Tuesday, 18 October 2016
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2016-2017; Consideration in Detail
I want to start today with paid parental leave. The minister will recall that in the 2015 budget the then Abbott government announced that they were going to end what they called double dipping and that they were going to crack down on new mothers—that was the way Mr Hockey put it at the time—and their paid parental leave entitlements. This was an extraordinary attack on new mothers on Mother's Day. It was unbelievable. The comment from many people at the time was that this was the mother of all insults from the Treasurer of the day.
I understand that Minister Porter also intends to pursue these cuts. What we know is that, if the minister gets his way, around 80,000 families with new babies will be as much as $11, 800 worse off. I am very pleased that Labor so far has been able to block these cuts, and that means that we have been able to protect new parents from cuts to paid parental leave. Of course, it was a Labor government that introduced Australia's first national Paid Parental Leave scheme, and one of the great things that has happened as a result is that 730,000 families have been given extra support to spend more time at home in those critical early months of their child's life. Labor's Paid Parental Leave scheme gives eligible new parents 18 weeks pay at the national minimum wage. It is a modest and affordable scheme that appropriately targets assistance to women on low and middle incomes.
As the minister should know, more than 75 per cent of parents receiving Labor's Paid Parental Leave scheme are on incomes of less than $70,000 a year. I understand from the minister's public comments that he does intend to reintroduce this legislation into the parliament and to try to cut support for new mothers. Given that there are many, many families around the country who are either expecting a new baby already or wanting to plan their family, could the minister say exactly when he proposes to reintroduce the legislation that will cut Paid Parental Leave? When will he put that legislation into parliament? And, in the interest of giving expectant mothers especially as much time as possible to plan for their parental leave, on what date will the proposed changes take effect?
Well, we have just started. So that was the 2015-16 measure. The member would also be aware that a reconfiguration of the savings around that measure was announced in the 2015-16 MYEFO. The measure that will be the subject of the introduction of legislation, which will happen very soon, is a different measure.
I am on the public record describing the new measure. Rather than what was the case in the 2015-16 budget measure, the new measure would guarantee a minimum of 18 weeks paid parental leave at the minimum wage. That is what the new measure would guarantee. What the previous measure did in 2015-16 budget was, in effect, guarantee a minimum amount which was, at that stage, $11,826, I recall, which was 18 weeks times the minimum wage. So rather than the 2015-16 proposal, which was that we would pay from the taxpayer funded PPL up to that amount, the proposal that we will put forward soon in legislation is that we will pay the residual on top of any employer paid parental leave up to 18 weeks. So every single mother in Australia—if they are a qualifying mother under the existing system—would be guaranteed 18 weeks of paid parental leave of at least the minimum wage.
The reason for both the original measure and the reconfiguration of the measure, which will be the subject of legislation to be introduced soon, is that there is a real problem that exists with the present system. As the member is aware, the access rules around the present paid parental leave system are relatively generous. They are that an applicant need only have worked for 330 hours in 10 of the past 13 months—that is to say, about one day per week. There is presently a rule that says there should be no more than an eight-week break between two working days. In fact, that eight-week break is, again, something we have announced we will change so that women who are working in physical or dangerous professions can get access when previously they have not been able to.
Those access rules also have an allied provision where the income test for a new parent must be that they earn less than $150,000 per year. The difficulty that exists in the present system is that you will have a situation often where a parent might be on an income, say, of $140,000. A standard 12-week employer provided Paid Parental Leave scheme for an income of around $140,000 might generally look like this: $32,200 over 12 weeks. And that is merely the parent of the child who is earning the $140,000; that is not a calculation of family income. But if that individual receives, as is presently the case, another full $12,000 of taxpayer funded paid parental leave, that person ends up receiving over an eight-week period a combined employer and taxpayer paid parental leave of $44,000. That is notwithstanding that that person's income is $140,000. Their family income might be significantly greater than that. It might be double that. It might be more than double that.
So the situation under the present legislation arises—and it may be that the member agrees that this is not fair—when a person on $140,000 with a generous employer Paid Parental Leave scheme earns more in an 18-week period than the median wage in Australia. That is more that the median wage in an 18-week period from the combination of the taxpayer funded PPL and their employer funded PPL. A cashier working at a supermarket who earns $42,000 and has no employer paid parental leave receives the $12,000 over 18 weeks. In fact, the person earning $140,000 whose family income might be even larger than that receives more in paid parental leave—taxpayer funded plus employer based—over an 18-week period than a cashier working at Coles receives working full-time for an entire year. That is the problem we are seeking to fix by legislation.
I must say, it is hard to conceive how that problem is not one that is acknowledged by members opposite as a real difficulty with the present scheme.
I do not know whether the minister did not hear the question or has ignored it: what will be the date of effect so that mothers can plan ahead? What will be the date that this legislation takes effect? If you do not know you can take it on notice.
The legislation will be introduced very soon, in a matter of weeks. The date of effect will be in that legislation but I will need to wait for the introduction of that legislation. I understand the point about planning, but the legislation will include a start date that will allow a very significant time for planning.
Again, the legislation is not as you have described. You have described, here, legislation as would have been based on the 2015-16 budget measure. The legislation that we will produce, very shortly, is based on a principle that every Australian mother will have 18 weeks paid parental leave at the minimum wage, at least. What that legislation does is fix a problem in the present system where there are very large amounts of money that are able to be received jointly through an employer Paid Parental Leave scheme and the $12,000 taxpayer funded amount by a group of parents at the very high end, on a comparative sense, of the income scale.
What this legislation seeks to do is different from that which was announced in the 2015-16 budget. It refines that very significantly by trying to deal with that problem.
There is a starting date. It will allow for a very significant planning time, and that will be announced when the legislation is put into parliament, which is imminent.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 16:53 to 17:05
I of course welcome the opportunity to ask questions of the minister in this consideration in detail process. I wanted to speak to the minister about the National plan to reduce violence against women and their children 2010-22, which was introduced by Labor in government. The 12-year national plan was the result of the excellent report, Time for action, which was prepared and published by a very important group of people looking at the issue of family violence and domestic violence in Australia, headed by Heather Nancarrow.
