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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6296

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (10:10): I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014. Senator Lines's contribution was spot-on: this is a measure that is cruel and unfair and will not do what the government says it is intended to do. It is just another attempt by this ideologically driven government to further demonise and isolate job seekers. The measure in this bill is just one of a number of unjust budget measures, part of this government's all-out attack on job seekers. The other measures include the extension of Work for the Dole and the under-30s measure, which will cut all income for job seekers under 30 for a maximum of six months every year.

The bill we are considering here today seeks to make changes to the compliance provisions for participation payments. The changes in this bill would mean that a job seeker who incurs an eight-week penalty for not taking or commencing a job would be prevented from re-engaging and seeking employment and training to have their payment reinstated earlier. The bill also seeks to limit the number of times a job seeker can have a penalty for persistent noncompliance waived to one. These changes would prevent job seekers from re-engaging with the job seeker process to work off eight-week nonpayment penalties for serious failures. These changes all but roll back changes Labor made when we were in government.

Labor's changes were made to strike a balance in the compliance system—a balance to support participation in a flexible and equitable way, to strike a balance between the carrot and the stick—and it is appropriate that the compliance system has both of these elements, as the current system does. Labor's changes amended the former Howard government stick-only compliance system to ensure that job seekers who suffered a penalty for noncompliance were encouraged to re-engage—and I would have thought that is exactly what we would want—to seek employment and training. These changes were based on extensive consultations and evidence on the perverse impacts the compliance measures had on job seekers, particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged job seekers. Labor's changes preserved the eight-week nonpayment period for breaches of a job seeker's mutual obligations and introduced the ability to re-engage with participation requirements to have withheld income support reinstated. These changes address the fundamental flaws in the Howard government's compliance system—a system that had a harmful impact on vulnerable job seekers, a system that actually prevented people from re-engaging in employment services.

Under the current compliance provisions, job seekers receiving a participation payment—for example, Newstart, youth allowance or parenting payment—may incur an eight-week nonpayment penalty for serious failures of either their refusal of suitable work or persistent noncompliance with their participation obligations. Importantly, these nonpayment penalties may be waived if the job seeker begins to comply with a serious failure requirement, such as Work for the Dole job search training or undertaking more-intensive job searches.

The evidence to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill was clear. The witnesses at the inquiry hearing were emphatic in their opposition to the changes in this bill. This is reflected in the dissenting report of the Labor senators involved in the inquiry, which recommends that the Senate oppose the bill. This is a recommendation based on evidence, rather than the government's bill, which is clearly based on ideology. In fact, the minister's department were the only witnesses who spoke in support of the bill.

All the other witnesses, and I will name them here because these are organisations that work with vulnerable people and job seekers—the Brotherhood of St Laurence, BoysTown, the Australian Council of Social Services, St Vincent de Paul, Anglicare, National Welfare Rights Network and Jobs Australia—all provided compelling evidence to oppose the bill based on their experiences of working with job seekers and employment services. This should send a clear signal to the government. Unfortunately, it appears that the government is not listening.

The evidence to the committee inquiry made it clear that current system is effective. In evidence to the Committee, the Chief Executive Officer of Jobs Australia, Mr David Thompson, said:

... the measures contained in the bill seek to resolve a problem that does not really exist, that the levels of compliance in the existing system are very good, and the levels of noncompliance are very low.

This position was echoed by the Executive Officer of the National Welfare Rights Network, Ms Amelia Meers, who told the committee:

Fundamentally, the system that we have now is very effective in ensuring that people re-engage immediately and in stopping people from falling through the cracks ...

She went on:

The system as it is at the moment is actually working extremely well—certainly from our perspective and our on-the-ground casework.

In spite of evidence such as this, those opposite are seeking to push ahead—or perhaps more accurately take us backwards back towards the excessively punitive measures of the Howard government.

The bill before us will roll back many of the important changes that Labor made to the compliance system, removing the waiver that allows job seekers to re-enage and have the payment reinstated. I cannot stress how important these waiver provisions are. They are important because they encourage job seekers to re-engage in the process after noncompliance by allowing the non-payment period to be ended if they re-engage with their participation obligations.

