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Friday, 15 November 2002
Page: 6491

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (10:14 AM) —In rising to speak in the debate on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002, I would like to spend some time putting this issue in its much broader context. It is useful in relation to a number of the other political debates occurring at the moment to do so, because if there is one area of policy differentiation between the Labor Party and the government it is on how to deal with issues of mutual obligation. The Labor Party introduced mutual obligation under Working Nation, but what we see now is a very different creature. However, what we also see now, finally, is the public response to that different creature and to government intransigence in dealing with that public response.

Had there been a different response from government on this issue, we would probably have been in the committee stage of this bill by now but, as I am sure Senator Bishop will detail later, discussions with the government broke down at seven o'clock last night. The sensible, reasoned approach that the opposition has taken to this bill has been ignored by the government because, in the wider context, this is part of a much broader political agenda for the government. This takes me back to the concept of mutual obligation and how this government has introduced a system which is prepared to penalise—heavily penalise—welfare recipients in a way that is applied nowhere else within government. People have made a comparison—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Madam Acting Deputy President, could I ask that the Manager of Government Business in the Senate have his dialogue somewhere other than in my contribution to the second reading debate?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McLucas)—I agree with you. I ask Senator Campbell to hold his discussions in a different way.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Now that the discussions have broken down, I did want to put several matters on the public record this morning. In our clippings from the newspapers today, I think one point said it very well. In the West Australian today there is a letter to the editor entitled `His just deserts?' from a chap called Ross Sgro, who said:

I have a suggestion for the inquiry into Senator Mal Colston. Amanda Vanstone should be put in charge of it and a Centrelink accredited doctor be assigned to review his new circumstances. I am sure (like the other 30,000 Australians who have been reviewed) that a fair and honest outcome will eventuate and the Senator will get his just deserts.

Put that into the context of this matter. We have heard, through Senate question time and various debates, several examples of where the Australian public is saying, `Hey, why have we got this heavily penalising system here for welfare recipients but, when we look at what is applied for business and for parliamentarians, you can apply the logic across the whole gamut of different government arrangements and the picture is just so different?' That does not apply just to the breaching regime, though, and this is where Senator Vanstone has got into some very hot water in recent times. This philosophy or approach applies in some other areas such as the family tax benefit. I bring to the Senate's attention what happened several months ago in relation to the family tax benefit. Australians do not like this approach to welfare recipients being extended to the family payment regime, because all Australians have families and children. When you pick up a logic which is associated with—I hope that this is not unparliamentary but I will withdraw it if it is—a bastardisation of the mutual obligation concept—

Senator Ferris —It is pretty unfortunate and it doesn't suit you, Senator Collins.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I struggled, Senator Ferris, for a different word to express the concepts but I could not find it. I can withdraw it but I think that the Senate understands the point that I am trying to make.

Senator Ferris —It is very unattractive.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Senator Ferris, as you are aware, being in here day and night from Monday morning has somewhat limited my powers of comprehension and vocabulary, but we are all trying.

Senator Ian Campbell —Very trying.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —We are trying. The concept of mutual obligation has been changed so dramatically with, I have to say, a malevolent intent and a political intent by this government that it nowhere near represents the creature that Labor introduced under Working Nation. The problem for the government, though, is that this mutual obligation concept—the welfare system as a whole and the approach to the welfare system as a whole—does not apply now just to welfare recipients; it applies to Australian families through the family tax benefit. All of a sudden this intransigent, rigid, penalising type of approach has been extended to all Australian families. Suddenly the government started getting the message, `Hey, this is unfair, this is gross, this is crude, this is inflexible,' and Senator Vanstone had to make the backdowns that she has made in trying to apply this approach or philosophy in that area.

Let us look at another area where, again, this broad approach has created problems for the government: disability support. Again, a rigid, penalising type approach was attempted in relation to the reforms necessary in the disability support area. Labor has continually acknowledged that to maintain a viable welfare system we need to look at serious reform in relation to disability support. There is no question of that. The problem for this government is that the way Minister Vanstone has sought to do it has created problems not only for those in the sector but for her own government. The Australian community will not accept that approach in relation to disability. Unfortunately, the Australian community might be prepared to accept that type of approach for asylum seekers or for single mothers. However, Senator Vanstone has been a bit too enthusiastic and she has exposed herself by extending it to disability support recipients, to family payments and who knows where else in the future until she and others in the government understand that this approach to welfare is simply wrong.

It might work if you could carve off some sectors of the Australian community which the community as a whole at some point is unfortunately prepared to dehumanise or to demonise, but when it can be demonstrated—as Labor has in the disability support area, in the family payments area and now in this area—that we are quite prepared to contemplate proper reform, then Senator Vanstone is left exposed.

When I talk about proper reform, let us look at the cause of our frustration in relation to the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002. Labor's position on the bill was that it should be amended to ensure wider exemptions because the proposed exemptions were not quite appropriate, to improve safeguards because the safeguards also were not adequate and to provide greater flexibility in the proposed new participation arrangements for parents and the mature aged unemployed. We have sought to do that in constructive dialogue with the government. However, at seven o'clock last night it became obvious that the government was not really interested in constructive dialogue. What the government really wants to do is to try and beat single parents over the head with a breaching system that we know—and this is not just the Labor Party's view here—is not working appropriately and is not up to community expectations and standards.

