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Wednesday, 1 October 2014
Page: 7430

Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (11:07): I also rise today to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014 and the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014. This is legislation that we, on this side, believe needs to be reconsidered before our support can be provided. It is our view, in fact, that substantive amendments are almost certainly required. Firstly, I just want to address this line of thinking that is prevalent in conservative politics that Australia is somehow plagued by high unemployment and people, particularly young people, are disinterested in obtaining work. In the same way that our Treasurer has persistently tried to depict Australia as being in the grips of a budget emergency, there is no emergency here either.

As the shadow minister, Jenny Macklin, said in that other place on 24 June this year:

…the government's best attempts to come up with a rationale for the harsh measures in these bill are based on a complete fallacy; a fabricated sense of crisis.

Australia's economy is strong. Our economic situation is certainly not the crisis that the government has done their best to make it out to be. We have low inflation, low interest rates and net debt well below comparable countries. More importantly, we heard the following words, which those opposite in the chamber need to sit up and pay attention to:

…since the election all we have heard from this government is false claims that Australia's spending on welfare is out of control. We have heard senior government ministers cry that Australia is on a path to countries like Greece and Spain. These claims are just not true.

Indeed, they are false claims because—as shadow minister Macklin went on to note during her speech—the Treasurer's budget credibility was destroyed by analysis from the Melbourne Institute using Thehousehold, income and labour dynamics in Australia survey. What this data demonstrated was that, as a country, we have actually reduced our dependence on welfare. That is right, we have actually reduced it. But you certainly will not hear anything like that from those opposite. The coalition rarely lets the facts to get in the way of a good story. But, once again, the data has tripped them up.

In 2001, 23 per cent of working-age people in Australia received a welfare payment each week. In 2011, that had dropped to 18.5 per cent. In fact, if you compare Australia to all OECD countries, we spend less than every single one of them except for Iceland, which is a nation with about 300,000 people. That is not just to suggest that we should be complacent. Labor will always look for new measures to improve our welfare system and better the lives of Australians looking for work. But when I hear the Treasurer and company grandstanding that they are on some noble mission to end the age of entitlement, I cannot help but roll my eyes. It is all based on mistruths.

This bill and others in the back pocket of our Treasurer have the potential to destroy the fundamental pillars of our way of life. They seek to savagely cut support for ordinary working Australian families, whilst also pushing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable young people into poverty. I ask whether that is something that we really should be aiming for? Of course, it is not. It is certainly not what we want on this side of the chamber.

In viewing this bill in its entirely, I think it is clear once again that the Abbott government has its priorities all wrong. Team Abbott should not be focused on punishing people who are struggling to find work, who are down on their luck and who are living in parts of the country which perhaps are not thriving. That is the easy way out. That is the coalition's way. Instead, this government should be fostering a positive and proactive approach to creating jobs and encouraging new opportunities. When it comes to instigating policies to get people back into the workforce, Labor stands ready to help. But we do not want to use job seekers as a political toys. It is very easy to target people such as the long-term unemployed and young people struggling to find work. It is political fodder that conservative governments around the world have used to their advantage. But that does not make it right and it is not right for this country.

In fact, we need to do all we can to protect disadvantaged people who are down on their luck and struggling to find work. The coalition seems to think that every community around Australia is brimming with jobs and that people only need to try harder to find work. It would be ideal if everyone had the opportunities that have been bestowed upon those living in electorates such as Higgins, Kooyong and Wentworth. It would be ideal if everyone was born with a trust fund waiting for them as well! But that is not the case; some people are born into situations not of their making, which means that finding employment is not a straightforward task. We need to resist the urge to impose harsh measures which will only penalise them further and hinder their efforts at building a better life for themselves.

I just cannot support the transfer of responsibilities from the Department of Human Services to Job Services Australia. This government is intent on privatisation at all costs, even when it makes absolutely no sense when applied on the ground in practice. Human Services staff in Centrelink offices have a particular set of skills and corporate knowledge which means that they have experience in dealing with the reactions of those met with negative decisions. They deal with payment recipients; it is their job.

