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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6301

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (10:30): Thank you, Senator Brown. You have taken all the good lines. It is very difficult to speak in a debate of this kind, where everyone is working on the same information. The core information that we have—apart from personal knowledge and the experience that we all share—is the information that came before us at the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee into this bill.

Interestingly, in opening our report, the Journals of the Senate set out the aim of the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014. It said:

The Bill will help restore the integrity of our welfare system and ensure available resources are used effectively and efficiently…

I thought the idea of this bill was part of a wider process of parliament, government and the community working together so that we have the best possible responsive system to give people the support they need to find employment or education, and feel valued members of our community. Silly me; I thought that was the idea of the bill!

Nonetheless, what we heard at our Community Affairs Committee hearings was some idea that this bill would ensure that people got into employment—that there was something intrinsically wrong with the system we had. In the current welfare system for the unemployed there is a clear provision for an eight-week penalty that can be imposed on people who either do not take up suitable work if it is offered to them through the system, or miss some of the expectations of engagement that are in the system.

What we have here is intense effort, focus and information being put forward to address something that is already available in the system. It is widely known. There is somehow a presumption that this is the first time that we have had this form of debate in this place. Indeed, it is not. In the past there have been significant debates in this chamber about the efficacy of imposing a penalty which determines that people will have their social welfare payments removed for a particular period of time as a punitive element of a system that is based on support.

I would just like to put on record that I worked in the system for a number of years. Those of us who have worked in the system remember that there has always been an expectation of rights and responsibilities within our social welfare system. That is not a new concept. It was in the system when it was first introduced, last century. On this issue of imposing penalties on people who are working towards obtaining employment, we had a significant discussion and review about what was then known as 'breaching'—a term which I hoped we would never hear again. I am sure some of the public sector workers feel the same way. Nonetheless, under the Howard government there was an imposition of compulsory breaching of people who did not fulfil their responsibilities under the social welfare system. At that time there was an enormous response from members of the community—from many of the same witnesses who came before us in this inquiry—who wanted to look at a genuine consideration of whether this was an effective mechanism to encourage people to look for work, to take up work and, in many more ways, to retain work—importantly, to be part of the employment system and understand the responsibilities of being employed.

As a result of extensive work and a full inquiry and review into what was then called breaching, there was a great deal of commentary about the various pressures and the evidence base—if indeed there was any—that removing people from payment, as a punitive exercise, would have a real effect on their staying engaged in the system. It would be fair to say that the debate we are having today has been had in the past, because there is no evidence base. There is opinion and views put forward but there has been no independent assessment which shows that having a punitive element necessarily means that there will be greater compliance.

Of course we have mountains of data. In looking at some of the contributions in this place and in the other place to the debate on this bill I have seen the same statistics quoted by just about every speaker. The statistics indicate that there has been an increase in the number of people who have not met requirements in the overall job market. It is still less than two per cent of the overall number of people who are engaged in the market looking for work through the system.

I put on record, very clearly, that we never have a complete picture. If anyone in this place believes that the statistics we have give a true picture of what is happening for people seeking work across our community, they are just kidding themselves. We know that there are so many people who have completely disengaged from the system. They disengage, and that means that they do not receive social welfare, but that is not the only measure of whether someone is engaged in the system. Allowing for the proviso that any stats being cited in this debate do not reflect the whole picture, we have on record from the department that less than two per cent of people in the social welfare system on one of the unemployment payments who are looking for work through the various available networks are not meeting their requirements and are subject to waivers. So the waivers are available now.

The other set of stats that people trot out consistently shows the clearly undeniable fact that more people in that less than two per cent are subject to having their cases assessed, which means they have not taken up work or they have not engaged effectively, not turned up to training, not been involved in a Work for the Dole scheme and all the other things that are listed quite clearly to demonstrate engagement in the current process. What we do not have—and I asked particularly about this during the inquiry—is any real analysis of this data. We have data that proves that more waivers have been imposed under the current system, which actually allows the waivers to be imposed. We have data that shows that those numbers have grown. What we do not have is any qualitative information about the circumstances around each of those decisions that led to the quite detailed interaction between the person, their job provider and then the Department of Human Services, which has the delegation to impose the waiver. Committee members were provided with no information that addresses the personal, individual circumstances—because, again, there is no clear evidence.

Where people are in the system, as part of their responsibilities in receiving a payment through the social welfare system, they must commit. They have to go through a range of processes, including linking up with their job service provider and attending any of the programs that are part of their contract. Then, should suitable work be arranged, as determined by the job service provider, the expectation would be that the person would take up that job. No-one argues with that. That is the way the system works. I am always very worried about making general statements, but I believe you will not find anyone in this place who argues with the need for there to be mutual obligation, which is an intrinsic part of our system—responsibility and obligation.

We know that, for some people, their disengagement from society and from the community, various illnesses and various life experiences mean that they face a greater barrier or struggle to fit into the structure. That is also agreed; there is no doubt about that. The current act provides that it may be decided by the job service provider—professional, well-trained people who have operated in this industry and are funded by our government to work with individuals seeking work—that the job seeker has shown a wilful or persistent failure to meet their responsibilities. And I love these terms; apart from the stats, the other thing most quoted in this debate are the terms 'wilful' and 'persistent'. If it is determined in the work that goes on—the individual support that goes on between the job seeker and the organisation—that there is wilful or persistent failure to take up their own responsibilities, the current act allows for the job seeker network, whichever organisation has that contract, to refer the matter back to the Department of Human Services. A decision is then made, through the secretary of that department, delegated down to whichever officer is in the local network, to determine whether that person should be subject to a waiver or subject to a penalty. That delegation is clearly spelt out.

