Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021; Consideration in Detail
The measures to be considered today in Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2020-21 for the Social Services portfolio extend and target initiatives to improve the lives of individuals and families across Australia. As part of our economic recovery plan and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are continuing to provide an unprecedented level of economic support to Australians to assist them through the pandemic, and we remain committed to delivering the essential services that all Australians depend on. The 2021 budget delivers a range of initiatives to support Australia's economic recovery, including extending and further targeting temporary measures specifically aimed at improving the wellbeing of individuals and families across our nation. Furthermore, $84½ million is being committed over three years from 1 July next year to extend critical frontline parenting and financial support programs. In March, the economy—and in particular the labour market—effectively closed down overnight without warning. Clearly, it's much more difficult to find a job when the economy is functionally shut down. Given that it was the disruption in the labour market that prompted the temporary change in the social security system, including the introduction of the coronavirus supplement, it is entirely reasonable that decisions around these measures into the future are informed by these same indicators.
From the start of the pandemic, the government has spent close to $15½ billion on the coronavirus supplement, which is an extraordinary amount of taxpayers' money. We are providing two additional economic support payments of $250 to eligible Australians. These payments will benefit 5.1 million Australians who are in receipt of the age pension, the disability support pension, the carer payment, veterans payments and concession cards. The payments will be made progressively from the 30th of this month and 1 March 2021 to provide additional support to age pensioners and other recipients in the lead-up to Christmas and in the first quarter of next year. When combined with the first two $750 economic support payments earlier this year, $12 billion in additional assistance is being delivered to households. That's $2,000 per recipient above and beyond their regular payments. We've also extended temporary enhanced support to the social security system until 31 December to support Australians as economic confidence and momentum builds. Helping Australians gain and maintain meaningful employment remains a clear priority for the government, which is why we've implemented measures to incentivise re-entry into the workforce. The government is also providing $90.3 million over three years to revise the paid parental leave work test. This will support parents who have a connection to the workforce but have lost their jobs or are working reduced hours because of the current pandemic. The revised paid parental leave work test will allow about 9,000 mothers whose work was interrupted by the pandemic to regain eligibility for paid parental leave. A further 3½ thousand people will be eligible for dad and partner pay.
Another important measure is securing support for community sector workers who would otherwise be disadvantaged when the social and community sector supplement payment, the SACS payment, ceases next July. The government will provide $132.6 million over four years to deliver ongoing funding for frontline social services employing these workers. This new ongoing fund will support more than 460 organisations under about 720 grant agreements, which in 2019-20 delivered services to around a million people across Australia. These programs include Commonwealth financial counselling services, the national debt hotline, family relationship services, specialised family violence services, and the Reconnect program for youth facing homelessness. The measure will also support the more than 500,000 people who work for these vital services which support vulnerable children and families in areas of entrenched socioeconomic disadvantage and, of course, people with disability. This measure forms part of the Women's Economic Security Statement because it secures the pay of thousands of Australians working in the social and community sector, and we all know that around 84 per cent of these are women. The budget measures mean that there'll be no reduction in the jobs and essential services previously supplemented by SACS.
I urge the support of the House for Appropriation Bill (No. 1) to make available the funding for these important measures.
This budget is a missed opportunity for structural reform—not that you'd expect anything much from this mob. They're too busy with their spin and marketing and announcements to get on with the serious business of governing. Most importantly, for this debate, they've left millions of vulnerable Australians without the support that they need in the worst economic crisis for over a hundred years. Let's be very clear on the context for this budget. When the government handed down the budget, there were 1.3 million Australians receiving unemployment benefits of some sort. The government's projection in their own budget, just a few weeks ago, was that, by Christmas, there'd be 1.5 million Australians receiving unemployment benefits, yet only two weeks ago, at Senate estimates, it was eventually dragged out of them and they finally had to admit that, by Christmas, 1.8 million Australians will receive unemployment benefits. The government project that unemployment will surge and we'll have 300,000 more Australians receiving unemployment benefits by Christmas. That's the context. In 2024, in four years from now, on the government's own admission two weeks ago at Senate estimates, there will be more people receiving unemployment benefits than before the recession. So don't believe the spin and marketing. Australians should not believe the spin and marketing. They were telling us two weeks ago: 'The recession's almost over. We reckon we're going to get positive growth. It's almost over. Everything's just tickety-boo.' Try telling that to the 1.8 million Australians who, by Christmas, are expected to be on unemployment benefits.
With that context, what does the government's budget do? It bakes in a cut to JobSeeker to $40 a day. It bakes in the cut. That's what is in the budget that the minister, sitting over there, is recommending that the House approve. Unbelievably, only yesterday, we heard the minister trumpet the JobSeeker supplement. It started at $550, then they cut it to $250. Then, only yesterday, as unemployment is projected to surge to 1.8 million people, they cut unemployment benefits by another $100 a fortnight. They panicked, of course, as the recession took hold and thought, 'Well, it's okay for people in Labor electorates and a few poor people'—who they reckon don't vote for them—'to try and live on $40 a day, but, goodness me, we won't let middle-class Australia discover that,' so they put the supplement in. But now they're winding it back, right at the very time when people need support.
I ask the minister: why are you cutting JobSeeker payments while unemployment is surging? Why will you not do the decent thing and give certainty to vulnerable Australians on what the future rate is going to be after March next year? Why won't you announce a permanent increase to the rate of JobSeeker, given you've had to admit through this recession that people cannot live on $40 a day? And how many jobs are going to be lost because of these cuts?
This is personal for me. The people I represent are in the most disadvantaged council in the whole of Melbourne. It's the most disadvantaged area. Unemployment is about double the metropolitan average. We have far higher rates of people in casual and insecure work who don't have JobKeeper. Indeed, tens of thousands of people in my electrode get nothing from the government because they're temporary migrants who've lost their job, through no fault of their own. They're queuing up at the small local charities for emergency relief funding. I ask the minister: why will you not directly fund those local charities that are doing such important work so people don't starve? It's all very well to say, 'We handed out $200 million to our favourite big four charities.' That is not landing on the ground in my electorate. Why will you not fund the small local charities that at least make sure people in my community don't starve?
The government went to the election with not one single election commitment for the most disadvantaged council in the whole of Melbourne—not one dollar. You were too busy rorting every fund you could get your grubby little hands on down the road in the marginal seats, tipping out $100 million as sports rorts, handing out money to all your mates and sticking your mates on boards, but there's not one dollar for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in the city of Melbourne—nothing. So, I ask the minister: in the latest round of family violence grants, which the minister dutifully announced, why did my electorate get nothing, when South-East Melbourne has the highest rate of family violence anywhere in Victoria? Why did we get nothing and all the other mysterious projects—probably run by your mates as well—got all the money? I ask the minister: why? I'd love to hear an answer to that.
The big lie right at the heart of this budget is that there's a jobs plan. Minister: 'JobKeeper' and 'JobSeeker' and 'JobMaker' and 'JobTrainer'—saying 'job' a lot is not a plan to create jobs. It's marketing spin. We had the debate last time. We heard about 'MateKeeper'. We may as well just rename the Liberal Party 'JobTrainer', because that's basically what it is: training mates to get jobs from the government. But the big lie at the heart of the budget is that there's a jobs plan. There are not enough jobs, and saying 'job' a lot is not going to change that fact.
I'm delighted to speak today on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021 for the social services portfolio that will extend and deliver a range of important measures that will improve the lives of individuals and families all across Australia. In 2020, our nation has been tested like never before, and that's why the Morrison government is continuing to provide enormous levels of economic support to help Australians get through the coronavirus pandemic. They can be assured that we remain absolutely committed to delivering the essential services they depend on.
Throughout this crisis our government has acted swiftly and efficiently to address the challenges of COVID-19, and we will continue to work with individuals and households every step of the way to respond to the evolving challenges presented by this virus. This bill includes several measures that will strengthen support for Australian families. This is all on top of the existing $250 million each year that the Morrison government already invests in delivering parenting and early intervention programs across the nation. We know that helping families across Australia will go hand in hand with our economic recovery, and that's what this bill is all about. One of the measures in this piece of legislation includes more than $40 million over three years to secure frontline parenting services, which will provide targeted support for our most disadvantaged families. This will provide in-home parenting programs, including in regional and remote areas; specialist services for newly arrived migrants; mobile toy and parenting resources; therapeutic preschools; peer support; and playgroup services that last year were accessed by more than 50,000 families. The additional money will provide continued support for particular cohorts such as at-risk young parents or families with complex needs, which we hope will prevent problems such as family breakdowns, child neglect, family violence, substance abuse and mental illness and help with transitioning into school.