Under that plan, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, four three-year action plans were to be published. The period of the second action plan concluded at the end of the last financial year. The third action plan was due to commence in July 2016, some months ago now. In March, the government indicated that the third action plan would be released in mid-2016. I wrote to you, Minister, on 4 August and received a response from you on 16 September advising that the third action plan is not expected to be released until after the ACT elections. The ACT elections have of course now passed, and we welcome the return of the Barr Labor government, but we are yet to see the third action plan. Minister, can you confirm whether we can expect to see the third action plan next week at the National Family Violence Summit? That was also Labor policy, which we announced way back in March 2015. We are very pleased that it has come into existence as a national summit to be held next week, and I would appreciate confirmation that it will be provided then.
We also note that the 2014 plan for the evaluation of the action plans recommended that there would be an annual progress report. Since then there has been one annual progress report, but the progress reports are intended to be published annually, hence the name. Yet, more than 12 months later, we have not seen the next annual progress report. I would ask that Minister Porter advise when the annual progress report 2015-16 for the national plan will be released.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you will also recall that, when the now Prime Minister became the Prime Minister in September, a women's safety package was announced, and I would ask the minister to give us an update specifically from that package on the progress of the trial of the use of innovative technology to keep women safe, such as GPS trackers for perpetrators. How many GPS trackers have been provided to perpetrators? What other innovative technology has been used in relation to that measure under that package? Of the $17 million to keep women safe in their homes, how much has been spent and which organisations have received the funding?
Mr Deputy Speaker, you would also be aware that during this year's election the coalition made some commitments in relation to family violence. On 12 May the coalition announced that $30 million of the $100 million set aside in the budget this year for the third action plan—which, of course, we have not seen yet and had not at the time the announcement was made—would go towards frontline legal assistance providers. At the time, the national spokesperson for the National Association of Community Legal Centres, NACLC, said:
It is difficult to understand why the Government would provide CLCs with some share of $10 million per year as part of this funding, but during the same period cut CLCs by 30% nationally. It is tantamount to paying for a new roof on a house but removing the foundations at the same time.
He described the amount of money as:
… totally inadequate amount for legal assistance services in the face of rising demand and funding cuts. CLCs alone are facing funding cuts of $34.83 million over three years from 1 July next year.
So I would ask the minister why the government is not, in its women's safety package and the third action plan funding that has been announced, reversing its cuts to legal centres. I would also note that, in relation to that funding that was announced on 12 May, there has been no publication, as far as I am aware, of where the money is going. Has the money been allocated? Which frontline services will be receiving the money? Will the money go to CLCs, FVPLSs, ATSILS or legal aid and, if so, which of those and how much will each receive?
There was another announcement during the election, on 21 June, where the coalition announced that $15 million of the $100 million set aside in the budget for the third action plan would go towards frontline services. I would appreciate it if the minister would confirm whether that $15 million was in addition to the $30 million that had been announced on 12 May, or whether it was part of that $30 million. The announcement said: 'The precise programs to be funded will be decided in conjunction with the states and territories.' I would ask that the minister advise how this money will be allocated, and what services will be funded using the $15 million.
Firstly, I congratulate the minister on the approach he has taken to dealing with welfare in our society, particularly trying to move people away from the dependency of welfare and into more meaningful work—something driven not by ideology but by the data, in order to make lives better. It is a very, very important approach to this task which is facing our nation.
My question, specifically, to the minister is in relation to the NDIS. How will the NDIS savings fund operate, and how will the establishment of that fund assist in ensuring that the NDIS is fully funded?
My question to the minister is directed towards the funding and support that is supplied towards carers. As we know, we have approximately 2.8 million unpaid carers who work tirelessly every day to care for children with additional needs, sick or elderly family members and people with a disability. This is, of course, National Carers Week, which is a great opportunity to celebrate their extraordinary contribution. We should thank them every day for what they do for all of us.
However, instead of acknowledging their fantastic contribution towards society, in the past this Liberal government has attempted to cut carers payments. Indeed, in the horror 2014 budget, the Liberal government launched an unprecedented attack on carers by attempting to slash the indexation arrangements which existed, then, for the carers payment. Labor stood, at that time in my electorate, to stand up for Bass carers to block that unfair carer payment and pension cut but, of course, the battle is not over. We think that this minister is softening up the public for cuts to financial support for carers—of course, in association with other reviews such as reviews of the disability payment which, incidentally, has been the subject of an editorial in The Age today. That editorial highlighted how this government's cruel and unfair processes are materially affecting people who are severely disabled in our community. Under the cover of a review of whether somebody who is profoundly disabled is able to return to work, people who have been longstanding recipients of disability payments are being asked to re-establish their entitlement to disability entitlements, to pensions that they have long enjoyed.
Some of this can be extremely offensive. If somebody is, for example, suffering from cerebral palsy—a condition which is unlikely to change—then their ability to work, their ability to earn an income, is not going to be affected. In other words, to use the simplest language, they are not going to get better. If somebody has another severe disability then they can be reassessed every day of the week, and their condition will be unchanged.
In some respects, the criticism of the government in this area is entirely warranted, but, of course, when we look at the issue with carers, we have the interaction between the people who are currently in receipt of the disability support pension and those who are caring for them. In light of The Age's criticism—Fairfax's criticism—of the unfair treatment of those who are in receipt of disability support payments, is the minister able to reassure the House that, if he is signalling a new direction for review of entitlements to welfare in this country, he is going to take a view which is, on the whole, better than that which is currently being employed with respect to review of disability support payments? In other words, the people who are currently suffering from severe disability will not be required to have their family prove to Centrelink that their condition has got better and that their present disability is going to remain as the key criterion for their entitlement to be paid a carers pension.
