Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5694

Senator MOORE (12:20 PM) —I rise to speak, in this debate on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002, about the current provisions on breaches and penalties under the social security system. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be with you, Madam Acting Deputy President Knowles, on a review that the Senate handled of the participation requirements and penalties in the current social security system. This particular Senate inquiry was fortunate enough to be briefed by a range of people—community groups, participants in the system as it currently works and genuinely interested people—about how the current system works before any changes could be made in future legislation. The key, common concern of the people who appeared before the Senate committee was the harshness—perhaps the unfairness—and the fear generated by the current system of breaches and penalties under the social security system. This is a particularly important point as we move towards discussion about extending this same process.

The original changes to the system came under the process of Australians Working Together. That is such a splendid title: Australians Working Together. In fact, the whole concept is that, if there is going to be genuine movement forward, Australians must be working together under this system. One of the key components of the changes to Australians Working Together—it is called AWT, and I do not like that very much—was the concept of increased mutual obligation. This came out all the time during our Senate committee process. What we heard from the people who were working in the system, from recipients of different payments in the system and from people who were helping make the system work as it is was that there was some concern about the mutual nature of the obligation. This is where I come to a point about how any focus of breaches and penalties would operate. Encouraging people to participate is the key concept of Australians Working Together.

There is an acceptance that people must be engaged in the community and must be engaged in participating in the work force and in training. There is no question about that. It is the process by which people are engaged in participation that is being questioned, as well as what happens to people who, for whatever reason, are not effectively engaged. I submit that the current process of breaching and penalties does not encourage participation. In fact, it pushes people away. It encourages fear and concern and it increases the massive distrust of the system. The end result of such a process is not increased participation; I fear it is actually exclusion, marginalisation and total loss from the system.

There has not been a lack of reviews into the way breaches and penalties operate in our system. As with all social security operations of government departments, this has been reviewed and reviewed. In terms of the system of breaches and penalties, there have been internal reviews, the Senate committee process, the much publicised Pearce independent review and an Ombudsman's report on the whole process. It is a good thing that people are reviewing the system. What we need to do is listen to what comes out of those reviews.

A common theme of the results of those reviews is that it must be done better. Another common theme is that there are genuine administrative and processing problems in the current system, which means that the system is not working effectively. I am not here to put blame on anyone for those failures but I am saying that those failures are making the entire concept of mutual obligation and participation fall over, because people are being pushed away. Their distrust of the system is increasing, and therefore the efforts to involve and engage them are not being successful.

The process that we have had, in terms of what has gone wrong with the system, seems to hinge on a couple of key themes. One theme is the communication between the people who need the system and the people who work in the system. There seems to be an ongoing need for improvement, and this is accepted by all the reviews, accepted by people in the various departments and accepted by the ministry. The issue of getting people who want to be involved back into work and participating as members of the Australian community is being damaged by the fear generated by the way that the breaching system is currently operating.

We had a number of submissions from people that talked about receiving communication from the department. The communication was intended to keep them involved with the department but it actually forced them away. It forced them away for a number of reasons, ranging from their inability to understand the system and their inability to understand the communication through to their genuine fear of the whole departmental process. The very efforts being made by the department to engage with people actually ended up pushing them further away.

In that way, the entire step 1, step 2, step 3 breaching process, with its increasingly severe penalties, just made people who were already marginalised and feeling isolated more damaged and less capable of doing the very things which the legislation intends them to do: to engage with the department; to engage with the community; and to seek out effective methods of training, communication and ways of developing so that they can return to the work force in some way.

If any of the legislation that has been placed before both houses of parliament is going to be successful, the key issue must be a rekindling of trust between those people who are developing the legislation and those people who need it. The amendment before the house, which talks about a change in the current breaching provisions quite specifically as part of an overall change to the general legislation, takes on board three specific components of our concerns with the current breaching regime.

One aspect is just the sheer size of the breach. We heard various people before our committee talk about the immediate impact of the cut in payment. It was very difficult in many ways for those of us who were sitting on that committee to be confronted with submissions from people talking about what it was like to lose such a large and immediate aspect of your very livelihood. I am not talking about people who are receiving supplementary payments. I am not talking about people who, in most cases, are receiving money on top of some kind of supported wage or any wage that they are currently able to receive. I am talking about people who are totally reliant on fortnightly welfare payments.

That sense of total reliance is something that many of us cannot understand. I am talking about people who are totally reliant on a fortnightly payment which is already quite small, and about a breaching regime which currently takes massive amounts of money. There are various debates about what a fair system is and I am aware that the system that was in place in the early nineties was, in some ways, more difficult than the one that is currently in place. But this is not the time to be talking about which system is tougher than others. This is the time to talk about the information that we have received from people who know the system and participate in the system, and to work together to try and make the system better.

There is no particular value in saying that one system is tougher or has more impact than another. What we have is a body of evidence, which we have all shared, from a range of different reviews and which points out that the impact of the current system is onerous. The impact of the current regime of penalties and breaches has the most monstrous effect on people who, currently, are mostly young unemployed. That is where the current range of breaching penalties is imposed.