Tackling the horror of domestic violence remains an absolute priority of the Morrison government, which is why we are investing record amounts of funding to address it. I'm very pleased that under this appropriation bill we have secured ongoing funding for 1800RESPECT, our national helpline that does such a wonderful job supporting women impacted by domestic violence. Unfortunately, demand for 1800RESPECT has grown rapidly since it first started operating in 2010. At the time, it was estimated that the service would receive 20,000 calls each year. Right now, they are receiving around 6,000 calls every single week. 1800RESPECT remains a valued counselling service and has been a bedrock of support for women over the past decade. But we also recognise that there is a need to promote this kind of assistance across our communities through national advertising campaigns such as Help is Here. That's why we are taking action through this bill by extending the Help is Here campaign over the summer holiday period, to ensure that anyone affected by domestic violence can access the support they need when they need it.
Among the other measures to support ongoing programs in this appropriation bill there is also $44 million in extra funding over three years for the Financial Wellbeing and Capability activity. This activity offers no- and low-interest loans, microfinance support, financial advice and counselling for problem gamblers and their families. Among the many microfinance programs we are supporting is the No Interest Loan Scheme, which has helped hundreds of thousands of Australians since it was established in 1981. No-interest loans are crucially important because they provide people with access to ready cash for simple but essential things like a fridge or a bed, they help families respond to a crisis and they offer a safe and stable avenue for financial support. That is a positive alternative to high-cost payday lenders. The No Interest Loan Scheme continues to do a tremendous job. To provide an idea of its popularity: in my home state of Queensland, more than 5,200 people accessed this scheme last year. More broadly, financial wellbeing activities are giving a helping hand to more than 60,000 Australians each year to make better choices about their finances, develop financial literacy and access more affordable financial products.
I'm absolutely confident that the measures in this bill will help Australians emerge out of this pandemic stronger than ever before. They can be sure that if they're doing it tough the Morrison government has their back. On that note, I would now like to ask the minister: how will the funding for programs like 1800RESPECT help ensure that Australians continue to access this crucial support over the phone?
Pensioners in my electorate are struggling. They are struggling because of the neglect of this government. There is no doubt that pensioners have had a very difficult year. Many of them are at serious risk from the virus, and they've had to take precautions accordingly. In taking those precautions, they've had greater expenses. Has that been recognised by this government? It has not. For this government to drop the ball when it comes to the pension is just adding insult to injury in what has been a really, really difficult year.
Of course, we know the government has form when it comes to neglecting pensioners. It was Labor that called the government out on its disgraceful and disrespectful pension freeze in August—the first time in two decades that we were looking at not having a pension increase. What a disgrace. What a way to treat older Australians. What a way to show that you do not respect them, that you do not understand their needs—for the first time in more than two decades to threaten a pension freeze. Labor called the government out on that, and I'm pleased that it acted, but it has not gone far enough. We know that, when the government was initially caught out on its pension freeze, it actually tried to condescendingly explain that CPI had gone down in the recession. Well, that was of little comfort to all of these pensioners who are experiencing for themselves the increased costs they're facing during this pandemic and the lack of support and lack of respect they're getting from this government for what's going on in their lives and the expenses they're incurring, with the way this government is treating the pension.
This form on the pension extends to how the government is treating deeming rates. The government continues to short-change pensioners by maintaining unreasonably and unrealistically inflated pension deeming rates. Many people may not know much about deeming rates, but to pensioners these are very, very important. In this time, when pensioners are facing increased costs, increased stress, the lack of action from this government on deeming rates is an insult. How is it that, when the Reserve Bank's cash rate is at an all-time low of 0.1 per cent, the upper pension deeming rate is still at 2.25 per cent? Since the Liberals and Nationals have been in government, the cash rate has been cut 10 times, falling 240 basis points, yet the age pension upper deeming rate has only been adjusted four times. I say it again: this is an insult to pensioners. It really sums up how this government treats them and the lack of understanding of the reality of their lives.
Since the Prime Minister and the Treasurer took office, the cash rate has been cut six times, yet the age pension upper deeming rate has only been adjusted twice. I know that pensioners are worried about this, because they're telling me so. Pensioners should not be being forced into risky investments just because this government is refusing to take action on deeming rates. They should not be lying awake at night thinking about where they are going to get their money from and whether they need to switch to a riskier investment because this minister won't take action on deeming rates. Pensioners should be able to keep their modest savings safe. They should have the reassurance that they can do that and they should not be penalised for doing so.
This is from Shane, who is a pensioner in my electorate who wrote to tell me how abandoned he feels by this government: 'We have us the pensioners who worked, held jobs, worked long hours to help make this country, and our government has forgotten us, because we've outlived our usefulness. They forget we have gas bills, electricity bills. Most are living below the poverty line. We can't afford decent food, which in turn doesn't help with illness.' Shane asked me: 'Can you tell me why we're treated like we're all an inconvenience? At the moment, meat in most places is double the price, but we have money for half or less of this. It's just one example of how COVID has affected everyone. So why are we worthless?' He concluded by saying: 'I'm saying this for all pensioners.'
I ask the minister: can you explain why you're forcing older Australians to skip meals and struggle to pay their bills because you won't adjust the age pension deeming rate? How can the minister justify only adjusting the deeming rate four times, when the cash rate has been cut 10 times? When can pensioners expect this situation to change and the minister to act to adjust deeming rates to reflect the reality of their situation? When will this minister show pensioners respect?
( I speak in support of Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021 for the Social Services portfolio. I would like to touch on two measures that are particularly important to me. The Morrison-McCormack government is committed to ensuring that women have the flexibility to balance their caring and work responsibilities without disadvantage. Sadly, through no fault of their own, expectant mothers, like so many Australians, have faced job losses due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The Commonwealth government is providing $130 million to support new parents whose employment was interrupted by coronavirus by introducing a concessional paid parental leave work test period for a limited time.
Under the normal rules parents must have worked 10 out of the 13 months prior to the birth of their child to qualify for the paid parental leave. The paid parental leave is being temporarily extended to allow parents who have worked 10 months out of the 20 months prior to birth, taking into account the possible loss of work during the COVID-19 pandemic. This extension acknowledges how the coalition government values family and parenting.
This measure enables about 12,800 new parents to access parental leave pay, and dad and partner pay, who would otherwise fail the work test due to the loss of employment or reduction of work hours. As a social worker working with young disadvantaged mothers, experience has shown me that the first 1,000 days is the most vulnerable of times. Support is essential, and that is why I am focused on making sure we, as a government, are doing all we can for young families.
We understand that many families rely on paid parental leave when planning for their new baby, and the government does not want families to miss out because of the devastating and unpredictable impacts of this pandemic. The Morrison-McCormack government understands the long-term importance of families having the flexibility to spend time with their new child without financial stress. This measure will support families during what should be a happy time for all parents and is in line with the government's core values of supporting all Australians who want to work.
The Commonwealth government is also dedicated to reducing the financial, social and personal impacts on families who have to endure the tragedy of the loss of a child. This is a heartbreaking circumstance for any parent to walk through. It is a grief which is often disenfranchised, difficult to share and evidenced by silence. That is why I'm so pleased that we have committed $7.6 million to expand access to bereavement payments for parents who suffer the heartbreak of a stillborn child or where their child passes away before their first birthday.
From 1 January 2021, all eligible families who suffer a stillbirth will receive $3,606 regardless of whether this is their first or subsequent stillbirth. I understand that no amount of money could ever compensate for the grief of losing a child, but these new measures will minimise the financial impact of this unspeakable loss. I hope that addressing the inconsistencies in this payment goes some way to acknowledge the trauma these parents experience and supports them as they move forward with their lives.
These changes work alongside the other measures in this bill to improve the wellbeing of Australian families. I ask the minister: how does this measure build on the flexibility and the changes we have made to paid parental leave earlier this year to benefit dads and partners?
This year has been tough. Australians have faced the Black Summer of bushfires, floods and of course the virus. It's often said we're all in this together when we're not. This virus has exposed fault lines in society, and the most vulnerable Australians are falling through the cracks—Australians most at risk, struggling before the virus and not helped by the government's response.
Through COVID-19, unpaid carers of children with disability, frail elderly parents or partners with chronic and complex health problems have taken on more responsibility as formal support falls away and wait times grow. Carers are ordinary people, people like you and me, helping someone they love. As my mum says, 'You don't sign up to be a carer. You do it, because you love them.' They're fearful of this virus and its risks to their loved ones, particularly frail elderly parents. They're struggling to pay the bills as costs climb and they're forced to cut their hours or leave work altogether because of their growing caring responsibilities.
