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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6305

Senator LUDWIG (Queensland) (10:50): I rise, like my colleagues, to oppose the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill. We now find that the coalition are back to the euphemistic naming of bills that the Howard government turned into an art form. 'Stronger penalties for serious failures': it undermines the whole import of the bill. What I think they are up to is, since they cannot do Work Choices, they are going to punish the unemployed. They cannot attack workers so on this basis they are going to attack the most vulnerable in the community. They are going to attack those people who cannot defend themselves.

Surprisingly, they are also overturning what, in essence, is a system that works. When you look at the social security committee report itself, you find—surprisingly to me but unsurprisingly, I suspect, to many—there is simply no persuasive justification for the changes. Yes, the committee—those that signed off on the majority report—went through what I call the process. They went through the motions hoping that something would follow—but nothing turned up, so they simply signed off on the report and said the bill should pass. There was no justification and no cogent argument and quite frankly, when you read the dissenting report, it is far more persuasive. It certainly persuaded me to speak on this, because of that simple reason. The existing system is set up so that if a job seeker commits a no-show, no-pay failure without a reasonable excuse such as failing to attend an activity where attendance is required, misbehaving at an activity, failing to attend a job interview, or intentionally acting in a manner that may result in an offer of employment not being made, then the consequence of a no-show, no-pay failure is a penalty equivalent to one working day of a person's payment—normally about 10 per cent of a person's 14 day instalment. In other words, it is a proportional response. It is about ensuring that the job seeker understands what their conduct has created for them, and as a consequence a bit of pain is the proportional penalty response. The main aim is about ensuring that we have a connection between the job seeker and employment opportunities. That is what the existing system does. It is a measured framework that ensures these two things: it does not provide an extraordinarily punitive penalty out of kilter with the failure and concentrates on reconnection—in other words, so that a job seeker has to undertake the activities and understands what the required compliance is. That is also proportional.

You wonder who is really driving the legislation that the coalition have put forward. The legislation seems to be a milksop, written by the hardliners who simply think the unemployed should not be paid at all. This legislation takes away discretion from the department that is dealing with people who are unemployed and trying to reconnect them with employment in a positive way. It is not that surprising from the Abbott government, because they are trying to make life harder for lower- and middle-income earners. They have been pursuing a dogmatic, ideological agenda against the best interests of working people since the days of Work Choices. The message that they are saying to the Australian people is simple: if you are not in the top end of town, then you are on your own, and you will want to start working a lot harder than you are already. You can then sum it up in the expression that Mr Joe Hockey said, when he talked about the 'lifters and leaners'. The Treasurer speaks about making absolutely sure where he thinks working people are. It is a disgrace to use that phrase.

The disdain that the Treasurer and the Prime Minister have for working people is a national blight. Saying poor people do not drive cars is just idiotic. I cannot think of any other way to describe it. It is deeply insulting to the people whom the Labor Party spend each and every day defending and fighting for. Upping the retirement age, cutting unemployment benefits, loading a debt sentence on students, upping the petrol tax, putting a tax on going to the doctor, and these draconian amendments all form the foundation of the Abbott government's broken promises to the Australian people. They are making life harder not easier. Mr Abbott took the script from previous prime ministers from the coalition but has taken it to a new level. They up taxes, they do not cut them. They make the lowest-income earners in the community pay to offset the tax booms for the big end of town. How unfair could you be? The handouts of the age of entitlement never ended under the Abbott government. In every single act of this government, the biggest end of town benefits. They get a windfall everywhere they go, while the workers themselves get kicked by this government. It is not fair, and the Labor Party deeply oppose the punitive measures and twisted priorities of the Liberal government.

Yesterday, we saw it taken to a new level again, when they raided workers' superannuation entitlements. It was yet another sorry example of the Abbott government's attack on working people. Let me be clear: the Abbott government do not trust workers. They do not trust them having control of their own money. They do not trust them to have proper employment and job-seeking benefits. In essence, they want to be a parent and have complete control. If the Abbott government really think that measures like this bill are the way forward and will achieve an end product, they are even more than just out-of-touch, they are, quite frankly, off the planet! I think the legislation is only about being punitive. It is only about punishing. It is a milksop to their far-right. The government have not lost touch so much as they never had any sense of the reality for hardworking Australians. The government see rising unemployment and, rather than look at how to address rising unemployment, simply blame the jobless. They say, 'It's your fault.' The government will do anything to fill the Liberal Party coffers but do nothing to help the most vulnerable in the community. If this is their new measure in their first year of government to help the unemployed get a new job and find a career, then I think it belies their true nature. This is a government that only wants to punish the unemployed.

The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling has stated that the families in the bottom 20 per cent will have an average of five per cent reduction in disposable income. The top have a decline of only 0.3 per cent out of the budget. So it is clear that it is about saving money, and you are going to save the most from those who can least afford it. You are going to punish those in the lower socioeconomic group because you can, and because you do not want to touch those who are wealthy and who support your Liberal causes. You want to make sure those at the bottom end of town pay for it.

