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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7936

Senator NETTLE (4:58 PM) —I support the Senate's insistence on our amendments. Last month the Australian Greens supported the splitting of the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 so as to pass in the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2002 the beneficial measures, including the Working Credits Scheme to assist people returning to paid work, while declining to approve the imposition—

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Sandy Macdonald)—Senator Nettle, can I remind you that the amendment before the chair is that which Senator Cherry spoke to, which is on sheet 2792 revised. Are you speaking on that?

Senator NETTLE —The Australian Greens will support both of those, but I am speaking to them.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN — Please proceed, Senator Nettle.

Senator NETTLE —Nothing that the government has said since we voted on the first splitting of the bill has changed our position. The bill extends to more Australians a system of mutual obligation with which the Australian Greens strongly disagree. The government contends that its policy prepares people for work. However, the Work for the Dole program provides no proper training and it punishes people for circumstances beyond their control, such as those who have lost their jobs through structural changes or a downturn in business. The program fails to acknowledge the scarcity of paid work, while the government refuses to address the imbalance of work evident in the countless continuing jobless rate, the number of discouraged job seekers and the excessive hours of work that some people are required and feel compelled to undertake. The Work for the Dole system imposes harsh fines that can cause considerable hardship. The Commonwealth Ombudsman, in a submission to an inquiry about extending this regime to temporary protection visa holders—which we will discuss later today—who are in receipt of a special benefit, stated that people who have been fined had advised that they had lost their rental accommodation as a result.

The Australian Greens support government assistance for people who are seeking work and access to proper and adequate training and education. We do not support coercion or an unwillingness to recognise that some people may wish to make their contribution to society in ways other than paid work. They may wish to make their contribution as carers or as people working in their community to improve the quality of life for their fellow Australians. These people deserve an adequate income.

The Minister for Family and Community Services accuses the Senate of being soft on welfare compliance because it declined to support the objectionable measures in this bill. She objected to the Senate requiring the government to soften the impact of the breaching regime—a regime which the Australian Greens fundamentally disagree with. What the Senate wanted, and I hope still wants, was for the government to adopt the recommendations of the independent Pearce review of the breaching regime. The review, which was commissioned by community groups, recommended reducing penalty rates and the length of time for which they are imposed, and permitting people to recover the money if they subsequently comply with the requirements. Under current arrangements, a single unemployed person can be fined between $877 and $1,500. Compare this with the weekly single adult rate of income support of $187. The breaching regime is also counterproductive because it can reduce a person's capacity to search for paid work—which costs money—and can cause homelessness, crime and family breakdowns.

The breaching regime remains harsh and excessive. The number of breaches last financial year was 260,000. The community sector appealed to senators not to support the bill without the adoption of the Pearce recommendations, and the sector continues to call for the Senate to stand firm in its requirement of this as a condition of the bill's passage. The minister has suggested that it will cost between $400 million and $700 million to implement these changes. If she is right, that is an extraordinarily large amount of money for the people of Australia, through their parliament, to take away from some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our community. More disturbingly, the minister's comments suggest that the government is relying on saving this amount of money through its breaching regime, in spite of her comments last month that no-one needs to be breached. The Australian Greens believe that the Senate should insist on our amendments.