I would like the minister to be honest with all recipients of carers payment. Is he planning to cut the carers payment or is he planning to push people off the payment entirely? His language up to now, which talks about the number of people who are in receipt of the carers payment increasing significantly over an extended period of time, speaks of something that is other than a reasonable assessment of people by reference to disability, certainly when we are talking about severely disabled people in this community.
I ask the minister, in relation to the issue of young carers who provide essential, very important support for the people that they care for: can the minister advise this chamber what effect, in some cases, the care that a young carer provides to their family member might have on the future of that young carer once that caring relationship has finished? Does that relationship or that caring role that that young carer played set them up for the future or does it actually, in some cases, leave them without the tools they need in order to be employed and live a fulsome life? Is the government looking at ways to address the issue of young carers?
Minister, I would like to talk about homeless services. The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness was extended in 2015 for just two years, and it is going to end next July 2017. This cycle of short-term funding impacts greatly upon the capacity of homeless services to make forward plans and operate efficiently. The uncertainty about future funding is crippling the sector and preventing long-term investment. Has your department conducted an evaluation of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness? If so, what were the main findings? If not, why not? Will funding for homeless services under a national framework be continued post-June 2015? When will details of such funding be released? Will the minister guarantee funding for homeless services will not be reduced by the Commonwealth?
The homeless service sector loses staff and momentum every day. There are delays in funding commitments, and with these funding commitments there have only been short-term time frames. If the government enters into a new national partnership with the states and territories on homelessness, will it commit to at least five years of funding to provide certainty for the sector and, if not, what time frame are you considering?
The member for Griffith had some questions about both the Women's Safety Package and the third action plan. I think the first of those questions was whether or not the third action plan will be released and announced at next week's meeting. That is the Commonwealth's intention. Of course, that depends upon agreement from each and every state and territory jurisdiction. I am anticipating that that agreement will arrive. I cannot say unilaterally that that will be the case, but that is the intention.
Your second question then was with respect to the budget for the women's safety initiative and the Women's Safety Package implementation. The Australian government committed$100 million as part of the 2016-17 budget to deliver the third action plan that we anticipate will be released next week but that is dependent on jurisdictional agreement. The commitment is in broad directional terms so the $100 million involves: a $30 million commitment to legal services; $25 million to assist Indigenous communities; $20 million for prevention and early intervention initiatives; $15 million for front-line services; and $10 million for research and education, including addressing sexual violence and revenge pornography. That investment is in addition to and builds on the ongoing funding of around $25 million a year that underpins the 12-year national plan. The ongoing funding supports key services like 1800Respect, which was the subject of a structural announcement earlier this year. That money that I have just described also builds on the $100 million Women's Safety Package launched by the Prime Minister in September 2015 and the $30 million national campaign to reduce violence against women and their children that was jointly funded by state and territory governments.
The Commonwealth's much broader investments that drive a reduction in violence include the $230 million to extend the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which the member for Mayo just raised and which I will address shortly, and of course there is $1.6 billion in legal assistance, income support, education and health. That is the way in which the funding overlaps and sits with each other in context.
The WSP technology trials were to provide $12.031 million to state and territory governments. That money was required to be matched by each of the state and territory governments and it was to promote innovative technologies to keep women safe. Obviously that will differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and from suggestion to suggestion. Under the measure, the department has already provided $180,000 in funding to the South Australian government for the D3 Digital Challenge to keep women safe in 2015-16. That technology was being trialled and included a digital tool kit to support women in abusive relationships and an app that helps young people understand the consequences of a variety of behaviours. I can inform the member that nine projects across six jurisdictions have now been approved. The one I have just been described was the one that has been announced. Of course the announcement on the others will follow in the not too distant future.
An opposition member interjecting—
No, the money has been allocated but the projects have not yet been announced other than the $180,000 so it is not true to say that the money has not been allocated. But because those grants and the trials are done in cooperation with state and territory jurisdictions, they rely on a bilateral rather than unilateral announcement of those projects. I think that covers off those matters that you raise.
In respect to the member for Bass, you put some assertions and raised some questions. Effectively your question was whether or not carers payment will be subject to any of the types of processes that DSP payments are presently subject to and then you determined to misrepresent the processes that the DSP payment are subject to. Let me describe to you what is with the DSP at present. There are in the vicinity of 30,000 reviews a year. The member for Bass, the reason that those reviews are being conducted is because your government in 2012 changed the disability assessment criteria for the DSP such that people who were assessed post that change in late 2012, 2013 and subsequent years, were assessed to the new criteria that you developed. That of course meant, as a matter of practice, that many people had been included into and assessed into the DSP according to criteria which are no longer used and are outdated. It seems a perfectly fair and reasonable measure to go back and reassess those, and of course you need to do that in an appropriate and fair way, which we are endeavouring to do. The one example that was raised, I think, in question time yesterday was an indication of the person who received a letter. Information was sent back, and the review—if you can call it that—ended at precisely that point. But those reviews are continuing. (Time expired)
I appreciate the opportunity this evening to look at the appropriation bill in a little bit more detail. The minister has delivered a very nice, sound assessment of some of his programs but he has not even come close to explaining why his department is failing on so many customer service standards. Earlier in the House of Representatives we had a debate about these standards.
A good welfare system needs to be accessible but, increasingly, ours is difficult to negotiate and treats those who need assistance with absolute contempt. Falling service standards are a key feature of what we are seeing of the system. According to the last available figures, 30 per cent of customers hang up after being left on hold for far too long. Complaints are up 18.8 per cent and customer satisfaction is down almost 10 per cent. Whatever the minister wants to spin, these are his own figures.
People cannot get hold of customer service operators let alone get access to much needed support payments in a timely manner. People are waiting months—absolutely months—for the aged pension, months for disability support pensions and months for youth allowance. That is too long for the payments they need to support themselves. One thousand jobs have gone in the last budget alone. I have come from the state government and I know about service delivery.
