Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 2) Bill 2007
Debate resumed from 16 August, on motion by Dr Stone:
That this bill be now read a second time.
Here we are again debating another Howard government welfare bill, the Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 2) Bill 2007. This is the third welfare bill this year. In the public domain the Howard government claims it has reformed welfare in Australia, but the Hansard of this place, including today’s Hansard, will show that here we are with yet another bill and another piece of piecemeal reform. This is in a week when we have seen on the front page of a newspaper another cooked-up scheme being recommended by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Joe Hockey. We expect that this thought bubble will have served its purpose—that is, to get a newspaper story. It will now be forgotten, as these things tend to be with Howard government ministers, who do not have a plan for Australia’s future and who are desperately scrabbling around to try to get their names in newspapers in the run-up to the election.
The simple fact is that, when it comes to social security policy, the Howard government has got it wrong. It has got it wrong for 11 long years and it still cannot figure out how to get it right. That is because, time after time, the Howard government goes for a short-term fix, rather than a long-term plan, for this nation’s future. As a result, we still have low participation rates, compared with our competitors. We still have two million Australians who are officially unemployed, working part time but wanting more work than they can get or wanting to work but not showing up in the monthly unemployment figures. It is a staggering statistic but one which many Australians would feel intuitively as they move around in their daily lives. Many Australians would certainly know people who are working part time and wanting more work than they currently have but have not been able to get it. People would be aware of Australians who do not show up in the monthly unemployment figures but who want to work, as well as those who are officially unemployed. Also, as a result of the Howard government’s failure to plan for Australia’s long-term future—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, in your remaining few minutes in the chair and what I understand to be the last few minutes in this parliament. I am sure in those few minutes you will show great leadership and balance in the chair and, because you are a patient man, you will not worry about the interjections from the minister at the table or from his friend on the back bench. That is testament to your patience rather than their conduct.
As I was saying, as a result of the Howard government’s failure to plan for Australia’s long-term future, we have a skills crisis in Australia, and I think the minister at the table would find it hard to deny that. We see businesses desperate for skilled workers. That, of course, is a direct result of the Howard government’s failure to plan ahead and its failure to train the available jobless Australians for available jobs. Labor has a different approach. Labor believes that people who can work should work and that those who genuinely cannot work should be cared for. We believe that work is a foundation of social inclusion. Everyone benefits when more people can participate in the social and economic mainstream. Labor’s approach to workforce participation is to identify the reasons why some people are not participating as much as they could or would like to and to deliver practical solutions.
For instance, take the plan announced by Labor leader Kevin Rudd at the weekend to create Skills Australia. Skills Australia will play a central role to ensure that we lock in a full employment economy and that we develop a highly skilled and innovative workforce for the future—things which, presumably, the minister is opposed to. It will assess evidence from commissioned research and industry stakeholders to inform Australia’s workforce development needs. Skills Australia will provide government with recommendations about the future skills needs of the country. It will identify future skills shortages so that they can be addressed before they negatively impact on economic activity. It will identify persistent skills shortages so that current capacity blockages can be overcome. It will identify barriers that prevent skills formation in areas where persistent skills shortages exist and it will identify industries where retraining and upskilling of workers may be required to prevent unemployment, underemployment and skills obsolescence.
In making its recommendations to government, Skills Australia will have regard to the objective of achieving full employment, the international competitiveness of the Australian economy, the promotion of innovation through skills acquisition, the provision of a sufficient number of appropriately qualified workers for industries of critical national importance and the role of state and regional economies in contributing to the success of the broader Australian economy.
All of this work has been neglected by the Howard government and, as a result, a survey of more than 760 producers conducted by the Australian Industry Group, a survey reported under the title of Australia’s skills gap costly, wasteful and widespread, found that one in two businesses were experiencing difficulties in obtaining skilled labour. It is hardly a record for a government to be proud of after 11 years when Australian producers are saying to it that its lack of attention to Australia’s skills gap has left them with a problem which is costly, wasteful and widespread.
The Monash University-ACER Centre for the Economics of Education and Training has estimated that more than four million additional people will need to acquire qualifications from 2006 to 2016. This includes more than two million new entrants and 1.78 million existing workers. Of these, 61.4 per cent will need a vocational education and training qualification and 38.6 per cent a higher education qualification. The simple reality is that businesses are desperate for skilled staff and people only get a job if they have the skills an employer needs and wants.
Yet again, with this bill another opportunity passes to help jobless Australians gain skills, and beyond this bill the Howard government has no plan to match current and future needs for skilled workers with people who could be working. All of a sudden, remarkably, we are supposed to believe that after 11 years the Howard government, including the Treasurer, have a vision for engaging in our community those who are not active participants in the labour market or our community. It is quite remarkable that after 11 years as Treasurer the Treasurer is now inviting us to believe that he has a vision for this country. If the man had a vision for this country then surely that would have showed at the commencement of his period as Treasurer and he would have been pursuing that vision. Instead, we see the Treasurer desperately scrabbling around trying to look like he has got half an idea about something, just as we saw yesterday the government’s backbenchers, in their party room meeting, desperately scrabbling around trying to look like the government had half an idea about something. It is not clear whether they found any of those answers but they spent more than two hours looking for half an idea and not one idea has yet emerged about the future from the Howard government.
The minister at the table, who obviously does not have any ideas about the future, is consequently just carping and is just as negative as the Howard government has become. It has no ideas about the future—
just as this minister has no idea about the future. The Treasurer has no idea about the future and he is pretending that he has just discovered social inclusion. He is obviously looking for something to pad out newspaper interviews but he has no idea about what the content of a social inclusion policy might look like. This is Howard government members in the run-up to the election: always desperate to get their names in the newspaper, they just forget the content. After 11 years the Treasurer now says that he wants to ensure that Australia’s prosperity is shared in ways that re-engage those who are at risk of exclusion or already excluded from our society and our economy.
Clearly the minister at the table does not understand what social inclusion is. But in not understanding what social inclusion is, he might want to explain why his colleague the Treasurer now uses these words about social inclusion when they ring hollow from a man who has presided over a prosperous economy for more than a decade yet has still allowed disadvantage to become more entrenched and more complex. Given that the minister is in a joking mood, he might want to joke about these statistics. The Brotherhood of St Laurence, for instance, has identified 21 federal electorates with a simultaneous high incidence of single-parent families, low family incomes and high unemployment rates, and it has found that these are the electorates with higher birth rates.
The minister of course is calling out about these statistics. They are not my statistics; they are the statistics of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and I think that they say something meaningful to us and to this country about pockets of entrenched disadvantage. Because these communities have the highest birth rates, more than 37,000 babies at risk of serious disadvantage were born into just those 21 electorates last year alone. This is something that requires a response. It means that much of the next generation is being born into communities least able to help them escape a life of disadvantage.
