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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 530

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Employment Participation) (10:13 AM) —I move:

That the amendments be agreed to.

I will summarise the amendments that have been agreed to by the Senate and that are now under consideration in the House. The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Employment Services Reform) Bill 2008 is a very important piece of legislation. It goes to the way in which job seekers will be dealt with under the compliance regime. The government has been concerned to ensure that the compliance arrangements for job seekers were effective but also fair. We introduced the bill last year and amendments were proposed. The bill successfully passed the House and there was debate on amendments in the Senate yesterday. There were a series of amendments and the government considered them in turn.

We would like to put on the record our appreciation for the constructive way in which Senator Siewert, on behalf of the Greens, and Senator Xenophon discussed these particular matters with us. I believe that some of the amendments have improved the bill and that others were not necessary, but I did not have any particular objections. I will now turn to the amendments and go through them for the benefit of the House.

Amendments that were passed by the Senate include amendments (1), (3), (4) and (6). These amendments allow Centrelink, as the final decision maker, to have discretion to apply penalties.

Amendments (2) and (5) provide for the deduction of a penalty amount in the period immediately after the penalty is incurred, allowing sufficient time for Centrelink to apply penalties consistently. There was a concern that there would be difficulties administratively without these amendments, and we accepted the proposal put.

Amendment (7) includes the CCA in legislation rather than in a legislative instrument, without affecting the substance of the CCA. We believe that this amendment, whilst not entirely necessary, certainly does not affect the integrity or intention of the bill that was proposed by the government, and therefore we accepted it and it is now here for us to consider.

Amendments (8) to (13) go to ensuring that job seekers who are in severe financial hardship are not adversely affected by any administrative delays. I think these amendments were well considered. I think they will lead to it being less likely that an unemployed person receiving income support will find themselves adversely affected unnecessarily. We accepted the reasoning of the mover of those amendments and acceded to them.

The final amendment, that was accepted, which was moved by Senator Xenophon, establishes an independent review to consider the impact of the compliance regime after 12 months. This was something that we had discussions about with Senator Xenophon and Greens Senator Siewert. Those two senators reached an agreement themselves, we accepted that there would be an independent review and the terms of reference were agreed to.

I would also like to place on the record another commitment that the government undertook in discussions with Senator Xenophon, and that was to change the no show, no pay incidences within six months from a proposed six occasions to three occasions. There are a number of incidences or breaches in the no show, no pay approach that would trigger a comprehensive compliance assessment. We believe that the argument that Senator Xenophon put—that reducing the number would provide earlier intervention for those job seekers who might be most at risk—was a compelling argument. We also accept that, if there were people wilfully and persistently breaching, this undertaking by the government would allow for a more effective compliance arrangement. For that reason, we supported that change to the compliance regime proposed. That change will take place by way of legislative instrument.

I thank Senator Siewert of the Greens and Senator Xenophon for the constructive discussion that we had with them in improving the operation of the bill. I also thank Senator Fielding for his support.

The opposition, which of course are on the record as opposing the bill, moved some substantial amendments to it in this place before Christmas last year, and indeed we divided on them. The amendments that were proposed by the opposition yesterday were withdrawn without debate, so the opposition clearly did not want to proceed and debate the amendments that they had proposed and the amendments that they chose to divide on in this House when the matter was last before us. I think that is probably because the constructive discussions between the senators in question and the government left them with no answer. More importantly, I think the amendments that were proposed by the opposition were not really seeking to improve the workings of the compliance arrangement and indeed were not amendments that would have been acceptable to any party other than the opposition. For that reason, those substantive amendments were withdrawn without any consideration at all.

These Senate amendments, as I say, are acceptable. This bill is very important for the operation of the compliance regime for the many Australians who are on income support. These arrangements will take effect upon the enactment of this bill on 1 July this year.