Thursday, 3 December 2020
Matters of Public Importance
Pensions and Benefits
I really appreciate this opportunity to rise and provide some commentary around this particular social services mechanism and, importantly, what it means for people on the ground. I made the point just recently in this place that I personally have been a recipient of government welfare. My personal circumstances were such that my wife's mother was diagnosed with cancer on the far side of the country. My wife and kids moved straightaway, because she was given only 12 months to live with terminal cancer, and I didn't have a job to move straight into. I hadn't actually considered it at all until somebody said to me: 'Hey, Vince, you know you'll be eligible for the dole'—as we then colloquially referred to it. I took the view that this would be for a short period and, like all of us, we'd paid tax. For my wife, the kids and my mother-in-law that was very welcome. I would encourage any Australians who have faced personal circumstances not of their making and need to rely on welfare until they can get a job not to feel ashamed, but then to look forward to getting back and going and getting a job, as I and millions of other Australians have, and continuing to contribute to our wonderful society.
Social welfare is extremely important. That is why we have a safety net. That is why, as a government—and I know that the opposition and everyone in this place agrees—we need to look after those people who are vulnerable, particularly at certain times in their life. However, I have been personally deeply disappointed in what the Leader of the Opposition has sanctioned and the member for Maribyrnong has led. It is an argument, which has been prosecuted quite poorly, that there is somehow a direct, unbroken and singular link between suicides and this particular social welfare mechanism. That is irresponsible and it is harmful. I would estimate that every single person in this place, on all sides of both chambers, has in some way been touched by suicide, and I reckon I'd be right. So I think it is irresponsible to try and draw a link and to accuse a particular government minister or even previous ministers of having blood on their hands. It is a disgraceful commentary, and I really implore that this come to an end.
The sense that I have that this is an irresponsible argument is also borne out by research. In fact, research suggests that the factors that contribute to someone taking their own life can be very complex and that there is no single reason why a person dies by suicide. In fact Mindframe's guidelines for communicating about suicide emphasise the importance of not implying 'that the death was spontaneous or due to a single event, as most people who die by suicide have underlying risk factors'.
I don't think anybody would argue that a lot of the people who are recipients of social welfare aren't doing it incredibly tough—they absolutely are. That is why we need to be careful about our language. We do need to talk about suicide. It's encouraging that we're talking more about mental health than we ever have before. For those members of my direct family who have and are suffering from mental health issues, we've come such a long way since particularly 15 years ago, when my own wife first presented at an Army hospital and said, 'I'm not feeling well; I think I might have depression,' and was told: 'You're a mother of two kids and you're in the Army. You should probably just get out.' I don't blame the medical doctor on duty, but it is incredibly unfortunate for treatment not to be provided; that exacerbates the circumstances.
So people are doing it hard. We are talking more about mental health, but we need to be responsible. We don't want people to have any sense that suicide is the solution to their problems. I make the request that we move on from the argument. We've heard arguments from both sides prosecuted about the mechanisms of this instrument. It's pleasing that the government has identified that the scheme was certainly imperfect and that it has been iteratively improved; that's what any responsible government would do. But again, in my closing remarks, I urge that we talk about the mechanics of the program and not about harmful links to suicide. (Time expired)