Catholic Social Services has found in its most recent report on the distribution of disadvantage in Australia that just 1.7 per cent of postcodes and communities across the country account for more than seven times their share of the major factors that cause intergenerational poverty including: low income, limited computer and internet access, early school leaving, physical and mental disabilities, long-term unemployment, prison admissions and confirmed child maltreatment. The same report estimated that one-third of all communities in my home state of Victoria suffer from low social cohesion. Once again, these are not my conclusions but the conclusions of Catholic Social Services. They describe such communities as ones where there are inadequate levels of community trust and resources, and that lack of trust and resources make it more difficult for individuals and families to overcome the individual and family problems that lead to poverty.
A report released by ACOSS in recent weeks reminds us that we have a sizeable proportion of our community living in poverty. Using the OECD poverty line standard of 50 per cent of median income, the 2004 data tells us that 9.9 per cent of Australians are below the poverty line. If the European Union standard of 60 per cent of median income is used, then that figure doubles to 19.8 per cent of our community.
The Howard government likes to spruik its record, but it needs to take ownership of these statistics as well because they tell us something about those people in contemporary Australia who are doing it tough, who have not been touched by the years of economic prosperity—and we are into our 16th year of economic growth—and for whom more has to be done. It takes more than patting yourself on the back about your record to deliver a vision to address entrenched disadvantage in our communities. Sadly, the contents of the bill before the House today demonstrate that the actual record of the Howard government in dealing with the challenges of inclusion and engagement is not one to be proud of, so it is not surprising that this bill includes the usual random assortment of measures.
I should emphasise that there is one measure here that we strongly support: exempting relatives from participation requirements if they are the primary caregivers of children. On the basis of this measure, we will be supporting the bill. We consider this exemption is long overdue. The child must be directed to live with the person under a parenting order made under the Family Law Act 1975, a state child order or an overseas child order that has been registered under the Family Law Act and the person must be complying with that order. When those relatives are single principal carers, the bill also ensures that access to the highest available rate of payment, the parenting payment single, is available. Relatives who have taken responsibility for the care of children are obviously providing invaluable support to their family and their community and, in turn, we as a nation must support them.
It is worth noting, however, that some community advocates have argued that eligibility for these exemptions should be extended further to include other circumstances where a relative of a child may become a principal carer without court orders being made. Indeed, the approach in this bill contradicts the government’s move towards parenting plans and family relationship centres as alternatives to family courts. It would be worth hearing from the minister how she justifies the narrowness of this exemption and its apparent clash with other aspects of government policy. Nevertheless, this step is quite unlike most of the Howard government’s so-called Welfare to Work agenda, which actually makes it harder for Australians who are struggling to achieve financial independence. Unfortunately, other aspects of the bill continue in that vein.
The Howard government seems intent on making life harder for people with a disability. One measure removes medical officers from the assessment of a person’s capacity to work. This dramatic change was one of the reasons Labor initiated a Senate inquiry into this bill. The Mental Health Council of Australia submitted to the inquiry that taking medical officers out of the assessment ‘could have damaging unintended consequences for the person with mental illness’. The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations was similarly concerned with the implications of this bill, saying that even under existing arrangements:
People whose impairments are not visible have been inappropriately assessed by people with poor knowledge or appreciation of the impact of their condition on their capacity to work, the supports they need to work and the range of work that they can realistically undertake.
Given this current predicament, disability advocates are concerned about the impact of removing the limited remaining role of medical officers from this process. This change—obviously advocated by the Howard government because it is in this bill—seems an inexplicable one.
Labor believes there is a role for medical opinion in the job capacity assessment process. Consequently, when we reach the consideration in detail stage we will move substantive amendments to delete the items from the bill which remove medical officers from the assessment of impairment. When we get to that stage, I think it will be important for government members to understand that, if they vote against those amendments, they will be voting to remove these medical officers from the assessment of capacity to work. What could justify doing that?
The bill also reinforces the role of the job capacity assessment in another way. It replaces the guidelines for making these work capacity assessments, those made by the secretary, with guidelines set out in a legislative instrument by the minister. The secretary will be required to comply with these guidelines, as will the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
While Labor acknowledge and understand the concern that some in the disability community have about what the guidelines will prescribe, we do support the increased ability of parliament to scrutinise the guidelines as a legislative instrument. However, these guidelines have not been released and Labor will watch very closely to ensure that they do not make life harder for people with a disability. Consequently, at the end of my contribution I will be moving a second reading amendment to that effect.
This bill, like all the Welfare to Work bills put forward by this government, does not address this nation’s participation challenges. Clearly, the Howard government do not actually understand the scale of the participation challenge; they simply hope the mining boom will continue forever. Of course, we know that at some time in the future—and may it be a long time away—there will be a time beyond the resources boom for which we should be planning and investing now. Australia needs a long-term approach to workforce participation and welfare reform that tackles the reasons why some people are not working and delivers practical solutions.
As I have indicated, Labor will support this bill, principally because Labor does support exemptions from participation requirements for relatives who care for children, but Labor will move an in-detail amendment dealing with the medical officers issue to which I have referred. Labor will also seek, through the second reading amendment I will now move, for the government to tell the Australian people in a clear way how it is going to deal with the new guidelines of which this bill is the threshold part. With those words, I move:
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:
- notes the additional parliamentary scrutiny of Legislative Instruments in place of administrative guidelines;
- calls on the Government to listen to the concerns of the disability community regarding the quality and fairness of their Job Capacity Assessment system; and
- calls on the Government to consult with stakeholders, to ensure that these new guidelines do not make life harder for people with a disability and that they have fair and reasonable opportunity to appeal decisions relating to job capacity assessments”.
I am very pleased to speak on the Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 2) Bill 2007 because, like the member opposite, we are very determined to ensure fairness and equity as a result of this bill, particularly for grandparents and relatives who care for children.
Before I get to that section of the bill, it is obvious that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has made a number of sweeping statements which have to be addressed. I need to bring them to the attention of the House because if you allow these things to go unchallenged people might actually believe them. I suspect that the more the opposition make these statements the more they tend to believe them. The member opposite refers to the fact that Australia has a skills crisis. Yes, there is a shortage of skills in this country, not because this government has not made provision—in fact, it has made strong provision for this sector over the years—but because we have an absolute boom in the economy. This economy is growing at a rate which has never been seen before, and we are sucking up skilled workers like we have never seen before. I am pleased to say that just the other day I was able to introduce into the House the bipartisan report of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration entitled Temporary visas ... permanent benefits: ensuring the effectiveness, fairness and integrity of the temporary business visa program. The report helps to address the current skills shortage because of the huge demand for skilled workers in many sectors across Australia.
We know that several years ago, under the Prime Minister’s direction, the federal government took measures with regard to the Australian technical colleges, which are operating very well. I have one of the campuses in my electorate; the other part of the campus is in the seat of Hasluck. I visited the college recently and I noted each one of the young year 11 men and women there were delighted to be involved in skills training at that level. This is in contrast to the situation under the state governments, which have underfunded the TAFE sector—and, in fact, have taken funding out of it—and have done their best to drive down the vocational education aspect of skills training.
