House debates

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007

Second Reading

11:44 am

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Minister for Workforce Participation) Share this | Hansard source

In summing up the Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007, I would like to thank those who participated in the debate. It was a rather amusing contribution from the opposition. I was about to stand up during the remarks from the member for Canberra and remind her that she was not referring to the content of the bill at all. The bill is about helping people with a disability into work; it is not about mental health interstate agreements and so on. She seems not to have read the bill at all, especially the explanatory memorandum.

The member for Shortland was most engaging in suggesting that all we need to do is adopt Labor policy on welfare to work. That is most bemusing when you look at Labor’s record of underachievement over its 12 or 13 years in government, before 1996. If you were disabled, unemployed long term, a single parent or an Indigenous worker—a highly disadvantaged person in the Australian community—under Labor, you were caught short. You were in a very long queue waiting for someone to give you a hand. You certainly did not get the sort of assistance that our government has offered and delivered, which has seen record rates of workforce participation, including for the most disadvantaged in our society, and which has seen unemployment drop to record lows.

Perhaps I need to remind those opposite of some of these statistics, because I have never been asked a question in question time in this chamber from anyone from the opposition side on the performance of our Welfare to Work policies. The opposition totally opposed all of the measures which delivered the $3.6 billion budget for Welfare to Work which has caused this extraordinary shift of the unemployed into the workplace. I am not the only Minister for Workforce Participation who has never received a single question from the opposition on this work; neither did my predecessor in the same portfolio, Peter Dutton. Heaven help us if the opposition ever does again take charge of the economy of this country. We would see unemployment levels back to where they were, with the most disadvantaged in this nation once again severely and significantly isolated, stigmatised, and living a different life to the one most Australians aspire to.

I will remind the member for Shortland of exactly what we have achieved and of what Labor did in their days in office. Unemployment was 8.2 per cent in 1996 when the Howard government was elected. It had peaked at 10.3 per cent in 1993 when Kim Beazley was the Minister for Employment, Education and Training. Later, of course, he was to become a long-term opposition leader. Of course, we all know that unemployment is now at 4.3 per cent—the lowest in 30 years. Labor were only able to create 53,400 full-time jobs in their last six years in office. The coalition has created 309,900 full-time jobs in the past year alone. The employment program cost-per-job outcome—that is, how much the taxpayer pays to place one individual into work—was $12,800 per job seeker under Labor’s Working Nation. Under our program, which we generically call Australian government employment services, the cost is down to $3,900. That is almost a third of the cost to place substantially more people into real jobs. That is around a 72 per cent reduction in the cost to taxpayers for a much more efficient system. I hope the opposition is noting that in particular.

Long-term unemployment reached a peak of 329,800 in May 1993. This was reduced to a mere 66,000 by June this year. Teenage unemployment under Labor was a horrific problem. Young people looking for full-time work were despairing. Their unemployment peaked at over 10 per cent in 1992. Teenage unemployment has been reduced to just under four per cent now. You can imagine what a difference that has made in the lives of so many young people in Australia under the John Howard government.

Labor’s old CESCommonwealth Employment Service—had only 300 permanent sites available to assist job seekers. So, if you were not lucky enough to be near one of those 300 CES offices, it was just bad luck. We have over 1,066 permanent offices right throughout Australia in some of the smallest communities manned by our Job Network, our Disability Employment Network providers and others. We have made job seeking more accessible to the most disadvantaged in this country. Therefore, it is no surprise that the workforce participation rate was standing at a record high of nearly 65 per cent in June 2007. The average participation rate under Labor in two terms in office was only 63 per cent. I suggest that the member for Shortland look very closely at those statistics. When she suggests that we should have regard to ALP employment policy, I think she must be joking. Either she is joking or she does not understand.

The ALP’s discussion paper and platform advocates going back to their failed Working Nation policy. All I can say is that would cause real despair for the parents of the unemployed young people and also for those who are still seeking work. Nearly half—44 per cent—of disadvantaged job seekers who received targeted assistance under Job Network were employed only three months after completing their assistance program. This compares with only around a quarter getting into work under Labor’s Working Nation. I have already mentioned that the cost of helping people into work has been substantially reduced under our government, but with a far better program delivered.

Throughout Welfare to Work, the coalition has provided greater assistance for the long-term and the very long term unemployed in getting a job. Given the extraordinary emotional and physical detrimental effects that long-term unemployment can have on an individual person, we are proud of the fact that so many more Australians have been given a decent life chance in this nation as a result of our Welfare to Work reforms.

