House debates

Thursday, 6 June 2013


Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill 2013; Second Reading

1:02 pm

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill 2013. This bill seeks to amend the Social Security Act 1991 to introduce amendments to provide additional support to single parents who are transitioning to work or undertaking other related activities. The amendments also provide unemployed Australians the opportunity to earn more before their income support payment is affected.

This bill at its heart attempts to undo some of the damage which Labor has done in their callous attack on single parents and their attack on the household budgets of many single parents. When the former coalition government undertook welfare reform, we acknowledged that there was an upfront investment required. In fact, we spent several billions of dollars when we undertook the social security changes 2004-05, including funds to assist those people who were affected. To recap, in those changes the Parenting Payment recipients who were at that stage on Parenting Payment were left in the system on the understanding that over time when their youngest child turned eight they would effectively wash out of the system. For people who had not had a child at that stage but who were coming into the system then the changes were made that prospectively when their youngest child turned eight then they would move from the Parenting Payment to Newstart. What has happened here is to take that existing stock of people and effectively say to them, 'Now, all of a sudden, from a certain date you're on Newstart'—instead of on the Parenting Payment without any corresponding contribution to their household budgets and indeed with a reduction in the funds available for funding. No wonder there was an outcry from the community, particularly from those who were affected by the change. The approach was to drive a wrecking ball through household budgets to create uncertainty and to try to return people to the workforce without any training funding and without any funds available to those people to boost their skills or qualifications. So this bill is a response to the outcry that occurred over that decision by the government—a decision that was taken, basically, because of the parlous state of the Commonwealth finances.

This bill includes three measures. The first measure would increase the income-free area that applies to recipients of Newstart allowance, widow allowance, partner allowance, parenting payment partnered and sickness allowance. The income-free area is the amount of ordinary income that an income support recipient is able to earn in a fortnight before the rate of payment of their various allowances is affected. The income-free area for these payments will increase from $62 to $100 per fortnight. This will allow recipients to earn some additional income before their payment rate is affected. The change to the income-free area will take effect from 20 March 2014. The income-free area will also be indexed to the CPI from 1 July 2015.

The second measure would extend the eligibility for the pensioner education supplement to single principal carer parents receiving Newstart allowance payments. This extension will begin on 1 January 2014 and will be available to eligible single principal carer parents undertaking approved education and training courses. The pensioner education supplement is paid at the current full rate of $62.40 per fortnight or the current concessional rate of $31.20 per fortnight, depending on a person's study load.

The third measure would provide a 12-week extension of eligibility for the pensioner concession card to single parents who no longer qualify for the parenting payment single because their youngest child has turned eight years of age and they do not qualify for another income support payment due to earnings from employment. The pensioner concession card provides a range of concessions to holders for services at Commonwealth, state and local government level, including for medical services, transport, telephone utilities and rates. Consistent with current arrangements, a person would remain qualified for the pensioner concession card until the extension period of 12 weeks expired, the person died, they moved permanently overseas or until they started to receive an income support payment for which the concession card is available. This measure will commence from 1 January next year.

This bill is typical of a chaotic and dysfunctional government. On one hand, they make a decision which is a direct hit on single parents; and then, when they realise the community is outraged by this proposition, they rush to try and fix the problem, including the problem with this bill—but of course they cannot. The reality is they have no money to fix the problem, so the solution is to effectively allow people to work one minimum shift of three hours at the minimum wage on top of the hours they can currently work and remain on their benefit. Let me repeat that: what this bill does is allow people to work one minimum shift of three hours at the minimum wage on top of the hours they presently work, and that is meant to make up for the hit, which is the reduction in the amount they would have received under the parenting payment compared to what they receive under Newstart.

Mr Broadbent interjecting

That is right: a very large number of these people are not in that situation, as the honourable member for McMillan points out. This is trying to play catch-up in response to an outraged section of the community who are concerned about this matter and who would share the view, I believe, that this hardly represents a government that is committed to social justice for the most vulnerable members of our community.

We are in a difficult situation because of the financial mess that this government has left the country in, with deficit after deficit, year after year, and an increasing Commonwealth debt. We did not do this when we made the changes a decade ago. We knew that these people would wash out of the system, and that was the most effective and fair way to deal with it. But, given the parlous state of the Commonwealth's finances, we will not oppose the bill.