When you look at the report itself, the key issues summarise where this report did not end up. It should have ended up by saying—and it might have been courageous for Senator Seselja—this bill should not have passed. When you look at it, even though the chair supported the passage of the bill, some of it crept through and you can hear it in the key issues. The committee noted:

… Brotherhood of St Laurence contended that the Bill created a high risk of unintended consequences, by impacting on jobseekers who may find themselves in breach of their obligations due to circumstances beyond their control, such as mental illness, domestic violence or homelessness.

It goes on to say that the way the system would work would not create incentives for workers and for those who are unemployed to re-engage. It ultimately creates a situation where those who are unemployed will find it harder to find employment—will find it harder to live and be able to get themselves re-engaged with work. Ultimately, the committee's view fell on this:

The committee notes the concerns raised by witnesses and submitters

But, quite frankly, I do not think that those who supported the bill listened to the submitters about their concerns. They simply noted them because they were ideologically driven to come to the outcome which they landed upon.


the report went on to say—and this is the broad Abbott brush, the Mr Abbott brush where you simply brush aside the concerns of the submitters, the issues that were raised by witnesses and how it would attack those most vulnerable in our community. It did that with a 'however':

However, the committee also notes that the Bill will only impact the small proportion of jobseekers who have received but nevertheless refused an offer of suitable employment without a reasonable excuse or who have persistently and wilfully failed to comply with their participation obligations.

The grand scheme of this is that it is only a small number who are going to be hurt, so we should not bother too much about it. We should pass the legislation, notwithstanding that. The committee went on to say that it considered that it important to limit the number of eight-week penalty waivers a jobseeker can access but never really made any justification as to why. The committee was 'satisfied', apparently, that:

… appropriate safeguards exist such that no penalty will be applied for a failure that was directly attributable to a jobseeker's vulnerability.

Let's hold that phrase for a moment. In fact, we may want to revisit it again, and again and again, because what the committee have said, as the chair, is that they are 'satisfied' but make no argument as to why they should be satisfied. I am not satisfied. When you read this report, you cannot be satisfied that appropriate safeguards exist or that no penalty—not some penalty, but no penalty—will be applied for a failure that was directly attributable to a job seeker's vulnerability. Should this legislation pass, every time a vulnerable job seeker gets smacked with a penalty Senator Seselja should apologise, because he is wrong.

When you look at the dissenting Labor report, I think you can find the evidence there of why this is a harsh and punitive measure. Labor supports a just and reasonable job seeker compliance system which encourages and supports participation. Why? Because it is about getting those who are unemployed to reconnect with the labour market. We all know that a job now for job seekers is about how they can pull themselves through and participate fully in society. They will benefit now and in the long run. That is why we do need a compliance framework in place, and that is why we do need a system that ensures that there are provisions that make and help job seekers reconnect. But it has to be flexible. It has to ensure that the job seekers receiving participation payments are both flexible and, above all, effective.

The submitters to the enquiry raised not only the real concerns that they had about the punitive nature of the bill but also the way it would operate. It would operate in such a draconian way that the potential financial impacts of the changes in this bill on vulnerable job seekers would be terrible. The removal of incentives for re-engagement of job seekers, who are in breach of their participation obligations, is also one that was completely not supported by the dissenting report, but ultimately the major report did not highlight why we should depart. That is why I oppose this bill and it is why Labor opposes this bill in its entirety. There is no saving grace contained within it; it simply seeks to make it harder and harder for those who are unemployed. You can turn to some of the key submitters, such as that from the National Welfare Rights Network, which said:

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. There are still some people who fall through the cracks, but we consider it to be likely that there will be a lot more should this bill go through. In the end, you only have less than one per cent of people incurring multiple penalties. The system as it is at the moment is actually working extremely well—certainly from our perspective and our on-the-ground casework.

These are people at the coalface; these are people who understand that there are problems in getting job seekers to re-engage, but they want them to re-engage. Why? Because they understand the long-term benefits of the job. They do support a compliance framework and they do support a system which is both tough and fair. They do not support a system that is simply tough, and so tough that it will punish those people who are unemployed.

The Labor senators said they were concerned at the proposed changes would discourage re-engagement altogether even in circumstances where a job seeker is willing and able to re-engage during the non-payment period, but the government wants to prohibit them from doing so. The government has taken the draconian to a new extreme—even where the job seeker has suffered a penalty, has worked out that they have made a mistake and wants to re-engage, the government under this piece of legislation says, 'No, stay there, you cannot re-engage. We're are going to continue to punish you until you get it. Even if you say you have got it and you want to re-engage—too bad, so sad—we are going to continue to punish you for your original mistake.' I do not know any legislation that is so unfair, unjust and, of course, such a nightmare to administer.

We will have the opportunity at estimates to hold this government to account, should this legislation pass. We will have the ability to remind Senator Seselja of how satisfied he was that it would not attack those most vulnerable in our community; we will have the opportunity of looking at whether it works. I, for one, am completely convinced that it will not work; it will only provide a punitive punishment to those who are most vulnerable in our community. We will have an opportunity to test that again and again. The Australian Council of Social Services stated that:

The majority of recipients of unemployment payments have few savings, little access to credit, and many receive little or no support from(Time expired)