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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6129


Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (18:15): I rise to add my contribution on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (No. 2) Bill 2015—a bill for an act to amend the law relating to social security and aged care and for related purposes. The bill is attempting to address some of the challenges that we face as a modern society. One of those is how do we deal with the reality that human beings do not always act in their own best interests or in the best interests of those they are charged to love and care for. A second challenge is how we deal with the challenges of funding the needs of an ageing population. I must agree with Minister Fifield, the minister responsible for ageing, when he sees that challenge as a positive one. Never before have we had to consider how to support and engage with a cohort of ageing Australians who are relatively highly educated—and if you are a Gen Xer, you might argue, entitled, but they are definitely an empowered cohort of Australians heading into retirement—who are cashed up, who are very successful and who are very cognisant of exercising their rights as individuals around the choice of how they age and where they age.

These are significant challenges for modern Australia. They are significant challenges for governments that want to assist communities achieve a better life. We as a government do not shy away from our responsibility to do that. We do not shy away from the challenges that are presented to us in the 21st century and we do not shy away from the challenge of prioritising them. Contrary to suggestions in some of the contributions made by senators on the other side, we do prioritise. We have to. That is what governments have to do. We do pilot programs, we evaluate them and we then fund programs appropriately. We will continue to do that.

One of the first measures that this bill deals with is to ensure that the vulnerable people currently benefiting from income management receive continued assistance. The government has committed $146.7 million to extend a streamlined version of income management to all existing locations until 30 June 2017. This will align end dates across all 12 locations across Australia.

When we look at building on the positive impacts of income management, we see that this particular policy response gives participants more control of their welfare money. We have heard senators talk about how it improves families' stability as parents, primarily caregivers, can ensure that children and those vulnerable within the family have the basics that they need to get a good education, to be well fed and to be well housed. I cannot believe there are senators here in this place who would reject the evaluation that has been done of the pilots and would reject the evidence which says that two thirds of income management participants want to stay on it because they see the benefits. Their families experience the benefits. Their children experience the benefits of the system. It reduces stress and financial hardship.

Just think for a moment about what it would be like to be in one of those very vulnerable families where one of the parents or caregivers is subject to addiction and you have to argue with that family member in order to get the bare minimum of cash that you need to ensure that your children are cared for. That is not always a pretty conversation, it is not always a neat conversation, it is not an articulate conversation between rational adults about where best to spend the income that that family has. It can involve violence and it can involve incredibly destructive displays of behaviour, particularly for the young people in those families. I would struggle to understand why, when over two thirds of participants have indicated that they would prefer to see their income managed, people in this place think they know better for that group of people. It is the height of entitlement and elitism to think that you know better than the people who are experiencing these issues at the coalface day in, day out. It is their kids, not yours. It is just the height of entitlement.

Key changes to the income management program will include reducing the amount of compulsory contact between income management clients and Centrelink, while retaining participants' ongoing access to customer service officers and, particularly important in families and cohorts like this, specialists such as social workers. The changes will include removing the compulsory requirement for all income management participants to be referred to financial wellbeing and capability services and phasing out the underutilised parts of the services such as the voluntary incentive payment and the matched savings payment.

The existing locations that I mentioned earlier include Western Australia, the Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. The whole of the Northern Territory is currently using the income management system. In Western Australia we have the Peel region in Perth metropolitan, the Kimberley region, the NG Lands and Laverton Shire

In Queensland, we have got Logan, Rockhampton, Livingston and Cape York—remembering, for the Cape York welfare reform, Noel Pearson was a key driver of that particular initiative. We have Bankstown in New South Wales. In South Australia, we have the Playford, APY Lands and Ceduna regions. We have Greater Shepparton in my own home state of Victoria, where we have seen significant issues. We have high teen pregnancy rates in these cohorts. We have significant intergenerational disadvantage. It is mechanisms like this that will actually assist these families to get their basic needs met so that those children within those families can actually have the best opportunity to excel at school and to actually, hopefully, overturn that generational cycle.

Within these regions, a person can go onto income management only if they are volunteered to participate, if they receive particular welfare payments or if they have been referred for income management by a social worker. That typically involves assessments around the neglect of children. The BasicsCard can be used to buy most goods and services, except for alcohol, gambling products, cigarettes and pornography. All of those four goods and services are absolutely subject to being quite addictive for certain people and individuals. I myself was addicted to cigarettes for over 20 years. I do know the pull that that can have and how your priorities around how and what you choose to spend your time doing and your money on can be quite skewed, particularly around those four issues. Also, one of the key aspects of the income management system is that cash withdrawals from an ATM are not available using the BasicsCard. It operates like a normal EFTPOS card but is accepted only at approved stores. There are more than 13,000 BasicsCard merchants right across Australia, ranging from large supermarkets and department stores to small, independently run shops.

I think, as Senator Xenophon made clear in his remarks, most income management participants choose to stay on the card because it allows them to be able to provide for their families. I think that is something that we need to remember in this place. It is all very nice to have our theoretical models all ready and our ideological stamp cards at the door, all ready to get our gold star from the elites in inner urban centres. But when you have the evidence before you that two-thirds of people want to stay on this because their kids are getting fed and clothed, they do not have to go through a fight, they do not have to hide anything and they do not have to try to get to the bank before he does on payday or on welfare payment day. They can actually be assured that those basics will be met. I think it is groundbreaking.

