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Friday, 15 November 2002
Page: 6512

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) (12:12 PM) —I thank senators for their contribution to this. The government will not be supporting this, and I hope senators understand the consequences of what they are doing. The House of Representatives made it very clear that they do not support this process. If people want to come in this place and talk in good faith about what they want but neglect to mention that governments on both sides have treated the splitting of a bill in the Senate with certain obvious consequences, then I think you will forgive me for not believing that people who present those arguments, without telling the whole story, are telling the truth. You can mislead people by saying things that are true but not putting the whole perspective. I regret that was not done, so let me do it for those who neglected to do it. Perhaps they just forgot—that is the better view of humanity.

The consequences of this are that the bills will go to the Reps and the same bill that you are now splitting will come back to this place. I do not know what consequences that timing delay will have for the income credit, but that will be on your heads. I remind you: this is a bill where the government wants to spend money on welfare recipients, not by giving them more money but by investing in them and giving them greater opportunities.

Let me turn then to a couple of points that have been made. The first I would like to deal with is the question of negotiating in good faith. Senator Cherry, you are right— you did write to me with some suggestions of what you would like us to look at, and you bravely followed that with the comment that you have not received a reply. It might have been more frank of you—I will resist the temptation to say more honest of you—to say that you do in fact know the government's position and that my office has always been available to talk to your office. All you are talking about is a method of communication, not that you do not know the government's position. I regret that someone whom I had previously held in higher esteem chose to imply to the parliament that he had written a letter which had been completely ignored.

The second point I would like to make is to Senator Bishop. He has come into this place and said that the government has not negotiated in good faith when he, in his capacity representing the Labor Party, has indicated a range of concerns. He has put forward some amendments—by his own very honest admission, he has put forward some of them only in the last couple of days—and expected the government to negotiate with him to a final conclusion. It is very clear that the oldest trick in the book—usually only tried by the newest participants—is to say, `Will you agree to A? Good. Now that you've agreed to A, we've just got this other amendment B now.' It is a never ending chain. So it is common practice for governments to say, `We will talk about this when we know what you really want.' You all know that and none of you have chosen to follow that path. You have quite deliberately chosen to leave it until the last few days to give yourselves a bit of high drama and an opportunity, you think, to attack the government and get yourselves a bit of notoriety that otherwise might not be available.

Well, good luck. Good luck to you if you feel happy sleeping at night when you treat a bill which wants to invest in people in welfare that way. That is not my view. I would have preferred—and I think when you look back later in your careers you will prefer the same—that you had been a bit more frank with the parliament about the conduct of those negotiations. I do not expect you to come in and say, `Hardy-ha-ha-ha, we pulled the rug out at the last minute.' That is in fact my view of what you have done. But I do expect you to be perfectly frank about the manner in which you yourselves have conducted the negotiations.

Senator Bishop, you might like to pass this message to Labor advisers. First of all they said, `We've got a second reading amendment; it just conveys our view about breaching.' They clearly led us to believe quite rightly that you are concerned about breaching—I understand that—and that a second reading amendment would be an expression of concern and that we could go on and deal with the detail of the bill. But they came back at the last minute and said, `Oh, by the way, we are actually going to insist on amendments that reflect that concern being in this bill.' That is not, in my view, conducting yourselves in good faith. You might pass that to the Labor advisers with whom we have been dealing—not that I expect them to give a fig.

Let me move to breaching. We are discussing breaching here as though it is a given and everyone has to be breached. It is as though people are saying, `Isn't the government nasty to people who are breached!' You forget to mention that no-one has to be breached. You can avoid breaching by complying with the requirements on you. It is as simple as that. We are talking about applying breaches to people who do not comply with the clear requirements on them. We announced changes, which came into place in July, and which, for an enormous number of these people, allow what might appear to be a breach to be treated as a suspension. So, when they come in pretty quickly after their pay is suspended, if they have a reasonable excuse it can be dealt with and they can usually be reinstated within 24 hours and be back paid to the extent that they have lost any back pay.

I do not hear any mention of that, because that would be inconvenient to the little political ploy that is being played out here. Equally, there is no mention of a variety of ways in which people who have done the wrong thing and who were rightly breached can have that waived. If there is Work for the Dole available in their area, they can do Work for the Dole and have their breach record waived. They can go on the Community Support Program and now the participation support program, and there are other opportunities to have this waived. Instead of that we have this implication that everybody is going to be breached and the government is nasty. There is no credit for benefit given. With that attitude you do not make it easy for any welfare minister to make more changes.

In any event, I hear mention of the notices that people do not get. I have already explained the difficulty for Centrelink. When someone does not reply, what are we meant to do? Should we leave it for 18 months so that the Auditor-General can say that we were slack in administering welfare, that we have been sending cheques to people who have moved on and got a job and that we knew because for 18 months they have not replied to letters? Is that what we are meant to do? How do we know when people are homeless? It is a very difficult job at which we are desperately trying to get better and have been getting better.