How is this about service delivery? These are not the actions of a government that wants to solve problems. For all this government's talk of welfare reform, only one thing is clear: clients are receiving worse services and declining access and declining standards. Staff are being treated with contempt. This cannot all be the result of poor management. It is a deliberate strategy for this government that sees welfare only in terms of the budget bottom line.
Not only are these service standards falling but the services provided to clients are being slashed, starting with this government's No. 1 target: Medicare. No longer will individuals be able to make Medicare claims at their local Centrelink office. The offices that do still accept paper forms will simply ship them off to a processing centre, where they will sit in a rapidly growing backlog. And we know what that backlog is. The minister knows this because his government does not like Medicare and it cannot stand the welfare system. These people are just leaners to them. With this in mind, I call on the minister to explain to this chamber a couple of things.
Minister: pay attention. Firstly, I want to know why call waiting times continue to be out of control. Is the minister addressing the fact that on the last available figures 30 per cent of calls made to Centrelink were abandoned by callers, and can the minister explain how cutting 1,000 staff is going to address this? If people on welfare cannot get through, if they only have a mobile phone with credit to a certain level, how are they possibly going to hang on for over an hour? And please do not tell me that it is a 10- or 15-minute wait. It is not. Tell us the truth about this.
Secondly, can you provide any explanation as to how the removal of face-to-face processing of Medicare claims and forcing people to wait four to six weeks for payments can possibly deliver better outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged in our community? I am talking about people that are unwell. I am talking about people that are elderly. I am talking about people that do not have access—as we do in this room—to the sort of technology that you think is the answer.
I agree with the Prime Minister and I agree with you that people that cheat and take advantage of the welfare system have to be dealt with. But you know and I know that most people, the majority of people, do not fall into that category. I find it offensive that this government paints people on welfare as leaners. These people are people that rely on people like you and me to provide them with a hand up.
I am happy to address a couple of those points which the member for Barton raised, and two in particular that she asked me about—call wait times and the removal of face-to-face Medicare claims.
If I could start with the second one. I know the Labor Party has been saying this for some time, but there has been no removal of face-to-face Medicare claims. I would like to point out a few facts. On 96 per cent of occasions, a patient will go to a doctor or a specialist and they will literally swipe their Medicare card and have to do no more—all of the rebates are processed electronically. We hope to get that figure up even higher. With the remaining four per cent of claims, it is typically because a doctor or a specialist will not have that Medicare facility in his or her clinic and so they will be given an invoice and they will have to take that to Medicare office—post it or take it in in person. Nothing has changed in relation to that. People can still post it or upload it on the app or they can take it to anyone of the service centres or agents around Australia—there are 700 of them—to put in their Medicare claim. That Medicare claim 99 per cent of the time will be processed within 10 days. We have made some administrative changes to our back office, which I know the member for Barton has raised, but that makes no difference to that metric—99 per cent will still be addressed and dealt with within 10 days so that the money is back into the patient's pocket.
Let me address the issue of call wait times in the time I have available. The current call wait time is 11 minutes. I appreciate that that is the average call-waiting time when a person rings the Centrelink number and, of course, there is a distribution across that when you have an average. Some people are waiting a short amount of time; some people are waiting a lot longer than 11 minutes. The member for Barton made the accusation that the reason this is happening is that we have pulled out so many staff. I would simply point out to the member for Barton who admittedly as a new member of parliament—she was not part of the Labor government at this particular time—but in 2010-11, when the Labor Party was in government, the call wait time was three minutes and five seconds. The times ballooned out to 11 minutes and 45 seconds in 2011-12. Why did they balloon out at that particular time? This was documented by the Australian National Audit Office: the Labor Party ripped 1100 telephone staff out.
Again, I appreciate that the member for Barton was not part of that government, which we had to endure for six long years, but I ask her to understand a little bit of the history of this issue. We take this issue seriously; we do want to reduce call wait times so that people do not have to wait any longer than necessary. We have just invested $600 million in a new telephony system which helps to manage the phone calls across the nation and, of course, we are investing, as we speak, up to $1 billion on a new overall welfare payments system.
Once this new system is fully installed it will mean that so few people will have to call the call centre or go into a Medicare office in order to find out the status of their claim, because that information will often be seamless. You will be able to apply online; it will be straight-through processing; and you will have the answer almost instantaneously. For example, if you think about a student claim at the moment—they will put in an online claim; it will be looked at a Centrelink office; they will have to interrogate an ATO file; then interrogate a university file; and in the meantime the student is ringing up to find out the status of their claim. In the not-too-distant future, because of this government's decision to invest in the welfare payments structure, that could be an instantaneous decision because our systems will automatically interrogate the ATO and automatically link into the university's course load data and that student could know instantaneously or within 24 hours. That is what will reduce the call volumes and make a big difference to service quality. Only this government has been prepared to bite the bullet and make that type of investment.
Budgets, as we know, are about choices and priorities but I think it is also fair to say they carry with them an expectation of efficient and effective administration. There have been disturbing and growing questions in the last week about the government's welfare crackdown and approach to the disability support pension reviews arising from this budget measure. Both ministers, as it turns out, are aware of the case of Andrew Johnson, one of my constituents, who we have discussed through the media and in question time and here. Two things arise. In relation to the actual review under this budget measure, it is unclear on what basis, how and by whom these decisions are being made. It requires answers, as Minister Porter's advice to the House of Representatives yesterday does not appear correct. Yesterday the Minister for Social Services advised the House:
Upon receiving the letter, information was received from Andrew's mother and … the matter came to an end …
But, straight after question time, I received a call from Andrew's mother. Andrew's mother had not and still has not provided the information from specialists treating Andrew's conditions to Centrelink. In fact, she received a call out of the blue last Thursday from a Centrelink officer, after the media inquiries came to The Age, who told her that the review was completed. She asked the Centrelink officer, 'How can the review be completed, because I have not provided the medical evidence which I spent the last two or three weeks of my life gathering, and hours of time waiting for four specialists'—the specialists who are responsible and capable of providing the expert advice in relation to the disabilities which warrant Andrew's disability pension. She said to the Centrelink officer that she had it assembled and she was bringing it in on the Friday, but was told on Thursday by the Centrelink officer it just would not be needed because the review was complete. So who is right—the minister or the mother?