In his evidence to the Senate Committee inquiry into this bill, Mr Thompson, CEO of Jobs Australia, said:

The existing measures whereby waivers enable and encourage and incentivise people to re-engage immediately are likely to be much more effective in terms of getting them engaged in the system and getting to work

But under this cruel and harsh bill, job seekers who incur an eight-week non-payment penalty for refusing suitable work will no longer be able to have that penalty waived at all. People looking for employment who fail to comply with participation obligations will only be allowed to have the penalty waived once using the same criteria during each period when they receive payment. This will discourage re-engagement. It will discourage re-engagement because the government is telling job seekers they will not be able to re-engage for eight weeks. They are telling job seekers to go away—out of sight and out of mind. Even if a job seeker wants to re-engage, they will be prohibited from doing so. They will get nothing for eight weeks. We are talking about people who are already vulnerable being penalised. These include people who have a mental illness, people at risk of homelessness, people who may have experienced a recent relationship break-up and others who are vulnerable.

The evidence provided to the Senate committee inquiry made it clear that the current compliance provisions for job seekers receiving participation payments are flexible and effective. Why would you change a system that is both flexible and effective? The government claims it intends to save $20 million over five years by introducing this measure. But I ask: at what cost to those who will be affected? It is unbelievable that this government would rather not pay someone for eight weeks, and for many on top of a mandatory non-payment period of six months, than having them engaged and looking for work.

And as the Labor senators' dissenting report on the Senate committee inquiry into this bill found, jobseekers with a Centrelink recorded 'vulnerability indicator'—meaning that they are disadvantaged in some way, including where they have mental illness or psychiatric problems, are homeless, have recently been discharged from prison, have had a recent traumatic relationship breakdown, or suffer from cognitive or neurological impairment—could be further disadvantaged by the changes in the bill. Data from the Department of Employment shows that of all the 27,400 serious failures recorded against job seekers from 1 July 2012 to 30 June 2013, more than half—14,235—had a vulnerability indicator, a mental health indicator or were Indigenous, and a large proportion were under the age of 30. The proposed changes are likely to further disadvantage these people.

Labor's dissenting report also noted evidence from the submitters, which highlighted concerns that the proposed changes would actually exacerbate existing problems and create further barriers to employment. The Australian Council of Social Services stated:

The majority of recipients of unemployment payments have few savings, little access to credit, and many receive little or no support from family. A period of eight weeks without income support is very likely to cause hardship in these circumstances, including homelessness in some cases.

Evidence to the Senate committee inquiry also argued that the changes in the bill will disproportionately impact on Indigenous job seekers who already receive higher numbers of penalties. The CEO of the National Welfare Rights Network, Ms Meers, said:

For a range of reasons under the penalty system, Indigenous job seekers have higher numbers of penalties. It is not because they are not seeking work or do not want to comply but because there might be issues of remoteness or lack of understanding of the actual system—a whole range of issues—that result in that.

Ms Meers went on to say:

When you look at the rates of penalties and the rates of appeals in Indigenous communities, not only do they get more penalties; they generally do not exercise their rights. So removing the ability to work off a penalty, we think, will result in more Indigenous people just falling away from the system and disengaging entirely, ending up without income support.

It is also unbelievable that these harsh measures in the bill come at the same time that the government want young people aged under 30, who quit a job, to wait six months before they can get a payment. It is worrying that in the past more than 76 per cent of the failures to comply were by young people aged under 30. Professor Shelley Mallet from the Brotherhood of St Laurence gave evidence to the Senate committee inquiry on the interaction between the changes in this bill and the government's proposed under-30 measure. Professor Mallet said:

We feel greatly pained by that proposal—

the under-30s measure—

particularly if you add the eight-week waiver to it. I guess we start with the premise that these young people are our country's future, that they are going to make a significant investment in the economy as well as in the society as a whole and that we risk losing their contribution to the community, with both economic and social consequences as well as, of course, dire individual consequences for them. So we think that is of great concern.

These young people will be forced to live on nothing. As the CEO of the Brotherhood of Laurence, Tony Nicholson, said in an article in the Australian newspaper magazine on 16 August, the government's policy is fraught with danger. Mr Nicholson said:

It seems to assume that young people will have family support and that if they lose income they will have a family to fall back onto. However, if you look at the data there are some 45,000 people receiving the youth allowance who are not living at home and many of those can't move back home and don't have family support. So if you cut the income off to those people they become destitute.

'Destitute', Mr Acting Deputy President Back!