Do not take any notice of what Labor say; judge Labor not on what they say but on what they do. We recall the famous Bill Hunter ads years ago when Labor were in government, ‘job ready, here we come’. They cost a fortune—talk about political advertising! But these people did not come through apprenticeships; they came through short-term, temporary skill training centres. As I have said in this place before, they did a three-month brickie course and came out as a brickie—that sort of thing. As a result, these people were underskilled when they were put into the workforce.
When we first came to this parliament as the government, there were just over 100,000 apprenticeships in this country; now there are close to 500,000. This government has nurtured apprenticeships in this country like never before, and that is our way of upskilling this country. So when the Deputy Leader of the Opposition prattles on about this sort of stuff, we know she is ideologically bent because she is not telling the truth on this issue, because this government has a proud record on upskilling the workforce.
In some respects the opposition are trying to talk down the economy. They would like to see the boom in the mining sector, which is very strong in this country, cease, because that would suit their political purposes. Can I give you a tip? The fact is that even the most pessimistic commentator says that the boom in Western Australia will go on for at least seven years.
Talk about upskilling and intelligence quotients—which are on display for everyone to see as a result of that point of order! The fact is that this is about participation in the workforce, which we are talking about, and a skilled workforce, which the Deputy Leader of the Opposition banged on about for some time. I would have thought it is very relevant to this issue.
The opposition spokesman also talked about the 21 electorates that the Brotherhood of St Laurence have identified as having high levels of child poverty. Child poverty in Australia is a relative term. When I was a schoolteacher many years ago, I taught in one of the lower socioeconomic areas of Perth. It was a really tough area—a deprived, poor area. But these kids lived in good housing and, whether or not their parents had a job, they were well fed and well educated.
There you go again, Mr Deputy Speaker: the IQ comes to the top again! Do we recall former Prime Minister Bob Hawke saying, ‘No child will live in poverty in this country by 1990’? Unable to deliver; unable to talk about it. This is the issue the previous speaker of the opposition was talking about, so I think it is quite relevant that I address it.
We have a proud record not only in upskilling the workforce in Australia and getting workforce participation but also in making sure that all Australians benefit. The fact is that the workforce participation rate in this country has never been higher. We have an unemployment level of 4.2 per cent—in Western Australia it has been down to 2.7 per cent but 4.2 per cent is the national figure in this country. The participation rate is unbelievable; it has never been higher. You only have to see this in, for example, the work for the dole programs. They are battling to fill these programs because there are very few people available. They all have jobs.
As we know, the best thing you can do for a worker is to give them a job. Tony Blair said that, and I am sure that sensible members of the opposition, like the member for Batman, would agree: the best thing you can do for a worker is to give him a job. Once you give them a job, they can do things like pay for themselves and get a mortgage. It is great for self-esteem and it breaks that cycle of welfare dependency and the welfare mentality. The best thing you can do is get them off welfare and into a job.
I will give you an example. Just the other day I was at my son’s football game. One of the ladies there was required to attend for 15 hours. I was trying to suggest a job to her. When I saw her the next week, I said, ‘I see you didn’t turn up for that job.’ She said, ‘I was able to get one down the road—and guess what? They want me to do it full time now.’ She went from 15 hours to a full-time job within a week or so because she got into a job. If you get into a job, there is a good chance of getting a job that will give you full-time employment and get you out of that cycle of welfare dependency. That is what we are really aiming for.
The measures in this bill will extend participation exemptions to principal carers who are relatives but not parents of the children. This is an extension of the Welfare to Work reforms which enable principal carers to receive an automatic exemption from participation requirements if they meet the laws and regulations of their state or territory to provide foster care and if they are actively providing foster care in that jurisdiction.
As the minister at the table, Mr Brough, would know, and as you may recall, Mr Deputy Speaker Somlyay, I raised this issue in the party room a couple of years ago. At the time, I had a little trouble getting the relevant minister on the page on this. I am very pleased to say that Joe Hockey, the current Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, was a very big supporter of mine. He wrote a letter supporting my position to the minister, and the now Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mr Brough, also supported that position in terms of grandparents as carers, which was the focus of the original proposal.
To give you the background: I want to make it clear to this parliament that I am not the only person who has been strongly advocating this as a measure but I can assure you that I have been determined to see this and I have helped to drive this through our party room and with our ministers in this government. It really came to my attention when one of my constituents, Mrs Margaret Saunders, came to me and told me her story. I want to tell the story to the parliament again because it really is very relevant to this bill about workforce participation and grandparents and other relatives as carers. This should be called the Margaret Saunders amendment bill, as far as I am concerned, because she was determined to get some action on this point. She lives in Pinjarra and she is a single grandparent. She had her grandchildren on her doorstep because her daughter is a chronic drug user and unable to care for her children properly. The daughter’s partner and father of the children is in the same position.
Poor Margaret was working full time in Pinjarra. Centrelink did not have the relevant permission at that stage or the understanding of where the government was coming from, and it told her that, to care for her grandchildren, she had to leave her job and that, before she could get any entitlements, she had to get rid of all of her holiday entitlements and those sorts of things. It was a devastating blow for this poor lady to take on the full-time care of the young children, who were certainly under the age of 16. They require to be run to sporting events; they require lunches; they require all the care that a good parent will give. Do you really think this lady wanted to give up her life, which she was enjoying, playing bowls and doing all the things that seniors do in their retirement? People live so that they can retire to a certain quality of life. Margaret had this hoisted upon her. I am sure that if you were to talk to Margaret today she would say, ‘I’m happy to do this because these are my grandchildren but, believe me, I would prefer that it hadn’t happened.’ She would prefer that it hadn’t happened because, firstly, she did not want her daughter to be in that position and, secondly, she would have liked to have had a life of her own.
The problem was that she was told she would have to go and register for work. By registering for work, she was going to find it difficult to act in the role of a parent for these two children, who needed her so desperately. So she came to me. I give the Prime Minister a tick here because, when it was brought to the party room, he said to the minister involved, ‘Let’s make sure that this is addressed.’ This is why we are in this place today; we are addressing this issue and it is very important that we do. This legislation gives effect to participation requirements that are in place for the benefit of such a person as Margaret. Earlier legislation has been brought to this place allowing, once the grandparent has been established as the principal carer, for the parenting payments to flow. I will read some of that into Hansard shortly.
This amendment bill will ensure that the principal carers who are relatives but not parents of the children can access exemptions from the activity test or participation requirements in these circumstances, which is only fair. I understand that there are something like 50,000 people around Australia in this position. Some of the notes say 22,000 but I suspect that there are people who have not even registered—so there may be a lot more. This issue came home to me nearly two years ago when I was watching a morning program on Channel 9. A group of grandparents came on that program to explain their circumstances and what they had to do to care for their grandchildren. Minister Brough rang Channel 9 to address this issue because there was a misstatement of their entitlements. As a result, we were able to make sure that people understood that this government was addressing the issue.
In July 2007 Centrelink policy guidelines were clarified to make it easier for grandparents to gain access to principal carer status if they were the main carer of their grandchildren. Centrelink carries out the assessments, but there is a bit of misstatement going on. In fact, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition was incorrect when she said that they had to have a court order to have this entitlement flow on to them. A court order is not required, although it was previously. One of the reasons that a court order is not required now is that the states were so slow—through the department of community development or whatever the relevant term is in each state—in assigning the children legally to their grandparents.
