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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12343

Mr HUTCHINSON (Lyons) (20:47): It gives me pleasure to rise this evening to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Job Seeker Compliance Framework) Bill 2014.

In essence, this bill makes amendments that will provide stronger incentives for job seekers to attend scheduled appointments with their employment service providers and ensure that penalties are applied when a job seeker does not attend their appointment and does not have a reasonable excuse. It is pretty simple stuff and I think what most reasonable Australians would understand to be what comes with the mutual obligation that is around those people actively engaged in seeking paid employment and the contract that they have with the taxpayers of Australia, who fund them whilst they are doing so.

These changes aim to significantly reduce the number of appointments that are currently being missed. These measures fit with the government's commitment to reinvigorate mutual obligation for job seekers who get income support while reducing red tape for employment service providers, who do a wonderful job.

The amendments will be introduced in two stages. From 1 January 2015 if a job seeker misses a scheduled appointment with their employment service provider without a reasonable excuse—and we will hear about some of those excuses in a minute—their income support payment will be suspended until they actually attend a rescheduled appointment. It is different to what the situation is at the moment. Once they attend that appointment the suspension will be lifted and the person will receive their income support, with back pay, for the period of noncompliance. The difference is that at the moment the suspension is lifted when the person only indicates an intention to attend a rescheduled appointment. And when you look at the noncompliance rate, the changes we are proposing here are reasonable—that somebody actually turns up and attends the appointment that was scheduled. It is a very reasonable position that we are advocating here.

That is not to say that the previous government did not make some changes in this area. I fully expect that the Labor Party will indeed support the amendments we are making to this bill because they did, when in government, make efforts towards improving the compliance rate. That is acknowledged; the minister at the time, the member for Adelaide, made a number of comments in this area and acknowledged that she believed attendance at appointments can and must improve. This is why we made an election commitment to strengthen the compliance system. Indeed, she went on to say that all Australians on income support should have the opportunity to work, but with the opportunity comes responsibility. With this bill we are finally going to expect that people meet those responsibilities. So the changes we are proposing here in this debate are about strengthening and enhancing the initiatives that were put forward by the previous government.

The second stage will be from July next year—1 July 2015. The bill will further strengthen compliance arrangements by providing that if a job seeker has had their payment suspended in the circumstances that I have described above then they will not be back paid for the period that the payment is suspended due to noncompliance. In the initial stage, from January next year, if an appointment is missed, reschedule the appointment and actually turn up and the back pay will be paid. However, from July next year, if an appointment is missed without a reasonable excuse, the back pay that would have been due—and will be paid from 1 January—will not be paid. It is not so unreasonable. I relate the circumstances to myself being an employee with a boss in place, what would be the situation? If I did not turn up to work and I had not communicated with my boss, would it be reasonable for me to still ask him to pay me? I do not think so. I think most reasonable Australians would acknowledge that that is not the case. There does not seem to be any reason why somebody who is in paid employment and effectively has a contract and an understanding in place, be it written or otherwise, with their employer does not have reasonable obligation, in the same way that job seekers who are being paid benefits similarly have a contract in place—a mutual obligation, with the taxpayers of Australia.

The bill will also make changes to the existing provisions that allow job seekers who are 55 years old or older to meet their mutual obligation requirements just by undertaking part-time voluntary work or paid work. The bill will introduce a provision that will allow groups of job seekers, for example, 55- to 59-year-olds who would currently be in Job Services Australia, to be precluded from these provisions.

This is about changing behaviour. This is about the notion that benefits come with a mutual obligation to the taxpayers of Australia. In terms of those people who really do desire to have a job, and there are plenty out there, the majority of people who are seeking employment do the right thing. They do the right thing because they turn up to their interviews with their job service providers. They do the right thing because they want to get a job. As the member for Barker quite rightly said, the dignity that comes with having paid employment and being able to stand on your own two feet is something that we should all aspire to.

I was thinking of a story that I was told by Rod Hill from Hill Sheet Metal recently in Brighton, in the southern part of my electorate. He employs about nine or 10 people and has a number of apprentices within the business, some do not have the same qualifications. He was telling me the other day that he put on a young fellow who walked in the door. He had just left school, he had no particular qualifications and he took it upon himself to knock on the door and ask whether or not there was any work. To Rod's absolute credit, he has given him three days a week and essentially he is on a trial. I just know that if this young fellow does the right thing, he will have a really good job for as long as he wants it. Most likely, he will be offered an apprenticeship if he shows a little initiative. That is the sort of attitude we want to see with all our job seekers, be they young, middle age or older. We want to see that enthusiasm and that commitment to getting into the workforce.

The bill addresses a number of weaknesses in the current compliance arrangements not previously addressed relating to job seeker non-attendance at provider appointments. The numbers around compliance are quite stark—and I know a lot of Australians would be staggered to see the numbers and understand them. The current attendance rates by job seekers at compulsory appointments with their employment service providers are unacceptably low. In the past financial year, in fact only 65 per cent, albeit the majority, of appointments booked were actually attended by job seekers. Four and a half million appointments with job service providers were missed. Most Australians would be staggered to learn this. These figures are completely unacceptable. The amendments that we are making within this bill are designed to improve that rate of compliance.

These changes will allow immediate application of penalties and will remove loopholes by which job seekers can fail to attend appointments with their employment service providers without immediate penalty. It is quite interesting to read some of the excuses—and they are published for public consumption and information each year. We have probably heard them all before. Some of us might not have done our homework at school and used some of them. 'I forgot.' 'I slept in.' 'I just could not be bothered.' Frankly, the excuses are unacceptable and were rightly rejected by job service providers and rightly rejected by Centrelink. They are not excuses that would be reasonable and accepted by a boss with somebody in paid employment—they would not get paid and neither should job seekers who are getting paid by the taxpayers of Australia in this situation.

The bill will not remove any of the current safeguards in the system that are designed to ensure that vulnerable job seekers do not incur penalties inappropriately. The bill will not impact on those job seekers whose failure to attend required appointments is beyond their control or those who attend their appointments, or let their provider know in advance if they genuinely cannot do so. Pick up a telephone and ring your job service provider if you are unable to meet a scheduled appointment. That is quite reasonable in anybody's language. Indeed, most do the right thing. The changes that are being proposed will not impact on those people or vulnerable job seekers.

This is part of a range of packages that the government has put in place in respect of encouraging young people to get on with their lives. Most young people do find a job, but this government is absolutely committed to encouraging those who are unable or choose not to get into immediate employment and is committed to supporting them to do further tertiary study, whether it be through the Trade Support Loans with a loan of up to $20,000. If you complete an apprenticeship, 20 per cent of that loan will be written off. Once you are earning over $50,000, only then will you have to start repaying that. Or it might be through higher education, the topic of the day—higher education reforms. These truly are reforms. The expansion of the reforms to sub-bachelor and diploma and the non-university sector will be a boom for young people to go onto further study that will support them in their efforts to find employment.

Debate interrupted.