By shifting responsibilities onto Job Services Australia staff, this government is seeking to fit a square peg in a round hole, whilst also adding to the workload of Job Services Australia. Why is this a bad thing? Because it will distract from Job Services Australia's function of actually helping job seekers find work. So the entire approach of this bill is strangely self-defeating and muddled—but that is what happens when you approach issues like this whilst only thinking in the short term. We need to think logically about what we are actually doing here. It is the Department of Human Services that will be dispensing payments, so surely the decisions relating to whether or not those payments actually occur should rest with that same department.

There are several measures in this bill which may disproportionately affect some of the country's most vulnerable people. The decision to remove the right to a review of a decision in which payments are suspended needs to be approached with extreme caution and restraint. We certainly do not want to create a situation where job seekers are denied natural justice. For example, it would be disastrous for many people if the legislation were used in such a way that job seekers were stopped from requesting a review of the decision not to back pay where their reasonable excuse for missing an appointment has not been taken into account. There may be many reasons why someone misses an appointment. Each job seeker's individual circumstances are different. We cannot really look at job seekers as a class of people, because they are not. Let us look at some of the examples or case studies, if you will. In 2013 there were over 13,000 no-show no-pay penalties dished out to job seekers with vulnerability indicators that were known. Of this total number of job seekers, over 4,000 had psychiatric problems or a mental illness, close to 2,500 had a homelessness flag on their file, 286 had had a recent traumatic relationship breakdown and 276 had a cognitive or neurological impairment. It is also worth pointing out here that Indigenous Australians are overrepresented when it comes to those penalised. In fact, they received a quarter of the no-show no-pay penalties.

Once again, it is easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that portrays the unemployed as bludgers, as people unwilling to look for work and as people taking advantage of the system, without concern for those in the workforce. But here is the thing: on the ground in the real world the situation is a lot more complicated. We need to view job seekers for what they are—people with individual circumstances, with many of them at a vulnerable stage in their lives. They often need our support. Treating them fairly, treating them with respect and helping them to get back on their feet is the Australian way.

I would just like to close by saying that I have always and indeed will always support incentives that encourage young job seekers to take up employment. The worst thing we can do is to allow people to dwell in their current predicament and not remain active in and enthusiastic about furthering themselves in finding work. However, I have to say that, when it comes to my homestate of Tasmania in particular, the Abbott government has made this very objective much harder. I do not believe this government is really committed to encouraging job creation or assisting people to find work in Tasmania. The evidence for this is stark. The Abbott government did nothing to stop the closure the Australian Taxation Office in my hometown of Launceston. It did nothing to save the PSG Russell Smith, which was at a cost of 182 jobs across the state. It has sought to introduce higher education reforms which will see $30 million worth of funding cut from the University of Tasmania—the biggest employer in Launceston. The government's lukewarm commitment to the renewable energy target threatens jobs in the renewable energy sector—jobs that are vital in many areas of my homestate. The member for Bass, Andrew Nikolic has stood by and watched as all of this has unfolded, barely uttering a whisper.

When people lose their jobs it means uncertainty for their families and less money circulating in the community, yet this government has committed a series of errors which will do nothing to get more Tasmanians back into work. I ask them to explain how decreasing payments to low-income families and to job seekers and implementing a range of measures which will pull the rug out from under the disadvantaged will create jobs and boost economic development. I have said before that many of the Abbott government's policies will actually push people into poverty, into a position where they are unable to find work and so become more reliant on community and homelessness services. Marginalising already disadvantaged people is not the answer. This is just a rehashed, tired policy from the Howard government years.