It's estimated there are close to 906,000 primary carers providing an average of almost 35 hours of care per week. That's almost a million Australians providing 35 hours of care per week. The value of that informal care across Australia is estimated to be close to $78 billion. That is the replacement value of that care they're providing. Yet, at the same time, the government's financial support for carers is only a tiny fraction of this amount. It's no surprise then that so many carers I've heard from feel invisible and overlooked by the government. They don't do this because they're seeking recognition or acknowledgement, but they do need to be treated with dignity and respect and be given the proper support to provide care to their loved ones.
In the lead-up to the budget, I heard from carers and advocacy groups across Australia about the impact of COVID-19. The feedback was worrying. Carers were expressing their concerns at the toll taken on their physical health, mental health and financial wellbeing throughout COVID. Most carers across Australia are women, many of them are in their 50s and most of them have their own health or financial problems to deal with on top of their caring responsibilities. This has been borne out in a survey of carers, which ran from April to July, conducted by Carers NSW. It backs up these views. It found nearly half of the respondents were experiencing a high or very high level of psychological distress, and one in three felt highly socially isolated. Caring is a lonely responsibility; it leaves people isolated, cut off from friends and family and other support, especially during COVID.
One in three carers said they never get time out from their caring responsibilities, ever—it's 24/7; it's around the clock, whether it's for a child with a disability, a frail elderly parent or someone with a major mental health problem who is at risk—and only half of the respondents have enough time to keep on top of their other responsibilities. My friend Bev is a carer who is looking after her husband Steve, who has young onset Alzheimer's. He's awake through the night, and needs constant reassurance and support to know that he's safe and that he's okay at home.
Critically, the Carers NSW survey found many carers are experiencing difficulty getting information. Worryingly, up to one in three carers had found it difficult to get information about services or to organise services to support the person they care for. It's hard enough outside of COVID, but in the middle of a global pandemic it has become even worse for carers trying to access the critical practical support they need each day.
This survey result goes to the heart of the government's measures: one in four carers reported spending more money than they made in the last 12 months. That many carers are going backwards financially is disturbing. The small amount of additional support provided to carers in the budget—two payments of $250, spread over six months—isn't enough. Many carer payment recipients are of working age and rely on part-time work to support themselves, and, as I've said, they've lost work due to increased caring responsibilities and the economic downturn.
Minister, my question to you is, given the toll on carers, will the government provide additional financial support to carer payment recipients as a matter of urgency; address the shortages in respite care for carers desperate for a break; consider ways to reduce barriers to carers accessing help through the carer gateway, which was intended to enhance, not hinder, support; and consider performance targets for the gateway that focus on quality and carer satisfaction, not just the number of people accessing the gateway? Minister, in the middle of a recession and a global pandemic, carers and those living with a disability deserve better from you and this government. They feel invisible and overlooked. They deserve compassion and consideration. (Time expired)
The Morrison government has provided funding to continue the cashless debit card as an ongoing measure in existing sites. Extending the cashless debit card permanently in the existing sites responds to calls from community leaders, and allows for greater certainty for participants, services and their communities. The draft ANU evaluation of the cashless debit card has found consistent and clear evidence that alcohol consumption has reduced since the introduction of the cashless debit card in the trial sites. The cashless debit card has been helping to reduce gambling, with positive impacts, especially in the context of family and broader social life. The cashless debit card was reported to make things better for those who were probably the most vulnerable and who needed it most.
This measure also provides a further 12-month extension of place-based income management. Transition of income management participants in the Northern Territory and Cape York region to the cashless debit card is expected to commence in early 2021. The cashless debit card helps participants with their budgeting to ensure money is spent on essential goods such as food and housing. It offers flexibility for participants and better technology than the BasicsCard, with significantly lower ongoing operational costs than income management.
The government is committed to delivering positive outcomes for vulnerable people, families and communities and provides certainty to participants and support services. Providing certainty about the future of this measure allows long-term outcomes to be assessed. This is why the government committed funds across two years to 30 June 2022 for cashless debit card technology solutions and enhancements, improving the experience and opportunities for participants, businesses and financial institutions. The Morrison government is a government driven by a desire to see real changes to Australian families and the health and wellbeing of communities, families and children. If we do nothing then nothing changes. The cashless debit card supports the government's commitment to an effective and fair welfare system and aims to reduce harm in communities where high levels of alcohol and drug misuse and gambling coexist with high levels of welfare dependence.
I would also like to reaffirm the strong position the government has taken to meet the needs of victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. We understand that we cannot undo the trauma inflicted upon people, but we are absolutely committed to continuously improving the Redress Scheme to make sure it operates in the best interests of the survivors. That is why this appropriation bill provides $104.6 million over four years to redress support services and independent decision-makers. This funding will help make technical changes to reduce red tape, speed up processing times and streamline the process. On top of this, funding was provided earlier this year to increase the capabilities of independent decision-makers to process applications, and we saw many applications processed and offers finalised in a short period of time, thanks to those changes.
On 1 July this year, six institutions were named as having failed to declare their intention to join the scheme. Since then, two of these have joined. Reprehensibly, Lakes Entrance Pony Club, Jehovah's Witnesses, Fairbridge and Kenja still blatantly refuse to join the Redress Scheme, and I understand that, for victims of child sexual abuse, this is very upsetting. The Morrison government has zero tolerance for this and, consequently, these organisations are now ineligible for Commonwealth funding. The Prime Minister has reaffirmed the commitment to ensure all organisations that do not join will have their charity status removed. We will continue to work with these four institutions and all others that have given their intent to join the scheme.
How does this cashless debit card budget measure provide certainty to income support recipients in existing sites?
I have four questions to put to the minister representing Minister Ruston. My first question is: how many jobs will be lost when the government prematurely cuts unemployment support? My second question is: why is the government short-changing pensioners by refusing to adjust the age pension deeming rates? I think the member for Jagajaga put that question to you. The third question to the minister is: why won't the government join Labor in delivering support for disability support pensioners and carers to cope with additional health costs during the pandemic?
The next question is: will the government consider working with Labor to get the scheme working for survivors? That's to do with redress. I would also ask, having listened to the last speaker: will the government agree to become the funder of last resort or not? That would seem to me to be an obvious thing, having listened to the member for Petrie talking for some time about the institutions that have refused to join.
I will take a few moments to touch on some of these areas. The government expects that 1.8 million Australians will be on unemployment support by the end of the year—that's the government's figures, not our figures. That's 300 more than what the government expected. Just this week, despite how it's dressed up, there has been a reduction in the coronavirus supplement to people on JobSeeker, with, I grant you, an extension to the end of March. But the other thing that we've consistently called for, as has everyone from the BCA through to ACOSS, is a permanent increase to the JobSeeker rate. That still has not been delivered by the government.
In terms of the age pension, you know as well as I do that it is more expensive for people on the age pension during the pandemic. Yet there was no consideration given to adjusting the deeming rates and a late consideration, by the Prime Minister's own admission, to give two $250 payments to pensioners. Of course, that is welcome. But, as previous members have said, that it is simply not enough. The government has gone harder by patronising pensioners with the explanation that the CPI has not grown in terms of the deeming rates. The Reserve Bank cash rate, as you well know, Minister, is at an all time low at 0.1 per cent—unprecedented Australian history—and yet the upper deeming rate is still 2.25 per cent. How is that fair? Why won't the government adjust the deeming rate to be in line with the cash rate of the Reserve Bank?
The other point that I'd like to make is about disability and carers—and my colleague has outlined a very important question to you in relation to carers. The pandemic saw people with disability forced to purchase more expensive groceries and essentials. They experienced increased costs of private transport as they attempted to avoid public transport. Last week, Labor moved very reasonable and modest amendments in the parliament, as you know, Minister—in fact, I moved them myself—that would allow the government flexibility to address this. We're willing to work with the government on these issues. This is not a contested space.
Finally, in relation to redress, we know that, as at September 2020, the scheme had only made 3,498 payments when there are identified 60,000 people that are eligible for this scheme. There is an absolute slowness in processing applications. My question is: why won't the government introduce an early release scheme similar to the one in Scotland?
Madam Deputy Speaker, I'm cognisant that there is only a minute left in the debate, and I'm sure you'll pull me up when the time arrives. I thank all members for their contributions. There were a number of questions. In terms of deeming rates, as the House would know, from 1 May the deeming rates were adjusted. This benefited around 565,000 age pensioners, who are expected to receive an additional $313, on average, over the course of the year. The deeming rate reduction—down to 0.25 per cent and, of course, the upper rate down to 2.25 per cent—has ensured that the rates remains responsive to the returns available from investments. Under the new deeming rate single pensioners can have around $253,000 in financial investments and still receive the maximum rate for age pensions provided they have no other income or assessable assets.
