Wednesday, 29 March 2017
Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise in the House today to say that I will not be supporting the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 and to outline my reasons why. In doing so, just to put on the record, I do get the budget emergency argument but I do not get cruelty, I do not get inefficiency and I do not think we are being our best selves with this particular bit of legislation.
There are clear reasons for me deciding not to support this legislation that go to the heart of balancing social justice with the need for the government to make savings. We pride ourselves on providing support for those in need. We, as a nation, must ensure that the safety net is maintained for the most vulnerable, even when the government takes action to seek the savings necessary to balance its budget.
I believe the cuts proposed by government have the potential to impact significantly negatively on benefit recipients within my electorate, including the 20,231 aged pensioners and 32,024 pensioners with a concession card. These measures rely on increasing incomes to make the savings. They potentially increase red tape, in allowing more regular updating of pay rates. They set a waiting period for additional payments and they set a waiting period for all pauses in indexation for two years, reducing the cost over the forwards of the compounding indexation.
In my electorate, there are more than 10,000 families who receive tax benefit A; 8,000 families who receive tax benefit B; nearly 500 who receive the partnered parenting payment; nearly 1,800 who receive single parenting payment; more than 9,000 who have a health care card; 2,700 have a low-income card; 4,500 are on a Newstart allowance; more than 20,000 receive the aged pension; and over 32,000 have a pensioner concession card. Without good argument—and I will be referring to the budget argument later on—I will not support legislation that leaves those in my community worse off. I will not support legislation that makes life more difficult for those who are already disadvantaged.
The changes proposed by the government are tinkering around the edges at an issue that requires a holistic approach. Good policy should not result in further inefficiencies for either the government or the recipients. Social services are often looked at as a series of welfare payments. But social services should not just be a time and place mechanism; they should act as a safety net with compassion at its core. I am worried we have lost the compassion in the development of our social policy. Compassion is frequently referenced as a reason for policy, but it is frequently left out of the equation when it comes to implementation. I believe these measures increase red tape. They will set a waiting period for additional payments, and the setting of a waiting period for all pauses in indexation for two years does not show compassion.
In 2015 the government released the final report of the McClure review of Australia's welfare system—A new system for better employment and social outcomes. And, while some might call it semantics, the title of the report gives us a clear indication of where the government's focus lies: better employment. I believe the focus of social welfare, before anything else, should be about better social outcomes. Better employment will come as a result of better social outcomes. A person's employment status or unemployment status cannot be looked at in isolation.
Employment security is one of our greatest challenges, but, sadly, having a job for life no longer exists. The workforce has been undergoing a massive transformation over the past three decades, and currently the average Australian stays with one employer for just three years and four months. If this plays out in the lifetime of a school leaver today, it means that they will have 17 separate employers in their lifetime. People are used to moving on, but the big shift we are seeing now is that there is no longer just one job for life; there is not even a career or an industry for life. People will be changing employers, professions and industries and retraining as they go. Nowhere is the challenge of employment security felt more than in regional Australia, and no group feels it more than the young people.
I believe the government should not be looking at welfare payments as a short-term cost but rather as a long-term investment, particularly when directed towards investment in our young people. Young Australians living outside the capital cities and other major urban population centres encounter a number of challenges that are not normally part of the everyday experience of young people living in metropolitan areas. These challenges include obtaining access to suitable and appropriate health and welfare services, education and training, paid employment, economic stability and recreational opportunities. In rural areas there are fewer employment opportunities, with far fewer career options, and household incomes are lower on average than those for people living in our cities. Regional employment and training opportunities can be scarce, and last week's release of the youth unemployment rate of 13.3 per cent for my electorate has shown that there has been little change in this number over the past 30 years.
We have a severe problem with unemployment. When people are working between jobs we absolutely need the social safety net to catch them, look after them and propel them forward to the next step. Making it a punishment, making them feel ashamed, making them feel embarrassed does not do what we want it to do. Our safety net system should have an adequate payment system based on need that encourages people to prepare for and seek work where it is reasonable to do so. It should support people who are unable to work. It should feature fair returns from work, individualised requirements for participation in the workforce and support services that build individual and family capacity. It should give people a sense of security so that they are able to fully participate in the community. But that is not what is happening. Our approach to social services results in people falling through the cracks, having to compete against one another and compete against the system.
Let me tell you a story about one of my constituents. Let me call her RB. I know RB well. In my previous life as a teacher, she was one of my students. I have watched her growth and development and I can assure the House that she is a woman of great integrity and great responsibility. In her middle age she suffers from chronic illnesses; however, she was unable to obtain her disability pension card for some time because she was earning just above the threshold. Having the card made all the difference, even while pension payments were minimal because of her partner's income. But following a small increase in her partner's income RB lost her pension card. In her words:
… losing the card meant my health costs went up substantially, and that's not allowing for dental and optical as well. But perhaps more significantly it means my sense of independence and my self-esteem has suffered immensely and the burden on our relationship was also increased substantially.
