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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 1746

Ms PLIBERSEK (Minister for Human Services and Minister for Social Inclusion) (4:54 PM) —It is a pleasure to be able to make a short contribution to the debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2010-2011 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2010-2011. The bills provide additional funding of $29 million to the Human Services portfolio for the 2010-11 financial year. The new funding is important because it allows my portfolio to implement a range of important commitments that the government took to the election last year.

The first of those relates to the childcare rebate. In total, Centrelink will receive $15.2 million extra this financial year to implement changes that the government is making to the operation of the childcare rebate. The changes mean that for the first time families will be able to choose to have the childcare rebate paid at the time their childcare service submits their attendance data to the government. For some families that means a fortnightly payment, but for other families it can mean weekly payments. That is because, while childcare centres are required by the government to submit their attendance data fortnightly, many services choose to submit their data weekly. Families whose services submit their data weekly will be able to receive their rebate weekly. For those services that submit their data fortnightly, parents will be able to receive their rebate fortnightly. Families will also be able to choose to have their childcare rebate paid directly to their childcare service and receive an immediate reduction in their bills or to continue to receive that payment as a rebate. This will allow families to choose the payment arrangements that work best for them. The option of more regular childcare rebate payments will reduce the up-front costs of care and make it easier for parents to manage the family budget.

It is worth remembering that, in contrast, under the previous government families had to wait almost two years to see the childcare tax rebate, as it was then. In those days, families could claim only 30 per cent of out-of-pocket expenses to a maximum of around $4,300 per annum. Under the Labor government, those families can now claim half of their out-of-pocket expenses up to a maximum of $7½ thousand a year. That is a 75 per cent increase on the maximum amount payable, a terrific demonstration of Labor’s commitment to supporting working families with their childcare costs. Of course, Centrelink has an important role in delivering those payments.

I will turn now to paid parental leave, because these bills also provide additional resources to Centrelink to implement changes to paid parental leave that the Prime Minister announced prior to the election. The election commitment will provide financial support not just for mothers but for fathers and for other partners to spend time at home with their newborn or adopted child. The successful implementation of paid parental leave on 1 January this year was, of course, a major win for working families, who have been waiting decades for this very important change. The extension of the scheme to eligible fathers or other carers is a further win for young families with children. Also during last year’s election campaign, the government announced it would increase the rate of family tax benefit part A payable for children aged between 16 and 18 years who were studying. The change aligns the maximum rate payable for 16- to 18-year-olds with the rate payable for 13- to 15-year-olds. The bills provide Centrelink with $1.442 million in 2010-11 to implement this important change. Again it is worth pointing out that Centrelink has a role to play in a change that will make a big difference to families with children.

At the moment, parents with a child aged 15 who are eligible for the maximum rate of family tax benefit part A receive about $208.46 each fortnight, yet when that child turns 16 that payment drops by 75 per cent to $51.24 per fortnight, as though, magically, the cost of supporting a 17-year-old or a 16-year-old is lower. Madam Deputy Speaker Vamvakinou is making a face because she knows what it is like when you have teenagers! Their costs certainly do not decrease as they grow into their later teens. The government recognises that the cost of supporting families with children does not drop by three-quarters overnight and so, from 1 January 2012, the 16- to 18-year-old rate will align with the 13- to 15-year-old rate for young people while they continue to study. It is not just a very important measure for helping families with the family budget; it is also a very important measure to keep young people in school, TAFE or further education, because we know that encouraging kids to stay in school longer or to get post-school qualifications absolutely helps them with their employment prospects in later years.

I want to talk briefly today about the age pension work bonus. These appropriation bills provide additional funding to Centrelink to implement changes to the age pension work bonus that were announced during last year’s election campaign. The program amends the work bonus to improve the incentive for age pensioners to participate in the workforce from 1 July 2011. Under the new rules, age pensioners will be able to earn up to $250 a fortnight without it being assessed as income under the income test. The government expects that these changes will benefit up to 30,000 pensioners each year. Allowing people to do a bit of casual or part-time work does not just help older Australians remain active and engaged; it also allows them to have a bit of extra spending money to improve their quality of life.

I also take the opportunity in this debate to make some comments about the work underway in my portfolio to transform the way the government delivers services to the Australian community. The service delivery reform initiative was introduced by the government in December 2009. The service delivery reform agenda continues a broader program of change that commenced in 2004 when the previous government created the Department of Human Services to place greater emphasis on the way government delivers services to Australians. In 2007 the department’s role was expanded to reflect responsibility for the development, delivery and coordination of government services and the development of service delivery policy. The continued reform of service delivery will create a better experience for the community and contribute to improved policy outcomes for government, particularly in areas such as economic and social participation, education, child care and health. These outcomes are in line with greater integration and cross-agency service provision initiatives within government.

Service delivery reform will significantly improve the way services are delivered by the Human Services portfolio. The progressive rollout of co-located offices, for example, will extend the portfolio’s reach by providing one-stop shops in many more places. Co-location allows people to do their face-to-face Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support Agency business under the one roof and will significantly improve the way those services are delivered in communities. For instance, the co-location program will double the number of shopfronts where Medicare services are available from 240 today to around 500. This is a big change for regional communities in particular. Many of them have never had a dedicated Medicare office in their town.

Increased self-service options will allow people to manage their own affairs, including through expanded online services from their home or workplace at a time that suits them. If you can book a plane ticket at 3 am from your lounge room, why can’t you update your address with Medicare, check your entitlement to childcare benefit or even apply for the age pension in the same way? The portfolio will use fewer resources servicing people who would rather do their business online. This will allow those resources to be redirected to helping those people who genuinely need face-to-face contact and prefer that face-to-face help and support. People facing significant disadvantage or multiple or complex challenges will be offered more intensive support through coordinated assistance with a case coordinator. That means better service for our clients who are homeless or long-term unemployed, clients who have a disability or literacy difficulties, or clients with, for example, drug or alcohol issues.

Effective and accessible service delivery is also an important element of the government’s efforts to build a more inclusive society. Service delivery reform will simplify people’s dealings with the government and provide better support to those most in need. A key element of the reform is the integration of the portfolio into a single department of state. Bringing together back office functions will drive efficiency, reduce the cost of service delivery for government and free up staff for more front-line customer service delivery.

This is important work. Service delivery reform will transform the delivery of services by the Human Services portfolio and will provide better outcomes for generations of Australians. It will put people first in the design and delivery of services and will ensure services are delivered more effectively and efficiently, especially to people who need more intensive support and to those with complex needs. By redirecting our effort, and expenditure, away from the back office and from servicing customers who do not really want our face-to-face help we can provide more assistance to those who really need it.