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Monday, 22 July 2019
Page: 326

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Senator ASKEW (Tasmania) (10:22): This bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Ending the Poverty Trap) Bill 2018, proposed by the Greens, seeks to amend the Social Security Act to increase Newstart, Austudy and other welfare payments by $150 per fortnight and to standardise indexation for some of these welfare payments. Yet, in spite of its name, it doesn't actually do what the Greens have said it will do, nor does it propose a clear direction to end the so-called poverty trap. Section 53 of the Constitution makes clear that a measure appropriating revenue or moneys shall not originate in the Senate, so this bill includes a clause in part 5 to state that there will in fact be no increase in any of the social security benefits mentioned in the bill, including the Newstart allowance, unless money is appropriated by the parliament for that purpose. It is, in plain language, a stunt.

But, putting that fact to one side, it is sadly true to say that there are people in our country living in poverty and for a wide range of reasons. The issue of poverty within Australia cannot be dealt with by some one-size-fits-all approach. You can't just wave a magic wand and give welfare recipients a few more dollars and say you have fixed the so-called poverty trap.

Simply throwing money at something will not necessarily fix it and the consequences that flow from the issue. For example, we need to address the issues in some communities within Australia where there is a large proportion of intergenerational welfare dependency. Without addressing what can sadly develop into ingrained behaviours, we will not reduce that dependency—in fact, the opposite will be the case: we will actually further cement welfare dependency for many people in those communities.

As I mentioned, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. That is exactly why the Morrison government has continually reviewed existing programs and introduced new ones aimed at reducing the number of people on welfare. Our focus is on getting the unemployed into work. As my colleagues on this side of the chamber know all too well, the best form of welfare is a job, and this is not just a throwaway line, even if it is something the Greens hate to hear. The Morrison Liberal-National coalition government is actively boosting employment, getting more Australians into work and reducing dependency on welfare. I think we all understand that the Newstart allowance and other income support payments are intended to be a safety net for those members of the community who require financial assistance while they look for employment. These» «allowances» «are» «not» «designed» «as» «a» «long» - «term» «payment» «for» «people , and this is shown by the fact that around two-thirds of jobseekers who are granted Newstart exit income support within 12 months.

A hundred and seventy-two billion dollars was allocated last financial year to welfare expenditure in our budget. This represents 35 per cent of all government spending for the financial year. Our welfare system is designed to be there to help those in need. At the same time, the government—any government—must undertake a balancing act to both provide fair payments to welfare recipients and manage taxpayer funds. Every cent that is spent on welfare is a cent that has come from the hip pocket of working Australians. As the old saying goes, governments don't have any money; they only have your money. It's the government's responsibility to ensure welfare and social services are sustainable and managed responsibly both now and into the future. We need to be able to provide support for those Australians in need when they need it most and also ensure that our children, the future generations of Australians, are not burdened with government overspending for decades to come.

The Morrison government takes a philosophical approach that welfare payments should generally be seen as a hand up, not a handout, and this approach continues to bear fruit and be supported by the coalition government's employment achievements. Since the coalition government came into office in September 2013, around 1.4 million jobs have been created, which is an increase of 12.2 per cent. That's around 240,000 jobs per year. This compares to an average of just 155,000 per year the last time Labor was in government. The unemployment rate has declined by 0.2 percentage points over the year, to 5.2 per cent in May 2019, while the participation rate is at a record high of 66 per cent. In figures announced last week, full-time employment had risen by 21,100 to stand at a record high of 8,815,600, which is 2.9 per cent higher than it was a year ago. Due to our measures, more Australians are getting out of the social welfare cycle and into jobs. There are now—as at June 2019—230,000 fewer working-age Australians on welfare than in June 2014. We now see the lowest number of working-age Australians on income support payments in 30 years, with welfare dependence at 14.3 per cent. This is all achieved under a strong coalition government.

The coalition government is delivering a range of programs to help jobseekers into employment. The government has invested $18.4 million into the Regional Employment Trials Program, which has been rolled out in 10 regions across the country, including in the north and north-west of my home state, Tasmania. The program is designed to bring local organisations, training providers, not-for-profit organisations and other services together to assist unemployed Australians to prepare for and find work, by providing employment and training opportunities tailored to their local needs. Over 3,200 unemployed people are expected to participate in these projects Australia wide.