I ask Senator Bishop to consider the numbers of people who somehow find that Australia Post is very good at delivering the forms that they need to put in in order to get the money but oddly the man from Australia Post gets lost when he is delivering a letter that requires a person to come in for an appointment. It is odd how that so frequently happens, isn't it? Australia Post delivers regularly the form that will entitle you to get the money but I do not know what they do— perhaps they rip up or chuck out the letters that ask for people to come in for appointments.

If you look at breaching through rose-coloured glasses and you imagine that no-one ever does the wrong thing, you are dooming the welfare system to fall apart. I do not have a bad view of humanity, nor, incidentally, of welfare recipients. I have been asked by people opposite many times whether I think that all people who are breached are cheating the welfare system in the sense of deliberately doing so. I have made it clear that they are not. But I also understand that the dole is, in effect, payment to look for a job. You have to show up at work and you have to do your work. Otherwise, you are not likely to keep your job. So it is with the dole.

Equally, people have said in this debate, `Why is the penalty so high for this when the penalty is apparently quite low for not putting in a tax return on time?' There is a clear difference. In this circumstance, a citizen is holding out to the other citizens of Australia that they are in need of assistance, that they want assistance from other taxpayers and that they will do what is required to get a job, and they are fortnightly collecting money from other taxpayers on that understanding. Therefore, having collected the money fortnightly on that understanding, when they do not comply they are in a very different position to that of a citizen who has simply put something in late. Senator Bishop, if you cannot see the difference there, there is not much I can do to assist you with that.

I think I have made my view clear, but there is one point now that needs to be very clearly made. There has been concern about the breaching regime. We have addressed it and we have made even more changes. Those changes were announced in March and implemented in July and they have not even had a full six months to run. We have a bill before parliament that will spend money investing in people on welfare. Just so that taxpayers understand this, we have done so in a difficult budgetary climate when we are in a drought. Let nobody think that the drought does not affect everybody; it will. Once we start moving into a few more months of drought, we move into exceptional circumstances—a technical term understood by rural people—across Australia in a wide number of areas. The bill for that will go into hundreds of millions of dollars; we do not know how many hundreds of millions of dollars. We as a nation are not sitting here with money to spare. We are trying to keep our money in order, and we know that we have a tremendous expense ahead of us. I presume that nobody here would say, `Oh, that's the farmers' bad luck; we can't afford that.' If you are saying that, it is a different story, but I do not think that anybody says that. Everybody understands that the federal government will have a significant and expensive contribution to make to assist farmers affected by drought. This is probably the worst we have faced in 100 years. And we may have very significant additional defence expenditures. Everybody is hoping that Saddam Hussein does the right thing and everybody is working towards that. But it would be folly for a government to pretend that you do not have to be ready and to have the money there for greater expenditures in those areas.

In that climate, with a very tightly balanced budget and big expenditures expected for drought and possibly for defence, the government is proceeding with a bill to spend hundreds of millions of dollars investing in welfare recipients. Yet at the last minute Labor and the Democrats have got together and effectively said, `If you don't spend between $400 million and $700 million more'—we are getting up towards $1 billion—`going soft on welfare compliance we won't let you make this investment as you want to make it.' Well, there is not $400 million or $700 million more, depending on which package you look at. It is just not there. We are not going to go into debt to be softer on welfare compliance when we made changes in July that you may well find—after they have been in operation for six, nine or 12 months—you are very happy with.

All of the things that have been discussed by the Ombudsman relate to a breaching system that was in effect years ago. Nobody, I noticed, in the terribly `frank and honest' mode in which this debate has been conducted has carefully read what the Ombudsman said. Neither Senator Cherry nor Senator Bishop mentioned that the Ombudsman in fact knows well that his report relates to a period now gone and that the Ombudsman congratulated the government and Centrelink on the subsequent changes that have been made. I was listening carefully and I did not hear either of you mention that, Senator Cherry and Senator Bishop. But you are happy with your presentation of what the Ombudsman said. You are happy to pretend to the public at large that his remarks relate to the here and now, as opposed to your being honest about the time period to which they do relate, as opposed to your being honest and giving a true indication of the remarks the Ombudsman made in his press release, I think, when he issued his report— either the proper report on breaching or the excerpts of it in the annual report, which were in fact just precis of an earlier report released.

Lastly, Senator Cherry, it sometimes works with a child to say, `This is an important test for you,' because children constantly seek the admiration of others and think, `Oh, gee—I'd better pass this test.' You define the test however you like. All I say is that the public will judge the parliament as it will, not by your version of what the right test is or mine or anyone else's. I believe that the public are happy to make a bigger investment in welfare, and the government wants to make it. But there is not $400 million or $700 million more to splash around to go softer on compliance before we have given the changes that we made in July the chance to work. You know the consequences of splitting this bill; it has been done before. I deeply regret that you appear determined to follow this path.

Question agreed to.

Sitting suspended from 12.28 p.m. to 1.15 p.m.