart and imposing on them activity test requirements under threat of penalties. At the same time, the bill acknowledges the poor prospects for mature age people finding work. This demonstrates the futility of the measure. The government would get a better return for its efforts by injecting more funding into training—for example, into the Jobs, Education and Training program, which, according to community groups, cannot meet the demand.

The Australian Greens cannot support this bill. We agree that the Senate Community Affairs References Committee's recommendations would improve the bill, but we object to the legislation's basic premise of mutual obligation and the government's failure to address the true causes of inequality. It is we who have an obligation to the disadvantaged members of our society, those people who struggle every day to meet their basic needs let alone plan a better future for themselves and their children. We as parliamentarians and as a community have a duty to address the real causes of social injustice and poverty. The hard edged, mean-spirited and market based approach of this government evident in the bill before us will to do nothing to address these causes or to redress the growing disparity in wealth and opportunity in this country.