House debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:15 am

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021. In so doing, I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes it has grave concerns about the bill, including that:

  (a) the Government seems determined to rush the bill through the Parliament, despite many stakeholders raising concerns about its effects; and

  (b) there are almost one and a half million people looking for more work, thousands of workers and hundreds of businesses and providers in the employment services sector impacted by this rushed bill; and

(2) calls on the Government to ensure that job seekers are not left behind".

This bill ultimately emanates from last year's budget, and it has taken a significant amount of time to find its way to the parliament now. We are concerned about the process by which it has come here and the opportunity for people within the sector, a large number of people who are affected by it, to have their say in what ultimately was a pretty truncated inquiry process.

That said, Labor supports an employment services system that is fair and that makes use of technology to improve outcomes for jobseekers and employment service providers. That statement is probably at the heart of where we ultimately find ourselves today. Those that we speak to within the sector, including the Australian Council of Social Service, also acknowledge the importance of the best use of technology and acknowledge that there will need to be some enabling legislation moved through this parliament in order for the best use of technology to occur, as is planned from the 1 July this year. That is what brings us to this moment. Let me explain that.

The bill is complex and has many schedules and a lot of mechanical provisions which provide the enabling I have just described. There have also been other measures that were in the bill as it was originally submitted to the parliament, particularly schedule 8, which got the government a saving of $192 million at the last budget—by 'the last budget' I mean the 2021 budget—very much at the expense of those recipients in the system who, as a result of schedule 8, would have been required to wait longer on average before their first payment became due. That's how the government saved that money. Labour was opposed to that and sought amendments to that, and ultimately those amendments are now occurring today, with that schedule being removed from the bill. It was the most significant example of the concerns that we had with this bill initially.

There were a number of other elements that we were concerned about in a context where the best use of technology is very important, but it needs to be used in a way which is fair and ethical. Making sure there are proper codes of conduct and that they have legal force is critical in terms of making sure that that technology operates in the most fair way. That has been a concern to many within the sector. I note that the government, the opposition and those in the sector have been engaged in conversations around that which have led to amendments which are being pursued by the minister. We acknowledge the spirit in which that has been done and we thank the minister for that. To that end, Labor will support the bill as amended when the government amendments have been put before the House. As the second reading amendment makes clear, we're not declining to give the bill the second reading in that sense.

These are important amendments to make sure that there is the best use of technology from 1 July but also that there is the appropriate framework around that to make sure that it can operate in a manner which is safe, which is ethical and which places those who are seeking employment front and centre. There remain many in that category. Yes, we are at a point in time where the headline unemployment figure is low, but there are still 1½ million Australians who are either unemployed or underemployed who are looking for work. We still have a real issue around the number of long-term unemployed people, those who are unemployed for more than a year, which our economy is generating. It's really important that we are not building an economy which is leaving people behind. Labor is very concerned that that is what is happening right now. In those circumstances, we need to make sure that there is an employment system which operates in a way to best provides opportunities for those people to re-enter the workforce. That is where Labor is focused.

We acknowledge the efforts in the last 48 hours to reach agreements around amendments which enable Labor to be in a position of, ultimately, supporting this. We acknowledge the effort that has gone into making sure that those within the sector are also comfortable with what is now being moved through the parliament. To that end, we thank the minister for his efforts. But we do also make clear that making sure that our system is at world's best practice when it comes to those who are seeking employment is absolutely paramount to making sure that we are not leaving people behind within our economy.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to second the amendment, and I reserve my right to speak.

10:22 am

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021 and the amendments that we have moved. Labor fully understands the value and the positive impact of our social security system. It is fundamentally important to us alleviating poverty and having an egalitarian society that we support people who are unable to work.

Right now we have over a million Australians who are out of work or looking for more work. It is not the time to be making it harder for them. Any Australian who has found themselves out of work and has to rely on our system, and on Services Australia and Centrelink's administration of that, needs to know that this is a system that will actually support them to be able to live with dignity and to be able to find a job. In fact, our social security system should be a source of national pride like universal health care and public education. It has been fundamental to making Australia a relatively egalitarian society. It is something that we should take pride in and ensure that the policy settings around it enable it to be an effective system.