Sadly, she is not alone, and her experience is not particular to those receiving the disability pension.
The experience of loss of independence and self-esteem is an experience that is felt by so many people relying on the government to support them when they are most in need. It should not be a punishment. I want to remind the government that this is what happens when the design of a policy to help those most in need, those most disadvantaged and those on the margins is driven by economics and not by compassion or fairness. We can and we should have both. We need compassion, we need fairness and we need economic outcomes. I believe as a nation we are capable of combining all of these together. When we try to make it either/or we are less than our best selves.
The need to balance the budget is not lost on me. I am a farmer and a businesswoman. I run my own household and I have degree with a major in economics. I understand macro- and microeconomics and I would like to work with the government to identify budget savings. There is no shortage of this discussion in our office. I understand the need for fiscal responsibility—but not at any cost and definitely not at the cost of those most in need.
We have heard from Senator Jacqui Lambie the very personal stories of what it is like to be reliant on government support, of the personal toll when complex requirements means having to move between different providers and the very direct impact this has not only on individuals but their families and how this invariably leads people to fall through the cracks, often taking their family with them—and I have to say, if there was one question I heard repeated over and over again last weekend, it was: 'Cathy, did you hear Senator Lambie?' 'Cathy, did you hear Senator Lambie?' 'Cathy, what are you going to do about what she said? She's right you know. She's got it.'
I would like today to take a step back and take a moment to talk about how my electorate sees how government can take a leading role in providing support. I would like to include in the budget some thoughts from the kitchen table conversations that we held in the Indi electorate in 2015. Kitchen table conversations was a process that involved over 600 people coming together, talking in small groups about their vision for their community, about the role for an elected representative and the issues they were facing.
It was then followed by the Indi summit, which was a community-led initiative that engaged people in shaping their future by encouraging them to share and develop their ideas. It was an opportunity that allowed members to create a vision, to show leadership, to raise issues that were important to them and then for them to talk about the solutions. The idea was: government is not like some knight on a white charger that is going to come over the hill and resolve our problems—we know that that is not possible—so what do we need to do in our communities to resolve our own problems, and, given that I am the elected representative, what was the message that I could take from the Indi summit to Canberra?
I was told: early intervention to reduce disadvantage, including targeted programs to address and manage issues such as violence, poverty and homelessness; support for programs that focus on early intervention to reduce disadvantage—programs that break the cycle of disadvantage by reducing homelessness and domestic violence; policies that change the mindsets and relationships between government agencies, local government, community groups, volunteers and citizens from 'doing to' to 'doing with'. The people in my community—just as Jacqui Lambie outlined so well—want to be part of the solution. They are very keen to move themselves to another and better place and to get a job to earn enough money to have the status and recognition that brings. They want to be part of the solution. They do not want to be done to. They do not want to be seen as numbers in the system or playthings for the government and the budget to balance one against the other by taking from Peter to give to Paul. In talking to the government about this, there is an enormous willingness in my electorate to work together. There is no shortage of discussion about how we could do this better, how we could make savings, how we could make the social security system work better and be more efficient and how we could target it better. In our rural communities, people understand that it needs to be targeted. You cannot have one size fits all; otherwise, you get a blanket approach and people get benefits who clearly should not be getting them. Rural communities see that and they understand it, so there is no shortage of opportunity to say to the government, 'We could work with you on this.' But, really, really importantly, we need to have early intervention that reduces disadvantage so that we are not paying huge costs at the other end, and we must do something about local poverty and homelessness.
In bringing my comments to a close, I call on the government to provide leadership in social investment; investment encased in welfare support that builds confident, strong, vibrant and resilient communities. It is resilient communities that have the confidence and the skill to build local frameworks that provide local support in the face of adversity and times of need. My final comment is about a conversation I had in my office as I was getting ready for this speech. We were talking about a systems approach to disadvantage rather than a reductionist approach. A systems approach would recognise that schools, hospitals, GPs, churches, local members of parliament, service groups and a whole-of-community approach have a role to provide the infrastructure to support and encourage people and lift them on their way. To the government, the minister and the relevant people: come and talk to us in rural communities. We have no shortage of ideas. We definitely want to be part of the solution both in balancing the budget, so that more money can come back to our communities for infrastructure, and for providing people with pride, confidence and the courage they need to live the lives they want in the places they want to live them.