You can understand why there are sometimes difficulties. For example, in Margaret Saunders’ case, the father of the children, as much as he did not want to care for them, wanted the money—he wanted the family payments, probably to feed his drug habit. He wanted access to the family entitlements but he did not want to care for his children. Obviously that sort of messy situation has to be clarified. A court order is preferred but, because the states were so slow in delivering many of these court orders so that grandparents could have permanent care of their grandchildren, Centrelink—through these amendments—will now make the determination. Centrelink will make the determination by drawing on a range of information about the living and care arrangements of the child so that the grandparent can be the principal carer of the child. Of course, Centrelink would take a court order as a favourable piece of evidence.
This bill provides an automatic exemption for up to 12 months, and this is a renewable exemption. So it is easily rolled over if they can establish that the conditions remain. Grandparents receiving activity tested income support payments who are not principal carers but who are providing care on an informal basis also have the opportunity to receive an exemption for up to 13 weeks if it can be established that they are caring for their grandchildren and it affects their ability to work or to search for work. I highly endorse this amendment bill, and I know that there would be nobody in this House who would not do the same.
In Western Australia there are a number of organisations—for example, Grandcare, grandparent support groups and referral services, and Grandpower for Grandkids—that deal with these issues. They provide a lot of information to grandparents. Of course, there are foster homes and foster carers get family entitlements such as the family tax benefit and other benefits if they foster children, but why wouldn’t you have a blood relative care for the children? Why wouldn’t you have someone who actually has an emotional bond and a connection with the child rather than putting the child in a strange house? No matter how well meaning those foster carers are, it is never going to be the same as having another family member care for the child. We should give family members the same entitlements that foster carers receive for looking after children who are in desperate need. Not all of these children have parents who are drug dependent; there are, of course, other reasons that they are in need of care—for example, their mum and dad might have been killed in a car crash. This bill relates not only to grandparents but also to blood relatives who can establish that they are entitled to receive the same benefits.
This is great legislation. The opposition said that it was high time, but we never heard them mention it before. But I am really pleased that they are supporting it, because right across Australia there are many grandparents who should be entitled to not only the family tax benefits but also other benefits. There is now a benefit called the Grandparent Child Care Benefit, which covers the full cost of approved child care for up to 50 hours per week. And, believe it or not, grandparents can even get maternity payment to help with the cost of a new baby if the child is with them within 13 weeks of birth. Grandparents are also entitled to the maternity immunisation allowance so that the child can be immunised. There is also a carer’s allowance for children with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. Carer’s payments may be payable in addition to the carer’s allowance if they are caring for a profoundly disabled child.
So all the entitlements that parents can receive—healthcare cards, parenting payments et cetera—will be available to the grandparents of Australia. It is an outstanding piece of legislation. It saves people having to register if they are performing the role of a parent. I totally endorse this bill, as I am sure the rest of the House will. It is good legislation and we need to get it through this parliament before we conclude. (Time expired)
I was interested to hear that, towards the end of his contribution, the member for Canning actually came to the point of the legislation and did show that he had a little understanding of what it is all about. But it did not shock me in any shape or form when he attacked me and this side of the House, because he is a member whose main contribution to this parliament has been to sling insults across the chamber. He is a person who is consumed with nastiness as opposed to actually debating legislation.
I am just picking up on a few of the comments made by the previous speaker. With any luck we will not see him in the next parliament.
Part of the legislation that we have before us today—Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 2) Bill 2007is very good. I support wholeheartedly the part relating to the carers of children who are blood relatives. It exempts relatives other than parents who are caring for children from participation requirements in certain circumstances. It tightens the assessment on work capacity for people with disabilities by replacing existing administrative guidelines with ministerial guidelines contained in legislative instruments, and it transfers responsibility for the assessment of medical impairment from medical officers to job capacity assessors. That is something I am not quite so supportive of. I worked with people with disabilities for many years, helping them to access the workforce. If I were still doing that job, I would be put in the position of being a job capacity assessor. I see some problems with that, and I believe that we really need to have medical officers involved in that assessment process. I will touch on that a little more as my contribution continues.
The bill extends participation exemptions to principal carers who receive income support and relatives who are not the parents. I think this is long overdue. I am sure that members of the government have been approached by grandparents. The grandparents group here in the ACT recently released a book setting out some of the problems that grandparents have in caring for their grandchildren. I think that anything that makes it easier for grandparents to care for their grandchildren should be embraced by the whole of the parliament. It is a phenomenon that is happening more and more in our society these days. In my own family, my mother-in-law had to care for the four children of one of her daughters as they grew up. The parents died and she embraced the responsibility of rearing the four children. I know how hard and difficult that can be, and legislation that supports that is good legislation. Anything that improves the lives of people who are trying to contribute to our society in any way should be supported. These measures provide greater support and they remove requirements from families who are already struggling.
The area of this legislation that I am not so pleased with relates to the role of the job capacity assessors. Job capacity assessors should be part of the process of assessing whether or not a person is eligible for a disability support pension. Sometimes they can add information that can help in that determination. In the past, I have been in a position where I have made vocational assessments—I have assessed a person’s cognitive ability to undertake employment and I have worked with occupational therapists who would also fit into that job capacity assessment role. I know that that information is valuable. But I do not think that I, an occupational therapist or a physiotherapist—or maybe somebody who has no formal qualifications but has been appointed as a job capacity assessor—would have the expertise to determine whether somebody who is suffering from an advanced form of cancer, a heart condition or any number of conditions is able to undertake work. I did not have that expertise and I do not think that they would have it.
Our office was contacted by a person who had advanced breast cancer and a very, very short life expectancy. She had been knocked back from receiving a disability support pension. It was only after a lot of work with the doctors that we were able to get together the kind of information that Centrelink needed to be able to make that determination. On the other hand, a job capacity assessor could very easily make an error. They would not have the expertise to determine whether someone with that type of cancer could find employment. The person may look normal and may be able to complete requirements. I could give them a cognitive assessment, an occupational therapist could give them a functional capacity assessment and the person may be able to pass those assessments. Based on those assessments the report could be forwarded to Centrelink saying, ‘This person should not receive a disability support pension.’ I think that it is flawed. I think that the government really should look at that very carefully. I have not been a fan of the changes to the Welfare to Work legislation. I am very, very supportive of a person being able to enter the workforce and I am supportive of the government creating every opportunity for a person to get a job.
As somebody who has worked in that area, I find that the legislation can, in some ways, hinder people moving forward. It is a very punitive approach and does not empower a person to go forward. Too much time is spent meeting the requirements and not enough time is spent getting the training and the support that a person needs. Some of the changes have led to pretty horrific outcomes. The son of one constituent who came to see me suffered from an intellectual disability. The doctor supported the mother being on a carer’s payment, but Centrelink felt that the young person was not disabled enough. The mother was forced to go out to work or she would have no income. The young person also suffered from epilepsy and had a fetish with water. This young person filled the sink in the bathroom with water and then had a fit. He fell forward into the washbasin and subsequently died. I see these sorts of problems being exacerbated. We should be legislating to see that such things do not happen. I strongly argue that, whilst job capacity assessors play a very important role and add an extra dimension to assessments for disability support pensions, they should not replace medical practitioners.