1:09 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a few brief comments on the Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill 2013. Yes, this is undoing some very harsh damage that was done, but the damage would not have been done if the coalition had not voted for Labor's attack on single parents. When the vote came I, together with some coalition members who in fact crossed the floor, voted against these measures. We knew that, from the start of this year when up to 100,000 single parents were kicked off their parenting payment and onto the dole, it was going to have an enormous effect on people. That is why at the time we urged all members of parliament to vote against it. Sadly, we could only muster a handful. So I have no time for crocodile tears from people who helped engineer this situation. The coalition worked with Labor to plunge people into poverty, in order to save a bit of money to reach a now abandoned goal of getting back to surplus. So do not come back here crying crocodile tears, saying that it is all Labor's fault. I have no time for the decision that the Labor government made; the legislation only got through this parliament because the coalition supported it.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are doing it tough. They are under enormous pressure, particularly financial pressure, and nowhere more so than in my electorate where we have more people in public housing than in any other electorate in the country. Many of those people, as well as many others, who are out looking for a job find themselves living below the poverty line on the incredibly low rate that is Newstart.

When you have, in round figures, $250 a week to spend, if you are trying to find a place to live in somewhere like inner-city Melbourne in my electorate, it can be very tough. The public housing waiting list in Victoria is over 30,000 people long. So if you are looking for a place somewhere else you may not find anything if you are a single person, recently unemployed, cheaper than about $180 a week to rent. I spoke to someone who recently found themselves homeless. They went to a homeless service in my electorate and they found them a rooming house. You would think that a rooming house, with many people in it, might provide something near an affordable rental rate. A single room in a rooming house cost $180. Of course, when you are in a rooming house and you are sharing a kitchen with someone else, you cannot buy good food to feed yourself. You are forced to go out and buy food. And your costs increase and increase. But $180 out of $246 leaves you with $60-odd, before you have even passed Go.

Out of that $60 on Newstart you have to meet all your other costs. You cannot do it. It is for that reason that so many groups have been urging this government to have the courage to raise the revenue that we need, to give people, at minimum, a $50 boost to their Newstart. We have not seen that. Instead, we have seen this government go the other way. We have seen, in particular, single parents, with Labor and the coalition working together, pushed off their single parent payment onto the dole. That was done, as I said before, to raise some money to balance the budget bottom line.

Up until a very short while ago, Labor had taken more money off single parents this financial year than they have so far raised from the mining tax. This is what happens when you do not have the courage to stand up to the big end of town and say, 'You have to pay your fair share,' and when, instead, you turn your arsenal on people like single parents. Single parents tend not to have a spare $26 million lying around to run an advertising campaign, like the big miners do. So they are seen as a softer target.

What is the effect of pushing single parents onto the dole? Some of them lost up to $140 a week. When you are a single parent and you are balancing work—if you are lucky enough to find a job—plus looking after your kids, there is not a lot of fat in your budget, in either your money budget or your time budget. What we found was exactly what the Greens predicted and why we urged this parliament not to vote for that bill in the first place. We found that the ones who were hardest hit were the ones who were already working the most. In fact, when you look at the analysis, single parents were the group of welfare recipients who had the highest number of people in work, because that is what single parents want to do. They want to stay in connection with the workforce and improve their skills and also be able to look after their kids.

This gave the lie to the rationale from Labor that this move was all about putting people back into the workforce, because when you are on the single parent pension you can work more hours and keep more of your money but as soon as you get pushed onto the dole you cannot keep as much. The ones who were the hardest hit were the ones who were working the most and earning the most. As a result, many of them found themselves saying, 'I don't know what I am going to do—now I cannot get the concession card any more the car registration has gone up; now I don't have the money any more.' I met one single parent who had retrained herself as a graphic designer and then had to go and put her computer, her tool of trade, into hock because she had to find $200 to pay for schoolbooks. That is not a way of encouraging someone back into employment.

We found many single parents who just said, 'I am now going to go without some of the basics myself.' The most heartbreaking stories were when people came up and said, 'My child has even stopped coming to me with the slips for school excursions because they know it makes Mum upset when I cannot give them what they want, and when I cannot send them off to basketball camp like everyone else in the class.' These are people who are doing it tough already.

Quite rightly, there was an enormous outcry, led by the Greens here in this place and led by community groups like the Single Parents Action Group and the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children who said, 'Hang on, if you want to balance the budget there have to be better ways to do it because you are now kicking the people who most need help. That outcry went right across the country, and it touched a nerve because people could say, 'These are people who are already doing it tough, why is Labor attacking them?' We have come some small way towards fixing some of the damage, but it is a bit of an insult to put people not back to where they would have been before but to where they are only about a third worse off—they can do a little bit of work and get a bit more money but they are still going to find themselves at a disadvantage compared to when Labor came to power. That is a disgrace.