In terms of carers, the government recently introduced the single biggest reform in more than a decade to provide unprecedented support to Australia's carers. The Carer Gateway is an information service providing practical information and advice to help carers navigate the system of support services. It provides tailored services within the carer's local areas, including support planning, targeted financial support packages, peer support, information, advice and access to emergency and short-term respite.
Thank you, Madam Speaker. I'm more than happy to. In terms of other questions asked, the member for Capricornia asked a question about 1800RESPECT, which is delivered by Medibank. It is a national telephone and online counselling and support service for people affected by domestic, family and sexual violence and their family and friends. The free service operates 24/7 and provides intake, crisis response, triage, information, referral, general counselling and specialist counselling services to users across Australia. It answers on average 6,000 contacts a week, which is superb. We that know there is increased demand. That's why the government has for first time funded 1800RESPECT on an ongoing basis through the budget. It has also allocated $5.9 million out of the $150 million domestic violence support package to 1800RESPECT to meet potential increases in demand. This continued funding ensures that the service can be responsive, noting that coronavirus has changed the way that people engage with this service. We also know that people fleeing violence at home can find it difficult to reach out through traditional services; hence, 1800RESPECT can be contacted over the phone or through a 24-hour online chat function. This means that more people know that a service is out there to help them and that more people can seek support from the service.
With regard to questions from the minister to my left regarding the cashless debit card budget, we have provided certainty through the budget process for cashless debit card participants by continuing it as an ongoing measure in existing sites as well as in the Northern Territory and Cape York, Queensland, following the transition to income management in those regions. The continuation of the cashless debit card in established sites is a direct response to calls from community leaders asking that we deliver certainty to their communities by making the program an ongoing program. It will sustain the positive impacts and effectiveness of the cashless debit card, and it signals the government's commitment to the future of the cashless debit card with financial institutions. The bottom line is that the cashless debit card is working. The call-out by the community leaders for us to extend it is demonstrative of that. Leaders in these communities are seeing positive results and are supportive of the program. Many participants are reporting the positive impact that the cashless debit card has had on themselves and their families.
A question was also asked about paid parental leave and benefits to dads and partners. Earlier this year the government passed legislation to provide new mums with increased flexibility and new fathers more access to the paid parental leave entitlement. Previously new mums were required to take the full 18 weeks as a block in the first year after their baby was born. Under the change, only 12 weeks must be taken in the first year, and the remaining six weeks can be used flexibly at any time within two years of the birth or adoption in blocks as small as one day at a time. It also allows mums to transfer those six weeks to their partner if they wish. This is important, especially with changing social norms around sharing care for children and encouraging blokes to take parental leave. We know all families are not the same—and that's great—so I'm looking forward to seeing the results of these changes.
Thank you, Minister. The Federation Chamber will now consider the National Disability Insurance Scheme and government services segments of the Social Services portfolio, in accordance with the agreed order of consideration. I give the call to the minister.
The Morrison government is absolutely committed to delivering the essential services Australians rely on. Our very strong fiscal position has ensured we're able to reinforce the safety net and continue to ensure Australians have access to services. This has never been more important than now as we make it through the unprecedented times of the crisis. This budget makes the investments needed to strengthen the delivery of core government services for future generations. Building on the work done to date through the establishment of Services Australia, we are investing in modern technology across the full gamut of service delivery. As the House knows, this government is absolutely committed to improving the NDIS and ensuring it's fully funded, demand driven and available for generations to come.
In terms of Services Australia, the government continues to focus on streamlining and modernising the Australian welfare service delivery system to ensure Services Australia has the agility to support the needs of all Australians. We've made significant improvements to how Services Australia interacts with Australians. Australians can now obtain a customer reference number and apply for JobSeeker all online through myGov, as well as many other transactions, meaning core wait times have drastically reduced to just, as I said in the House yesterday, 67 seconds on the social services and welfare phone line. Compare that to the final year of Labor, at 90 minutes—90 minutes compared to 67 seconds. Australians can now more than ever access services on their terms at a time that suits them.
In the 2021 budget, the Morrison government allocated $539.6 million to complete the fourth stage of the seven-year build of the Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation program. Each business day our welfare system delivers over $500 million in welfare payments, and has almost 2.7 million interactions with customers. The fourth phase will see the build of modern payment and decision-making platforms, including a new entitlement calculation engine, which will enable faster claims processing for the community, ensuring far greater accuracy of payments and, when combined with Single Touch Payroll, will reduce the reporting burden for individuals and businesses dealing with government.
In terms of the NDIS, we've always made the point that it's demand driven and fully funded. To reflect a demand for the NDIS into the future, the government has announced a further $3.9 billion to the NDIS. We're investing $798.8 million in the National Disability Insurance Agency and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission over the forward estimates to support the continued implementation of a mature and effective NDIS. The extra funding will ensure that all Australians eligible for the NDIS will have access to the supports they need today, tomorrow and into the future. The government's also investing in the disability support, aged-care and veterans care sectors to support the growing demand for services and, indeed, provide sustainable jobs for Australians. As part of the 2020 budget, the government's investing $32.3 million in the care and support workforce to improve the sector by encouraging flexibility and introducing new ways to attract, train and retain workers. These measures will also support economic recovery, competition and create much-needed jobs, especially for workers that may find themselves displaced.
We have substantially delivered on the NDIS plan, driving significant changes to performance so that participants receive the supports they need. The latest NDIS quarterly report, for the end of September 2020, was released today. It shows extraordinary improvements in performance. There are now 412,000 participants in the world-leading NDIS, and a staggering 193,000 are receiving supports for the very first time. This is a great thing for our country and something I think we'd all applaud. One hundred per cent of access decisions are made within the 21-day time frame, compared to 74 per cent a year ago, with average wait times to make an access decision just 11 days and seven days for zero to six. Ninety-two per cent of first plans are approved for participants aged seven and over within the time frame, compared to 73 per cent a year ago. Ninety-eight per cent of first plans are approved for participants aged zero to six, compared to 71 per cent a year ago. Overall, the wait time for a plan was 52 days in September on average, compared to 133 days when I took over last year. The average wait time for a plan for a child is just 34 days.
Let me conclude with some points on our data and digital work. There is $256.6 million as part of our digital business package to develop the digital equivalent of a 100-point ID check through digital identity. Over 1.7 million Australians and 1.2 million businesses are already using digital identity to access 70 government services. The government is delivering strongly on its promises. (Time expired)
I have a question through you, Deputy Speaker Bird, to the minister. Traditionally, consideration is like a kabuki play, where we each go for our ceremonial five minutes; we say the government's bad and the government then takes five minutes saying it's good—
Mr Robert interjecting—
Unless the minister has had a Damascene conversion!
What I was going the say to the minister is: if we skip the five minutes of ritual government bashing and instead just ask very direct and short questions, will the minister, in the same spirit, not chew up five minutes with recited government whatever, so we can have a decent discussion?
I'll take that as a clarification of the process. There's not actually a standing order to allow that to occur, so I'll take that as a contribution at this point, and the minister can respond now or later, as he chooses.
The procedure will be the same. There's no change to procedure. It's just an informal indication between the shadow minister and the minister that, rather than having five minutes, their intention is to have questions and answers much more flowing. We will still go in the order that the procedures require and according to the time frames that people are allocated. I give the call to the member for Maribyrnong.
The specific questions I have go to the topic of the independent assessment rollout. Why did the government publish a request for tender for IA in March, before the pilot program established to test its impacts was due to be finished, in June? Why is the NDIA proceeding with the tender even though the pilot was abandoned due to COVID-19? Why is the government now proceeding with the tender even though the sample size is 0.0029 per cent of all NDIA participants? Further, how much of the $799 million budget measure to support the NDIA's continued implementation of a mature and effective NDIS will go towards independent assessment? The average plan size is around $100,000. Does that therefore mean that some participants are already going to be found ineligible?
In order to promote independent outcomes, assessors should be drawn from an approved pool of allied health professionals. Assessors should also be independent of the person being assessed to reduce the potential for 'sympathy' bias. This means that health professionals — GPs and others — with past treatment and support responsibilities for the person, would not undertake assessments.
Indeed, John Walsh, who is arguably the grandfather of the NDIS, especially in his role in shaping the Productivity Commission report, was recently quoted as saying, 'If I had a magic wand, I would have done assessments right at the start.'