I also strongly argue that the welfare reform that we have is not real welfare reform. It simply moves a person from one welfare payment to another and puts in place a whole lot of hoops that a person has to jump through, rather than doing what is essential if you want somebody with a disability, or a single parent, to move into the workforce—that is, to provide the training and the assistance they need to move forward. Welfare reform should not be about putting people on lower payments; it should be about training them for the future so that they can contribute to our nation, make a real commitment and be part of our workforce and society in a very meaningful way. These changes have not done this. They have made the system a lot more complex. They have created a lot of angst for people like the young man who came to my office the other week and who has received a disability support pension for many years. Once again, he suffers from an intellectual disability. He went to the bank on pension day to withdraw his money to pay his rent and buy his food. When he got to the bank there was no money in his account. When he got home there was a letter in his letterbox from Centrelink saying that his disability support pension had been stopped. His mother rang Centrelink and they discovered that he should have attended an appointment two weeks earlier. Unfortunately, Centrelink had forgotten to send the letter to tell him that he needed to be at that appointment. The mother was told that it was still his fault and that he should have been at that appointment even though he did not know about it. Of course, his pension was reinstated, but the situation created an enormous amount of anxiety for this young man.
We should not have a system that punishes people who are doing the right thing. We as a nation should be providing support. We have moved down the track and are in that position at the moment. I know that members on the other side of the House would be hearing very similar complaints from constituents as I am hearing. As I have said all the way through this debate, I am absolutely passionate about people with disabilities being able to enter the workforce—for them to have a job. Over the years I have argued with employers to give a person with a disability a chance. But the changes that have been made by this government will not help those people; these changes have created fear and anxiety. Those Australians who are struggling need our support. Instead, we are blaming the victim.
I strongly support this legislation in providing support for carers. We should be not only supporting relatives who care for children but also doing everything in our power to make their lives easier. It is a good change. It is legislation that improves the quality of life not only of the carers but of the children. The carers will be able to care for them, give them more than they could have and remove stress and strain from the families. The government has gone down the right track. I implore the government to go back and look at its decision to change the way disability support pensions are assessed. It is flawed, it will create a lot of anxiety, mistakes will be made and it will lead to administrative costs. If the government were to really look at this properly, it would change the legislation.
Today will be the last time I will get the opportunity to address this House. I entered parliament in 1987, in Old Parliament House. I listened to the address of my colleague David Jull, the member for Fadden, when he spoke in fond terms of his memories of Old Parliament House. I felt that I was very privileged to come into Old Parliament House. The camaraderie and the closeness meant that you got to know everyone better. Even the food was better there. We had a lot of mates and it was a very different place.
I recall in those days that there were no computers. There was not even a fax machine. Obviously, coming from business, I got a fax machine and had it sent over. I said to one of the attendants: ‘Can you get me a double-adaptor plug? I want to plug in my fax machine.’ The retort was: ‘Good heavens! You can’t have another phone line.’ I said, ‘I don’t need another phone line.’ In the end, I said, ‘I’ll fix this up.’ Nowadays, we get mobile phones, computers, faxes, photocopiers and goodness knows what else, but in those days we did not have a fax machine in our offices. I considered a fax machine essential to keep me in contact with my office and my electorate.
When I first came in, the whip, Ewen Cameron, sat me alongside the late Roger Shipton. Roger taught me about parliament. I was very fortunate to sit alongside a person who understood the proceedings of this House. Roger would always tell me what was going on, and he would explain the play that was coming up for the day. If I wanted to know why a particular person did something, Roger would explain it. Today I can see when a motion is coming up—a censure motion against the government, or whatever—because I understand, and I would not have done so had it not been for Roger Shipton.
A great friend of mine, Charlie Martella, convinced me to get into this place. Charlie has been a friend all the way through. He convinced me to get into this place—and he tried his damnedest to keep me in this place just recently!—and it was he who said I should run. Indeed, when I did run, I got in in very controversial circumstances. I stood for preselection against a sitting member—before it was fashionable, I might add—in Manjumup in March 1987. There were 94 people on the preselection committee, and I was fortunate enough to be preselected. Subsequently I realised that there was a lot of pain and angst for a lot of people in my party and in my division, and I worked very hard to make sure that I lived up to their expectations. And for those who did not think they had any expectations of me, I worked harder to prove that I was a worthy candidate and a worthy member. I have had a fantastic electorate in Forrest, which used to go all the way down to Albany. Because of the huge growth in the south-west, I lost Albany, Denmark and Boyup Brook. That was a shame, because I like those areas particularly.
On the leaders I have had since I have been in this place: John Howard was the Leader of the Opposition. When we came up here to new Parliament House, there was a challenge by Andrew Peacock and Peacock became the leader. We then moved on to John Hewson, Alexander Downer and back to John Howard, our Prime Minister. I was fortunate enough to go onto the front bench fairly early in my career. I served as shadow minister for small business, housing and customs. In those days we had a housing shadow portfolio, so at least the Liberal Party in those days recognised the importance of housing.
After the 1993 election, I was made the shadow minister for manufacturing and service industries and in the lead-up to the 1996 election I was the shadow minister for finance. I was fortunate enough in government to be the Minister for Small Business, Consumer Affairs and Customs, and I feel privileged to have been appointed a minister. I want to particularly thank my brother Steve. He is not only my brother but my best friend. I could never, ever have entered parliament if it were not for the fact that my brother took over and ran not only my business but also our joint business, Citigate Properties. That is pretty rare. I could not have walked away. I was locked in.
What interested me in federal politics? It was Malcolm Fraser. I was in the building and construction industry when he was elected. The building unions in those days—right up until quite recently, I might add—were out of control. The BLF would come along and claim the site. They were nothing short of thugs. It was a rough-and-tumble game. I felt that Fraser had a mandate to do something, and that he had not done so. It really gave me a focus: that, if I had a view and an opportunity came up, I should get in and try to make a difference. I think I have been given that opportunity and I think I have made a difference.