Now in this article, the federal member for Braddon, Mr Whiteley, disagreed with Mr Nicholson's comments about people becoming destitute as alarmist. In fact, Mr Whiteley, who represents an area with the highest youth unemployment in the country, said that 'some of our young people just need an extra prod'—an unbelievable statement, Mr Acting Deputy President. Mr Whiteley and this government do not provide any answers to helping people find jobs. Instead of creating jobs, this government seems determined to punish and demonise job seekers particularly young job seekers.

Labor is also concerned about the impact of and interactions between all the government changes to participation payments, such as those in this bill, and the proposed new funding contracts for employment service providers. The department is going to be handing over responsibility for the decision-making on whether or not a serious failure has occurred and whether there was a reasonable excuse for it from Centrelink to Job Services Australia provider staff. The minister's own Exposure draft for employment services purchasing arrangements 2015-2020 states on page 41:

The Employment Provider will also determine whether the Job Seeker had a reasonable excuse for non-attendance at their initial appointment in accordance with legislation and guidelines.

JSA providers have expressed concern in relation to these changes, including that it will change the dynamic of the relationship between the job seeker and the provider. In its evidence to the Senate committee inquiry, the National Welfare Rights Network stated:

… that means that the DHS powers would be delegate to numerous employment service providers across the nation to make these original decisions which will then have appeal rights from there. But we are concerned about pressure on the employment service providers, the change in the nature of the relationship between them and the job seeker and the almost certainly inconsistent application of the law across the land as a result of outsourcing that decision-making power from the Department of Human Services to employment service providers.

So, as you can see, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker Sterle, this bill is just part of a raft of changes the government is seeking to make to participation payments and employment services—changes that will penalise job seekers, punish and demonise them. Those opposite would have each of these measures viewed in isolation. This is why parliament is only getting to consider the relevant legislation in a piecemeal manner. But these changes should not be considered in isolation, as they are linked: they are part of this government's broader agenda, part of its big picture.

This broader agenda was made very clear in the Abbott government's first budget. Those opposite say they are committed to helping job seekers into work, but that is completely at odds with this and other measures in the budget. This measure will actually prevent job seekers from re-engaging, depriving them of support to find work. In evidence to the Senate committee, the Brotherhood of St Laurence said of this measure:

We believe that it will have harsh unintended consequences for job seekers, so we do not believe it will achieve the outcomes. We know that the evidence suggests that rapid re-engagement is absolutely crucial to achieving positive employment pathways. But what this will do is delay that re-engagement, and in such a moralising way that people could feel defeated by these sorts of measures, because it will have dire consequences for their housing stability and basic living standards.

A number of the submissions to the Senate committee inquiry on the bill argued that the changes go so far that they could be inconsistent with a number of Australia's human rights obligations. In evidence to the committee, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul, Dr John Falzon, said of the raft of government changes:

It is severe not only for the people who are being subjected to this … I would put it to you that what we are seeing is a cumulative desensitisation of mainstream Australia, led by the government, in disregarding the humanity and the basic fundamental human rights of a section of the population on the basis that they are unemployed.

Similarly, in its ninth report of the 44th Parliament, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights took issue with the government's assessment of the bill's compatibility with our own human rights obligations. The joint committee argued that the government's statement of compatibility did not either accurately reflect or sufficiently justify the limitation on human rights that the bill's proposed measures entail. The joint committee also formed the view that the bill could potentially have 'a disproportionate or unintended negative impact on particular groups', which may limit rights to equality and nondiscrimination.

This government has a clear agenda, an agenda that seeks to punish, isolate and demonise job seekers; to strip them of the support and assistance that they need; and to what ends? I ask you, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle: to what ends? Under this bill, people who incur a penalty will not have the chance to re-engage for eight weeks. They will have no support for eight weeks.

This is a bill that goes too far. It is unnecessary, and it will have a severe impact on the most vulnerable job seekers. It is consigning them to the scrap heap. It is saying, 'You're on your own.' It is denying them the chance to re-engage and the chance to take up education, training or a job.

This government is making life harder and harder for job seekers—laying all the blame on them for being unemployed and not taking responsibility for the lack of job opportunities in this country at the present time. The changes in this bill are unnecessarily harsh. They are unjust, and actually discourage participation. They do the exact opposite of what the government says is the intention of this bill. I ask the Senate to oppose this bill.