Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 122

Mrs ELLIOT (6:00 PM) —I rise to speak in opposition to the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Bill 2005. I speak today on behalf of the people of Richmond to voice our grave concerns about how these proposed changes will severely impact upon their lives. The Howard government likes to call this policy welfare reform, and we have heard many speakers mention this today. But, after nine long years, we have come to know a lot about the glossy policy labels the government places on many of these measures. Almost always the detail contains a complex tangle of extreme legislative change, underpinned by a philosophy of unfairness, meanness and short-sightedness. And that is what is at the heart of this bill: unfairness, meanness and short-sightedness. This bill does not constitute reform by any stretch of the imagination. Just as the government’s Work Choices bill provides no choice for Australian workers, this Welfare to Work bill will not help people to get back into the work force.

Reform does not mean change for the sake of change. Reform means improving on how things have been done in the past, based upon new knowledge and clearer understanding. It means a holistic, considered and systematic change for the better. It is all about a vision for improvement. So when the Prime Minister talks about welfare reform it is in fact code for ‘punishment of the most vulnerable’, because there is nothing in this bill that is visionary. There is nothing about building a better society in which those who can work do and those who cannot are cared for. I would like to know, because the people of Richmond have put me here to ask the government on their behalf, how punishing the most vulnerable—and make no mistake about it: that is what this bill is essentially about—helps our families and our communities. How does the Howard government’s brand of welfare reform make for a better Australia? What is visionary about this bill? What is visionary about cutting the household budgets of our most vulnerable families for no good reason? What is visionary about making 300,000 Australians financially worse off? What is visionary about shunting people from one welfare payment to a much lower welfare payment rather than providing real pathways to employment? What is visionary about making work less financially worth while by taking back more of every dollar that these people earn? What is visionary about all of that? Absolutely nothing.

It is true that those who can work should work. Nobody benefits from unemployment. We all agree that having work brings huge benefits to individuals, families, communities and our nation both financially and socially. We should never stop looking at newer and better ways to support people to get into the work force, to reduce unemployment and to fight disadvantage. But the Howard government strategy is to get out a great big stick and start whacking away at the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. This government is hell-bent on rushing down the road of an American style welfare system in which benefits are low and the disadvantaged are driven into a new class of working poor. Under this new welfare system, individuals are no longer guaranteed a fair go and support. The tight targeting of benefits to those in need is gone. We now see that millionaires are eligible for thousands of dollars in benefits, provided their partners stay at home. Yet, at the same time, single parents and people with disabilities are to be punished by a set of changes that will do nothing to help them get a job. This proposed new system fails to deliver economically sustainable outcomes. We are seeing from this government a grand vision that consists of dumping 75,000 people with a disability and 85,000 single parents onto the dole, making them and at least 85,000 children a lot worse off. Is that really the best that this big, old and tired government can come up with? As usual, it has not even been able to provide a scrap of evidence to show that putting people on lower welfare payments will help them get a job. This is lazy policy development from an out-of-touch government that has all the control it wants but only archaic, second-hand ideas to deliver.

In my electorate I talk regularly with lots of single mums and dads, and they all tell me the same thing: they would love to find work and provide a better life for their kids, but they are struggling to find any work at all, let alone a job that can help them balance their parenting responsibilities. Not only that, even if they do find work, they cannot find any affordable child-care so that their kids are looked after when they are not at school. Under this legislation, a single parent will now be pushed off the parenting payment and onto the dole when their child turns eight. Adding parents to the dole queue does not provide them with support, such as training and reskilling, which they need to gain work. It provides no practical solutions and it does not assist them to realise their potential. Just like sole parents, many people with disabilities also want to work. They have a right to access work, and we have a responsibility to give them the right help so that they can be successful. My constituents are telling me that they already struggle to find an employer that will take them on if they have a disability.

