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Tuesday, 19 June 2001
Page: 27894

Ms HALL (5:09 PM) —I would like to reiterate the sentiments that have been put before the House today by the member for Newcastle. I, like him, thought that our system was about fairness, justice and a fair go for everybody. I, like him, have had my belief in the system shaken under this government, because every day I see people that are suffering at the hands of this government's draconian legislation. The Family and Community Services Legislation (Simplification and Other Measures) Bill 2001 is not one of those pieces of legislation. For once, I am finding myself supporting the government's legislation. In doing so, I am acknowledging that this legislation actually improves the situation for many Australians who have suffered injury and received compensation for that injury.

But all is not as it seems. This legislation does improve the situation, but there is a background to this. The government's argument for simplification is that this legislation actually simplifies the procedures that are in place at the moment. But we only have to look at all the legislation that has passed through this House where the government has been arguing that it is simplifying legislation to see the reverse of this. As the member for Newcastle said, you need to look at the small print—you need to look at the implications of the simplification. The government has had a long history, since the time it came to power, of targeting those people who need assistance—those people in most need within our community. It has spent more time and effort on breaching people that need assistance, of trying to make them jump through hoops, than actually trying to help them in a meaningful way. I believe that we would not be looking at this legislation now if it were not for the 1997 legislation that was introduced in this parliament.

As in the case of many pieces of legislation that have been introduced into this House, this legislation is a reaction to the GST. It is the government having to tidy up its work. The GST has caused so much hardship for so many people, and it has had the greatest impact on those people that are on fixed incomes. People that have been precluded from receiving social security payments fit into that category. They were assessed pre-GST and they now find themselves in a situation where the little money they have is being whittled away very quickly. This includes injured workers— people that have been injured in motor vehicle or sporting accidents—who, prior to their injury, actually were able to earn a significant income.

But we know how this government works. We have seen its tricky approach—the way it promises people something and delivers something else. We only have to look at the savings bonus fiasco that took place last year where all those many thousands of older Australians were deceived into believing that they would receive $1,000. We only have to look at the latest payment of $300 to see the people that are missing out there. When we look at the expenditure this government is incurring now—the way it is spending taxpayers' money on advertising, on its re-election campaign—I am disgusted. On one hand it is out there making it difficult for people that need assistance through Centrelink—difficult for all those older Australians, injured workers and families battling from day to day to put bread on their table. On the other hand it is spending millions and millions of dollars on its re-election campaign— millions of millions of Australian taxpayers' dollars. To my way of thinking that is absolutely disgusting, and the government does stand condemned for that.

It is a mean-spirited government, because only a mean-spirited government would try and take from those people that need the most and create the divisions that this government has created within this society, with the haves and have-nots. Injured workers and people that have been injured in motor vehicle accidents and so on fit into that `have-not' category. They are people that have been marginalised because of their injuries, and this government has further marginalised them.

It is an antiworker government, so I understand that anything they can do to actually make it harder for an injured worker fits into their philosophy. They are driven by their ideology. The haves—the Stan Howards and the Rodney Adlers of this world—just walk away. They are protected, they are looked after, while the poor old injured worker or person who has been injured in a motor vehicle accident suffers. As somebody who has actually worked for many years with Australians who have been injured while they were at work or in a motor vehicle accident or in some other way, I know the hardship associated with that injury. It is a lot more than just the loss of income. This government just focuses on trying to abrogate its responsibility to those people. When a person has an injury, it not only prevents them from working but it also leads to a loss of function. That goes throughout every area of their life. If you injure your back, that impacts on every aspect of your life. If you lose a leg, that impacts on every aspect of your life. The more serious the injury the greater the amount of compensation you will receive and the greater the amount of compensation you will receive for loss of income. The worse the injury the longer the period of preclusion will be. So you have not only lost your job but you have lost your life—you are not the person you were before—and you have to adjust to this new life. A lot of people cannot. It is a very hard thing to do. The financial assistance will only help so much.