Their stories are now public. They are stories about what it means to have your money cut, sometimes without even realising why, sometimes without receiving effective communication from any level of government— to suddenly go to your bank account, on which you are totally reliant, and find significant cuts in your fortnightly payment. Under the current system the cuts can extend over strike 1, strike 2 and strike 3 for increasing periods of time—up to half a year. The current statistics—and there are numerous statistics, but I have to admit there are very few I trust—indicate that there is a low percentage of single breaches. People who are into this cycle of breaching fall into consecutive breaching. Once you have breached once, once you have fallen into the penalty process once, it is highly likely that you will then fall into a second and a third process. That means that you are not further involved in the community and that you are not more likely to take up job opportunities or develop yourself as a trained, effective person in the community. What happens is that you lose money, you lose your accommodation and you lose your ability to move around, because you have no money to access transport. The very system which has been developed to encourage people to participate is, as I said, moving people further away, pushing them aside and reinforcing some feeling that they are not worthy, that somehow they are evil, that they have done wrong and that they must be punished. I question the ability of a system that uses that form of terminology— the terms `breaching' and `penalties'—to effectively engage and enforce participation.

The second point is the quantum. Perhaps it would be useful for all of us on our current wage—and this was something put to us by the Welfare Rights Centre of New South Wales during the committee hearings—to translate our current employment and wage rates to a breaching regime and see, using our own money, what it would mean to cut it down by the current percentages and for the periods of time. It is a particularly confronting system, and I encourage people to have a look at their own processes and see how that would work.

The evidence provided to us by people who were directly involved in the Pearce review indicated that they were not saying that there should not be some form of penalty. They were not saying that there was a philosophical opposition to any kind of process to encourage people to keep in contact. They were questioning the size of the penalty under the current regime and they were clearly questioning the process by which it was administered. They could point to massive amounts of evidence which indicated that people were not trusting the way the system was operating. There was considerable evidence about the administrative processes within the department which indicated that it was not an easy thing to maintain communication between the people who are working within the system at the departmental level and the people who are totally reliant on it. The people who are totally reliant on it do not fit any particular model. There are all kinds people who are reliant on the social welfare system, and not all of them can be clearly defined or labelled. A system that would work effectively for some client groups may not, and in fact I submit does not, work for everyone.

Our reliance on written communication is misplaced. We seem to think that, once you put something in the mail and send a recipient a letter, they will get it automatically and then be automatically part of the process. That has been proven to be just not true. You cannot rely on written communication to engage people in the social welfare system. I submit that you cannot rely on written communication to get anyone engaged in any system and certainly not people who are reliant on the social welfare system, some of whom—our figures indicate many of whom—are in situations of homelessness or, at best, are rapidly moving between different addresses. If our process continues to be reliant on people receiving mail or having regular phone calls, it is guaranteed to fall over. The first step towards receiving a penalty under the system is reliant on someone responding to mail or responding to telephone communications or, I am thrilled to say, responding to an SMS! The department were very excited about their ability to SMS people on mobile phones. That is a wonderful thing but I question just how many people who are totally reliant on the social welfare system will have the immediacy of the SMS system for receiving their information from the department.

It was clear during the discussions that we had that some of the people who were most interested in developing and making the system work better were the people in Centrelink and the Department of Family and Community Services who administer the system. Those people genuinely wanted to make the system work better as well. Throughout the Ombudsman's report and other documents that I have read it has been noted that the departmental people are very keen to look at ways to make the system work better. That is a tremendous effort to contribute to the concept of Australians Working Together, because we are never going to develop an effective social welfare system if it develops into some kind of contest. I have mentioned this before in this place. There is no moral high ground. There is no righteousness in this argument. The only way we are going to be able to develop and, much more importantly, implement an effective social justice system—as opposed to a purely welfare system—is for everybody who has a stake in this to be actively involved and be part of the solution. That involves some genuine communication between all the stakeholders.

We must ensure that, instead of the first reaction to people expressing criticism being outrage, the first reaction is to listen. We must listen to the issues being raised by the people who know the system. If people say that they are having difficulty with the system, perhaps the first response should be to listen and to say, `How do you think it could work better?' The committee made some specific recommendations about how it could work better. In fact, the three points in this amendment are directly part of a response from the committee comprising people who want to make the system work better. There is no expectation that the system should be destroyed; there is an expectation that the system should be made to work better. One of my pet issues is with point (c) of this amendment, which talks about the `reinstatement of payments benefits'—I do not like the word `benefits'—`on compliance'.

I began by saying that the concept of this whole process is to have people participating. That is what we are trying to do. If the concept of the penalty is to ensure that people participate then surely once the person or persons, if it is a group, do fulfil their requirements under the legislation and communicate, that must mean that their payment should be returned. This, in fact, was one of the key issues that came out of our discussion. We have this concept of `balance'—we use the word a lot at the moment—between encouragement and the success of the system, which is about getting people communicating and participating, and yet we have a penalty which says, `We have not heard from you; we do not know where you are; you have not fulfilled your commitment to the system, so you have breached.' The requirements of mutual obligation must be fully understood by the person before they receive the payment. If, in fact, the intent of the process is to get people training, engaging, communicating and moving towards work, then when they do communicate, get in touch, and fulfil their requirements surely that must mean that they have complied. Surely then their payments and their status in the system should be restored.

If we use this process to continually punish, to—in many more ways—label and marginalise, we will not have Australians working together. We will have more people who are distrustful of our system and who are fearful of any engagement with government agencies regardless of which ones they are. One of the real issues is that people do not know with whom they are speaking. There is not a great deal of knowledge out there in the community about exactly which government department does what. In fact, if people actually get the courage to come into a government department, they just want all their questions answered by whoever is behind the desk at that time. If we are to break down that fear and engender trust and get people into the system, surely we must reward, encourage and nurture them so that the next steps of Australians Working Together will be successful and they will be working together.