When I say we know this, how do we know? We know this because the Pearce report tells us this. It tells us what the views are regarding this breaching system and it tells us that, rather than wanting to correct it, the government simply want to extend it. The bona fides of the government would be there if they said, `Yes, we're prepared to acknowledge the community criticism from a broad range of areas and from the welfare sector, and we're prepared to resolve it.' If the government were prepared to acknowledge that and to resolve it, we could look at an appropriate method of mutual obligation. I cannot say at this stage that what the government might come forward with would be any better than what is here or even that what is better generally regarding breaching would necessarily be appropriate in relation to the circumstances of single parents or low-income families. All of that is unknown because, whereas with disability support the minister claimed that the Labor Party was not dancing, on this one the government are not dancing. If the government are not prepared to take seriously the legitimate criticisms about how breaching is working more generally, how can they expect anyone to take seriously extending them to broader groups, and particularly to broader and more vulnerable groups?

Senator Crossin referred to many of the issues relating to the vulnerability of single parent families and they were all very valid points. However, that is not to say Labor does not believe that mutual obligation should apply in a number of valid and appropriate areas, but again this is mutual obligation on our terms, not this government's terms. This government are prepared to apply mutual obligation in a completely inappropriate way and even the community is telling us that now.

Senator Campbell is understandably frustrated that more people are now concerned to deal with the bill, because the government's earlier cooperation is no longer there. However, many of these issues now need to be addressed and put very clearly on the record. I am sure the Senate will understand why, on this breaching issue, someone with my background and involvement in the employment services area throughout the last parliament feels that it is important to deal very carefully with how this breaching system is working. I cannot count the number of hours spent in Senate estimates and other areas in employment services dealing with the various problems and issues associated with breaching. It is unquestioned from all areas other than from government that breaching is not working appropriately and that it is imposing inappropriate and inflexible penalties on people, which is creating poverty.

We now have a system that is not alleviating poverty, which is obviously the objective, and if I pulled out the PBS it would be probably be stated there as an output for the department. However, we now have a system that is working directly and contrary to its own objective. The government's breaching system is creating poverty and, in many cases, in quite inappropriate circumstances.

Let us take the example that Senator Crossin raised in question time yesterday. Although this is not in the breaching regime, why on earth can't the system be flexible enough to cater for a mother whose previous partner has been withholding child support payments? Why should she be penalised because of that? There is no sense to it, and the review process, thankfully, addressed that issue. The point here is: why can't the breaching system be flexible enough to ensure that people are not penalised inappropriately? We have no evidence that the system is acting to the contrary. We have no evidence that the system is letting inappropriate, poorly participating absconders through. We do not have that evidence but there is evidence that time and time again this rigid, inflexible system is penalising and abusing Australians.

For the general community, I should put that into perspective. We are not talking about intransigent, long-term unemployed people who will not get off their butts and who only want to sit down on the beach. We are talking about working Australian families who, for one reason or another because of the way our economy is currently operating, are moved in and out of the work force. We know what the employment statistics are. We know the unavailability of employment for so many actively engaged job seekers. We know that many of the jobs people go into have been casualised, and so people have short-term employment and move in and out of employment. That is the way our economy is operating in relation to employment in a lot of sectors. But our system is not flexible enough to ensure that our workers and our families who are suffering from the effects of the economy in that sense get the poverty alleviation that they should. One would think that the more flexible the labour market and the economy become, the more flexible our welfare system should become to accommodate those factors. But, historically, if you look at how it has gone since 1996, it has been quite the reverse. It has gone to a more flexible labour market, a more flexible economy and a more flexible everything else—except welfare.

I point out again that Senator Vanstone's one big mistake—the one which has exposed her here—is that she thought she could extend that to a system which incorporated family payments. The Australian community's attitude to family payments is not the same as for welfare; it is not an attitude of, `They're a bunch of welfare bludgers, so we should have a really rigid system to keep them under control.' That is why she has been left exposed. It is a great credit to the Australian community that the same attitude and view applied to disability support. Senator Vanstone tried it on there. She tried to run it but it just did not work. After the experience that occurred to asylum seekers prior to the last election, the community's attitude on disability support reminded me that I could continue to be proud to be an Australian. It reminded me that, despite what this government has done in relation to our international standing and our record on human rights, the Australian people could still be relied upon not to demonise a sector of the community such as the disabled.

When Senator Vanstone failed in her attempt to penalise and demonise disability support pension recipients, it reminded me that within the Australian community there was still a common sentiment and cause. I think that, from their experience of how the breaching system is working, they are now saying that about other areas. That is what the Pearce report says and that is what the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee report found. The Australian community does not believe that this breaching system is appropriate. It should be made more flexible, it should be made more accommodating and it should be made to work appropriately as a system of mutual obligation. That is what it is not, and that is what it must become before the Senate is prepared to contemplate extending it.