Independent assessments were always part of the NDIS. The first independent assessment pilot took place from November 2018 to April 2019, to better understand and assess the impact of disability for people seeking support from the NDIS. In November last year, the government's NDIS plan was announced, including reference to independent assessments, and an expanded second pilot then commenced 12 months ago. However, it was cut short because of the pandemic—in fact it was postponed in March. Knowing full well we would continue it, on 25 June a public tender to establish a panel closed, and responses are currently being evaluated. In August I announced the government's response to the Tune review, and on 23 October the second pilot, which was temporarily halted, recommenced. It will involve up to 4,000 participants to further develop the process around planning decisions.
So we have continued our deliberate, consistent approach. We have informed the market as to what we're doing. We can walk and chew gum, frankly, in terms of the independent assessments, having done one pilot and commenced a second. Building on the recommendations of the PC committee as to the time to roll out the independent assessments, based on the results of the trial, we will then have our providers fully in place to do that. That is ostensibly the basis of where we're coming from.
My question relates to the government using taxpayer funds to win cases over the NDIS clients who have to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Dr Larry Laikind is a blind human rights lawyer and is being forced to live an unsafe and desperate life because the NDIA is trying to arbitrarily control who gets what support under the scheme. My question is, specifically: why has the private lawyer spend surged? And why have AAT appeals against NDIA decisions increased by 48 per cent in the last year and 700 per cent since 2016?
I thank the member. Is the minister seeking to take a few questions? There is no change to procedure. If you want to answer a few questions at the end, that's fine. The chair recognises the member for Higgins is on her feet and seeks the call. I give the call to the member for Higgins.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme is one of the greatest social policies constructed and now delivered in this country's history. I would like to acknowledge the bipartisan commitment to the NDIS and congratulate the parliament for its support of the scheme that helps people with disabilities live their lives to the fullest. I would like to acknowledge the member for Maribyrnong and his commitment over the history of this very important scheme. But, of course, with any new and innovative scheme, there are adjustments that need to be made to ensure it works properly. I rise today to speak on two improvements the Morrison government has made to the NDIS, including for the 1,545 NDIS participants in my electorate of Higgins.
In November 2019, Minister Robert announced the government's plan to construct a runway to deliver the world-leading NDIS for an estimated 500,000 participants—an incredible number of participants to get on board the scheme in an effective and efficient way. These participants are from very diverse backgrounds. The September 2020 NDIS quarterly report has recently shown that 37 per cent of new participants this quarter were children aged from zero to six years. As a paediatrician, I really welcome this. An additional 8,639 children in the Early Childhood Early Intervention gateway are receiving their initial support. Nine per cent of participants in the quarter identified as Indigenous, and this is compared to 6.4 per cent in previous quarters combined. Ten per cent of the new active participants in this quarter were culturally and linguistically diverse, and this compares to 9.2 per cent in the previous quarter.
At the last election, the Morrison government made a commitment to implement a participant service guarantee which sets out clear time frames for key NDIS processes. The guarantee establishes new time frames for the NDIA to make decisions about access, plan approvals and plan reviews to provide clarity and certainty to participants, their families and carers. Ensuring timeliness of service delivery for such an unprecedented and large number of government recipients is a challenge that the minister set himself, and he's already delivering on this challenge. Building on this momentum, in August 2020 the government released its response to the Tune review of the NDIS Act. Significant improvements have been made to reduce wait times—and we heard about that in the previous speech, by the minister himself—and bring people with disability, particularly children, into the scheme quicker so they can get the crucial disability supports they need.
This year has been an extraordinary year in so many ways. The COVID pandemic has delivered an unprecedented dual crisis—not just a health crisis but also an economic one. Despite the twin crisis, the government has remained committed to fully funding the NDIS and ensuring that people with disability remain safe and continue to receive service throughout the COVID pandemic. In March 2020, Minister Robert acted quickly to provide assistance to NDIS participants and providers through COVID to ensure the viability of this program. This included a one-month advance payment for NDIS providers, which saw $666 million of advanced payments made to 5,161 eligible NDIS providers to provide immediate cashflow relief. Despite the pandemic, the amount paid each quarter for NDIS continues to increase. It's up to $5.4 billion this quarter, in September, compared to $5 billion in June 2020 and $4.3 billion in the March quarter. The government also announced a range of temporary measures to support NDIS participants during the pandemic, to ensure continued access. Importantly, there are currently zero reported cases of COVID in the NDIS sector, across both participants and workers. This is something to be celebrated and a testament to the commitment of the disability sector to ensure both workers and those they serve are kept safe.
While legislating the participant service guarantee has been delayed to July 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NDIA have commenced implementation administratively from July 2020. I'd also like to recognise that we are introducing independent assessments in 2021, to ensure we have new and existing participants receiving, in a fair and consistent way, flexibility and greater choice. My question to the minister is: can the minister explain how the introduction of independent assessments as part of the government's NDIS reform agenda will help create equity and consistency for participants?
On 30 September this year the number of AAT applications represented 0.4 per cent of the total number of participants. As a percentage, it's exactly the same as last year—0.4 per cent. Whilst the total number has increased over the last few years, the growth has aligned with the growth in the number of participants in the scheme. The total number of AAT applications increased from 1,220 in 2018-19 to 1,780 in 2019-20, again largely in line with the growth of the NDIS. Of the 4,319 cases received by the NDIA since scheme inception, 3,356 have resolved prior to a contested hearing, 890 remain open and 73 went on to receive a substantial decision of the AAT. Of cases resolved, 65 per cent were resolved by agreement, 33 per cent were withdrawn by the applicant or dismissed, and two per cent were resolved by a contested hearing.
With respect to the first question the member asked, as a general rule we don't comment on AAT cases. However, if information is brought into the public domain and it needs further clarification, we'll do so, and I believe the case the member has made has been brought into the public domain, not in here but outside. Accordingly, a letter to the editor was sent from Mr Martin Hoffman, the CEO of the NDIA. I'll read part of that: 'Mr Lawrence Laikind submitted an AAT request to review a decision regarding home modifications to his property. He is represented by a senior counsel and junior counsel. The proposed work to Mr Laikind's backyard included a request for a personal boat pontoon, extensions to a pool deck, related landscaping and the rebuilding of a retaining wall. The estimated cost of this work was more than $200,000. This request was denied, on the basis that Mr Laikind's request did not meet the criteria under section 34 of the NDIS Act and therefore is not reasonable and necessary support to be funded by the taxpayer. The NDIA is committed to ensuring participants receive their reasonable and necessary disability related supports and that the scheme remains equitable and sustainable for all participants now and into the future.'
Australia has had some 27,000 confirmed cases of COVID, but only 17 have been uniquely detected by the DTA's COVIDSafe app. This record has been rightly criticised by medical and tech experts, as well as by senior state government figures of all political persuasions. Despite this, your government has said there are no plans underway to vary it in any major way. In fact, there are no plans at all to look at the Apple-Google API, which would greatly improve the bluetooth functionality and effectiveness. So the questions that need to be asked and need to be answered are: Have you or your ministerial colleagues instructed the DTA to lessen the 15-minute exposure setting so the app may detect more COVID contacts and be more effective in the fight against COVID? If not, why not?
I just remind members that you're not actually asking questions of me but of the minister, so, if we could just avoid the 'you' usage, that would be helpful. I'm sure the minister understood the question was to him.
I'm pleased to speak today about the extraordinary contributions of Services Australia, firstly, in response to the Black Summer bushfires and then throughout the COVID pandemic. I'd like to begin by thanking each and every person at the forefront of the Australian government's response to these crises, providing support to millions of Australians during a period of uncertainty, upheaval and indeed hardship.
At the outset of 2020, Australia was facing a natural disaster on a scale rarely experienced as bushfires raged right across our great country. The Black Summer bushfires tragically took loved ones, destroyed homes, ravaged our wildlife and brought trauma to so many.
If these events taught us anything, it's that Australians expect and deserve national leadership, and effective coordination and timely action, when responding to a crisis or a natural disaster. Recognising this, the Morrison government acted swiftly, establishing the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and allocating $2 billion to ensure that communities devastated by the fires get the support they need as they recover and working closely with states and territory governments. Services Australia played a vital role in the delivery of financial and non-financial assistance to individuals, to families and to communities to get them back on their feet as soon as possible.
Assisted by the Australian Defence Force, Services Australia deployed mobile service teams and mobile service centres to more than 200 communities affected by the Black Summer bushfires. Equipped with portable technology, these teams provided a visible on-the-ground government presence in otherwise inaccessible locations, working side by side with other state and federal agencies to rapidly deliver support to affected communities. Services Australia's staff worked tirelessly, keeping service centres open in affected communities and the Australian government emergency information line operating seven days a week.