The Greens will steadfastly stand side by side with single parents and people on the dole who are doing it tough and say, 'Like everyone else, we agree that the best thing to do is to find a well-paid meaningful job for you that works and that fits with your own personal family needs, and if we cannot do that and you fall through the cracks and onto hard times, this parliament should not punish you—it should support you until you get back on your feet.' Because this bill goes some small way to doing that we will be supporting it, and we take some small credit for having played a role in drawing public attention to what is really a disgrace. I am pleased this is happening but people will still be worse off than when Labor came to power. The Greens will continue to campaign to make sure that parliament has the guts to stand up to the people who can afford to pay a bit more so that we can become a more caring society.

1:18 pm

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Like many members of this parliament, from 16 years of age until my ripe old age of 62 years of age I have been able to feed myself and my family quite well. I have not been a single parent, a single male with children to look after and put through school. I have lived well and been on what you would call a relatively high income from an early age. I had the talent, the ability, to do whatever I wanted to do and I did it. I am not of the group of people that we are talking about here, and it is most difficult for politicians, wherever they come from, to identify with single parents across this nation. I choose to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill because, unlike your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker McClelland, my electorate is diverse in its regionality and we do not have the infrastructure and support that goes with a city electorate.

The legislation that came before the House, which the opposition did not oppose—the member for Melbourne was right—because of the budget emergency that was put to us, was crafted around the ability of people to get to another job or to be in work. It was suggested in the legislation that, when the children of single parents turn eight, those single parents can just go straight to a job; we have just got to push them. If this nation were in a crisis today like the one we experienced in 1999—when the member for Banks and also the member for Fairfax were here with me; the three of us in this room came to this place in 1990—when the unemployment rate for young people was around 30 per cent and for male adults in my electorate it was around 19 per cent, and we needed to crush people to push them like mad to go out and get a job at any price, we could; but we do not have that crisis today. We have unemployment at 5.1 to 5.4; it could perhaps go to 5.7 or even rise to six per cent. In my time as a member of parliament and as a business person in the community, can I say that that is relatively low compared to what I have experienced in my lifetime. When it is compared to what is happening overseas at the moment, it is a relatively low figure. Look at Greece at 45 per cent unemployment. So why have we attacked the most vulnerable?

As the shadow minister said, this legislation is designed to show some empathy for the plight of these single parents and to address that. But it only helps those who are already in work; it does not help any of the single parents who are not in work at this time. There is no advantage in this legislation for them. In our case, the Howard government made similar changes prior to the change of government. After the change of government, I had to go to Brendan O'Connor, the then minister, and say: 'Look, this is what is happening in my electorate. People are being breached, and the moment they are breached and have no income they go straight around the back to the Salvation Army and say, 'We haven't got any money.' Then the Salvation Army come to me and say, 'Can you help us with this? We can't have these people being breached all the time.' People were told: 'If you're in a regional area—move.' Well, if you move, you have to move away from your family structure, your family support. If you are a single parent, the last thing you need to move away from is the sort of support that you get from family and friends and all the other things that make a difference to how you are living, especially in a regional area. So I went to Brendan O'Connor, and he was actually very, very kind to me, an opposition member. He said: 'Let's have a meeting. I can't go, but I'll send all my people down.' We had a meeting at Currumburra. We sat around a table and said: 'What can we do about this?' He made changes through the department so that these people would not be breached. So what would possess the government or the cabinet of today to come along and make these same changes? Here I am today in the exact same position, asking, 'How can we fix up some of these problems for people who have children and who happen to be single?'

There 80,000 of these people across this country. What were the Labor Party thinking when they attacked who they thought were their own voters? Maybe it was: 'We can do what we like with them. It will not make any difference. They'll vote for us anyway because we are a Labor government.' I tell you: they will not. They get hurt just like anybody else and they are in everybody's electorate. If you want to look at this from a political point of view, these people are in every electorate and some of them have lost between $80 and $110 a week. For a single household, even if the parent is working part-time, what does that 140 bucks a week pay for? It pays for food. It pays for the things that you put in the supermarket trolley. This is not the time in our history to be attacking 80,000 vulnerable families.

I just do not get it. Is it a budget emergency? We can spend some $50 million on advertising. I am not saying that previous governments did not do it. I am not going to say that future governments will not do it. But for heaven's sake, you have a measure here that is going to affect the most vulnerable at a time when we are lauding each other over the NDIS. We are saying, 'This is a historic change for disability.' In 1996, I was taking on the Howard government on disability when they tried to make a change. I did not mind overturning the executive then on behalf of people with disabilities and I have not minded overturning the executive on a few other occasions since, which not many backbenchers do.

