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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6124


Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (17:48): I support the Social Services Legislation Amendment (No. 2) Bill 2015, and I think that the best way to characterise the bill is by saying that it is not about paternalism but it is about prudence, and it is about providing a framework of support in a way that has been quite carefully considered. Of course the bill, in terms of its more widespread implementation, ought to be subject to review—to see if it is working and to see whether it needs to be tweaked.

I know this does not happen very often in this place, or particularly in the other place, but I would like to pay tribute to the work of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, the Hon. Alan Tudge, who has been persistent, who has been methodical and who has been very decent in the way he has gone about this. I think he has consulted broadly and widely, and he deserves credit for his very hard work. He has been genuinely trying to seek a good outcome and he has approached the issue in a cautious and a considered way. He deserves credit for the way that he has gone about things. In my dealings with him, it was a case of genuinely being involved in consultations, of walking through the steps and asking for feedback—I think that is refreshing and it should be acknowledged in the context of the adversarial nature of this place.

By extending income management for a further two years and streamlining the system, the government is providing a framework of support. It makes it harder for funds to be used for activities that are quite frankly destructive—whether we are talking about substance abuse, be it alcohol or illicit substances, or whether we are talking about gambling and in particular poker machines and the impact that can have on the communities. This approach does provide a framework of some protection. It is not paternalism, it is something that is worth doing and worth doing well.

This bill, contrary to public perception, is not about a particular class of individuals—it is not just about Indigenous communities, either. It is about a range of communities in which people face huge social challenges. The bill removes incentive payments and measures that have not worked in increasing the take-up rates of voluntary income management schemes. The bill extends the income management system that has been in place for a number of years under both coalition and Labor governments. The fact is that income management works for many people. It sets up dedicated accounts into which 50 per cent of their social security income can be paid for specific purposes, including rent and food. For parents involved in a child protection measure, compulsory income management quarantines 70 per cent of income. These percentages are not excessive in my view—any parent knows the true cost of raising children and these percentages merely reflect those costs.

One fact that I found telling was that the history of income management shows that two-thirds of people who came off the compulsory system chose to stay on it. This suggests that most people who experience income management actually benefit from the structured support it provides. Opinions from Indigenous leaders are not unanimous, but I note that Cape York leader Noel Pearson has said that income management is a 'crucial first step' for many Indigenous people. Mr Pearson told the ABC last month:

I am personally in favour. I am concerned about vulnerable people.

I am pleased to see that some consensus has been reached in relation to certain provisions of this bill, including amendments moved by the opposition, namely that social workers should retain the ability to place vulnerable people on income management

Placing someone on income management is a serious decision. It must be done after careful consideration of an individual's personal circumstances, and that goes beyond the class of individuals or those areas that have been designated for the trial of income management.

Every day, social workers deal with people who are suffering from addictions, mental health issues, abuse and poverty; every day, social workers see the effects of these problems; and, every day, social workers see potential solutions. Social workers are in the forefront in dealing with society's most vulnerable and at-risk people. They understand the causes of vulnerability and the methods which can be applied to address it. That is why the Labor Party's amendment is welcome in this regard.

Social workers can see when a person might be spending their pension on alcohol rather than on paying the rent. They know when their clients are losing money on the pokies, money that should have been spent buying groceries instead. Social workers can objectively consider a client's personal situation, including that client's ability to handle their money in a responsible way, particularly vulnerable people. Income management can assist people who are vulnerable. When a person is caught up in an addiction, it can be nearly impossible for them to look at their finances in a similarly objective way.

While the choice to buy food before spending money on gambling may be obvious to most, for those who are in the grip of a gambling addiction the choice is not so simple. They are driven by a compulsion that cannot be fought with reason. They need help to find ways to beat their addiction and to ensure they can afford life's essentials while they are addressing their addiction. In these situations, income management helps keep food on the table and the electricity on at home.

When it comes to some of these issues, such as gambling legalised by the states, if we had in place the Productivity Commission's recommendations of $1 maximum bets per spin and $120 hourly losses—still a lot of money, but much better than the $1,200 an hour that could be lost now on machines—that would make a difference. We could actually tackle some of those causes with some sensible legislative reforms that I note, however, both the government and the opposition have rejected.

With a social worker's involvement, an individual will only be placed on income management after careful consideration and only when it is absolutely necessary to ensure their basic needs are met with the limited resources they have. Equally important is the ability of social workers to check in on their clients who are subject to income management. This monitoring will ensure that income management achieves its intended results.

I welcome this bill. I think it needs to be subjected to ongoing scrutiny in terms of the measures that will be implemented. Of course, the Senate estimates process is part of that, but there ought to be ongoing scrutiny of the measures in this bill in terms of how income management is working, how effective it is, what good it is doing and whether there are any adverse or unintended consequences.

Again, I congratulate the Hon. Alan Tudge, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, for the work that he has done on this. I hope that his hard work—his methodical, painstaking approach to this—will pay off, with good results for communities throughout this nation.