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Thursday, 13 May 2010
Page: 3613

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (10:24 AM) —It is a pleasure for me to have the opportunity this morning to speak to the Social Security Amendment (Flexible Participation Requirements for Principal Carers) Bill 2010. With the indulgence of the House, I will say very briefly at the outset that you cannot talk about a bill like this without thinking about the people it is going to affect—a lot of people in the community who live and work under enormous and varying stresses. With that in mind, I wanted to take the liberty of mentioning that I had the privilege this morning of attending the ACT launch of the Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal. I mention it simply because you cannot go to a function like that without hearing the stories of a lot of people in our community, many of whom are affected by this very bill. I want to take the latitude of encouraging all members of this place to get behind their local Red Shield Appeal, because they are fantastic sources of support for these very people.

The amendments in this legislation are extremely important. They are in response to the Participation Review Taskforce, which was established by the Hon. Brendan O’Connor MP, then Minister for Employment Participation, and chaired by Patricia Faulkner AO from KPMG, in May 2008. The report was delivered in August of the same year and it made 20 recommendations. The idea of the legislation is to introduce flexibility into employment participation requirements, to help parents balance their parenting responsibilities with those requirements. They will still be required to meet their participation agreements in order to receive income support, unless they are one of the small number that are exempt under this bill. Parents will still have to undertake 30 hours per fortnight of suitable activity and will still need to report to Centrelink, as they do now. However, the activities that are now approved have broadened to include such things as part-time study and voluntary work—and I will go into some of the details in a moment.

The liberalisation of the 16-week domestic violence exemption, which was just mentioned by the previous speaker, the member for Wakefield, is a very important part of these amendments as well and will provide better assistance to children who have been exposed to domestic violence, regardless of whether or not the principal carer has left the relationship. This is to ensure that the principal carer is able to devote adequate time to children who have been exposed to domestic violence. These principal carers will also have regular contact with Centrelink social workers, and the exemption can be extended at the discretion of a Centrelink social worker. However, the principal carer will still be able to access employment services and participate in activities if they so wish.

The government very much recognises that it is very important for parents on income support to remain socially and economically engaged in the community at the same time. They should engage in productive activities outside the home. However, the scope of participation activities really needed to be broader than the ones that were already in place, particularly for parents who are disadvantaged through low education or low skill levels and those who had been disengaged from the workforce, who were more likely to be disadvantaged in the labour market. The changes to participation activities will definitely make the system fairer.

I will go into some detail about the changes that this bill will effect but I would like to make some general comments first. It does not matter what part of the economy or the community you happen to live in or participate in to know that today, more than ever, there are enormous pressures on families to try and strike a balance between their employment obligations—or, in this case, obligations to Centrelink—and time with their families and children. Some people think that, if you are in full employment and living a good life economically, you have those choices; you can in fact decide how much time you will or will not spend with your family, community and children. It is a bit unfortunate that they do not understand, recognise or accept that those who are a bit further down that socioeconomic scale are just as entitled to that level of choice and should also be encouraged and helped to spend time with their families and children. It is a very important point that is really brought home to me when I consider the changes that we are making through this piece of legislation.

Amongst other things, the bill is going to extend the existing 12-month automatic exemptions for families with four or more children, families who have children in home schooling or families who have children doing distance education, and to eligible families with older children completing their secondary school education. The exemption does not stop principal carers from accessing employment services. The government would still encourage them to do so if they are able. I would call this a very common-sense approach to the amendments.

It will also broaden the eligibility for the 16-week domestic violence exemption to include parents who remain in a violent relationship or who have left such a relationship in the last six months. It will also recognise the role of respite and emergency foster carers through a new exemption that remains in place for the time the child is in the person’s care and for up to 12 weeks between foster care and placement. It will recognise the role of kinship carers through a new exemption for those who have the care of a child under a state or territory case plan. These are very important steps that will protect children who may have been vulnerable to traumatic domestic situations and who require extra care.

The bill will allow principal carers to meet their participation requirements through part-time study of at least 15 hours per week of contact or non-contact hours. It will also allow combinations of approved activities, such as part-time study or volunteer work, as long as the parent undertakes 15 hours per week of those activities—again, thank goodness, very much a common-sense, equal playing field approach. It will allow voluntary work as one of the components to satisfy participation requirements in a poor labour market. Over the years I have had many a comment from people in my community about the inequity of this legislation before the passage of this amendment bill.

The bill will allow principal carers to participate in the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, NEIS, on a part-time basis. It will allow principal carers to take a break from participation requirements over the Christmas and New Year fortnight. I am really pleased to be able to say that. Forgive me, but I think this is one of the most important aspects of the bill, because it actually reflects what the government is trying to do in accepting the recommendations of that review and, as I said a moment ago in my introductory remarks, in actually allowing the people affected by this legislation to lead a life like most of us, or at least giving them the choice to do so. I am particularly pleased to see this common-sense, fair approach.

The bill will also allow parents with regular term employment that ceases over the long school holiday break to be exempt, provided their employment recommences after the break—in other words, there is no penalty to them if that is the type of employment they have. This shows a full understanding of their circumstances and is an acknowledgement that the sort of support this legislation can offer is still available to them. These are really important amendments—as I have said, very common-sense and very fair. It allows people who benefit from this type of legislation to actually benefit from it in a fair way along with the rest of our community. It enables them to start making choices the way the rest of us can in that important matter of balancing commitments—between Centrelink, employment, their family, their extended family, their children and their community involvement. It is indeed a pleasure to commend this bill to the House. I am very pleased to see it come through and I welcome it very much on behalf of the people affected within my electorate.