It is not just unemployed parents and single mums who suffer when they cannot get work—there are 600,000 children in Australia who do not have a household breadwinner. We inherited that from Labor. Under our Welfare to Work changes we now have a situation where, instead of parents staying on the single parent pension until their youngest child is 16, they are assisted into at least a part-time job when their youngest child turns six. This means that we are going to break the cycle of intergenerational despair and distress caused by one generation after another not being able to get work. This particularly affects Indigenous Australians. As part of our recent move into the Northern Territory in an emergency response to the enormous distress there, we are going to change the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage that has seen unemployed Indigenous people with a very different set of life experiences to other Australians.

Right across the board we are now seeing mothers being helped to find work, which means that they have hope of offering their children a different life to that which they experienced, having been outside the job market for so long. In particular, we have record numbers of job placements for sole parents. In the last 12 months, over 44,000 sole parents have been helped to find work, around 50,000 Indigenous Australians have been helped into work and 11,000 people on disability support pensions were helped to move into work.

I thought it amusing that the member for Canberra suggested that there was an issue in Australia about an ageing population and people with disability wanting work. Well, hello! None of those issues were addressed under the Labor regime, but our Treasurer produced for the first time in a developed nation an intergenerational report that documented very carefully exactly what the impacts would be of our changing demographics—our baby boomer generation moving into retirement, with lower rates of fertility meaning that, coming up behind them, there will not be a similar sized workforce to be the taxpayers and to support working age people on welfare and older aged people as our country moves forward. This government has responded to the intergenerational issues through a whole range of measures including superannuation changes and different incentives for saving, but, in particular, by raising workforce participation.

The Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007 is an extraordinarily important further development of the ways in which we are assisting some of Australia’s most disadvantaged to move into either part-time or full-time work. The point about work is that in our society, as in so many others, you are what you do. If you are denied independence through your own capacity to work, your self-esteem will often suffer, you will often be stigmatised in our society and your children will be less likely to work. This bill, by making eligibility for mobility allowance more consistent, continues the focus under the Welfare to Work reforms to ensure greater fairness in the treatment of groups with similar needs. It upholds the Howard government’s commitment to make it easier for people with disabilities who can work 15 or more hours a week to find work in the open labour market. We changed access to disability support pensions under Welfare to Work reforms. We say that if you can do at least 15 hours of work a week in open employment, after two years of support if needed, we will help you to find a job. If you have a capacity for some work, we are not going to simply dismiss your future work opportunities by parking you on the disability support pension.

Our higher rate of mobility allowance was introduced under Welfare to Work to encourage people with disabilities into the open labour market. This bill remains consistent with that original intent. The bill was supported by the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education. The bill also supports greater equity for young people who are looking for work and are claiming youth allowance. It helps ensure that all young people who are transferring from youth allowance—these are full-time students to youth allowance job seekers—will be linked promptly with assistance from Centrelink for job searching when they cease full-time study. We want to transition people quickly so that there is no chance of them becoming despairing and long-term unemployed. The result will be that young people’s labour market potential will be very substantially improved.

Welfare to Work reforms that support parents are being extended. Partnered parenting payment recipients who have a partial work capacity due to disability will have access to more support in the form of concessions and supplements. This additional support is consistent with that received by disability support pensioners. We are making sure that there is equity across the way our welfare support is administered and accessed. In addition, current disincentives in the income support system for people with the shared care of a child will be removed. There will be increased access to higher payment rates for these people. This recognises the costs incurred by parents who share the care of a child—even though the child may not live with them—and reflects important recommendations of the 2006 ministerial task force’s report on child support. The bill also rectifies an oversight that currently prevents job seekers who are 55 or over from combining self-employment—as well as other types of employment—with voluntary work in order to meet their activity test requirements. This was the original intention of the Welfare to Work measures.

I will say once again that our Welfare to Work reforms are the most important thing to have happened since 1996 for those who were unemployed during the Labor regime. We have seen the most substantial assistance—and a response to that assistance—coming through where people with disabilities, parents, the long-term unemployed, Indigenous people and mature age workers have found a new lease of life through employment. There has never been a better time to get a job in this country because of the very steady hand on the tiller in terms of economic management. Both despite the domestic shocks of things like the worst drought on record and the worst floods on record and despite the international shocks such as the war on terrorism, SARS epidemics, oil crises and so on, our Treasurer and our Prime Minister, John Howard, have presided over the most significant economic growth this country has ever seen. They have kept this country stable and that has enabled record numbers of the 2.5 million unemployed working age people that we inherited from Labor to move into work. I therefore commend this bill to the House.


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