On what basis was this decision made, and should everyone in Australia with a severe disability go to the media and the minister? Further, Mrs Johnson was also told by the Centrelink officer she could expect further reviews into Andrew and her other son, Will, yet later that day I understand Minister Tudge told The Age's journalist that there would be no further reviews into Andrew or Will. I could have that wrong and I am happy to have it corrected. On what basis, then, was that decision made given Will's review had not even started? Further, general questions arise, in relation to this review, which go to all Australians on the disability support pension. The question I put is: why was the review conducted and under what policy direction? Yesterday the Minister for Social Services again told the House the government was 'looking at all those people in the system under 35 to ensure that those people in the disability support pension system are properly assessed for that.'
The government's budget measure from 2014-15, at page 196, states that reviews would apply to DSP recipients aged under 35 who were granted the DSP between 2008 and 2011, and that recipients granted the DSP before 1 January 2008 would be exempt. The 2016-17 budget papers, of course, announced a much greater expansion of reviews, in this welfare crackdown—in fact, 90,000 reviews plus up to 30,000 disability medical assessments for current DSP recipients to be considered at a high risk of not being eligible for the payment. Questions then arise: who are the 90,000 who are being reviewed, and in relation to the 30,000 who are undertaking or experiencing medical assessments, how is 'high risk', to quote the budget papers, determined for them? If it is government policy, as we have learned, that everyone under 35 is going to be reviewed and can expect that letter to turn up telling them to race off to the doctor, running up Medicare bills to tell Centrelink what they should already know, does that mean that everyone under 35 with Down syndrome in Australia will get a review letter to check if they have grown out of it? Indeed, a constituent contacted me in relation to this and she was incredibly distressed because she does not consider there is anything medically wrong with her son—he simply has Down syndrome. She does not have any medical records to prove this except for his annual vaccinations. She is now going to have to truck off to the doctor to prove that he is not going to be cured.
Other questions are: how are they protecting the manifestly disabled like Andrew; under what policy direction are these reviews happening; when can vulnerable Australians expect their letters; and due to the costs of the review mentioned in the budget papers do these costs factor in the cost to Medicare of people getting pointless letters to confirm that these conditions cannot be cured?
The other question that is raised as a matter of governance—it is good that we have both ministers here—is who is in charge of this? I thought, rightly, that Centrelink was administered by the Minister for Human Services, so we write to him. The Prime Minister waffled on for a minute or so—a minute was short for a waffle—and then pointed at another minister who got up and talked about something that obviously he did not know about, because another minister had already been commenting to the paper. When you read the Auditor-General's reports, these are serious issues—I get policy, I get delivery but it is unclear who is in charge. We will talk about references to call wait times in the Auditor-General's report at another time. I am curious to know whether those stats include hang-ups.
It has been a very important contribution today, and it has been excellent having both ministers here, particularly with their pre-existing interest in this field. I think an important role is being played by both sides of parliament today. Both ministers would agree that we have had high acuity questions from the opposition about the user interface with the Public Service and Centrelink in particular. I can understand that they were very important questions—how long you wait; how often the phone hangs up while you are waiting; whether it is 11 minutes or nine minutes that you wait; and how often paperwork is lost. I am sure, Minister, that these would be elements that are very important for us to make sure we are doing as well as possible given the large case load that Centrelink faces.
You then have the other side of the parliament which is, I think ministers would agree, working on how you exit the system in a constructive and productive way, so that we can as Australians aspire for more than a life trapped in welfare and waiting on the phones for a service. Self-evidently, Australians actually aspire to not have to wait on that phone and want to have a shot in the real economy—sending their kids to school and university; attaining a job; and having an opportunity in welfare to work and Work for the Dole. You will see this side of the parliament very much engaged in the high acuity questions around how you leave welfare for something better.
That does not mean that we in any way degrade the Centrelink system and it does not mean you are leaner. 'Leaner' refers, I think, to what is known as a persistent evader—someone who fails to turn up to what are completely reasonable job interviews and Work for the Dole when you are a stream A recipient—already identified as not having the logical and compassionate exclusions that every Australian would expect should exist. There are 74,000 non-attendance measures every year. I would argue to you, Minister, that, if that is occurring over and over again in those 74,000 cases, I think it is quite reasonable to refer that person, who does not think that receiving $728.50 a fortnight is sufficient grounds to turn up to a perfectly reasonable job interview.
Ms Burney interjecting—
I can appreciate that we have some new blood on the opposition benches who appear to have the intellect and the appetite to make the system better. Minister, I have a very important question about this healthy welfare card being trialled in various parts of Australia.
Ms Burney interjecting—
The member for Barton would do well to travel to Ceduna. With an open mind that does not exist with some of her frontbench colleagues, she should go and visit Ceduna and meet those people. Sit down in the dirt or sit under a tree.
Ms Burney interjecting—
The colour of your skin does not matter. Sit down and listen. Keep your ears open and ask them what they think about the welfare card. If you did that with the BasicsCard, instead of just presuming the BasicsCard was unpopular, you would find, Member for Barton, that your own party when they were in government made the BasicsCard non-compulsory and over 50 per cent of holders of the BasicsCard elected to keep it even though it was no longer mandatory. That is a very important signal about the power and the damage of cash.
Minister, we would like to know more about the detailed consultation that occurred with this welfare card. Let's remember that the BasicsCard did come in the sunset of a Howard government era. We implemented a tool that gave the Labor Party in government six years to get it right. But, instead, they walked two sides of the street, telling mainstream Australia that they found it absolutely outrageous that the BasicsCard existed in the Northern Territory and then going up into the Territory and listening but never improving the system. So, on the one hand, you were telling the Northern Territory how made it was and then, back with mainstream Australia, never end it. You could have ended it any time, but you knew that it was working. Hence, we have moved to the healthy welfare card. Minister, it would be very good to know about the technology behind it.