If this government is committed to job creation, why has it cut crucial employment support? There is a $1 billion cut from apprenticeships, a $1 billion cut from trade training centres and a $128 million cut to the Youth Connections, Partnership Brokers and National Career Development. This does not make sense. Earlier this year, the Minister for Employment, Senator Abetz, said that it is just not acceptable to have job seekers sitting at home on welfare. This follows his incredible comment a week prior that unemployed Tasmanians should try fruit picking. Telling people from a range of backgrounds and disciplines to simply go and pick fruit for a living demonstrates how out of touch he is. Finding gainful employment can be much more difficult than his condescending instruction that people can go and pick fruit suggests.

It is hardly surprising to hear these sorts of comments from Senator Abetz, given that his party is led by a Prime Minister who basically said when he visited Tasmania that Tasmanians seeking work should leave for the mainland and try their hand there. Please, can someone explain to me how the Prime Minister of the day is going to help create jobs in this country, and particularly how he is going to help build a strong economy in my homestate of Tasmania, by telling young people to leave the state and go to the mainland—because, quite frankly, I do not get it. The people out in my communities who are struggling to find opportunities to even apply for a job do not want to be told by their Prime Minister to leave Tasmania and go somewhere else. How are they supposed to do that without any support? They have to leave their families and the communities that they have been a part of and grown up in. This is what we should be doing! What is even more incredible is that the doormats, the Nationals, are supporting this government. They are supposed to support country and rural Australia. What are they doing? My home state, apart from the capital of Hobart, is made up of rural and regional communities. That is how much this Prime Minister and this government actually think of rural and regional Australia.

I urge those people on the crossbench to stand up for communities like mine in Tasmania, to stand up for those young people who are desperately trying to seek a future for themselves. The promises this government made to the Australian community in order to get elected were lies. They told a bald-faced lie to the Australian community when they said, 'There will be no changes to education, there will be no cuts to health, there will be no cuts to pensions and there will be no changes to the pension.' The list goes on. What do we get? We get an Olympic gold medal performance of backflips and lies by this government. Well, the chickens have come home to roost, because the Australian community are not silly. The Australian community elected this government because they believed what the opposition leader at the time, Tony Abbott, had said. They believed that they would not be worse off, since people will always vote for the government that they believe will implement the policies that would support them.

This government has abandoned and deserted the most vulnerable in this community. Those in this chamber have heard me speak time and time again on what this government has done to one of the most vulnerable groups of people in our society—those who suffer from dementia and severe behavioural issues. When it comes to aged care, the government does not even consider ageing an important enough issue to have a minister for. The government has changed the way the pension will be indexed, which will have an effect on the aged-care sector and those people who are able to provide residential care. But those opposite still come into this chamber day after day and say: 'No, that is not true. That is just the opposition making up stories.' The reality is that the Australian people understand and know what this government has done to them.

When Tony Abbott, as the Leader of the Opposition, came to Tasmania, he campaigned there with what are now known as the Three Amigos, the members for Braddon, Bass and Lyons. He said, 'We are going to create jobs, jobs, jobs.' What have we seen in my home state? The loss of job after job after job. They did not even go as far as stepping in. The member for Bass never stepped in to save the ATO office in Launceston, an office that was there to support small businesses. That is where we should be investing money. We should be doing everything we can to support those people. But, no, the Three Amigos did not ride into town; they just rode right past it.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator POLLEY: We all have our names for them, but they call themselves the Three Amigos. I would not want to hang around and wait for them to turn up to support me. More importantly, in Tasmania we have faced, as most people in this chamber would be aware, the closure of mines on the west coast. We used to have an employment coordinator available to us. There was one based on the north-west coast of Tasmania, where we have the highest unemployment. This government terminated it. When Tasmanians most needed support from this government, this government abandoned them.

This government will be known as the government of abandonment. This government has done nothing to support the most vulnerable people in our society. I look across the chamber and their heads are down. I would be embarrassed too if I were a member of this government. It is outrageous that those on that side are going to attack the most vulnerable in our community, such as young people trying to get jobs. As was said by a captain of the Salvation Army in Launceston only a few weeks ago, this will lead to greater homelessness, greater crime and more suicides. That will be on the heads of those opposite.