On the Australian government emergency information line, Services Australia answered more than 350,000 calls—most within seconds. They processed more than 200,000 claims for disaster assistance and delivered over $288 million in critical financial support.
Just as the rains brought reprieve from the choking smoke and raging fires for so many Australians, the nation's resolve was about to be tested as never before as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Australians reached out in record numbers for support. People queued outside Centrelink and logged into myGov in numbers never before seen. Again, the coalition government responded swiftly and decisively temporarily expanding eligibility to income support, waiving waiting periods, pausing mutual obligations, reducing means testing and evidentiary requirements—all to accelerate access to payments for people in need. The government also delivered an economic lifeline to millions through the economic support payments and coronavirus supplement.
Services Australia, once again, found themselves at the forefront of the government's response, delivering more than $9 billion through the economic support payments to some seven million low-income Australians, including pensioners, other social security and veteran income support recipients and eligible concession card holders.
More than $15.5 billion in the coronavirus supplement has been paid to new and existing eligible income support recipients in addition to their usual payment. In the face of unprecedented demand, Services Australia surged thousands of extra staff, redeploying people from within the agency across the public service and from service delivery partners, answering calls and processing claims for people seeking urgent financial support.
I commend the Prime Minister for his vision of government service delivery for Australians and recognise how critical this has been in successfully navigating the extraordinary circumstances that we've faced as a nation this year. I also want to recognise the minister's hard work to make this ambition-vision a reality and ask that he provide an update on the transformation of government services, including how this prepared Services Australia to respond to the Black Summer bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moving to the Robertson review into the circumstances relating to the death of Ann-Marie Smith, when will the government respond specifically to Mr Robertson's specific recommendations? Further, why has the government, despite announcing $93 million, only got six new investigators on the ground? Finally, why are people with disability forced to wait up to 504 days for a complaint to be resolved when often their lives depend on quality care?
In terms of the Robertson review, Justice Robertson was asked to provide an assurance that the activities of the quality and safeguard regulator were appropriate in the circumstances. His report came back to say that they were, and the government has accepted the response to the terms of reference that he was asked to look at.
In answer to the Second Deputy Speaker's question regarding the COVIDSafe app, the COVIDSafe app has now been used in anger across New South Wales over 540 times to find over 540 contacts that the traditional method of contact tracing would not be able to find.
Unfortunately, from 17 July to early August, Victorians were not using the COVIDSafe app at all, even though they had over 6,000 positive contacts. Now they are using it. It is embedded into their processes, but, at the time, they were, frankly, using pen and paper for contact tracing. They've now got Salesforce on board, in terms of a proper digital approach, and they've got the COVIDSafe app embedded in their systems, but, at the time of their highest spike in infections, they were not using it at all. That's uncomfortable for the Victorians opposite, who are great supporters of Premier Andrews, but they are the facts and they are not in dispute.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Pr oceedings suspended from 13:02 to 16 : 00
It's a pleasure to be back here for consideration in detail in 2020. There is a large amount of funding across the Attorney-General's and Industrial Relations portfolio in the 2020-21 budget. We've announced funding of $212.7 million over four years for new measures in my two portfolios. Obviously, very many of them are working in response to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on both individuals and businesses. By way of a short summary of those matters, we have $35.3 million over two years to the A-G's department to continue the Fair Entitlements Guarantee program, which everyone knows is an important safety net for workers, ensuring that entitlements are paid if an individual loses their job to a liquidation or bankruptcy. This particular funding will provide for new temporary staff to process the FEG claims. Obviously we've been receiving an increase in those throughout the pandemic. They will be brought in on an as-necessary meeting-demand basis to ensure that Australian workers can access their FEG entitlements quickly and accurately when they are eligible.
We are also providing additional funding of $5.1 million over two years to the Fair Work Commission to deal with matters arising under the temporary JobKeeper provisions in the Fair Work Act and to resolve the increased volume of unfair dismissals and general protection matters arising as a result of the pandemic. I note that that funding builds on the $46.3 million over three years for the workplace regulator, the Fair Work Ombudsman, that was announced in the July Economic and Fiscal Update. That was obviously meant to deal with the demands of COVID-19. We are also providing $87.3 million to maintain funding for family law services, which are critically important at this time; $2.5 million in additional funding to the federal family law courts to establish a specialised COVID-19 list, which manages the sharp increase in urgent applications; and additional funding of $4.8 million to the Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties Scheme, which protects victims of family violence in family law proceedings.
We're also providing $2.5 million towards the creation of the new federal family violence orders. Those orders will allow victims of family violence to obtain a criminally enforceable federal family violence order in the Family Court. There is also an additional $35.7 million over four years to the Federal Circuit Court to enable the court to assist with the timely resolution of both migration and family law matters. That will provide the court with three additional judges to hear immigration matters, one additional family law division judge as well as five additional family law registrars and increased base funding for the court. Those registrars will serve a very important role on the court. To ensure the courts continue to run effectively in regional areas, the government will also provide $7.7 million to address the safety and security of court users in the Rockhampton and in the Launceston Federal Circuit Court buildings and provide $2.5 million for a new case management system for the Family Court of Western Australia.
Additionally, the government will provide $10.6 million over two years to the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to continue the vocational education and training FEE-HELP redress measures in the 2021 and 2022 years to help students who have debts under the loan scheme due to the inappropriate conduct of their private VET providers. There is $7.6 million for the AAT to enable the Immigration Assessment Authority to continue its role of reviewing and fast-tracking decisions; $1.6 million to the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to ensure that it can effectively oversee the use of the new Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act by law enforcement agencies; and $9.9 million to expand the jurisdiction of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, ACLEI, to cover four new agencies—the ATO, ASIC, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. That funding was drawn from the 2019 Commonwealth Integrity Commission budget measure. As I have stated in the other chamber, ACLEI will form part of the new Commonwealth Integrity Commission. It will expand its jurisdiction. That is a very important and necessary first step to the government's model for the new Commonwealth Integrity Commission. There is also an additional $0.7 million provided to ACLEI to enable it to continue its oversight of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre and prescribed parts of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
Thank you for the opportunity to make that brief summary. I look forward to questions.
My questions to the Minister for Industrial Relations relate to the industrial relations working group and any processes and legislation that may arise from that. From the moment that this government was elected, despite not mentioning it during the election campaign and seeking a mandate for it, the Prime Minister has been rabbiting on about industrial relations reform. In a speech to the Western Australian Chamber of Commence in June last year, the Prime Minister talked about unleashing the so-called 'animal spirits' in the economy and trying to find 'impediments to shared gains for employers and employees'. To anyone who is familiar with a Liberal government, when they start talking about these things it is code for one thing, and that is a tax on the rights of the workers and their pay and conditions—and it is usually backed by some employer groups that are keen on ideological lists of reforms.
In that same speech the Prime Minister announced the Porter review. This was a review with no terms of reference, no start date and no reporting date—in other words, no transparency and integrity. Up until the time that it was discarded a year later, the Porter review consisted of or achieved a series of discussion papers drafted by the minister's department in consultation with unknown sources, but certainly not in consultation with any workers or their representatives. The only other action that he took was to dust off a couple of failed pieces of legislation, the Ensuring Integrity Bill and the worker benefit bill. Both of these bills have one aim, and that is to attack the rights of workers in the workplace.
The government says it is all about ensuring integrity for unions, that we are going to smarten up the union movement. But the one thing that they forget is that the average union member in Australia at the moment is typically a female, working in the public sector in a service profession—much like my wife, who is a nurse that works in a public hospital and is a member of the New South Wales Nurses Federation. Those bills were about making it harder for workers like that to get representation in their workplaces and to join unions. So you are making it harder for teachers, for early childhood educators, for public servants and for hospitality and retail workers. These are the workers in Australia that this government was attacking with those two pieces of legislation.
We all know that they have form when it comes to the rights of workers in those industries. We saw what they did with WorkChoices, where people were forced onto individual contracts so that they took home less pay to their families each week. We know that this government supported the cutting of penalty rates. Workers in the hospitality and retail industries take home less pay to their families each week because of this government's support for cuts to penalty rates.
They often go around saying how they support coalminers and that they are all about the coal industry. What are they doing with the WorkPac case that is before the High Court at the moment? The government have actively intervened in that case to try and stop coal workers being able to work on a permanent basis and get access to family leave, to sick leave and to holiday leave, which other workers working beside them actively get. No, they want to make sure that those workers are classified as casuals in a contracting-out sham. The government have intervened against those coal workers. Yet, they have the hide to come into this place and say that they are all about supporting coal workers. It is an absolute disgrace.