I want to acknowledge the burden on families of federal members of parliament, particularly those from Western Australia. My wife has raised our three children, who were all young when I got into politics. I was an absentee father for most of the time. It was tough on Sundays in particular. The kids would be out the back swimming and we would be having a barbecue but, at about two o’clock, I would look at my watch and think, ‘I’ve got to go in, shower, pack, get in the car and get to Perth’—in those days, there were no direct flights—‘and get to Canberra.’ When I got into the ministry, the one who resented it most was my youngest son, Michael. I can clearly recall the day when the Prime Minister rang up and I was not home. My wife left a note: ‘The Prime Minister wants you to give him a call. Here’s his number; he is at Kirribilli.’ I went down to my office at home and rang the Prime Minister. As I came back, my son said, ‘What did John Howard want?’ I said, ‘That’s for me to know.’ He said, ‘You’re not going back to Canberra.’ He felt so much angst about my going back to Canberra and said, ‘I’m going to ring the Prime Minister and tell him that you’re not coming back to Canberra.’ I jokingly said, ‘Yeah, Michael, you ring the Prime Minister.’ Unbeknown to me, I left the Prime Minister’s Kirribilli phone number in my office. My youngest son wandered down, picked up the phone, rang the Prime Minister and was about to tell him ‘what for’ when I realised where he had gone. I almost had a shorter ministerial career than I eventually had anyway. I guess we joke about it now—at the time Michael would have been seven. I did not realise—some of us do not—the impact of being away so much from a very young family. I chuckle that my youngest son was about to tell the Prime Minister where to shove it, because he did not want his dad to go back to Canberra.
I would also like to thank my then chief of staff, Peter Johnson, who worked for me during the ministry days. Peter now has a very large law practice in Bali. I would like to thank the Liberal Party for giving me the opportunity and the honour to enter federal politics and to play a part in this great institution.
What were the most exciting parts? The most exciting part of my political career was, without a doubt, Fightback. Fightback was what I got into politics for. It set the scene for the economic reform we enjoy today. Fightback proposed the GST. I remind everyone that if Fightback had got up your fuel today would be 38c a litre cheaper than it is, because Fightback was going to scrap excise. Fightback also proposed the scrapping of payroll tax. Payroll tax is not a federal tax but the whole Fightback package was to try and make Australia more competitive and more productive. Sure it was visionary, and sure we lost, but I feel so proud that I was part of that team. It was probably a stupid thing to do from opposition, but we dared to be different and we set the scene for what has been achieved since. I still think that Fightback was a great package and I think it would have made us better off than we are today—and we are very well off through the economic reforms that this government has introduced.
The most satisfying thing for me was to be the minister for customs; there is no doubt about that. Customs are a great bunch of people. They have a huge challenge and all Australians should be satisfied with the role that Customs play in protecting Australia’s borders from not only dutiable imports but drugs and a whole range of other things. I was very lucky when I became the minister. The customs patrol fleet was designed when we only had territorial responsibility out to 12 nautical miles. Now it is out to 200 nautical miles and I thought, ‘Well, the fleet is no good.’ At a time when we were trying to get the budget back into shape, I proposed eight new patrol boats and actually got them. I have been forever thankful to the people in the economic portfolios who supported me in that area, John Fahey and Peter Costello, when everyone else was pretty ticked off that I got $50 million in a package to get eight new customs patrol boats.
I would like to acknowledge the CEO of Customs in those days, Lionel Woodward, and Tom Anderson, who was my DLO. Tom was a very good and dear friend, and is still a friend today. I would also like to acknowledge John Drury, Mick Roche, John Jeffrey and Les Jones. I entered parliament to make a difference. I think that I have been lucky to play a part in a team that has made a difference. We have played a part in change. As the shadow minister for finance it was particularly challenging to do the repayment schedule to see what $98 billion would do to the interest repayments as they were freed up and what date we would become debt free. I had a young staffer seconded from Finance, and I asked him to do the repayment schedule. He did not have a program or a computer to do it on so I simply pulled the figures out and did the repayment schedule, to his great amazement. He asked how I had worked it out. I said, ‘Mate, if you’ve got as many big loans as I have you would know that this is the same but it has a whole lot more noughts on the end.’
Government member interjecting—
As my colleague just said, there are more zeros on the end. I was so passionate about that because getting rid of that debt freed up $8.6 billion just in interest, not in servicing the loan. What we have achieved is having that money go towards other things, whether they be health, education, lower taxes, defence or whatever. When we first came to office, defence spending was only about $11 billion; today it is nearly $20 billion. We have been able to achieve those sorts of things through running a better budget.
When I announced to my colleagues that I was not renominating, one person in my electorate said, ‘Thank God! We’ve had 20 years of an economic rationalist, thank God he’s gone.’ That might be the case. I take credit for it, but I make the point that you can have anything you want in the world as long as you pay for it. The government can only deliver the things that the Australian people want if the government can pay for it. We can achieve better health care, better education, better outcomes, better aged care, a suitable defence force and a whole range of other things, if we run a strong economy. That is what we have been about and that is why I have been so pleased and privileged.
My colleague David Jull mentioned the role of committees. I have been quite lucky to have been a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, and I chair the Standing Committee on Industry and Resources. I remember, particularly, the trip to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. It was hot! I never thought you could survive in temperatures of some 46 or 48 degrees. We got in a Black Hawk to go over some of Saddam’s old junkyard. I think the temperature was about 48 degrees in the cabin. We flew into Bishkek where, as my colleague mentioned, the RAAF aircraft were refuelling. It is true that the other forces preferred the Australian Air Force to refuel because, as they claimed, they were more reliable and better pilots and a whole range of other things.
We then went into Bagram and Afghanistan. I cannot use the words I am thinking of right now to describe what a terrible place it was. It was just terrible! In visiting the quarters of our SAS troops we found out what a hell of a bunch of guys they are. On a computer they were watching AFL—the Dockers playing another team. I forget which team it was—probably one of those Victorian teams that do not really matter. The SAS teams are out of Western Australia, and what characters those guys are! The Americans were in awe of our guys, because they were not up themselves; they were there to do a job. They got on with the locals because they talked to the locals, not down to them. You could not come away from a place like that without feeling unbelievably proud of the men and women who serve in our defence forces, and particularly the SAS.
My campaign committee has supported me all the way through. The late Mike Eastman had always been my campaign chairman. Unfortunately, a few years ago he passed away as a result of cancer. I thank Peter Nowland, my brother Steve, Charlie and a number of others. I have been very lucky that I have been able to run a very tight campaign without any interference from Perth. I do not think that you would ever get away from that nowadays. In those days, Peter Wells was our state director. I had a lot of time for Peter. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago. I was fortunate enough to also be elected to be the parliament’s representative to the UN in 1999 during the millennium changeover. That was a great experience.
What was impressed upon me was the great respect that Australia is held in around the world. When I address schools in my electorate, I say to them: ‘When you leave school, you might go backpacking around the world. You’ll probably sew an Australian flag onto your lapel.’ I explain to them that it is then incumbent upon them to behave. I say, ‘If you want to go and get blotto, sew an American flag on your lapel, not an Australian one.’ Just on that point, I was on a delegation with a colleague and one of the locals got a bit annoyed with us and asked where we were from. I said to my colleague, ‘Tell him we’re American, because most people get upset with the Americans and most people like the Australians and we’ve got to uphold the good name of Australia.’ I have tried to impress on the school students whom I address that this country is well respected. We are known for our hard work and for getting up and doing the right thing. It is incumbent upon them not to sully that reputation. I hope that I have impressed that upon them.