This is not about stigmatising a recipient of welfare; it is about having a commercially available card where they can get the services from vendors in the town in which they live. We need to make sure that gaming is reduced as much as possible. I have seen the Labor Party making much hay about this idea that you can trade out elements of a welfare card and turn it into cash by taking an object back or getting somebody else to purchase something and swapping it. For goodness sake; these are the problems you want to have in Ceduna. The problem you do not want to have is endemic alcohol consumption fuelled by uncontained cash.
Minister, I would like to know what has happened with alcohol consumption in Ceduna. What has happened in the Kimberley? There is evidence of reduced morbidity. Some of these achievements were never even contemplated in their six years of government. For that party over there—Minister, you would have to agree—it was all about the entitlement being available and the user experience being as comfortable as possible, while you are sitting on a phone waiting for a service. (Time expired)
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Proposed expenditure, $2,642,640,000
I have a range of serious questions to direct towards the minister, who I note has just entered the chamber. This is, of course, the minister who very kindly voted for my second reading amendment last week, calling upon the government to explain why it has failed to close tax loopholes and increase transparency in Australia. Given that the government is yet to honour its votes by actually explaining to the House why it has failed to close tax loopholes and increase transparency in Australia, I hope the minister will use this opportunity to do so.
Minister, I first draw your attention to the announcement from the Australian Bureau of Statistics of cuts to critical Australian Bureau of Statistics collections, among these statistics on housing finance, retail sales, early childhood, foreign ownership and crime victimisation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics head, David Kalisch, has said:
The ABS does not have the resources to undertake all the activities that fall within our legislative mandate that our users would like.
He specifically named statistics on housing affordability and retail sales as being in the firing line. Minister, is it the case that the government deliberately does not want statistics on housing affordability to be in the public domain given that the government has no plan for housing affordability? It has a scare campaign against Labor's carefully calibrated and grandfathered changes to negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount but no plan of its own to address housing affordability.
Is it the case that the government intends to cut the patient experience survey because its war on Medicare has left the experience of many Australian patients much worse than it was in past years? Is it the case that the government intends to cut the internet activity survey because its second-rate, copper national broadband network is unable to cope with the demands of a 21st-century economy?
Minister, I draw your attention in particular to issues around multinational taxation. We know that, prior to the budget, The Australian reported that the government was going to act on thin capitalisation. Then, after the budget, on 5 May, The Australian reported that the government had failed to act on thin capitalisation but had come close. How do they know this? The journalist pointed out that there was an orphan definition in the budget—a definition of a term which appeared nowhere in the budget. 'Thin capitalisation' was defined, but nothing was done with that definition. Minister, is it the case that the government was willing to act on thin capitalisation until pressured by special interest groups? Is it the case that the government had gone down the path of wanting to do the right thing on thin capitalisation but finally pulled back from following Labor into good tax reform on closing debt deduction loopholes under pressure from special interests?
Minister, has Treasury modelled the impact of a reduction in the safe-harbour threshold in this term of government or in the previous term of government? What would be the revenue implications of a reduction in the safe-harbour threshold from 60 per cent to 50 per cent as was being mooted prior to the last budget? Minister, setting aside the extra staff of the ATO to enforce existing multinational tax avoidance measures, would a reduction in the safe-harbour threshold from 60 per cent to 50 per cent result in more revenue than the forecast revenue of the diverted profits tax?
Minister, why was 'thin capitalisation' defined in the budget glossary but not mentioned anywhere else in the budget?
Has the government got a practice of defining terms that it thinks it might use in the budget but ultimately decides not to use? Minister, why was the government backgrounding journalists, prior to the budget, that it intended to act on thin capitalisation but then failed to do anything?
I ask further about revenue commitments from compliance measures. On 12 September, the Australian National Audit Office reported its findings on the effectiveness of the Australian Taxation Office in achieving revenue commitments established under specific budget-funded compliance measures. The report found that it was unclear if the ATO had achieved the revenue commitments made to government for all budget-funded compliance measures over the period 2010-11 to 2014-15. I ask whether the Audit Office's concern is realised and whether the government has taken it upon itself to address that particular concern?
I will be very pleased to respond to the member for Fenner. I think he has truly missed his calling. He had a calling for the stage, and I am so sorry that more people could not see the performance we had here today. The member has asked a number of questions. I will specifically refer to the ABS question first. The member asked, 'Have there been cuts to the ABS?' He is absolutely right to say that there have been. Under the previous government, of which he was a member, there were very, very significant cuts to the Australia Bureau of Statistics—$44 million worth. So much so, there was very significant criticism that, because of the cuts made by Labor, the statistical data that the ABS was putting out could not be relied upon—in particular, the labour force figures, which are so fundamental to our economic understanding in this country.
I can say very proudly that, as a member of this government and as parliamentary secretary at the time, I was able to announce, with the Treasurer, that we were providing the Australian Bureau of Statistics with an investment of $257 million. That is right: we put $257 million into the Australian Bureau of Statistics to make sure that it could do its job after the cuts that were made by the previous Labor government. I think the member for Fenner is in somewhat of a glass house when he asks about cuts to the ABS. If the member would like to ask some more questions about the ABS, I am sure my colleague will be more than happy to expand in a bit more detail.
I am also very keen to touch on a couple of the other elements of his question. He asked about housing affordability and why it is that the government does not support Labor's negative gearing proposal. I remind the member for Fenner that he has said a few things about this himself. The member for Fenner worried that negative gearing changes, such as those proposed by his own party, would have an impact on investment properties that people thought they could rely on. That is something that he said on 21 May 2013. I know he is very flexible in his approach to policy, but I do feel that he ought to be reminded of the statements that he has made. Of course we all know that Labor's negative gearing policy would be very detrimental to those people who have made investments in property and would, in fact, hit people on very average incomes while advantaging those people who have very high other investment incomes, because under Labor's plan they would still be able to negatively gear—they would not be penalised in any way whatsoever.