What did somebody say—'People should pull their heads in'? That is not what I meant. It is time to take a step back and ask what are our values, what are our goals, what are we on about here? Woe betide members of parliament and governments who bring in laws that hurt the most vulnerable in our community while giving tax breaks to the wealthiest. I feel ashamed that now we are coming to a point where, for 80,000 single parent families, we have said, 'It's all right. You can take 110 bucks off them because then they'll have to get a job; they'll have no alternative.' You heard the member for Melbourne say, 'But they already had a job.' If I do not plead on their behalf, coming from a Liberal-National coalition, who will tell the story for them? All of this legislation should be repealed. We should recognise that there are people out there who perhaps do not have the skills and abilities or who through no fault of their own married the wrong bloke or the wrong woman.

Photo of Daryl MelhamDaryl Melham (Banks, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm a bachelor.

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I know you are a bachelor. Through no fault of their own, these people find themselves alone. Through no fault of their own through accidents, they find themselves alone—not only alone but with children. It is hard to bring up children—I say Bronwyn brought up our kids because I was an absent, disappearing father. I worked day and night. That was hard enough. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have had that responsibility without my wife. That would have weighed enormously heavily on anybody—to be a single parent with a family. You do not just triple the problems; you complicate them by 10.

We are not opposing this legislation, because it suggests that it is going to right some wrongs, but I put to the House that in a wealthy nation, which one day will be wealthy again, we should take pride in and be world renowned for the way in which we look after the most vulnerable in our community.

1:27 pm

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Community Services ) Share this | | Hansard source

The Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill 2013 supports the participation of unemployed Australians and parents with caring responsibilities by increasing the amount they are able to earn and keep, smoothing the transition to paid work and providing extra assistance to undertake study and training. The Gillard government believes that anyone who is able to work should benefit from the economic security and dignity that having a job brings. This bill will also allow up to 800,000 Australians on parenting payment (partnered), Newstart allowance and widow, sickness or partnered allowance to earn $100 per fortnight, which is $38 more per fortnight than they currently can, before their income support is reduced. This is the first increase to this in more than a decade.

In addition, the income-free area will, for the first time in Australia's history, be indexed against the CPI from 1 July 2015 to ensure the real value of this increase is maintained over time. From 20 March 2014, income support recipients currently earning more than $62 per fortnight can look forward to an average increase in their payments of $19 per fortnight or an average of $494 per year. This increase to the income-free area supports a majority recommendation from the Senate inquiry into the adequacy of the allowance payment system. Australia has a relatively low level of unemployment; however, joblessness amongst families continues to be a significant social and economic challenge facing this country.

This bill continues the government's commitment to provide incentives and support for single parents so that they and their families can share the benefits of paid work. From 1 January 2014, all single principal carers receiving Newstart allowance who take up approved study will be eligible to receive the pensioner education supplement. The supplement is paid at a full rate of $62.40 per fortnight or at the concessional rate of $31.20 per fortnight, based on study load. It is expected that around 115,000 single parents will take up approved study or receive the pensioner education supplement over the next four years, increasing their job readiness and giving them a better chance of returning to the workforce and leaving income support.

Through this bill, single parents will also receive additional support from the extended access to the pensioner concession card. From 1 January 2014, single parents who cease to be eligible for parenting payment due to the age of their youngest child and who do not qualify for any other income support payment due to their earnings will retain their pensioner concession card for 12 weeks. The pensioner concession card allows holders and their dependants to receive benefits, including bulk-billed GP appointments, reduced out-of-hospital medical expenses and medicines listed on the PBS at the concessional rate, in addition to concessions offered by state, territory and local governments.

In combination, the measures contained in this bill amend the social security law to improve incentives for income support recipients to become self-reliant through employment. As the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations said in his second reading speech:

This package … represents the very strong advocacy of government MPs, including the member for Canberra, the member for Page, the member for Chifley and the member for Throsby, amongst many others. I also acknowledge the advocacy of the council of single mothers—

as I do. This bill delivers on the government's commitment to support single parents moving off the parenting payment so that they and their families can share the benefits of paid work once their children are older. The Gillard Labor government believes that everyone should benefit from the dignity, challenge, experience, social acceptance and camaraderie that comes from having a job, especially people who have been trapped in a cycle of entrenched disadvantage for too long. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Administrator recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.