In 1997 the Howard government changed the method of calculating a person's preclusion period. As I have already said, that is the period for which they are precluded from receiving any financial assistance from Centrelink. Prior to 1997 that preclusion period was worked out on average weekly earnings, which I think was a fair way to do it. A lot of people who were injured at work or in some other way received more than average weekly earnings but a lot of people received under average weekly earnings. That was the middle ground and I think it was a very fair way to work it out. Post-1997 the preclusion period was worked out to be about equivalent to the single pension. We are calculating the loss of earnings—the amount of money that people would have earned if they had not injured themselves. In 1997 this government said, `You're injured. Look, that's equivalent to the single pension. We'll calculate it along that line.' As a consequence, that really drew out the preclusion period. That meant that this person—who had not only lost their job, not only lost their source of income, but to a large extent had lost their life—was now being put in a financially precarious position.

We always have to remember what the two aspects of compensation are: the aspect that relates to the loss of earning capacity— and that is what we are dealing with here— and the aspect that relates to the loss of quality of life, functionality, et cetera. There was legislation that this government was trying to introduce that wanted to take the whole amount into account when they were working out the preclusion period—not only looking at the loss of earning capacity but looking at the fact that this person would never enjoy the same quality of life that they had before. I do not know what happened to that legislation, but maybe the minister saw the error of his way. I think the minister should look very carefully at the changes that his government brought in in 1997 and the impact that they had on injured workers.

Since the GST was introduced I have had a number of people come to my office who have been precluded from receiving Centrelink payments. One of those people was expressing to me the unfairness of the situation, because of the fact that their preclusion period was worked out prior to the GST. I tended to agree with this person, so I wrote to the minister. Unfortunately the minister did not agree with me. But I must say that this legislation shows that, after some toing-and-froing, he has finally decided that maybe there is some truth in that matter and we really need to compensate those injured Australians a little more fully. This is the government's roll-back—or should I say roll-over. It has become a pretty common thing in this place to see the government coming in here having to amend legislation so that it can ameliorate the problems and the pain that it has caused with the GST.

As I have said, there are some very good things in this legislation—things that I support. Calculating partners' eligibility on 40 cents in the dollar as opposed to dollar for dollar is a good move and it will create some fairness. It is for these sorts of reasons that I am supporting this legislation. This government is always simplifying and streamlining, and along the way there are casualties. Some of those casualties are the staff who work in Centrelink offices. This government has cut a number of staff. Particularly in my area, the number of staff has gone down considerably. At the same time they are churning through changes to the legislation—changes that the staff are having to adjust to. It really is not good enough, because mistakes are made and who suffers? The people who rely on Centrelink for their payment. It is not the staff's fault; it happens because of the pressure that is being put on them. Centrelink is understaffed and every day there is a change and they are having to adjust to problems that this government has created and then it legislates to make it fair.

This is a win at all costs government. As I have said on many occasions, we have a Prime Minister who will do whatever it takes to win and because of that we are finding that there are changes coming in with which the government is trying to develop a soft and fuzzy image. I hate to disillusion the government, but out there people do not trust you. They are not accepting that all of a sudden you have become a soft and caring government. People are still feeling the hurt of the GST and of all the changes that you have forced upon them. They are so sceptical about the direction in which you are going and about any promises you make. We only have to look at the government's touted electoral reforms, which have been discussed here today in the matter of public importance debate, to see what lengths this government will go to to win.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Stop whining! You are a whinger.

Ms HALL —I support this legislation but, in doing so, I condemn the government for all the draconian measures it has foisted upon the Australian people, for the hurt and pain it has caused and for its mean-spiritedness towards all Australians and its tricky deeds in trying to trick the Australian people into believing that it is a caring, compassionate government. I noticed the Minister for Aged Care interjecting. Well, Minister, older Australians are not saying `Thank you' to you.