Monday, 22 February 2010
Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009
I speak in support of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009. As the member for Lyne said, this bill does not have a unifying theme; it is a mishmash of different issues. It achieves its aims by way of schedules, as legislation often does. The bill deals with land-use tenure and apportionment and agreements in the Northern Territory. It deals with income management in relation to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters in North Queensland. It will get rid of a real anomaly in the operation of the means test with respect to pensions and gifts. It also takes into consideration the integrity of the pensions system in relation to trusts. There are some useful changes to make sure that people are not overpaid the baby bonus. The bill also deals with provisions in relation to discretionary trusts as a result of a Federal Court decision. So there are a whole host of issues dealt with in this legislation.
The first issue is land in the Northern Territory. There are three parcels of land dealt with. This bill will bring to an end any claims or potential disputation between landholders in the Northern Territory. It is important that it adds several parcels of land to schedule 1 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 so they can be granted to Aboriginal land trusts. This brings to an end any claims and comes to an agreement between the traditional owners—the Central Land Council—and the Northern Territory government. This is important legislation. Any legislation that deals with native title and also land use which assists our Indigenous brothers and sisters is good and justifiable. It is important that we recognise the traditional owners of the land. This is something that I always feel is the right thing to do. I am very pleased when we see recognition of the traditional owners at a function or community event and respect is paid to them. This legislation is important to deal with those parcels of land, and I think it should be commended in that respect.
The second issue is income management regimes in the small communities of North Queensland, including Aurukun and Hopevale. The Queensland government established the Family Responsibilities Commission in order to manage people’s income in Cape York to ensure that it is used to provide the necessities of life for families and is not misused for purposes that are deleterious to children and women. The age pension and carer payment were not included in the category of welfare payments originally scheduled as being susceptible to an income management order in Cape York, so this legislation has some benefit to families and will improve the lives of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, particularly those who are vulnerable and subject to family circumstances which are not pleasant. They ensure that women and children in particular receive food, clothing and other necessities that Australians take for granted.
While I am talking about our Indigenous brothers and sisters, I note the comments made by the member for Lyne in relation to the many Aboriginal communities in his electorate. My electorate of Blair is named after Harold Blair, who grew up on the Purga mission south of Ipswich. He was a famous tenor and civil rights activist. I want to also acknowledge that we have another famous Aboriginal resident of Ipswich, the late Neville Bonner, the former Liberal Senator from Queensland. The electorate of Bonner is named after him. Neville did a lot of good in the Ipswich community and was widely respected. His wife Heather was also widely respected for her community and charity work and she did a lot of good in the Ipswich community over the years.
With respect to local Aboriginal communities, we have some very prominent Aboriginal activists and community workers in Ipswich. There is a wonderful facility called Kambu Medical Centre in Ipswich which caters for the needs of the local Indigenous people and other people as well. It is well run and well lead. I have visited there on numerous occasions and been pleased to see just how many people are cared for by that centre.
Whilst talking about the Aboriginal community in Ipswich and the western Moreton area, I want to acknowledge the great work done by the high schools, particularly in the Ipswich area—the two grammar schools provide suitable assistance to uplift our Aboriginal young people in the area—and also the work done by tremendous Catholic schools like St Mary’s and St Edmund’s, particularly with a very strong Edmund Rice social justice tradition. The high schools locally also do great work—schools like Bremer State High School, Bundamda State Secondary College and Ipswich state high, which have very high young Indigenous populations. I acknowledge the work they do. They really go about ensuring that social inclusion, social equity and social justice are important to their school communities so that people from all walks of life are given opportunities and feel included in the full community life of those schools and those school communities. I want to thank the schools for their wonderful work in that regard.
The third aspect of this legislation deals with the Social Security Appeals Tribunal. When I was in private practice as a lawyer, I had recourse to deal with the tribunal. The tribunal was given power to deal with child support matters. It deals with a number of areas of jurisdiction across social security, family assistance and of course child support. It was the case many years ago with respect to child support—or child maintenance—that if a person had to claim child maintenance they had to front up at a local magistrate’s court and bring an application to seek child maintenance from the father or the mother who was the non-custodial parent. I did thousands of those types of cases over the years.
Of course many men, particularly, failed to fulfil their obligations, and so we saw the introduction of the Child Support (Assessment) Act and the Child Support Agency, which has had success but not the degree of success which one would hope would have been achieved. Certainly there are prohibition orders; certainly the Child Support Agency can take steps; certainly the administrative assessment process is a cheaper and simpler way. There were always appeals from the Child Support Agency after internal reviews on a couple of occasions, and people could without the necessity of engaging a lawyer have their cases heard before the Child Support Agency and a child support review officer.
The legislation was then changed to ensure that matters that were on appeal could go, say, not to the courts but to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal. There are amendments here which deal with a number of aspects of that particular legislation: one dealing with a new position known as an assistant senior member formalising that position. It has already been created administratively and is now recognised in the latest determination by the Remuneration Tribunal.