I just wanted to briefly mention Minister Morrison's statement on 14 August, mentioning how the coalition governments will roll out the BasicsCard for Adelaide welfare recipients who volunteered to participate in income management or are subject to child protection measures. The announcement demonstrates strong, united actions on the recommendations of the state coroner's inquest into the death of Chloe Valentine, which recognised that income management could benefit many children at risk of neglect and abuse. I would like to thank Senator Xenophon for his support. I would like to request of the crossbench senators that they think about the state coroner's report, they think about Chloe Valentine and they think about the recommendations out of that report that income management, when applied appropriately, can actually make a difference to families' lives. Yes, they get to school. Yes, they are fed and clothed. But in instances of neglect and abuse, this is a space where government needs to be and government needs to assist the most vulnerable, who are the children in our communities.

I would like to also commend the South Australian government, who requested that these measures be introduced in Adelaide because they did not want to see another tragedy like this. It is this federal government, and I am sure every South Australian coalition senator in this place, that wants to see this measure rolled out so that those families and those vulnerable children can be protected. The Australian government is also providing $12 million over five years to deliver early intervention and referral services in South Australia, which is also helping to keep children safe. That is incredibly important and, I am sure, one of the main reasons that so many of us are in this place.

In terms of income management, I have mentioned that evaluations have been taking place. I know senators opposite are quite quick to claim that, as a government, we choose not to consult and we do not run pilots. I would happily run our record of evaluation, application and implementation against the previous six years of the Labor government any day of the week. The fact that we actually bother to evaluate programs, make assessments and recommendations and then implement them is a far cry from the policy approach that we were subjected to under the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments.

The legislation also sees the phased removal of the matched savings payment, which offers people on the compulsory measures up to $500 in matched savings if they complete an approved money management course and have demonstrated an appropriate savings pattern over a 13-week period. That is going to cease on 31 December, as they were largely under prescribed and costly to administer. This is part of what governments do when they have to prioritise: if it is not being used and is costly to do, our taxpayer dollars are much better spent elsewhere—particularly in this portfolio, particularly in this area and particularly with this cohort of very vulnerable Australians.

I just find it quite ridiculous that those who claim to be progressives are actually the ones who want to hold onto the way that things have always been more than anything else. They want to hold on, keep things same, never change anything and not be responsible. I have got so much more to say. I will continue after the break.

Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30

Senator McKENZIE: I rise to continue my contribution to the debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (No. 2) Bill 2015. Whilst my contribution before the break focused on the BasicsCard and the measures that the government seeks to introduce as part of that to ensure that families remain stable and that they can continue to ensure that their children receive basic needs, I also want to briefly touch on the changes that the government are seeking to make within the aged-care portfolio. As the minister for ageing has made very clear in his recent comments, it is a positive challenge for us as a nation. This is a large cohort of highly educated and empowered Australians entering retirement and entering aged care. Indeed, 70 is the new 50! They are travelling like never before, they are spending their children's inheritance like never before and they want choice in how they age like never before.

Part of adapting as a government and responding to the challenges of modern society in the 21st century is recognising that the old ways do not work. We need new and innovative ways to address the challenges that face us as a society, and ageing is one of those. As a government, our focus for this cohort is ensuring that they have more choice in their care and that those individuals that can afford to make a greater contribution to their retirement do so. It is not an automatic entitlement anymore that the state will look after you in your old age. If you look at the retirement age now compared to what it was when the first age pension was instigated, you would have to be close to 100 before you got the age pension, if you were going to be proportional about it. But we are not. We are a very generous society. People work hard throughout their life, and we like to recognise that going forward.

Part of the role of being a good government is being a financially sustainable government. That is something that the Abbott-led government takes very seriously. Part of the measures in schedule 3 of this bill go to reducing the size and complexity of government, because the more complex and the larger the size of government the more expensive it is and the more intrusive it is in people's lives. We take very seriously our philosophical and ideological commitment to reducing the size of government and reducing its complexity.

One of the measures that is contained in this bill is about getting rid of a redundant committee whose appointment finished in September last year. I find it quite interesting that it is only the dinosaurs on the other side that are seeking to maintain something that no longer exists. It is not functioning. But they will stand here arguing until there is no more breath left in their body that it should exist. It is incredible that the so-called progressives are seeking to maintain a status quo that is not even a status quo anymore. But do not let the truth get in the way of a good fear campaign!

A lot of our approach to the aged-care portfolio comes from the Productivity Commission's report Caring for older Australians. It found that in Australia we have a highly regulated aged-care sector, which is great in some respects but very incompatible with the new and changing way Australians want to age and have a say in how they age and where they age. They want to live at home as much as possible and they want a say. They are much more empowered than ever before.

I heard senators opposite, when talking about the aged-care provisions, talk about a lack of consultation. I again completely reject the assertion that this government does not consult and does not listen to the people. In fact it has been those opposite who have not listened to the people since we came to government. They have been refusing to pass the legislation that Australians voted for en masse two years ago. I know that the minister has been travelling across the nation. He has had 51 face-to-face sessions, briefed over 7,000 people and worked with over 30 advisory committees on changes within the aged-care portfolio. To say that these changes in Minister Morrison's portfolio are not part of an approach to aged care that is inclusive and informed is simply wrong. It is simply playing for cheap points by an opposition bereft of good ideas in this portfolio space. I can only go to the Senate committee report on the Living Longer Living Better legislation and look at many of the ideas that they put forward through that process. I have much more to say, but I commend the bill. (Time expired)