This government talks a lot about family values and the important role of parenting, but this seems to be relevant only for those who are well off. While the government continues to reward rich parents to stay at home, it is obsessed with pushing single parents who are already struggling out into the work force. This work force will very soon become a whole lot less flexible once the government’s industrial relations changes take place. Under the government’s proposed welfare changes, the income support paid to a single mother with two children will be cut by nearly $1,500 a year as a way of somehow ‘encouraging’ her to seek work and to give up full-time care of her children as young as eight years old. At the same time, the non-working partners of millionaires are eligible to receive up to $3,300 in welfare in return for not seeking work and staying at home to care for their children. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

The government’s key economic argument for these changes that they have proposed is that they will provide greater incentive for people to move from welfare to work. This claim has been comprehensively rejected through economic analysis by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, NATSEM. This is a group that the Prime Minister himself has described as respected and independent. Let us have a look at the NATSEM research. The research shows that these changes will remove incentives for welfare recipients to get work because of the high effective marginal tax rates they now confront, due to the government’s decision to dump them onto the dole. NATSEM found that, as people are pushed from the disability support pension and the parenting payment single pension onto Newstart, they will not only suffer a direct cut in their benefits—$46 a week and $29 a week respectively—but also be financially penalised for actually getting a job because of the different income testing rules for Newstart compared to the tests for pensions. The NATSEM study also found that, if a person with a disability works 15 hours a week at the minimum wage, they will keep only 25c of every $1 they earn, while the government takes the other 75c. That makes such a person an incredible $122 per week worse off by moving into work under the proposed changes than if they moved into work under the current arrangements.

The Welfare to Work bill will actually penalise people for getting a job. The dark truth here is that the Prime Minister wants to take us towards this American style welfare system, where people are eligible for much lower benefits and are faced with very low net returns from any job that they get. Our Prime Minister wants to take us towards the creation of a new class of working poor. Under these changes this government is effectively asking sole parents to work for a return of $3.88 an hour and asking people with a disability to work for a return of $2.27 an hour.

This situation is indeed truly outrageous. This extreme punishment is made so much worse for people with a disability. As well as cutting income support, these changes force many people with disabilities to look for work. They are unprepared because they are not offered sufficient opportunities for training and skill development needed to help them get jobs. For example, only 7,600 new vocational training places have been allocated. For sole parents, not only is this government taking away money that parents use to feed their children, it has also failed to provide enough child care to support these changes.

The Prime Minister has given us his word that single parents will not have to accept a job that results in a low or negative financial gain once the cost of child care has been taken into account. Yet, after 10 years of deceit, his word is small comfort to many single parent families out there, and that is what many families in Richmond are telling me.

The hard truth is that there is nothing in this legislation that delivers on the Prime Minister’s promises about child care. The Howard government is also leaving parents who receive benefits unprepared by failing to offer sufficient training. The reality now is that 600,000 parents will have to fight with 60,000 mature age unemployed for 12,300 vocational training places. It is no coincidence that these welfare changes are being introduced at the same time as the government’s extreme industrial relations changes. It is obvious that the industrial relations changes will provide employers with unprecedented power to offer cut-price employment conditions to new employees, whilst removing almost all protections for new employees.

Those people most vulnerable under the industrial relations changes will be those filling unskilled positions on minimum wages—the jobs the government wants welfare recipients to accept under its mantra: ‘The best form of welfare is a job.’ This means that people with a disability and sole parents—those who already have very little bargaining power in the workplace—will have even less protection from exploitation at work. These same people can lose their payments altogether if they refuse to work under an unfair AWA, even if the conditions are totally unacceptable, such as allowing no flexibility for sole parents to spend time with their children.

Let us have a look at what we have got here: Welfare to Work plus Work Choices. Welfare to Work plus Work Choices means serious exploitation of the most vulnerable in our society. There is no doubt that these people will be like lambs to the slaughter. At the end of the day, this government is legislating to cut the benefits of the poorest in our society in an effort to force them into the labour market, whilst at the same time setting up a system designed to drive down wages and conditions. It is a disgusting situation, and it is not the kind of Australia that we want.

We are currently experiencing a major skills shortage in this country. It presents the government with a golden opportunity to assist people to move off welfare and into work for the economic benefit of all Australians. But, instead of strengthening the economy by investing in the skills, education and training of our work force—by being a smart and great trading nation and by investing in infrastructure, innovation, research and development—this government wants to strengthen our economy by punishing our most poor and taking away the working rights and conditions of our most vulnerable. I strongly believe that the people of Richmond and all Australians certainly deserve so much better.

