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Unemployment: according to Coalition plan, over-50s will have to work in community service in order to receive unemployment benefits

JULIE DERRETT: As the recession we had to have cuts hundreds of thousands of jobs out of the Australian work force, some of the hardest hit are middle and older-age people who lose their jobs. They tend to find it a lot harder to get new work and many have pretty bruised egos when they lose their jobs after many years in the work force. But under a plan being considered by the Coalition, the over-50s may have to work for their unemployment benefits, for their own psychological good. The Opposition spokesman on Social Security, Senator Richard Alston, outlined the work for the dole plan at a conference in Sydney, and Senator Alston joins me, now. Good morning, Senator.

RICHARD ALSTON: Good morning.

JULIE DERRETT: What exactly do you have in mind for the over-50s who are now receiving the dole?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, in many respects, the approach we're going to take is that all people would be expected to satisfy a stricter work test than the one that applies at the moment. In other words, you don't just get a benefit because you're out of work. You get a benefit because you are unable to find work, and at the moment, the work test is a charade. You only have to put down two names of people that you've picked out of the newspaper and that's it, and if you're over 55, you don't even have to do that. Now, we think that's quite an appalling neglect of valuable resources.

And if you look at what the OECD has said, they have very specifically targeted the older, long-term unemployed and said it is quite immoral to throw them on the scrap heap as the Government proposes to do. They ought to be active in the community, as should everyone else, and the best way of doing that is to apply a work test much more generously, so that in fact you ought to be encouraging them to look at voluntary and community activities. Now, therefore, we think that rather than singling them out for special treatment, we're in fact being more generous to that group.

JULIE DERRETT: Well, how does a work test relate to voluntary activities?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, essentially, what you'd be saying is that you can't simply sit back and expect a benefit if you are able-bodied. Now, if you're long-term unemployed and you're older, it's obviously much more difficult for you to get traditional type of work and, therefore, you ought to look at other types of work which might be assisting in the community, working in nursing homes, hospitals, maybe helping out as a guide at art centres, museums and the like, but doing something that involves you in the mainstream of the community, rather than sitting home watching television and feeling sorry for yourself.

JULIE DERRETT: How expensive would a system like this be to regulate? Now, let's let down to nitty-gritty. Volunteers have a very hard time. It costs money to organise them and then you want to supervise them as well?

RICHARD ALSTON: No. No. At the moment, you've got a system that, in theory, requires people to satisfy work tests. In other words, before you pay a benefit, officers of the Department of Social Security are expected to satisfy themselves that you are actively looking for work. Now, that's all that would happen under this system. People would be expected to make their own efforts to find work, not just put two names on a piece of paper or, in the case of over-55s, simply turn up and collect money. They would be the ones with the obligation to look for these types of activities.

JULIE DERRETT: But you're not talking about paid work now, are you?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, it can be a range of work. Obviously, you would encourage people to obtain paid employment, but I'm simply recognising the difficulties that there are for people who might have been out of the work force, might have been retrenched and are likely to find it difficult, whereas ....

JULIE DERRETT: And you'd like to put them to work doing good deeds instead of actively seeking paid work.

RICHARD ALSTON: I'm broadening the options and giving them the opportunity to feel socially integrated, rather than totally neglected, as the Government would do with them.

JULIE DERRETT: Well, let's say there'll be some people out there who don't want to work as volunteers - it doesn't suit their personality. What do you do with them?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, I think that's too bad.

JULIE DERRETT: So they don't get anything?

RICHARD ALSTON: If they don't satisfy the work test, they don't get anything - that's dead right. There's no ....

JULIE DERRETT: Isn't that really putting them on the scrap heap, though?

RICHARD ALSTON: Absolutely not. I mean, what you're talking about is able-bodied people. These are not age pensioners, remember. I mean, these are people under age pension age. Once they reach 60 or 65, then, of course, they qualify for the age pension, but subject to means tests. But if they're under that age and they're able-bodied, why should they be entitled to a benefit as of right, even if they could be getting work but choose not to. And all I'm saying is you broaden the definition of work, and that seems to me to be perfectly reasonable and very much in their own interest.

I mean, we're told constantly that people aren't bludging out there, that people are wanting to do work. Well, all I'm saying is if it's more difficult for you to get traditional work, then you ought to be entitled to broaden your horizons, and we would relax the work test to the extent that it would embrace voluntary and community activity. Now, that is an extension of the principle of the activity test. It's certainly not putting special burdens on people who are older, long-term unemployed.

JULIE DERRETT: How many hours would you have to work at a voluntary activity to qualify?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well again, I think it's a matter of what's available and what's reasonable. No one's insisting that you do something that's unrealistic any more than we would take the view, under the present circumstances, that there are jobs there if they're not, but it's a matter of being reasonable, it's a matter of seeing what's around, and if there isn't anything around, well, you've obviously satisfied the work test.

JULIE DERRETT: And when would it kick in? How old would you need to be before you could do voluntary work instead?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, there'd be no particular age limit. It's simply a recognition ....

JULIE DERRETT: This would be for everybody?

RICHARD ALSTON: I've said that from the outset.

JULIE DERRETT: Aha.

RICHARD ALSTON: The activity test, in theory, applies to anyone who asks for unemployment benefits, but it's not applied. At the moment, you just go through the motions, whereas we would apply that seriously to all age groups, but we would recognise that older people are less likely to get full-time paid employment. We would therefore be more generous in interpreting what work you would expect people to investigate.

JULIE DERRETT: Senator, thank you very much for explaining your point of view. The Opposition spokesperson on Social Security, Senator Richard Alston.