Again, we have trained professionals in the system, both in the job seeker network and in the Department of Human Services. This is their job. They work with it day in, day out. They understand the system. Part of their job is to work with the person and the wider community to explain the system—to spell out clearly how it works and what your obligations are, if you are in the system, in continuing to receive a social welfare payment while you are seeking work, because we know that those payments are available while you are seeking work. In fact, if I remember correctly, the term in the act is 'actively seeking work', but I do not have the act in front of me. Nonetheless, that is what occurs. Similarly, if you do not take up a job, again, it is all provided for in the system. You are referred to a job after an extensive process.

I noticed that some of the speakers from the government side felt that there was some lack of understanding by people who oppose this bill about the way it operates or some lack of understanding about the various ways that vulnerability indexes are used and that we did not quite grasp the intricacies of the system. I can say quite strongly that the people who worked on the community affairs committee and the people I have talked with in this area who strongly oppose this bill do understand how it works. What we are saying is that the current system does the job. No system can guarantee that everyone involved in the system will automatically get employment, and that is part of another debate—the genuine lack of employment opportunities and the lack of jobs to which people can be referred. That is a subject for many more debates we will have in this place.

As Senator Brown pointed out in her contribution, to which I listened carefully, this bill is only part of a wider stream of activity going on in this area at this moment. So, while we are considering only this one bill today, senators would be aware that many people in the debate have concentrated on other things, such as the impact of the budget changes and also the impact of the changes in the way that contracts are going out at the moment into the job network. There is a lot of activity within this space at the moment, but the core principles remain the same.

This bill does nothing more than tinker with something that is already in place. In my opinion, what it does is suggest that the professional people working in the system at the moment are not doing their job. If the view from the government is that it is so important to take away any reasonable element of flexibility in the system around the eight-week penalty process, this is how you do it. It is a compulsory judgement in terms of the process: you will automatically get an eight-week penalty if you do not turn up for a suitable job and there is a limit to the number of waivers you will be able to have, as I have said, through that careful system. There is a limit to the ability of the decision maker to make a professional judgement about whether the information in front of them justifies an opportunity for people to re-engage in the system and then come back onto their payment, or whether it should just be an automatic eight-week penalty.

This is what this is all about—stronger penalties for serious failures. The government has decided that serious failures, in terms of not meeting job seeker responsibilities, should not be the subject of an individual arrangements—looking at the individual cases, working with them, understanding their processes and what is going on, and giving them the option to come back into the system. That was the balance we arrived at the last time we had this debate in this place. The balance was there; there were penalties, because you cannot have—and I quote the department and the government—'wilful and persistent neglect' of your responsibilities; that does not allow the system to operate strongly. But what was available—and what was one of the really important elements of the system—was if someone was actually in that circumstance of not turning up for something they were responsible for doing as part of their obligation to the system, or someone did not take up a job to which they were referred, then there was a discussion and a consideration of why. And if there was a reasonable reason, it would be worked with in terms of how it was going to operate into the future. It is most important, for that element of people who have not found a job, that they are in the system working with their job provider, sometimes effectively and sometimes not so well. And if they do not meet one of the requirements of that system, there was the opportunity for the people at the job service network and the human services delegates to work with that job seeker and re-engage them in the system.

My understanding is that one of the core issues is ensuring people are engaged in the system, because if we lose them—if they do become completely disengaged—not only have they lost the opportunity to improve their lives and circumstances and to work, but the community and our society has lost a valuable contribution as well. If we lose them out of the system completely, there does not seem to me to be anything in the bill before us—or indeed in the other pieces of legislation that may come before us from the budget—which looks at how we get those people re-engaged. What we find, and what the stats show, is that when someone drops out of the system there is often an extensive delay before they come back.

The people who are opposing this bill do understand the situation. They do not support people who are not meeting their responsibilities in the system. Again, I take particular insult at terms like 'dole bludgers' which we heard in this place again yesterday. I worked in a department which was then called the Department of Social Security for many years. One of our core principles was to ensure that words like that were never used—to wipe them out and ensure that people who were seeking our support were given respect and dignity as part of our system. They were, in fact, our clients and indeed, later, our customers. But yesterday we heard in this place the words 'dole bludger'. That does not engage people. It further demonises them and pushes them away.

I strongly oppose this bill. The professionals working in the system now know the system. They know their clients. They know the best way to ensure those people fit into the system and accept their responsibilities. Should there be the need to impose a penalty, the ability to do so is there now. Should the people who are charged with the responsibility decide that a penalty should not be imposed, they can give a waiver to the individual provided they pick up their responsibilities otherwise. I think that is a fair and responsive system that makes sure our social welfare system is strong. The bill, as it currently exists, helps the integrity of our welfare system and most importantly ensures that people who are seeking employment and need support to do so will feel that they will get that support, rather than being punished without an effective mechanism to ensure they stay engaged.