Thursday, 16 August 2007
Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007
That was quite some contribution. When I arrived in the chamber I heard a speech about trade unions, IR pre Keating, unemployment rates and recipients. It used a lot of statistics, and those statistics showed that if you look hard enough you can find statistics to prove anything you want to prove. The thing that really hit me about the contribution from the previous speaker, the member for Cowper, is that he did not say anything about the people who are going to be affected by this legislation. It was all about very abstract facts; it was all about attacking the Labor Party. There was a tiny part of his contribution where he actually spoke about the legislation. He showed absolutely no understanding of disability or the issues that people with disabilities face when they are seeking employment. It really said to me that here is a member of the government who truly believes what the Prime Minister has said: ‘Australians have never been better off.’ I hate to say this, but there are many Australians whom I represent in this parliament who are not better off, and there are many Australians represented by members of the government in this parliament who are doing it really hard. A group of people who are doing it very hard are those who have been affected by this government’s Welfare to Work legislation. I would argue, and argue very strongly, that members on the government side of this parliament do not understand those issues.
The Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007 makes minor amendments to the Welfare to Work legislation, which was rushed through this parliament with indecent haste. The amendments made in this bill will largely benefit the people they affect but they do complicate the system a little. Whilst welcoming the amendments, I cannot but stand here and ask the question: why weren’t these amendments included in the original legislation? Why are we back here making these very minor amendments that will complicate an already very complex system?
When the previous legislation, the Welfare to Work legislation, was introduced into the parliament, I was very concerned about the impact it would have on people with disabilities. I have spent a very large portion of my working life working with people with disabilities and actually helping them re-enter the workforce or enter the workforce—perhaps it is the first time they have had a job. When I saw this legislation I knew it was going to create barriers for a large number of those people who are desperately looking for work.
One of the changes has affected a constituent in the Shortland electorate whom I have been working with for many years. We had previously linked him into CRS Australia, which was endeavouring to help him. Because there were some problems with his medical condition, his program was suspended and then ended. His condition stabilised and he is keen to go back to a program with CRS but has to go through the whole assessment process. He has to go and see a job capacity assessor and he has to be deemed suitable to be included in a program. The process is very bureaucratic and is putting barriers in place that are going to make it more difficult for this person to find employment.
Similarly, there is a young person with an intellectual disability. He had previously been a client of CRS in a different area. He had been involved in a program and had a placement. Because the level of support had fallen away he lost that job and needed to go back and get additional assistance to be helped back into the workforce. This young person had, for a period of time, been self-sufficient. Firstly, I had a lot of trouble getting this person deemed eligible for a disability support pension. He needed a disability support pension to give him a secure base to then go out and find employment and get all the assistance he needed to secure a job. After much toing and froing we were able to have his disability support pension reinstated. It was over the two-year period when it would be automatic. We then had to go through the process of having to be assessed and then referred back. It is very bureaucratic, complex and time consuming. I do not think it is the best way to get the optimal outcome, which is employment. On this side of the House we are 100 per cent behind people with disabilities or any person that is unemployed actually getting a job. We think that should happen, but for it to happen you need to have the right sorts of supports in place. Unfortunately, under this Welfare to Work legislation you do not have those proper supports in place. As the government finds out that this is not working, we are going to be back here discussing more and more amendments. For a person with a disability to actually find employment you have to have in place a system that works.
With regard to the mobility allowance, in the legislation there is going to be a very strong requirement on a person to report to Centrelink the moment they cease full-time study, because their mobility allowance ceases then. If they do not report it, there will be problems.
Some real problems already exist with the reporting system that is in place and the communication between Centrelink and people who are reliant on Centrelink for payment. I will share with the House the story of one young man who receives a disability support pension. He went to his bank on his usual payday and, when he checked to see whether there was any money in his account, he found he had not received his Centrelink payment. He immediately rang Centrelink and they said, ‘You did not come to your appointment.’ His response to the Centrelink officer was: ‘I did not receive a letter about any appointment whatsoever.’ The response from the officer was: ‘Regardless of whether or not you received a letter or notification, you are required to attend the interview.’
This created enormous problems for this young person, who also has an intellectual disability. He lives independently and is achieving really good outcomes. He works for the House With No Steps in the electorate of Shortland and he has a very responsible job within that organisation. His mother contacted Centrelink, but little setbacks like the one that he suffered create enormous anxiety. The requirements that are placed on the person who receives a payment from Centrelink are much greater than they are on Centrelink, particularly with regard to communication. That is all enshrined in legislation.
I do not think it is because the people at Centrelink are heartless—not by any means. There are some wonderful people there who have helped so many people who have been badly affected by the Welfare to Work legislation; they have tried to get the best outcome for them. Unfortunately, the young man I mentioned experienced enormous difficulties. It is a ludicrous situation if you are supposed to turn up for an appointment that you do not know about and you have your payment stopped. Centrelink did communicate with him that his payment had stopped. However, this notice was received later on the same day he went to his bank to get money out for his rent.
The level of accountability and the lack of support that has been given to people with disabilities who are trying to find a job, undertake study and get back into the workforce do concern me. I have worked in a system where there was support for people with a disability and where there was assistance to find employment: there were proper assessments, proper placements, proper support and long-term jobs.
This government has introduced into this parliament and into our Australian community a system that places the onus on the person with a disability rather than gives them support. This legislation is making it easier for them and I welcome that. But, in welcoming it, I condemn the fact that the government initially introduced the legislation without including it. It has created hardship for a number of people, and I have some concerns about the reporting requirement because I have demonstrated already how there can be problems with it.
Job seekers within the electorate of Shortland have also experienced many problems. The most striking example was over the Christmas period when a woman, who has since found employment, had her payment suspended because she was not notified of the time of her appointment. She also had to change one of her appointments because, on the day the appointment was taking place, she was working. She was told that her ultimate responsibility was to attend the Centrelink appointment, as opposed to working. To my way of thinking, I wonder how the Welfare to Work legislation has actually helped this older working woman.
In my area, I understand that there has been a pilot done—which I think has since been disbanded—directed towards mature age people seeking employment or receiving the Newstart allowance. I was visited frequently in my office by 64-year-old or 63-year-old women who were just short of being granted the age pension and had been told by Centrelink that there was a requirement to report fortnightly even if they were doing volunteer work. Thankfully, the pilot has ceased and those people have been put on a more sustainable reporting regime. What this demonstrates is that the Welfare to Work legislation, when it was introduced into this House, was more about making people jump through hoops; it was more about the government saving money than actually helping people get work.
I return to my original comments about people with disabilities. People with disabilities need support and security, and they need to know that if things fail there is a fallback position, but under this government they feel very threatened. Unfortunately, I believe that much of this Welfare to Work legislation was ill-conceived and will actually be counterproductive. Labor have a much better plan. Labor believe passionately that people with disabilities should be able to work and that that opportunity should be created for them. We believe that proper support services should be put in place, as with single parents and all the other people who have been targeted in the government’s Welfare to Work legislation.
Today we acknowledge that the amendments before us will actually help people who have been affected by the Welfare to Work changes. I hope that the government come back to this House before the election with some more changes to the Welfare to Work legislation and look at the plan that the Labor Party have for actually helping people re-enter the workforce. We are very happy for the government to steal whatever initiative they would like from Labor’s plan to help people with disabilities and single parents get back into the workforce. We will support it; we will come here and vote for it. I conclude by recommending that that is the action that the minister takes.