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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15065

Mr QUICK (8:25 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak tonight in the grievance debate as it gives me the opportunity to put on the record some thoughts on the report Participation support for a more equitable society. As honourable members would know, the report was launched last week by the Minister for Family and Community Services, the Hon. Jocelyn Newman.

Mr Slipper —It is an independent report.

Mr QUICK —The honourable member is correct. It is an independent report generated and launched by the Hon. Jocelyn Newman and someone from Mission Australia. It is right and proper that we as a nation look anew at the whole issue of government support for those who require assistance. There have been massive societal changes over the past 10 years as Australia, like all other developed countries, undergoes a real economic and social restructuring as part of the globalisation process.

No government can claim to have totally addressed the needs of those who fall outside the employment circle. Some, however, show a far more compassionate approach in seeking to come up with constructive, imaginative and socially responsible solutions. In trying to understand how we might put in place a national approach to this very complex issue, we must understand a simple concept. We must focus on the needs of the individual first, his or her family needs next and then, having done this, put in place structures that will enable the person to take or resume their place as a constructive member of Australian society.

Our social security system should not and must not be designing a new structure to replace the old if all we are going to do is reshape the national package, give it a glossier new look but still exclude many disadvantaged souls who fail to meet the newly drafted guidelines. Our new system must not be about what is in the legislation. Legislation in the current social security system has failed to match the changing nature of our society. Bureaucrats at all levels from the minister's office down to the ASO3 at the local Centrelink office can shelve their humanitarian responsibilities by citing legislative dogma while my staff and many others in the electorate offices of members in this place can cite example after example of individuals and their families being punished—yes, punished—for failing to meet the necessary legislative criteria.

When you as a member pull rank and call directly the Centrelink head office or the minister's office to query a decision, how often do you hear the standard response, `I'm sorry but the legislation does not allow any flexibility in this case,' or `I'm afraid that the person doesn't quite fit the guidelines intended and written into the legislation'? To highlight this point, I will mention a case that came my way last week. I received a call from a Keith Jackson who previously incurred the wrath of the social security system—he was charged with a large overpayment. He had been doing the right thing and had decreased his debt considerably over quite a number of years. Keith was intent on gaining employment and, despite his rural isolation, had completed a course that now saw him being offered a job as a driver. His only problem was that in order to get the job he had to pay $100 for the certificate attesting to the fact that he had completed the course. He did not have the money—he was hard up. Phone calls by me to the local Centrelink manager, Jeremy, and the DLO in Jocelyn Newman's office elicited the same response: `Legislation decrees that we cannot assist. If you have a debt, no matter how small, you cannot be assisted in any shape or form.'

My point over and over again to them was: here is a bloke with a job lined up, he is about to leave the ranks of the unemployed and Centrelink are being bloody-minded about it all. To add insult to injury, Centrelink initially would not pay for Keith to attend the course and his now employer paid $220 to enable him to complete it. Keith now has to pay his boss back weekly to compensate his generosity. Because I pestered the minister's office, Keith was finally able to receive the $100 work entry payment. To receive this payment, Keith had to borrow from a friend and then, having received his paperwork and proof of a job, Centrelink completed the deal. What a bloody waste of everyone's time and effort! What a disincentive for those struggling to put themselves on an equal footing with most ordinary Australians. Keith's parting words to me, as I spoke to him over the phone a couple of hours ago, summed it all up: `If I wasn't such a fighter, I wouldn't have a job.'

Those on the other side, the government members, have an enormous responsibility to see that the final report handed down does cater for the diverse needs of all Australians. Having been in this place for over seven years, I have come to know many opposite as truly caring and understanding politicians—people with a real social conscience. Like so much that goes on in this House and outside—either in our electorates or more widely throughout Australia as we travel on House committee work—the longer we are representatives in this place, the more our experience of what is happening to people throughout this country broadens.

Those of us who represent seats with a real socioeconomic spread are, in my mind, far better placed to have an understanding of what is required as we ponder the various aspects of this interim report. In this place, most of those members, I would argue, are found on my side of the House. If we are to have an honest and genuine debate which leads to a social policy framework suitable for the 21st century, then let each and every one of us cast off our ideological blinkers and work together. Let us have no more nonsense, hyperbole and blame apportioning around who did what and why, and no more, `I'm always right in government and you're always wrong in opposition.'

The obvious starting point in this debate should not be based on a Treasury bottom line and a single departmental responsibility. Families who require assistance just cannot be pigeonholed into this department's or that department's fiscal budget for a particular year and expect all their problems to be solved immediately. Nor should the speed with which we tackle the issues raised by this report be based solely on Treasury fears that the number of recipients of government benefits is escalating out of control and needs to be reined in. The newspaper headlines of the last couple of days such as `Newman sets social targets', `Welfare shake-up tipped for budget' and `New bid to move jobless off welfare' really worry me as we seek to put in place a new workable and effective structure for the 21st century.

This report presents five key arguments for a significant change in Australia's social support system: firstly, Australia has a strong labour market, but employment opportunities are not being shared equally; secondly, an unequal distribution of employment is resulting in a growing reliance on income support with negative consequences for many individuals, families and the system itself; thirdly, economic growth on its own will not address the problem of entrenched economic and social disadvantage for many people; fourthly, the social support system has not responded adequately to changes in our economy and society; and, lastly, it is therefore highly unlikely that these problems can be addressed effectively with a major reorientation of social support arrangements.

The reference group then identifies five key features of a new proposed system, and these are the ones that interest me: firstly, individualised service delivery; secondly, a simpler income support structure that is more responsive to individual needs, circumstances and aspirations; thirdly, incentives and targeted assistance to encourage and enable participation; fourthly, social partnerships; and, fifthly, mutual obligation. In the time remaining, I would like to express some views about these points.

I foresee enormous trouble with writing legislation to address the changes to the proposed system unless there is a realisation that, as stated in the key arguments for the need for significant change, there is a major reorientation of social support arrangements. The current system is like the hopscotch I used to play in the schoolyard. You all individually started at the same spot. When it came to your turn, you attempted to throw your tor into the area marked with a 1 and, if successful, you hopped up and back, retrieved the tor and started again for spot 2. It was a contest that was highly structured with obvious rules and obvious punishments and usually completed by those possessing the best hand-eye coordination skills. Those lacking these skills either languished around spot 3 or 4 and never had the satisfaction of successfully completing the game or else never took part in it at all.

It is also very much like our juvenile justice system. As a teacher, I could easily identify children at risk and knew of strategies that could ameliorate or, in many cases, address the deficiencies experienced by not only the child but also their parents and other siblings. Failings by the education, housing and family services departments in adequately resourcing the school and the wider community meant invariably that these families and their children ventured into the dislocated and dysfunctional society. In many cases these children, their siblings and their parents entered into the world of intergenerational unemployment hopscotch and lost all hope and desire to escape.

My electorate is like so many others in this country. Scattered across it, it has numerous examples of organisations with fantastically dedicated staff providing an exciting range of programs tackling all the issues relating to this report. I sincerely hope that, as part of this consultative process, these organisations are given the chance to make a contribution. (Time expired)