It should have been a lesson for the minister when those pieces of legislation failed the first time. But the minister tried again. He rammed a slightly amended version of the bill through the House of Representatives without allowing the shadow minister or other MPs the opportunity to speak on it. And then COVID hit, presenting many challenges for employers whose businesses have been shut down. When Labor suggested a wage subsidy, the government initially resisted, but eventually they got there and they adopted Labor's proposal for a subsidy. So we've got JobKeeper and JobKeeper flexibility provisions that employers, amongst other things, can use to reduce conditions. Then we have had a series of other calls for the industrial working group process to work through some of these issues.
There's been a total lack of support for issues that really are at the heart of what is going on in the labour movement—lack of wages growth, low productivity and low business investment. It is all about trying to cut pay and conditions for workers. So my question to the minister is: can he guarantee that no worker will be worse off as a result of the outcomes of either Porter review or the working group process?
I might just directly respond to that. I thank the member for his input. It is very true to say that the working-group process that you've mentioned was not something that was part of an election agenda. Neither were JobKeeper or a range of things which were consequent upon the pandemic, which we obviously didn't anticipate. The working-group process is very much a response to the pandemic. You asked for a guarantee that no worker would be worse off from anything that occurs through the working-group process. It's certainly designed to effect increases in employment and job growth and, in that respect, to put longer-term upward pressure on wages growth. We have had 150 hours of consultative, cooperative meetings between representatives of the union movement, who have been quite excellent in their contribution, and peak bodies representing the employers. I've not sat through all of those 150 hours, but I have sat through many of those meetings, a great number of those 150 hours.
How does that dovetail into the bills that you mentioned, such as the ensuring integrity bill and the workers entitlement fund bill? I might relay a story to you. During the height of the pandemic, when I think everyone in this chamber, as well as the union movement and every business owner in Australia, was shocked to see upwards of 400,000 people become unemployed in a very, very short period of time, I picked up the phone and did something that I hadn't anticipated happening in this term of government, and I rang the senior leadership of the CFMMEU and spoke to them directly. The essential substance of those phone calls was the concern around keeping construction open and acting—as it always has done with mining in Australia—as a natural stabiliser to downswings in broader employment. The importance of keeping construction open appeared to me, as the Minister for Industrial Relations, and to the government to supersede every other single priority. In those conversations, we discussed the prospect of the ensuring integrity bill no longer being pursued and being withdrawn from parliament if we could work on a cooperative basis to ensure the maximum ability for construction to stay operational during the pandemic. That wasn't just a matter of cooperation between the federal government and the CFMMEU and the MBA. We will all recall that there was a fateful 48 hours when it looked quite possible that, rather than having a blacklist system during the peak lockdown, where we would nominate the things that needed to be closed and assume that everything else was open, we were going to have a white-out system that assumed everything was closed, including construction. The senior leadership of the CFMMEU, in their efforts with us, in their efforts with state governments, in their efforts to make their workplaces COVID safe, did a massive positive service to this country in playing a significant role in keeping construction going even during the height of the lockdowns. So I praise the leadership of the CFMMEU for that, and the MBA and others. In my observation, that was one of several critical occurrences during the pandemic.
The lesson that we took from that was that, if we could do things like that in direct cooperation with the CFMMEU, if we could design a JobKeeper system by enlisting the assistance and consultation of the ACTU, and those cooperative outcomes and processes saved jobs, then it might just be possible to engage in cooperative processes to create jobs and grow jobs as we try and grind our way out of the worst economic shock that we've had in essentially 100 years, since the Great Depression. The working-group process acknowledges that the ensuring integrity bill has been removed from this parliament, as a matter of goodwill and good faith. Member, we have been discussing issues such as those that you've raised, issues that arise because of the decision in the WorkPac matter, which, yes, we have intervened on, issues around wages growth. I will deal with two of those issues that you've raised directly. In the Workpac case, one way or the other, there has to be a settled position at either the common law or in statute as to what the definition of a casual worker is. Without being overly critical of the previous Labor government that designed the Fair Work Act, because it is proving a very sensitive process to try and work out how you precisely would design a casual worker— (Time expired)
I've long been advocating for a Commonwealth integrity commission and was pleased to see that the funding allocated to the integrity commission from last year's budget remains. To the Attorney-General: I was also pleased that the average staffing levels to that commission stand at 76 people this year, according to the budget papers, and that is in addition to the 88 people that the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity already maintains. In last year's budget, I accepted there were 39 people allocated, because the budget papers said that the Commonwealth integrity commission would be established by 1 January 2020. Of course, it wasn't, and it still hasn't been. In fact, under the current government plans, it won't be until March next year at the earliest, in light of the extensive consultation phase announced. An average staffing level of 76 over the course of the financial year is a pretty big workforce to come on board between March and 30 June. While I welcome the commitment, it's difficult to see how these 76 people will be employed, given the government has just announced a six-month consultation process on an exposure draft that it first put out nearly two years ago and has not incorporated any of the feedback received since. I would like to use the opportunity to ask the Attorney-General for more detail on the proposed consultation process to better understand how those 76 people will be gainfully employed in that effort.
I would also like to ask the Attorney-General for a clearer picture of the time line, from the conclusion of the consultation process to the setting up of the integrity commission. The consultation conducted to date has been ineffective. I call on the government to accelerate that consultation time line and immediately incorporate provisions to enable public hearings, have greater avenues for referrals for whistleblowers and broaden the definition of 'corrupt conduct'. While consultation is necessary, this time line will delay the implementation of a Commonwealth integrity commission. The proposed model is very similar to the model that was already proposed back in 2018 and was widely condemned as not being strong enough.
I continue to support the member for Indi's bill, presented to parliament last month, in relation to the establishment of an Australian federal integrity commission. That bill has been through significant consultation and has support from a wide variety of judges and experts in integrity, as well as the Australian Federal Police Association, which is more than there appears to be for the Attorney-General's current draft legislation. The Australian federal integrity commission is significantly stronger than the model proposed by the government and addresses the concerns outlined. The government model presents two commissions: one for the public sector and another for law enforcement. The government model embeds a double standard, where parliamentarians and other public servants are held to a lower level of scrutiny than law enforcement officials. Law enforcement officials have a lower threshold for corruption and a different definition and may be exposed through a public hearing, while parliamentarians and public servants would not be.
Some of the key concerns with the proposed legislation include the lack of public hearings for the public sector integrity division, meaning that only the law enforcement integrity division would have the power to have public hearings. Parliamentarians and other public servants would not appear publicly. The definition of 'corruption' differs, depending on whether it is conducted by law enforcement or parliamentarians. 'Corruption' should be defined consistently and fairly, a broad definition of 'corrupt conduct' should apply, greater avenues for referral need to be permitted, and protections for whistleblowers need to be created to generate true public accountability and transparency. In the current definition and the referral pathways, this body would not be able to investigate recent events, such as sports rorts, the Leppington land sale or forgery of documents. The definition restricts the commission from investigating unless there is a reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence. This sets a very different standard to the public expectation and will preclude investigation into very important incidents. Attorney-General, will you reflect on the feedback and amend the model proposed?
I wish to take this opportunity to ask the Attorney-General how the government is taking action to support the hardworking men and women of Australia, particularly when it comes to the sudden and severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clearly, Australians have experienced a year like no other in 2020. The once-in-a-century pandemic that is COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our health system, on our community and on our economy. Whilst we are fortunate to be in Australia, there is no doubt that the hundreds of thousands of Australians who saw their hours at work dwindle down to zero—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 16 : 20 to 16:30
As I was saying, there is no doubt that the hundreds of thousands of Australians who saw their hours at work dwindle down to zero and the many more who lost their jobs completely have been doing it tough, with women and young people in particular hit hard. As a government it's incumbent upon us to help regrow the jobs and hours of work that have been lost as a result of COVID-19. We must get Australians back on their feet and regrow our economy, and the government's 2020-21 budget is our plan to do exactly that. It's an economic recovery plan for Australia, a plan to create jobs, to rebuild the economy and to secure Australia's future.
I'm proud to say that employees are central to the government's plan with a multitude of new and continuing measures focusing on individuals and on households, because Australians deserve to know that the government has their backs. This includes when it comes to ensuring that Australians understand their rights and entitlements in the workplace, particularly where there have been changes made to their workplace as a result of the impacts of COVID-19—following things such as the temporary amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 by the government or variations to modern awards by the Fair Work Commission. This includes providing an efficient and effective dispute resolution forum in the Fair Work Commission to dispute unfair dismissals and issues with the landmark JobKeeper program.It includes critical employee support frameworks, like the Fair Entitlements Guarantee scheme for those workers who, regrettably, lose their entitlements due to their employer's liquidation. In these circumstances fast and effective processing of claims is vital.
