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Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Page: 2302

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (13:09): I rise today to speak about the government's repetitive and continued attacks on those people relying on income support. The latest instalment was the claim, first published in The Australian on Friday, 28 October, that a single parent with four children was able to earn more per year from income support payments than they would on the median full-time wage after tax. So, in other words, why would somebody want to work?

The article said that new government data showed that a single parent with four children aged 13, 10, seven and four who was not receiving child support or employment income and was paying $400 a week rent would receive $52,523 a year in income support. The article then compared this to the median full-time wage for 2014-15 of $61,300 a year, or $49,831 after tax. For a start, single parents with four children make up a small fraction of all single parents receiving income support and are an even smaller fraction of the total number of income support recipients nationally. But that does not stop them being used in an attempt to once again undermine our income support system.

The article included quotes from Minister Porter, who said he agreed with the claim. The article said:

Social Services Minister Christian Porter said the new data showed that taxpayer-funded benefits could be providing a disincentive to work—a systemic flaw that required government attention. "Among the many areas that require attention to system design is the fact that the broad generosity of the Australian welfare system manifests more often than people might expect in circumstances where the money people receive in welfare payments is comparable to being employed,"…

One of the questions we need to ask is: who placed this story? Where did the new government data come from? Of course, anybody knowing anything about income support smelled a rat straightaway, and it did not take long for the claim to be busted. Why didn't the government bust it themselves?

Former Department of Social Security analyst David Plunkett set the record straight, saying in a Sydney Morning Herald article that the parent working full-time would also receive $30,916 in family tax benefits. Unsurprisingly, the amount of benefits had not been factored into the figure for the working parent but had been for the single parent relying solely on income support. In other words, you could not compare the two sets of figures. But that did not stop the government having a go.

As Cassandra Goldie from the Australian Council of Social Service said at the time:

"It appears to be a deliberate strategy to generate a story which creates this impression that we've got a social security system which is 'bloated and too generous' when the facts will show it's completely to the contrary," …

The truth is that the working parent would be almost $30,000 a year better off rather than $2,692 worse off, as was suggested in the disingenuous comments that were made.

Minister Porter's office defended the figures published in the article, saying:

"The point being made is simply that a person receiving the single parenting welfare payment, plus family tax benefits and other welfare payments, gets an amount equivalent to what another person might earn working full-time."

It is a nonsense comparison because it is not what actually happens in real life. Single parents with four children relying on income support and family tax benefits will still be struggling to support them. It is, as I said, absolute nonsense to compare the two. This is part of a campaign to undermine our social security system which is so necessary to so many Australians.

It is, of course, in the government's interests though for the public to believe that single parents and those receiving other income support payments more broadly are thriving on social security and the social safety net; otherwise, how would they get the public to swallow their insidious cuts to income support in the name of plugging up the budget? If this were not the case, why wouldn't the government and the minister have checked the figures that were so blatantly and obviously wrong before commenting?

The same argument, of course, applies to the crossbench in this place. In order for the government to convince them to vote against the needs of the most vulnerable in our community on a semiregular basis, the government has to try to demonise the most vulnerable to the point where they are no longer recognisable as those most in need of our support—for example, the government's attempts to chuck young people off income support for five weeks.

What the article does not explain is that the government's proposed changes to family tax benefits, if passed by the parliament, will affect working and non-working single parents. Both are set to lose $4,000 a year—almost $80 a week. This is because family tax benefits are relatively the same for working and non-working parents, so they do not provide a disincentive for parents receiving income support to try to find work. What the article did not tell its readership is that single parents want to work. In fact, they are the group that works the most of the groups receiving income support. But the jobs just are not there.

The Jobs availability snapshot published by Anglicare Australia on 31 October is the first of its kind. It pulls together the figures from three government indicators, from May this year, and shows us that for every level 5, or low-skilled position, that was available in May 2015 there were 6.33 disadvantaged jobseekers. The snapshot is invaluable in busting open the government's continued perpetuated myth that job seekers can get a job if they just try harder. That is one job per 6.33 disadvantaged jobseekers. It does not end there, though. The figure actually worsens when you look at the state and territory breakdowns. The ratio of disadvantaged jobseekers to low-skilled vacancies is 10.62 in Tasmania and 9.39 in South Australia.

The demonising of those on income support does not stop there. The Department of Human Services has been sending letters to those receiving income support with a dual Centrelink and AFP letterhead. How would you feel if you were an income support recipient who got a letter with the Australian Federal Police logo on the letterhead? A constituent told me that the letter contains information about Taskforce Integrity, a task force set up by the government to track down and prosecute supposed welfare cheats. I will say here that anybody deliberately defrauding the system should be addressed. We do not support that. But I am deeply concerned that the government is trying to smear so many income support recipients. The letter invites the recipient to report anyone they suspect of welfare fraud.

What I personally find concerning is that the task force is expected to raise $1.7 billion from its operations on top of the $3 billion to be raised from outstanding notices. This means that regardless of the level of wrongdoing they have a monetary goal to reach. What lengths will they go to to reach this goal? That takes me to the other point: when the mistakes are made by Centrelink, people get no grace period to repay the money that they may have been paid in error even when it is Centrelink's fault. Why, when Centrelink have obviously made the mistake? As the constituent wrote in their email: 'This task force targets the weakest, most vulnerable and marginalised in our communities; the very people who are the least likely to be able to fight back. People will feel that they can't complain about this as they might then be targeted. I know I feel this way which is why I'm writing to you..'

Why are the government going after those that are already facing disadvantage rather than the wealthy? We already know about the tax cuts that will cost $4 billion over four years. This is more than two times the amount that Taskforce Integrity has been told to raise in the same amount of time. Time and time again the government are targeting those that can least afford it. They are targeting those on income support for savings. They are using data inappropriately, with flawed comparisons, to try and demonise the most vulnerable in our community, rather than looking at how we build a social service system and social security safety net to take us into the 21st century. That is the reform we need. How do we make sure that our social security system is enabling people to live and have an adequate income so that they are supported to be able to find work, not kept in poverty, which is yet another barrier to the disadvantaged? The evidence clearly shows this, yet the government is trying to continue to undermine the system and demonise those on income support.