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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 42

Senator WONG (12:45 PM) —I rise to speak on a matter of public interest. Last week we saw the Howard government exposed for years of failure to seriously tackle welfare reform and years of failure to support welfare recipients with better work opportunities. We saw the real intent behind their initiatives exposed through their threat of coercion. We saw their real agenda: cutting costs. We saw the complaint about the rising cost of the DSP and we could see that the driver of government welfare policy is in fact the Treasurer. Most Australians would have preferred to see a focus on creating opportunity and on partnership.

Last week the government released the interim evaluation report on a pilot program established to investigate the interest of disability support pensioners in seeking employment and their success in gaining employment. The release of the report confirmed the government's failure and revealed the government's intent. The pilot program was a positive initiative and, arguably, well overdue. We welcomed its inception in January and sounded notes of caution about the implications of the program results at the time. The concern we raised at the time essentially was over the lack of support provided by this government to disability support pensioners who would like to work. An obvious example is the oversubscribed programs administered through the Department of Family and Community Services. Specialist disability open employment services have caps on the number of people they can assist and there are waiting lists of people wanting support to work. Perhaps the government should consider supporting those who are providing the support as a first step. Nevertheless, the pilot program was a positive initiative and it was no great surprise to most observers to see that many people want to work.

The government announced that people want to work with great surprise and fanfare, as if they had made some amazing discovery and as if it is somehow unbelievable. The government find it unbelievable that people who are on the DSP may be on it for a very good reason and that, nevertheless, they may still want to work whenever and however possible. Instead, the government sees the DSP as the haven for people who feign bad backs. Their instinctive response when they see a disability support pensioner who is not working is to threaten coercion.

The response by the Minister for Workforce Participation to the interim evaluation report simply made no sense. In one breath he said that the report showed that people want to work. However, in the next breath he said that it showed people needed to be coerced to work. Unless he and I were reading different reports, it showed nothing of the sort. There was no evidence in the report to suggest that coercion was suitable or necessary, and there was a simple reason for this: participation in the pilot program was voluntary. It is logically and practically impossible for a pilot scheme where participation is voluntary to show that coercion will produce better results. That leaves one possible conclusion for the claimed need for coercion: this government is gearing up for a punitive and unfair policy driven by the coercion of disability support pensioners. The government is gearing up for yet another crude plan to cut people off DSP benefits by simply changing the eligibility test just as it has attempted to do twice before.

The other telling sign is that in his first major interview on the topic the minister emphasised the costs involved in maintaining the DSP. There is no doubt that the cost is increasing. However, the response cannot be to simply shift people from the DSP onto unemployment benefits. As we know, the government are refusing to release details of their plans, which I might say is hardly in the spirit of genuine reform. But they have form. Twice in the last parliament they proposed legislation to amend the definition of work capacity from 30 hours a week at award wages or above to 15 hours. This would have had the effect of cutting around 200,000 Australians off the DSP. Currently, the test is whether a person is capable of working 30 hours a week inside a period of two years and follows a medical determination that the person has a disability.

On its second attempt the government attempted to broaden the appeal of the legislation by inserting a grandfather clause so that the change would take effect only for new applicants for the pension. On both occasions Labor rejected the legislation. My message to the government is this: if you want to continue with the same unreasonable approach to disability support you will get the same response from Labor. We will continue to say no to unreasonable and unfair attacks on disability support pensioners. If, however, the government is not just focused on improving the budget bottom line—and this is contrary to every indication so far—and if the government is prepared to look at ways in which we can genuinely support people on welfare moving into work, including those on the DSP who have the capacity to work, my door is always open.

There is some obligation here for government. We have to encourage an employment environment that fosters the employment of people with a disability. We have to recognise that many disabled people will not be able to make the transition to work and, for those that can, support will be required. We have to recognise that government is not doing all it can to improve incentives and to break down the substantial barriers. Welfare reform must be mutual and must be based on partnership. If the government is genuine we are prepared to talk. But we will not engage in coercion and cost cutting at the expense of some of our most vulnerable Australians.