There are other amendments. They deal with pre-hearing conferences. It is quite mystifying to me that this legislation is necessary in a sense, because one would have thought that when you were looking at the jurisdiction and the powers of the SSAT that it would have had the power to convene a pre-hearing conference for social security and family assistance law appeals. Certainly pre-hearing conferences in my experience for more than two decades as a lawyer are crucial to resolving cases and ensuring that legal costs can be limited and that people are given a final opportunity to resolve cases before having evidence adduced before the court and having their case determined by a person who sits on the bench, whether a tribunal, a magistrate or a judge.
Empowering the SSAT to convene a pre-hearing conference is a sensible way to go about ensuring that litigants can settle their case or at least limit the issues in dispute before the tribunal and also have the hearing process explained. Most people never front up before a court, a magistrate’s court, a district, Supreme or Federal Court or even a tribunal; most people never have to do it, so it is all foreign to them. Having it explained in a simple way by someone at a pre-hearing conference increases the possibility of settlement. It explores the possibility of reducing the issues in dispute and, in the circumstance, is good value for money when it comes to the taxpayers’ dollar. It costs an enormous amount of money to run cases in court or tribunals.
The SSAT in its annual report recommended that power be given to it, and the government has seen fit to ensure the SSAT is now able to conduct prehearing conferences in relation to the conduct and consideration of those types of matters. That is a sensible outcome. It will reduce costs for litigants, ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are better directed to protracted and more difficult disputes and make clear that people can still settle cases and that there is no final need for a hearing.
Other aspects of the bill deal with the disposal of assets. This fixes an anomaly which could potentially be a harsh outcome for some people. The changes here will affect pensioners and are sensible. The Social Security Act 1991 contains legislative provisions which in effect penalise income support recipients who give away assets without adequate financial return. Where the value of assets disposed of exceeds $10,000 in a year or $30,000 in a five-year period, the value of those assets in excess of those limits is still counted among the assets of a person for the purpose of determination. The anomaly that can be overcome here is, where those assets are returned to the person, they will not be doubled-counted when assessed for means-test purposes. That is a sensible outcome. It means that pensioners will not be penalised for doing things which, in the circumstances, are just the use of their money and which they are entitled to do. It is not fair on a person, if they dispose of their assets in certain circumstances, to have them counted as their assets on that basis and then to have them counted again if they are returned to them.
The fifth aspect of the bill is the control of private trusts. The amendments relate to a recent Federal Court decision concerning this matter and known as Elliot v Secretary, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations , which was looked at in 2010. It relates to income support recipients who are beneficiaries of private trusts. The amendments here again are sensible. They clarify for both social security and veterans pensioners whether a particular discretionary trust should be assessed as being a controlled private trust in respect of that beneficiary. It is an important change, it is sensible, it helps people in the circumstances and it also protects the integrity of our system of taxation. The control test is necessary and it is sensible in terms of the changes.
The next section relates to the baby bonus. We saw with the third instalment of the Intergenerational report, which was released by the Treasurer very recently, that we have a real demographic challenge in this country. In 1970 we had just over seven working Australians for every person over the age of 65 years. Currently it is about five. In 2050 is going to be about 2.7 Australians for every person over the age of 65 years. That is a real challenge for us. That is a demographic tsunami that is going to come for us. We need to, therefore, increase our population, and we can do it a number of ways. We can do it by way of increasing migration, and we have done that over the years. Regardless of the views expressed by and the alarmism of those opposite on immigration matters over the years, certainly they have in a surreptitious way continued skilled migration and family reunion programs, as we have. But we can also increase our population another way—that is, by ensuring that we have more children.
The baby bonus I support. I think it has benefit. It is subject to much criticism, often unjustified. The Australian Institute of Family Studies a couple years ago did a study which indicated that it costs about a million dollars to raise a child to 18 years of age. Anyone who thinks that the amount a person receives by way of baby bonus is an incentive to have children is kidding themselves, really. Everyone who thinks about it sanely and sensibly knows that it costs a lot of money to raise a child. As someone with a 20-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old daughter at university, I know it costs a lot of money. The baby bonus needed to be changed in terms of the vehicle and method by which it was paid.
In 2008 the baby bonus for new births and for adoptions was converted from a lump sum payment to a series of 13 fortnightly payments. That was not sensible of the previous government and allowed the baby bonus to be criticised and, at times, abused by a small number. The change here relates to circumstances where the care of a child changes. It introduces a new requirement for the carer of a child for whom the baby bonus is paid to notify Centrelink if there is a change in circumstances. This happens at times when, say, there is a change of custodial arrangement or foster arrangement where the payment should be given to the actual person who is caring and not the initial carer who has ceased to be the primary caregiver for that child. That change is sensible, prudent and clever in all the circumstances.
This legislation should not be particularly controversial. It deals with income in relation to North Queensland Aboriginal communities, land in the Northern Territory, trusts with respect to pensioners, the baby bonus and the disposal and recouping of assets. I want to finish by saying that legislation that deals with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters should be done for their benefit, because for a long time in this country they were treated by many as second-class citizens. I hope that those days of prejudice, ignorance and intolerance are gone and I hope that the spirit of Hansonism we saw so many years ago will be eradicated from the body politic and from communities across this country. Anything we can do to support our Indigenous brothers and sisters is important. (Time expired)