This brings me to my final point in the time that I have remaining—multinational tax avoidance. It is an issue that is very dear to the government because we know it is important. It is absolutely important to have integrity in our taxation system. It is not enough to simply talk about it and to pretend that you care about it. You actually have to do something about it. You actually need to take action on it. Our government has done that through passing the Multinational Anti-Avoidance Law. There was no help from Labor in getting this passed—no help at all. When the vote came in the House, was the member for Fenner voting with the government or was he voting against the government? He was voting against passing the government's changes that gave the Australian Taxation Office increased powers to raise penalties and raise assessments against those people who are doing the wrong thing by the Australia taxpayer.
We have taken action here. We have also increased the resources in the Australian Taxation Office's international division. It is much larger than it was under the Labor Party because we know that, if you are going to increase and strengthen the powers of the Australian Taxation Office, you need to also strengthen the enforcement capability. It is quite logical. That is why we have taken the approach that we have.
We also established the Tax Avoidance Taskforce in this year's budget. I would have thought that the member opposite would have read about this in the budget papers. We are providing more than $667 million to establish the Tax Avoidance Taskforce, which will bring in over the forward estimates period around $3.7 billion from those people who ought to be paying tax in Australia. On behalf of the rest of Australian taxpayers the Australian government will make sure that they do.
I had intended to direct my question to the honourable Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, but I see I have the great pleasure of being joined by the Minister for Small Business, under whose portfolio consumer affairs quite rightly sits. That is where I would like to direct my question; however, I am happy for either of you to provide the answer. My question relates to a very serious issue that is affecting children all around Australia—button batteries. By way of background: button batteries are, as the name suggests, small coin-shaped batteries that are used in a range of electrical products. They are also quite often used in the retail and supply of small toys. This is a very pertinent issue as we head towards the Christmas period when toys containing button batteries will be increasingly available on the market. They will be on the shelves and will eventually end up under Christmas trees in the homes of Australians all over the country.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 17:5 7 to 18:13
As I was saying, button batteries present significant risks to young children. If they are swallowed by toddlers they can become lodged in the throat, resulting in severe oesophageal burns. It has been estimated that 20 children are hospitalised each week from swallowing button batteries. The harm they cause can be long term, sometimes lasting the course of a lifetime. In some tragic and regrettable cases, it has even resulted in death.
Section 104(1) in part 3-3 of schedule 2 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 empowers the minister, through a simple declaratory instrument, to declare a mandatory safety standard for a consumer product. But, in this case, the minister has declined to do so. Instead, in a move that brings us back to an episode of The Hollowmen, we seem to have a voluntary code of conduct only, instead of a declaratory instrument with a public awareness campaign to follow it.
As a general proposition, it is reasonable to suggest that rules exist less to define the good but rather to regulate the behaviour of the bad. The risk of a voluntary industry code is that only those businesses who adopt a best-practice approach will implement it. There is no doubt that some businesses are already doing so. The concern we have is that there is nothing within the context of a voluntary code of practice to necessarily deter those cowboys from doing the wrong thing.
My questions to the minister are as follows. When was the minister first aware of the issue of deleterious effects to health and safety in relation to button batteries, and why did the minister decline to declare a mandatory safety standard for button batteries and the products that contain them? Minister, did any representations made by companies that make and sell button batteries and products that contain them have any bearing on your decision not to implement a declaratory instrument? Given the harm caused by button batteries to our nation's toddlers—that is continuing to be caused—is the minister monitoring rates of hospitalisation caused by these harmful batteries, and will the minister implement a mandatory safety standard for button batteries and products that contain them if the voluntary code fails to arrest the harm?
We all know that our children are precious, and as we go into this Christmas season one child who is in hospital as a result of ingesting a button battery is one child too many. A mandatory code of conduct will not be sufficient to deter those who put children at risk. Will the minister undertake to implement a mandatory safety standard for button batteries if the voluntary code fails to arrest the harm and the injuries continuing?
Minister, I have a couple of questions that I will get to at the end of this. But first—and I am sure you understand a lot of this—I will talk about small business. I have over 12,000 small businesses in my electorate of Page. They are, far and away, the biggest employer in my community. They are the lifeblood of every regional town and every community within our sector—small business is it! It is very important. I am sure you are also aware that taxes from the private sector—small business taxes, private sector taxes, big business taxes and taxes from people who work within the private sector—fund everything. They fund every public sector job in our community; every welfare organisation and institution. All the health services and education services are funded by the taxes from the private sector. I know you would understand this.
The private sector—the business sector—is an important part of our community and our society. I am many decades older than you, Minister. I probably have a longer life memory than you, given that I have been around a long time. I want to go back to the Hawke-Keating years. I must say, to be a bit bipartisan, Hawke and Keating, as a Labor government, had it! When they came in—you would know this, Minister, but you probably do not remember it physically; I do, because I am that old—business taxes were 49 per cent. Hawke and Keating understood that we needed to grow the private sector. They wanted business—big business and small business—to thrive. So what did Hawke and Keating do? They lowered company tax rates. It started at 49, and I forget the exact way it was gradually put down—from 49 to 45, to 42, to 39, all the way down. Obviously, within the Howard years they understood that as well, until we got to the point that company tax rates are where they are.
Well might you say, 'What happened to tax collections for the government, given that we had lowered company tax rates and small business tax rates?' People talk about things being 'evidence based' at the moment. If you go to the health system or any type of system, they always say, 'We have to look at evidence based practice here.' What happened, Minister—and I am sure you are aware of this—is that not only did GDP grow as our private sector grew with these tax cuts, but the percentage of company taxes and business taxes grew as well. Unlike this lot opposite, we understand that this is not a zero-sum game—if you cut business taxes, it does not mean that suddenly there is no more money coming in on that side and that less money comes in. We understand that they grow. Businesses employ more people, they make more money and their percentage of taxes as a percentage of GDP actually grows.
