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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7964

Senator MARK BISHOP (6:48 PM) —The Democrats seek to oppose schedule 4 of the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2002, which closes entry to mature age allowance and partner allowance from 1 July 2003. They seek to retain the status quo. Labor have carefully considered the issues to do with the closure of mature age allowance and partner allowance. We, too, are firmly of the view that these are very disadvantaged job seekers and that they need to be treated with dignity and respect.

Labor created mature age allowance in recognition of the fact that many of those who were eligible faced little prospect of working again. Mature age allowance removed this group from the requirements that exist under Newstart and, for many, the view that they were part of the active labour market. However, these allowances were always envisaged as transitory measures. When the mature age allowance was introduced there had been a large influx of mature age workers from the labour market onto income support. Most were from low-skilled industries that were closing as a result of rapid advances in technology and as a result of our economy. Many of these people lacked the skills to be competitive in the new labour market and found it difficult to obtain work even when they were reskilled. Employers were reluctant to take on older workers and would not give them a fair go. Accordingly, Labor put in place non-activity-tested allowances for those who had been out of the labour market. There was no fairness in requiring such people to hit their heads against a brick wall by applying for the same number of jobs as younger job seekers. It was about dignity and respect.

However, times are changing. Older workers leaving the labour market today are, by and large, more highly skilled and adaptable to modern technologies than a similar person was more than a decade ago. We have an ageing population and it is important that people pursue work consistent with their capabilities up to retirement age. The changes proposed by the government will bring new mature age people leaving the labour market back within the Newstart population and will ensure that some are more engaged in retraining or reskilling. For others, it may impose participation requirements that are not appropriate to their circumstances. Accordingly, Labor's approach is to safeguard 50-plus-year-olds from any unreasonable obligations. Labor will move amendments similar to those moved in relation to schedule 1 to ensure that the participation agreements properly and fully take into account the circumstances of the mature age unemployed.

Labor are also concerned to ensure that the mature age group are not forced to apply for countless job vacancies where they have little or no prospect of success. Accordingly, Labor will seek to introduce caps on the number of job vacancies this group are asked to apply for. These caps will apply only where job search is required by the activity agreement. In many instances, voluntary or paid work may be undertaken in lieu of job search. Current recipients of partner allowance and mature age allowance will be saved. The changes will involve no loss of benefits or concessions. Newstart allowance recipients aged over 60 who have been in receipt of benefits for nine months will still be eligible for the higher rate of allowance, the pharmaceutical allowance and a pensioner concession card. Taking all of these factors into account, we decline to support the Democrats' opposition to the closure of these payments.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Brandis)—The question is that schedule 4 stand as printed.

Question agreed to.