As I said, I have been unbelievably lucky to represent an electorate like Forrest. It is one of the faster growing areas of Australia. It is very pretty. I remember when John Moore, who was then the tourism minister, came down. I am sure that Moore only wanted to go to Margaret River because of the fine wine—much better wine than the wine from those other places. Moore said, ‘Prosser, I didn’t expect that sort of electorate.’ I said, ‘What did you think it would be?’ He said, ‘I didn’t expect the golden beaches; I didn’t expect it to be green; I didn’t expect the forest.’ He went on and on. I said, ‘What did you expect?’ He said, ‘Red dust, because Western Australia promotes red dust.’ It is a very special part of the world. There are some very special people there. I have been lucky to be the member for Forrest. That does not come to many people. Not many people get the opportunity to become a federal member, to serve in this parliament. I consider that I have been extremely lucky. It has been a great privilege and a great honour.
I want to thank everyone whom I have been associated with. I have made some great friends in this place. I do not think that I have made that many enemies, but I have made a lot of friends. There is not as much fun in this parliament as there was in the old parliament. I miss that a bit. You need the fun times to keep you sane during the boring times. I cherish the friendships. I cherish the people whom I have become close friends with. I am looking at one person whom I am a bit annoyed with, Russell Broadbent. He kept coming and going so much that in the end I said, ‘I’m so bored with Broadbent not deciding whether or not he wants to remain a member of this House that it’s probably time that I called it quits.’ You have to decide when it is time to move on. I chose my time to move on. Western Australia is in boom times at present. What is happening in Western Australia is exciting. I am still a registered builder, although I do not know whether I could build anything decent nowadays. I want to get back to business. I find it exciting. I am never going to retire, because business involvement is too much fun. I hope that I am going to be very busy. I need to be put back under the pump again; I have not been put under the pump for a long time. To all of you, thank you for your friendship. To my preselectors and my electors, thank you for the opportunity and the honour of serving in this place. Thank you.
I stand to sum up the second reading debate on the Social Security Amendment (2007 Measures No. 2) Bill 2007. We have heard some extraordinary contributions from the opposition in relation to this bill. I have to wonder if it is because they did not read the words in front of them or deliberately chose to misunderstand them. Perhaps they think there is an election coming on and so this was an opportunity to present some misinformation. One of the statements made by the member for Lalor was that the Howard government does not understand the extent of the workforce participation challenge in this country. When you stop laughing, after hearing that statement, you have to get serious about presenting exactly what has happened since 1996.
We have a skills shortage and the lowest unemployment rate to be generated in 33 years. At the same time, like a lot of other developed nations, we have a rapidly ageing population. It was our Treasurer, Mr Peter Costello, who was one of the first in any developed nation to deliver an intergenerational report which identified in very exact terms the shorter and longer term impacts of this ageing population and what this government needed to do to address the impacts. Our Welfare to Work policies are now being emulated around the world. I refer to the UK and to France. Most recently, Chile has become interested in how we are managing to deal with the workforce participation challenges of a booming economy with the demographics of an ageing population, where smaller generations are coming on to replace those who are retiring. Quite simply, we have at the moment in Australia too many jobs chasing too few people. I need to stress that we have the highest participation rates on record in Australia at over 65 per cent.
Under Labor, I am afraid, unemployment was between 8½ and 11 per cent and, at its peak, one million people were unemployed. You had a lot of despair, you did not get much workforce participation growth and certainly you had no plans for the future. The John Howard government, as I said, has tackled the not unknown worldwide problem of an ageing population and a booming economy’s demand for ever more skilled labour. At the same time, it has dealt with some of the most disadvantaged Australians—people who have known long-term unemployment—by changing the rules of access to welfare and by directing a lot more training and upskilling into this sector of people who have often had to leave school too early. And the government has had extraordinary results.
Let me refer to the skilling. Over the last four years we have had over half a million people complete apprenticeships. That compares to just 31,000 under the Keating government’s last year in office. There have been 40,000 work skills vouchers taken up since February to train mature-age people who have never finished school or have no technical qualifications. These skills vouchers have been in great demand because there is an expectation and an understanding that for a person to really compete in our economy in the future they will need skills beyond very early school leaving. Our government, unlike previous Labor governments, is providing those opportunities. The skilling and upskilling opportunities reflect a 25-fold increase in funding for technical and vocational training by the Howard government over the last 10 years. This brings total funding to $25 billion. It was only $1 billion in 1996. The member for Lalor needs to cast her eyes over the statistics before she tries to trot out some very dodgy information.
When John Howard came into office in 1996, the government inherited a moribund and inefficient government employment sector—the old CES or Commonwealth Employment Services. We had people in despair. They were long-term unemployed. They had been churned through endless TAFE certificates. They had no work experience. They had no one-on-one support. There was no sense of a mutual obligation. Mutual obligation gives people a sense of self-respect and, indeed, it gives the community something back, too, for their taxpayer support in helping people who are not able to provide for themselves because of their unemployment. The Howard government also recognised the ageing population and so, as it moved the economy into its boom mode—after having paid off Labor’s $90 billion-plus debt—it was able to say goodbye to Labor’s Working Nation and introduce Welfare to Work reforms.
Let me give another small, simple statistic for those who are not familiar with the extraordinary improvement in the number of people who have been placed in work since the John Howard government came into office. Almost 45 per cent of the most disadvantaged, long-term unemployed job seekers who received employment support under Job Network got a job after three months. This compares with only 25 per cent of job seekers being helped under the old Labor Working Nation.
The cost per job placement is also important, because we always demand value for money while, at the same time, we demand the delivery of real outcomes for Australia’s most disadvantaged. The average cost per employment outcome has fallen to around $4,000 under our Welfare to Work reforms. I am afraid that, under Working Nation, we were looking at $12,800. So we have dropped the cost of helping people get into long-term sustainable jobs to about a third of what Labor was paying for a much smaller outcome in terms of the number of people getting into real jobs.
Labor has failed utterly to present to Australians their policies and plans to increase workforce participation. We are still waiting. You can imagine that in my office, I, as the minister, keep a look-out for the policies and plans on Labor’s websites. I read the utterances of the shadow spokesperson, Senator Penny Wong. I look for some policy. I look for perhaps some endorsement of our Welfare to Work reforms, because that is what Labor tend to do. They say: ‘That’s working. We’ll have a bit of that too.’ While we have seen Labor’s support for Welfare to Work in some utterances and some small print, all we have got from them again and again since 1996 is opposition in the House and in the Senate when we have moved motions proposing these absolutely revolutionary ways of helping the unemployed into work. Labor oppose every legislative move, despite their having no alternative policy for dealing with an ageing population or building workforce participation.
One way that Labor would not have to work so hard is if they ever get back into office and we would then see the end of a booming economy. I guess Labor expect that the economy will collapse. There would not then be the demand for workers, with soaring inflation and a wages break-out and with labour unions demanding centralised wage fixing and pattern bargaining, and so on. Perhaps that is Labor’s plan. However, the unemployed of Australia deserve much better than that, and it is what the John Howard government has delivered.