Minister, you may well be aware, as it is quite a famous case around the world, that in Ireland back in the eighties—though they have some banking issues now that are unrelated—they had a corporate tax rate of over 60 per cent. They were going broke. No company wanted to go there; no company wanted to set up there. So what did they do? They cut taxes to close to 10 per cent and, within three years, they were collecting more money at 10 per cent than they had been at 60 per cent. I remember that because I am old enough, though I know you do not. The small business minister is probably old enough to remember it as well. I certainly do.
On this evidence based stuff that we need to look at when we are looking to grow the economy—we want our businesses to grow, we want our small businesses to grow and we want our big businesses to grow—because tax is competitive and we live in a global environment, like everything else, we need to be competitive, because we want companies to thrive and grow here. In the context of that, Minister, my question is: how does the 2016-17 budget, through these bills, support small and medium enterprise by backing businesses to invest and create jobs locally? How is the government backing small businesses? What are the alternatives? I am aware, as you are, Minister, that there are alternatives, and I think it is very important that you explain those alternatives to us today.
I have a number of questions for the minister, relating to the register of beneficial ownership for shell companies, the proposed sale of the ASIC corporate register and the announcement in the budget regarding greater protection for whistleblowers to the ATO.
This government is big on rhetoric, big on talk, when it comes to tax transparency, but not very big on action. We have seen some of the decisions that have been made by this government, with some of the proposals and policies that were put in place by the previous Labor government that improved tax transparency in this country actually being watered down by this government. I am speaking predominantly of the deal that was done between the coalition government and the tax transparency traitors, the Greens, in the Senate when they increased the threshold for—
Government members interjecting—
I have hit a raw nerve over there! They increased the threshold for transparency of private companies to disclose their private tax affairs from $100 million to $200 million, thereby letting off the hook about 600 Australian private companies that would have been forced to disclose, through their general purpose accounts, their taxation arrangements and their tax payments to the Australian government. In doing so, they have let 600 Australian companies off the hook.
We saw this ridiculous scenario where you had these coalition members in the House of Representatives claiming, 'If we reduce the threshold for tax transparency for private companies, our families are going to be kidnapped! Shock, horror! People are going to be threatened because of this legal change!'
The Labor Party and no-one in the Australian public believed any of that. Through a freedom of information request, we actually asked the coalition government to disclose the number of complaints that they have had from the Australian public about these so-called kidnapping threats—a big fat doughnut—zero. There was not one complaint from one Australian about the threat of kidnapping from this ridiculous proposal that they cooked up with the Greens to reduce tax transparency, so that is their record on tax transparency.
The first question I have for the minister relates to the register of ultimate beneficial ownership of shell companies. In April 2016, the minister announced publicly and committed the coalition to a register of beneficial ownership of shell companies. This was another tax transparency initiative which should shed light on who own legal entities which can be hidden by a web of offshore accounts and shell companies. My questions to the minister are: was the ATO consulted on this announcement? What advice did the ATO offer the minister? Was Treasury consulted and, if so, what was the advice of Treasury? Were any other departments or agencies consulted and, if so, what advice did they offer? On that issue, again, I wish to ask the minister further: does the register only apply to corporations or to all legal entities?
A recent report in the Australian Financial Review said that Treasury was pushing back on a proposal from the finance department for the sale of the ASIC corporate register. My question to the minister is: was this pushback from Treasury because it would adversely affect a publicly assessable beneficial ownership register? Further, since April the government has backtracked on this commitment of a publicly available beneficial register to exploring options around the registry. Why is this minister? Why is the government now backtracking on this important policy and what has gone wrong?
My final issue relates to the announcement that was made by the Treasurer on budget night, on 3 May 2016. This relates to protections for whistleblowers who disclose information to the ATO about potential tax misconduct. It was announced with such fanfare as part of the Treasurer's media release on that evening, a tax plan for Australia's future. On the second page of that, they used tough rhetoric:
We are introducing tough new laws and much harsher penalties including: … New protections for whistleblowers who disclose information about tax misconduct to the ATO.
My second set of questions relates to the government announcement for better protection for whistleblowers. Where is it? What consultations are currently occurring regarding this announcement? If they have not begun yet, when will they begin? (Time expired)
Mindful of time, the minister has advised me that the member for Kingsford Smith's questions will be answered in writing to him by the minister. In answer to the member for Page's very learned questions about the Australian government's taxation policies, we are reducing company tax rate to 27½ per cent, the lowest it has been since the late 1960s. It forms part of a ten-year enterprise tax plan, which is going to make small businesses in your electorate of Page very happy and indeed small businesses, 2.1 million of them right across Australia, very happy. If Labor gets on board and wants to help us push through the legislation to enable even more businesses as part of the 10-year enterprise tax plan to be beneficiaries of that lowering of the company tax rate then I would very much encourage them and advise them to do so because it will help businesses, particularly small businesses, in their electorates as well.
The member for Perth, the shadow minister, has also asked me questions about button batteries. I can assure him in answer to his question, when did I become first aware, that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission provided me with a brief on button batteries when I first became the Minister for Small Business. Have I received any representations from companies? The answer is no. In answer to his final question as to the monitoring of it, yes, I am being kept up to date about the button battery situation by the ACCC, by the Commissioner Rod Sims and by the Deputy Commissioner Michael Schaper. In fact, I am having a meeting with the commissioner tomorrow. It is an important issue, and I look forward, as we discussed yesterday, to you and I having a discussion about button batteries and other important aspects of consumer law.
The ACCC is working with industry, with government and with consumer stakeholders to improve the—
It being 6.30 pm, I put the question that the proposed expenditure for the Treasury portfolio be agreed to.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
It being 6.30 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192B. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.