I, like the rest of federal Labor, strongly support the principle of welfare reform. I believe that, as a government, there is a responsibility to deliver to the people of Australia strong, compassionate leadership on this issue and also fair, effective policies that encourage and assist people to move from welfare into work. Welfare reform of this kind is vital for Australia’s continued economic and social prosperity. It has long been federal Labor’s view that the welfare system should be means tested and targeted at those in need so that we have a system that recognises that a job is the best outcome for individuals, families and society—a system that never leaves people financially disadvantaged for finding a job and a system that helps people break down barriers to work, such as providing the skills and training that many welfare recipients need to help them get a job.

Unfortunately, the Howard government is not interested in these aims. Unemployment and welfare delivery is indeed a complex issue and it deserves a very detailed and sophisticated response from the government. Yet our Prime Minister thinks, ‘Here’s a magic quick fix: let’s just get out a bigger stick to hit people with.’ When I go back to my electorate and I talk to families who are already doing it tough, do you think they say that they want their government to take us down the road of an American style welfare system where benefits are low and the disadvantaged are driven into a new class of the working poor? No, they do not. Of course they do not want that.

I am sure we all agree that everyone benefits when more people participate in our society, both economically and socially. We all agree that those who can work should work. But we also need to care for those who cannot. What my constituents say to me is that they want to see developed a strong, effective welfare reform package that addresses all these complex issues. They want to see a package that tackles the underlying reasons someone is not working and that delivers practical solutions. They want to see a system that gives people the chance to get the skills that they need. They want to see a system that encourages employers to give people with a disability the opportunity to demonstrate their ability. They want a system that understands that being a parent is an important job in itself and that work makes families more secure. They want to see a system that helps parents find the balance between supporting their family and raising their kids. They want to see a system that involves strong support from government in breaking down barriers to participation, such as skills, work-family balance and employer attitudes, alongside fair and reasonable requirements for job seekers, and they want a system that, at the end of the day, makes sure people get a fair reward for effort. That is what they are telling me they want to see. This is the kind of welfare reform that our great country needs and deserves and this is the welfare reform that Labor is advocating.

It is a type of welfare reform that includes people, picks people up and welcomes them to share in our economic prosperity—not one that leaves them out in the cold and all alone. To build a great and strong nation we need to get everyone on board so that we can work together to achieve great things. And this is not just about welfare reform. This is about the development and implementation of good policies across welfare, education, workplace relations and infrastructure. It means working with people in all aspects of their lives, across their life span to help them be and achieve the very best they can. This requires investing in our people and our country. It means giving our kids access to a decent education so that they can achieve all of their potential. It means making sure our young people are not leaving school with nowhere to go. It means giving them an opportunity to build their skills and get into vocational training.

In my electorate of Richmond, youth unemployment is at 34 per cent. These young people desperately need to have a future; they need to be able to access training and employment. This system also means helping mature age workers who have much to offer but who have been retrenched because their old jobs do not exist any more. These are people with great skills and great knowledge. It means a system to enable them to find work. It also means having a system that helps single parents to reskill and get jobs but not at the expense of their family life. It means finding that family and work balance.

This system also has to encourage those who need it to get involved, in the work force and in their community. It also means diversifying our industries and investing in our infrastructure and in research and development. This is what is required, not an extreme measure that punishes our most vulnerable but one that creates the basis for people to find their potential through adequate training and skilling. It is not one that disadvantages them all the way along.

There is much that can be done to build and make our nation a greater place and that does not involve punishing our most vulnerable. It does not mean destroying their lives and making it more difficult for them. I strongly believe there is much that can be done to make this country an even better place to live and we can become even prouder Australians with a fair go for everyone. Essentially that is what this is about. It is why I oppose this legislation, because there is not a fair go for everyone. It is extreme and it disadvantages so many people in our society. Instead, I want to see a fair and just system where people are given adequate access to training and reskilling.