I must admit Labor has presented a discussion paper, but it is very long on platitudes and rhetoric and has no alternative approaches. The discussion paper advocates returning to the failed Working Nation policy, whereby, as I said before, job seekers were simply recycled endlessly through TAFE certificates. The unemployed then had some of Australia’s longest resumes in terms of certificates undertaken but no work experience and no individual support to get them in front of an employer who would then employ them.
What does Labor’s discussion paper actually call for? It calls for an increase in welfare payments, reduced Jobsearch requirements for the unemployed, mandated longer periods of welfare dependency and an end to Work for the Dole. When Work for the Dole was introduced, it surprised some people. They said, ‘How can you expect the unemployed to leave their homes and go and do something for their community?’ It might have surprised the Labor Party but it did not surprise the community, who thought it was an excellent idea. It has also not surprised the long-term unemployed who, through Work for the Dole, have gained work, as well as their self-esteem, and their sense of social isolation has come to an end. They, too, are able to get work because they are employable through the Work for the Dole experience.
The member for Lalor displayed her policy ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation of this bill by claiming that it takes medical officers out of the decision making in relation to work capacity assessment, and Labor are going to move amendments reflecting that misunderstanding. This bill in fact strengthens the role of medical evidence. Job capacity assessors are required to take into account all medical evidence in making a decision about a person’s work capacity. Self-evidently, that is of critical importance. These changes do not remove medical evidence requirements or downplay the importance of that evidence. Instead, the bill requires that, where medical evidence was not provided, say, to the job capacity assessor but was in fact provided later on during, say, an appeal—for example, to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal—then the same medical evidence is resubmitted to the job capacity assessor so that they can form a view with the full information—or with more information than they had originally—to decide the work capacity of that individual. The job capacity assessor then resubmits their assessment and the review or the tribunal appeal moves forward.
So I suggest to the member for Lalor that she takes a little bit more care when reading bills or she gets some better advice. Labor, as I say, have failed to present a policy to get job seekers with a disability into a job. I find it quite extraordinary that they misunderstand our policy which, self-evidently, through the statistical information—you can look at it any time—shows that we have been much more successful in helping some of Australia’s most disabled and disadvantaged people into real jobs in the open market.
The shadow spokesperson said way back in June that Labor would present their national strategy for disability employment. I am afraid, as with their welfare to work plan, we have not heard anything since June—just screaming silence. There has been no policy for workforce participation and no policy for job seekers with a disability but there has been a misunderstanding of what the government are presenting in this bill, which further enhances the capacity of some of our most disadvantaged people to get on with having the right welfare support or indeed the right job opportunities.
These legislative amendments also recognise the role that grandparents and other relatives have when they take on the critical and significant responsibilities of caring for a child. We are extending access to automatic exemptions from job seeker requirements and other participation requirements already in place for some principal carers. In addition, some principal carers will have access to a higher rate of payment by caring for a child who they are not in fact related to. This reflects the change in society and in family structures where often we see grandparents, in particular grandmothers, now being responsible for their grandchildren and in every way being the substitute parent. We want to acknowledge and support those grandparents in the important work that they do.
The amendments also streamline the administration of transfers between one income support payment and another. Restrictions will operate on the time frame in which a payments transfer can be made, and transfers to the closed payment of mature age and partner allowance will no longer be possible. As I have already said, the bill provides new guidelines regarding the review of income support in relation to partial capacity to work, current or continuing inability to work, impairment ratings and incapacity exemptions from the activity test. The guidelines will require that reviewers access expert assessments of work capacity, including all medical information that is available, when determining appeals of income support decisions. The rights and needs of the person are fully protected and understood. We in the Howard government care for individuals. That is why we are strengthening this legislation. The review processes under the social security law include Centrelink authorised review officers, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
This bill provides even further support for people assisted under the government’s Welfare to Work reforms. These reforms are helping people with the right supports and incentives to make the transition from welfare to work. In most instances, if you have a capacity to work, a paid job is better than a life on welfare because, unfortunately, a life on welfare often means an intergenerational cycle of unemployment. Sometimes we see up to a third generation of Australians where there has not been work in the household because under the Labor regime, only 10 years ago, there was no understanding and support to help move parents in particular into real work.
One of the most successful elements of the government’s Welfare to Work reforms has been changing the rules where previously a parent on a pension—and the vast majority of parents on pensions are single mothers—was able to stay on welfare until the youngest child turned 16. By then, the parent, particularly the woman, felt she was unemployable. Her employment skills were rusty. Perhaps she had no IT skills or experience or perhaps she had literacy and numeracy issues, because many parents on welfare have low formal school attainment levels.
We changed that regulation. We now help those parents on pensions, when their youngest child turns six, into at least part-time work of 15 hours a week. This has changed parents’ lives across the nation. In particular, we have women saying to us, ‘Our kids are proud; our kids go to school and talk about the job which I have. Our kids are proud when I put on my uniform or when I start up my new car. The kids are having a holiday for the first time.’ This is what it means to have a Liberal government. We care about the individual’s independence and their ability to make choices and be free of the dependency that locks them into a poorer life experience.
In the past Labor was happy with the regime where, if you were a person with a disability and you could not work full time in an open employment situation, you went on a disability support pension. In most cases, you stayed on that until you went onto the old age pension. The government has now said, ‘If you have at least a half-time capacity to work in an open employment situation we will help you to get a job.’ Across Australia we are seeing people with disabilities saying, ‘I’m now back in the workforce. I can hold my head high. I had a mental health issue; I’m being supported and assisted in getting through that because of a supportive workplace.’
On the other side we have employers saying to us, ‘The John Howard government has given us a solution to our workforce shortages. You are giving us people whom you have been prepared to train into a job.’ The government provides pre-employment training for specific tasks and jobs to be done. Also, people across Australia are saying, ‘Thank goodness; at last a government is addressing the Indigenous unemployment issues in all parts of Australia, but particularly in Northern and Central Australia.’ Under Labor we had unemployment of the second, third and sometimes the fourth generations. It might have suited Labor’s own purposes to have a dependent population, but it does not meet the John Howard-led Australian government’s long-term plan to deal with workforce shortages, the ageing population and our booming economy—and its demand for skilled people—and to give every Australian a fair go.
It is a matter of national importance that 600,000 children are currently growing up in jobless households. Unfortunately, these children were in jobless households and, under the Labor Party’s so-called ‘Working Nation’, they were left there for a very long period of time. We are assisting those 600,000 children by helping their parents into jobs. They are no longer likely to also be unemployed. Teenagers whose parents are on welfare are five times more likely to be unemployed themselves. If you are working aged, able bodied and on welfare in Australia, we have good news for you: the Liberal philosophy and policy of this coalition government is to help you into a job.
I was somewhat depressed to hear the opposition lamenting our Welfare to Work reforms, I presume simply as a matter of form. If you are on the opposition benches, what you do I suppose is think you need to oppose. I invite the opposition to help celebrate every day when a long-term unemployed person finds work in Australia, to support our Welfare to Work packages and to support this bill. It offers real opportunity for the disabled and for grandparents who are looking after children. It gives them recognition of the important work that they do. I commend the bill to the House.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has moved an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
Question agreed to.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.