I would like to look now at some of the results of the report. The spin from the minister was that disability support pensioners have so far been unaware of the vast array of services open to them if they want to return to work. In his press release of 24 November the minister said:

The pilot also found that unnecessary concern about the consequences of undertaking paid work on access to benefits and concessions was a factor in a decision not to pursue employment. An immediate priority is to ensure that more people on DSP are informed about the option to give work a try and not be worse off, and of the assistance available under the Job Network.

It seems to me that comment displayed some uncharacteristic understatement from the minister. What the report really shows is the consistent failure by this government's employment programs to provide appropriate services and appropriate referrals to services.

Let us have a look at what the report actually said. You need go no further than page 1 to read this key finding:

The majority of participants (62%) had already indicated a willingness to work by actively registering as looking for work but most did not have a current referral to Job Network services before their commencement or were receiving Job Search Support Only services.

What that means is that well over half the participants had already said they wanted to work, but they were not referred to the right place. There is a big difference between the minister's spin and the reality. Another omission from the minister's pronouncements was this critical finding:

Referral information was often out-of-date and difficult to update.

This impeded the efficiency of referrals between providers, and inhibited job seeker access to services. Systems requirements and Pilot policy were not well understood by providers, and attempts to communicate it via the Pilot website, emails and regular teleconferences were not successful. Some of these issues may have affected commencements as a few job seekers appear to have lost motivation after prolonged delays in the commencement process.

... ... ...

The evaluation has gathered evidence of significant disincentives and widespread ignorance inhibiting DSP recipients' take-up of work opportunities.

These are fairly damning criticisms. It is clear that the government also has work to do at Centrelink. Some examples of Centrelink experiences cited by DSP recipients included asking Centrelink questions about work or study options but being told they were not required to do anything and feeling discouraged from asking further, and a lack of information from Centrelink about available employment assistance unless it was specifically requested. Perhaps the minister should check that the system actually works before making threats to disability support pensioners.

We know that currently less than 10 per cent of DSP recipients report any earnings and currently less than two per cent are participating in Job Network. The minister hears that and says, `Clearly, we need to coerce them.' But there are significant barriers to participation for Australians with a disability. Not least among these is the fear of loss of benefits on finding work and the implications to benefits if work is lost. For example—and I quote from page 10 of the report:

DSP recipients reported ...:

difficulties in ... establishing eligibility for DSP due to stricter eligibility requirements and a lengthy claims process ... Many stated they would be more likely to take on work if they had a `safety net' which allowed them to return to the pension if needed.

This concern is significant, given that retaining work is often harder for DSP recipients, particularly those with mental health problems. Currently, if you lose your job because of your disability, you will be guaranteed return to the DSP. But how many employers would state that as the reason, and is it desirable to have that reason recorded on your employment record, anyway? DSP recipients also reported:

previous negative experience with employers and perceptions of discrimination by employers, which discourages DSP recipients from testing their work capacity.

I ask: are these people the ones the minister refers to as not being on the DSP legitimately? Are these the people who need to be coerced? The minister, like so many of his colleagues, implies that people on income support are undeserving. Some people, they say, are abusing the system with pretend problems. The minister in that case should ensure that there is no abuse of the system. That is what the government should do. The solution is not to make everybody who needs the pension pay for those who may not have needed the pension in the first place. Compliance is not the primary reason for welfare reform. Not being assured of compliance is not the reason to move people from welfare to work. There are far better reasons than that.

Labor are very serious about welfare reform. We strongly believe in providing the means and the incentive to help Australians contribute to and improve our productivity and their personal circumstances. Labor have led the way in welfare reform, focusing on partnership and on mutual obligation. Australians who are not working but who have the potential to work need support to help realise their potential. A statement from the report which should be taken very seriously by the government is this:

DSP recipients were obviously attracted by the Intensive Support Services being offered through the pilot.

And, as the report went on to say:

Pilot participants reported improved prospects of finding work, a greater incidence of case management and higher levels of satisfaction than for DSP job seekers in Job Network services generally. They reported receiving more intensive servicing, and felt the services were more likely to be appropriate for their disability and service needs.

The minister should stop pretending that this report endorses the erosion of support for Australians with a disability and realise that what it does show is that many people with a disability want to work, and a bit more help from their government would be welcome.