We have also seen, in recent months, that some employers are continuing to fail to adhere to their basic obligations to pay their employees. Whilst there is no doubt that there are many underlying drivers in these circumstances, it's vital that key regulators, like the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Australian Building and Construction Commission, are on hand to ensure mistakes are rectified and, where appropriate, that compliance and enforcement action is taken.
Can the Attorney-General please outline how the government has continued to ensure that the workplace regulator, the Fair Work Ombudsman, can provide employees with assistance on understanding their rights and entitlements under various employment laws? Can the Attorney-General also advise how the government is ensuring the independent workplace tribunal, the Fair Work Commission, is being funded to provide a fast and efficient avenue for employees to dispute workplace issues, including those arising from the COVID-19 pandemic? Can the Attorney-General also confirm that the government is ensuring the availability of safety net supports, available to employees through the Fair Entitlements Guarantee scheme? Finally, can the Attorney outline how our key regulatory agencies in the industrial relations portfolio, the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Australian Building and Construction Commission in particular, are continuing to protect the hard earned wages of Australians?
I've got some general questions for the Attorney-General around the establishment of a national anti-corruption commission. The first of those would be whether it's correct that the Morrison government is terrified of an independent anti-corruption commission being established, because the government is terrified of the Australian people discovering what it has been up to behind closed doors? I have a further question as to whether or not the Attorney-General has been doing all he can to delay the establishment of a national anti-corruption commission, because he and the Morrison government are terrified of the many, many scandals that've occurred on this government's watch being investigated by such an independent body? And I don't just mean the scandals that we know about from the work of the independent Auditor-General and the work of investigative journalists.
I'd ask why it is that the Morrison government has been slipping and sliding around on the issue of establishing a national integrity commission, trying to avoid making any real commitments, despite having committed to establishing such a body in December of 2018, almost two years ago, and also, despite having said at that time, on 13 December 2018—in a press conference, in fact, conducted by the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, and by the Attorney-General—that they had been working on establishing a national anticorruption commission since January of 2018, almost three years ago? Now that the government has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to admit that a national anticorruption commission is needed, and has at last, years late, released draft legislation for such a body, can the Attorney-General explain why the model he has proposed has been excoriated by virtually every integrity expert and legal authority in the country as a sham that fails virtually every test for an effective integrity commission?
You would think, given that there is now an integrity commission in every state and in both territories, it might have been possible for the government to come up with a model that actually learned the lessons from those integrity commissions that have been established in the six states and the two territories. Can the Attorney-General explain why it has taken him almost three years to produce a model for a national anticorruption commission that the Centre for Public Integrity has examined closely and concludes, in these terms:
Christian Porter's proposal would be the weakest watchdog in the country …
… … …
They're setting that bar so high for investigations that they wouldn't be able to investigate 'sports rorts' or the Western Sydney airport deal …
Can the Attorney-General explain why it has taken him almost three years to produce the model for a national anticorruption commission about which Stephen Charles QC, one of the more eminent lawyers of our country, a former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal and one of Australia's leading anticorruption experts, said:
It's an attempt to protect ministers, politicians and senior public servants from investigations into serious corruption.
Can the Attorney-General explain why it has taken him almost three years to produce the model for a national anticorruption commission that former counsel assisting the New South Wales ICAC Geoffrey Watson SC has described as a body 'designed to cover up corruption, not expose it'?
Does the Attorney-General agree with Anthony Whealy QC, former judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court, who has examined the government's model closely and concluded:
It's a crying shame the government will not give this body an effective way to control corruption in the public service and the Parliament …
The real reason for that is they are afraid of it and how it might affect them.
Does the Attorney-General agree with David Harper AM QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal, who has examined the government's model closely and concluded:
The draft legislation released today falls well short of what is required for an effective anti-corruption commission. The model proposed by the Government will fail to ensure corruption is stamped out at the Federal level. A toothless watchdog that fails to hold politicians to account risks further eroding confidence in our political and democratic processes.
Can the Attorney-General explain his comments claiming that his proposed sham of an integrity commission would be 'more powerful than a royal commission', when it would not have power to investigate conduct that does not constitute a criminal offence and would not have the power to conduct public hearings, as every royal commission since Federation has had? (Time expired)
I thank the member for his contribution. The member for Isaacs has provided a contribution and asked a series of questions with respect to the government's model for a Commonwealth integrity commission, as did the member for Warringah. The member for Warringah's questions were a little bit more sober and measured, so I might deal with those first. They went to the issue of average staffing levels, and obviously the member for Warringah noted that this present budget, which we're dealing with at the moment, sets out an ASL of 76 for the Commonwealth integrity commission this financial year. She put the reasonable question on whether or not that will likely be achieved before the end of the financial year.
The best answer to that is that much will depend on the extent to which we can secure a passage through parliament for the legislation. There's sufficient time at the end of the consultation period to achieve that, but of course that is a matter that's very substantially out of the government's hands, insofar as we will need support in the Senate for that bill. It's obviously also the case that there are 38 ASL in this budget which go directly to ACLEI, which will establish the first stage of the development of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which is the expansion of ACLEI's jurisdiction, which I noted earlier.
With respect to the member for Isaacs's contribution, very little of which I think was particularly fair, perhaps one good example as to why we have designed the model in the way that we have goes directly to the lack of support for this model from Geoffrey Watson QC. Mr Watson was actually involved in an ICAC matter that, in my observation, illustrates the reason why we have been cautious with our model. Mr Watson is obviously not a supporter of the model that we have put forward, because it's obviously too cautious in his view and too protective of individual rights.
Geoffrey Watson was a former ICAC counsel assisting, and I think the issue that I'm about to raise gives a great illustration of why sober, temperate and cautious approaches, even inside a very, very powerful investigative body like this, are warranted. The former New South Wales police minister Mike Gallacher was forced from office after counsel assisting at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Geoffrey Watson SC, made accusations of corruption that were found to be totally unwarranted. This is the same Mr Watson, referred to by the member for Isaacs, who doesn't support our model. He made those accusations by way of questioning. The assessment of Mr Watson's conduct from the ICAC's independent inspector, Bruce McClintock SC, indeed triggered the eventual clearing of Mr Gallacher's name.
There was no evidence presented to support the allegation that Mr Gallacher was corrupt. There was no finding of corruption against Mr Gallacher. Mr Gallacher's career was, in effect, destroyed by the line of questioning from Mr Watson. Those issues related to an incident in September 2014, when Mr Watson was questioning businessman Darren Williams at a public hearing about his relationship with Mr Gallacher and he asked Mr Williams if the two men had 'hatched a corrupt scheme to make donations to the Liberal Party'. When that was denied, Mr Watson, counsel assisting, said to Mr Williams, the witness, 'Well, can I tell you by the end of this you're going to regret having given that answer.' That questioning of a witness asserted a question as evidence. Indeed, the question effectively became treated as the conclusion and destroyed this individual's career. That was quite wrong, and it illustrates all of the problems that we are trying to avoid by having a cautious approach to public hearings on the public sector side of the model that we've developed.
That line of questioning prompted a warning in parliament that Mr Watson's unwarranted corruption allegation, which led to Mr Gallagher's exclusion from his own party of choice and his resignation from parliament, amounted to 'an attack on the entire democratic fabric of the state'. So I must say that Mr Watson's objections to our model tell me that the model's probably about right, because that cowboy behaviour that you had from Mr Watson in that hearing destroyed a career without due process, without any fairness and without any of the protections that all of us have enjoyed in this country for many years.
I have some questions about the review of the model WHS laws and the lack of follow-up or action from the Commonwealth government in progressing the implementation of the 34 recommendations. This year, 2020, has been a year when workplace health and safety guidance has never been more important. We've seen through the pandemic the very high importance of PPE, personal protective equipment, particularly for people working in the healthcare sector. Some of the outbreaks have been as a result of insufficient PPE, particularly for people working in aged-care facilities and some other health facilities. The crisis has thrown a spotlight on many areas where the Morrison government has simply dropped the ball or failed to deliver on its announcements. The lack of progress on the implementation of the review released nearly two years ago is a case in point. We all know that these laws are reviewed every five years. The 2018 review, by Marie Boland, made a number of recommendations, most notably recommendations relating to psychosocial hazards and physiological health.