Another coalition government initiative for areas where the local labour market is facing difficulties is the Stronger Transitions program. Employment facilitators are located on the ground to provide support and connect workers with potential employers, training and support services. Stronger Transitions has been assisting workers facing retrenchment to transition to new jobs and also prepare for the jobs of the future. In Tasmania, for example, a Devonport jobs fair last year was attended by 802 people. There were 44 exhibitors and 114 jobs on offer that day. Similar fairs have been held and continue to be held across the country.

Earlier this month, the Career Transition Assistance program was rolled out nationwide. The scheme will support mature-aged jobseekers to build the skills they need to transition into work by better identifying their transferable skills and improving their job readiness for jobs in their area. This will be tailored to local job markets and develop the skills needed in the area. It will also include assistance in developing digital and technological literacy.

The coalition government also continues to support a range of programs and activities for jobseekers to gain experience in the workforce. These include the PaTH internships for young jobseekers, which provide short-term work placement opportunities, allowing them to demonstrate and develop skills to improve their employment prospects. Participants of the PaTH internships are also eligible for an additional incentive payment of $200 per fortnight. More than 76,000 young people have already participated in the PaTH program, with over 62.5 per cent moving into employment after participating in at least one element of the program. The National Work Experience Program, as the name suggests, places jobseekers in work experience to gain confidence in the workforce and develop skills. There are also incentive payments available and wage subsidies for businesses that provide ongoing employment to the participants after they have completed their work experience. These are just a few of the ways that the coalition government has been encouraging more Australians to move off welfare and into work. Our goal is to get as many people into work as possible.

For those who have not yet been successful in gaining employment, the safety net provided by the government continues to be available through a range of services and relief measures. As the Senate has heard in previous contributions on this bill, 99 per cent of Newstart recipients also receive other benefit payments or allowances. These benefits include the energy supplement. Earlier this year the coalition government extended the one-off energy assistance payment to Newstart recipients in order to help with increases in energy prices. Those on Newstart who rent are eligible for rent assistance. Newstart allowance recipients are also eligible for the telephone allowance and pharmaceutical allowance. Newstart recipients with children and families are also likely to receive family tax benefit part A and/or family tax benefit part B. The coalition government invests around $29 billion each year to support families through these family tax benefits, childcare payments and the paid parental leave schemes.

The government has also invested around $2 billion in funding to support community organisations around the country. These community organisations provide help and support to vulnerable Australians when they need it most. The Department of Social Services Families and Communities Program provides further support to vulnerable families to improve children's wellbeing, to help improve financial capability and literacy and to build stronger and more resilient communities.

The coalition government is actively working to break down the barriers to unemployment, to provide the hand-up that people need to get off welfare and into the workforce. I'm sure the majority of those senators sitting opposite recognise that this bill will not fix the wide range of issues surrounding unemployment. Only a few days ago the Leader of the Opposition was quoted in The Australian newspaper as saying that this bill is 'just a little stunt' and stated that the problem with the Greens bill is that it 'was about them, not about the unemployed'. When Senator Watt spoke on the bill in the last parliament, in 2018, he made similar comments.

Labor have made these sorts of remarks about this Greens' bill but they have been much less clear about their position on Newstart. Before the election, the then opposition leader, Mr Shorten, stated that Labor would initiate some sort of review into the rate of Newstart but, curiously, when pressed would not be specific about what that meant. Even more curiously, their pre-election costings made no provision for an increase in the Newstart allowance. Just last month, when asked about Labor's position, the new shadow Treasurer, Dr Chalmers, apparently ruled out a review into Newstart from the opposition. Labor have been talking about the Greens making political stunts yet at the same time don't seem to have their own policy position on Newstart—or, if they do, they haven't shared it with the Australian people. We only know that they are doing the right thing in this instance and voting down this stunt of a bill.

There is one thing I will say about the Greens, and that is that they are consistent in their cavalier disregard for the consequences of public spending. Unlike the major political parties in this place, they have never actually had to take the responsibility of managing government finances, and in this bill seemed to adopt their usual approach that the Consolidated Revenue Fund is some sort of magic pudding which can be spent without any financial consequences for other public expenditure.

It would be more useful if all of us in this chamber and, more importantly, as citizens of this great nation returned our minds to encouraging and supporting more people to move off Newstart and into jobs. The coalition government has the track record of doing this and is continuing to assist more Australians than ever before into work and off welfare. I urge the Senate to oppose this bill.