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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 8124

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) (5:55 AM) —I move:

That the committee does not insist on Senate amendments (4), (18), (21) to (27), (33), (35), (37) to (55), (57), (58), (60), (61), (63) to (65), (74) to (77) to which the House of Representatives has disagreed and agrees to the amendments made by the House in duplication of amendments (2), (3), (5), (7) to (17), (19), (20), (28) to (32), (34), (36), (56), (59), (62), (69) to (73) and (78) to (94).

I wish to make it very clear that, when the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 first came to the Senate, we were negotiating with the Labor Party on amendments to matters that related to the client groups being dealt with by this bill. We were under the impression at the time that a second reading amendment would be moved as an expression of the Labor Party's concern with broader questions of breaching. On the day and a half before, or even on the day, of the second reading amendment, it became clear that Labor not only intended to move a second reading amendment to express its concern, which it clearly has, with the breaching arrangements as they now stand but also intended to pursue amendments in the chamber on that basis. We indicated that those amendments would not be acceptable, and so Labor and the Democrats split the bill.

The bill then came back to this place and, again, we have been negotiating with the Labor Party and have in good faith accepted amendments that they sought to put. There has been some toing and froing and rewording on those, and together we have worked quite effectively on them. By various means, we were of the view that, if we accepted those amendments—while Labor would continue to press their case, as they clearly did here last night—and if the bill came back again, we could hope to have the bill passed. That leads us to the position we are in now. I am a little bit uncertain on the basis of what Mr Swan said in the chamber, but subsequent conversations have led me to believe that Labor may not be able to see their way to supporting this bill and may want to insist on still putting amendments which, on the basis of past voting patterns in this place, we would expect to be passed with the support of the Democrats and the Greens.

All along we have made it as clear as we possibly can, both in private discussions with the Labor Party and in this chamber, that we cannot accept further changes to the broader breaching arrangements. There are a number of reasons for this, and at this hour I will not go into them and re-rehearse them at length; but for the convenience of having them in the same place on the record it is important to say that we have already made quite dramatic changes to the breaching arrangements. The breaching arrangements are now much softer than they were before. In fact, they are far softer than they were under Working Nation.

The dramatic changes we have made—not all of the changes, but the dramatic ones— only started to come into play in July this year. All the evidence is that they are going to be very successful in addressing the mutual concern that we have—we might have a different way of addressing it, but we nonetheless have the mutual concern—with those vulnerable groups that I mentioned before, who might not want to admit to a Centrelink counter person that they did not make it to an appointment because they had overdosed on drugs or had passed out because they were an alcoholic or were homeless and therefore did not get the letter. We believe that the changes we made in July will be very successful, and they already are proving to be successful in protecting those groups. That is the primary reason for not accepting any further change at this point.

The secondary reason is that the changes are expensive. I made the point before that we have a difficult macroeconomic climate. The budget is finely balanced; we are uncertain as to whether there will be very significant defence expenditures required; we are uncertain as to the degree that the current drought we are experiencing around Australia may require more and more funds; and, therefore, we simply do not have hundreds of millions of dollars to soften the compliance on welfare yet again.

Coupled with that, as a third reason, we believe that no-one need be breached. If they simply keep up with the requirements, they will not be breached. For those reasons, I hope it is crystal clear—I have made it clear before—that the government cannot accept further amendments to breaching at this point and, if they are insisted on, then that has very drastic consequences for what I think are tremendous proposals contained in this bill. The bill is in fact a spending bill— and this is a government wanting to invest in people in welfare—and we now have a situation where, if these amendments are pursued, what the opposition is joining with the Greens and Democrats in saying is, `We will not let you spend this money on welfare recipients unless you spend even more again.' That is not a realistic proposition. The money is not there. The breaching has already been attended to. The current arrangements have not been given sufficient time.

I very much want the working credit to come into place in April. If this bill is not passed tonight, that is certainly not going to happen. I certainly want sole parents to get what I see as help in preparing them to look for work. I do accept that some people look at that in a different fashion. I respect Labor, the Democrats and the Greens for pressing their case when this bill came back a second time earlier in the sitting that we are now in, but I cannot say that I will respect a decision that presses those amendments again, because the consequences of that have been made very clear. I desperately want the bill to pass so that we can spend the money, give the working credit to the people who will benefit from it, and give the assistance that is required to sole parents and others. I think it is worth repeating that message; I thought it was clear the first time. I tried to make it clear in the second debate and I can make it no plainer and no clearer than I have just done.