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Friday, 28 June 2013
Page: 4458


Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (12:40): I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill 2013. This bill seeks to amend the Social Security Act 1991 to provide additional support to single parents who are transitioning to work or undertaking study to improve their opportunities for employment. The bill also seeks to provide unemployed Australians with the opportunity to earn more before their income support payment is affected.

These amendments represent the government's response to ongoing criticism in relation to its decision to change the eligibility requirements for grandfathered recipients of the parenting payment, which affected the household budgets of 80,000 single parents by moving them on to the lower paying Newstart payment. Those grandfathered recipients under the former arrangements existed as a result of the coalition's reforms to social security in 2005-06. Under the coalition's changes, to qualify for the parenting payment a recipient's youngest child had to be under the age of eight, which was lowered from the previous age of 16. The previous coalition government introduced this reform in a fair and I think responsible manner. Under the coalition, recipients of the parenting payment were left in the system on the understanding that, over time, when their youngest child turned 16 they would naturally move out of the system. For people who had not had a child at that stage but who were coming into the system the changes were made that when their youngest child turned eight they would move from the parenting payment to Newstart. The coalition's approach provided notice and certainty to all parties.

That approach is in contrast to the changes made by the current government to the parenting payment, which, as I mentioned, affected the budgets of 80,000 single parents and saw uncertainty. It is always a problem when a government has mismanaged their budget and is desperate to look for savings. It prevents the government of the day from providing the usual period of notice to enable recipients to make adjustments over time. It is never good when a government is forced to act in order to seek desperately to balance a budget or to return a budget to surplus. That did not actually end up happening, but it is never good when a government is forced to act rather than plan carefully and thoughtfully.

What is before us is in effect the government's solution, or response, to the criticism that it has received. The bill has three measures. The first measure increases the income-free area that applies for recipients of Newstart allowance, widow allowance, partner allowance, parenting payment partnered and sickness allowance from 20 March 2014. The income-free area is the amount of ordinary income that an income-support recipient is able to earn in a fortnight before their payment rate is increased. The income-free area for these payments will increase from $62 to $100 per fortnight. The income-free area will also be indexed to the CPI from 1 July 2015, and this measure will give recipients the opportunity to earn more money before their payment rate is affected.

The second measure of this bill extends the eligibility for the pensioner education supplement to single principal carer parents receiving Newstart allowance payments. This extension will begin on 1 January 2014 and will be available to eligible single principal carer parents undertaking approved education and training courses. The pensioner education supplement is paid at the current full rate of $62.40 per fortnight or the current concessional rate of $31.20 per fortnight depending on a person's study load.

The third measure, commencing from 1 January next year, extends the eligibility for the pensioner concession card by 12 weeks to single parents who no longer qualify for the parenting payment single because their youngest child has turned eight years of age and they do not qualify for another income support payment due to earnings from employment.

Concession cards provide a range of concessions to holders for services at the Commonwealth, state and local government levels including medical services, transport, telephone, utilities and rates. Consistent with current arrangements, a person would remain qualified for the concession card until the extension period of 12 weeks expired, the person died, moved permanently overseas or they started to receive an income support payment for which a concession card is eligible.

These proposed measures, as I said, are intended to address some of the criticisms that the government has received in relation to the decisions that they have taken. We know that when a government does not follow good process and when a government does not take the time to plan, the public are not provided with the opportunity to adjust and plan themselves. What the public look for in a government is predictability and some certainty. The public, quite naturally, do not like a government that is forever chopping and changing policy, where the people do not know from one day to the next whether the arrangements which they currently assume will continue into the future will in fact continue. We have seen this in any number of areas, whether they be superannuation, social security policy, taxation in relation to the mining industry or taxation of carbon, for instance.

There is very little certainly under this government. That means that businesses have difficulty planning for the future; they will put hiring decisions on hold—and are putting hiring decisions on hold—and will put investment decisions on hold—and are, because they are waiting for what they hope will be the certainty provided after the next election.

The same is true for individual households, which have no sense of confidence that government policies which are in place will continue in the form that they are currently in. Households are worried about cost-of-living pressures and are putting spending decisions on hold because they want to conserve their resources for fear that this current government will unexpectedly change policy in some way that will affect their household budgets.

This legislation that is before us today is an attempt to address an example of that: single parent families who were operating on one set of assumptions and the government unexpectedly changed those assumptions. That is not the way to govern a nation, Mr Deputy President, and I think you know that one of the things that this side of the chamber will be offering at the next election is a 'no surprises' approach. If we are to be successful at the next election, we will offer the Australian public and business a 'no surprises' approach. We want there to be a degree of certainty. We want the public to have a sense of the arc in which a coalition government would operate. That allows businesses to plan for the future and it allows householders to plan for their futures without the zigzag and abrupt changes in policy which we have seen all too often under this government.

Against that background, I should indicate that the opposition will not be opposing this legislation. So often, this side of the chamber has found itself in a position where there are decisions that we might not have made had we been in government because we would have had a different starting point. We would have handled the nation's budget very differently over the last six years had we been in office. But we do find ourselves, time and again, having to accept the facts as they are even though we wish they were otherwise and would have handled things differently and taken different decisions ourselves. So, with those remarks, I indicate that the opposition will not be opposing this legislation.