At the moment, so much of our social security system is inadequate and so much of the way that it is administered is problematic. But we called upon that system to catch so many Australians when we were hit by mass job losses when the pandemic hit in early 2020. And we saw the power of that system, as we were able to reduce the level of poverty in Australia when the government significantly increased the JobSeeker payment temporarily. We saw people lining up around the streets in scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression, needing to access that support and those payments, and needing to access them in person, in particular. We saw long lines of people stretching out the doors of Centrelink shopfronts around the country, as workers were left jobless. The Centrelink in Braddon—which no longer exists—in my electorate of Canberra was no exception. There were long lines outside it as people went there to seek help, having lost their jobs.

As I mentioned, research done by the Australian National University confirmed that, when those payments were increased with the coronavirus supplement, hundreds of thousands of Australians were lifted out of poverty. That is the sort of thing we should be looking at doing. But, when the payment was first reduced and then cancelled completely, those same Australians were pushed back into poverty.

Another really important aspect of that support was that it enabled people to be at home and stop the spread of COVID. So we also relied on that system as a health measure—to support people to be able to live safely and to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

That brings me to this bill, which relates to the 2021-22 budget measure the new employment services model, which comprises spending of $700 million over five years and savings of over $1.1 billion over four years from 2021-22. The bill introduces changes to mutual obligation arrangements which would achieve $191.6 million in savings over four years by delaying when jobseekers receive payments. This is the sort of policy that we're looking at under this government—making a saving by just delaying when people can receive payments. You really would like to see your parliament doing much better than this. It introduces changes to participation requirements as part of the new employment services model announced in the budget, which had significant implications for jobseekers. These changes need to be considered so no Australians are left behind.

As has been mentioned, we are concerned that the government is rushing this bill through parliament, hence we have moved these amendments. That is why we referred the bill to a Senate inquiry in the first place, which reported in June last year.

We have heard nothing from the employment minister that offers confidence to anyone looking for a job, particularly the long-term unemployed, that this government is on their side. In fact, in the course of the Senate inquiry, the National Employment Services Association submitted 'there has likely been a considerable reduction in investment' for disadvantaged jobseekers. There are almost 1.5 million jobseekers, thousands of workers and hundreds of providers and businesses who are part of the employment services sector, and these changes are too important not to get right.

Labor is concerned that schedule 8 of the bill would mean that about 144,000 new jobseekers could lose between $300 and $450 in payments a year because of changes to when they would start receiving payments. It's a very sneaky way to save money—targeting the most vulnerable, targeting people that Australian society should be supporting, when they have lost their jobs.

This cut in payments is linked to when a jobseeker is able to enter into an employment plan. Under schedule 8, new jobseekers who use online services would be disadvantaged compared to those who choose face-to-face services, which means they could wait up to 10 days before they receive their first payment. This is a very strange potential outcome of this bill, in that what Services Australia and Centrelink are aiming to do is encourage people online, but this actually creates a disincentive for people to go online. As mentioned, we are concerned, because, while technology is important and we should be utilising it as much as we can, we need to use it in the best possible way, in ways that don't actually increase hardship for people who have lost their jobs.

The problem is, how can jobseekers choose face-to-face services when this government has been steadily axing Centrelink shopfronts around the country? I know this because it happened in my electorate of Canberra just recently. Last year the only Centrelink shopfront in my electorate, in central Canberra, was shut at short notice. This was in the middle of a pandemic, when, as I mentioned earlier, we had seen hundreds of people lining up in the street in Braddon when the pandemic hit, wanting to access that service. A replacement service will not be opened in my electorate. Services Australia claimed that the office was shut because of a 40 per cent drop in customer demand since 2016 as a result of demographic changes in the area, and this came out only through questioning by Senator Gallagher in Senate estimates. Despite this decrease, the Braddon shopfront was still used by 27,000 people every year.

The secretive nature of the closure was also very concerning. I found out about this planned closure only after chancing upon a Facebook ad for the office space and confirmed that it was in fact the Centrelink office space that was being advertised. Despite huge community support for the service remaining open, with next to no community consultation from the government, they went ahead and axed the shopfront anyway. The thousands of customers who have been told to instead use online portals or visit shopfronts in Gungahlin, Belconnen and Woden had barely any notice and no consultation on that change.

Not everyone can use online services. Not everyone has a computer or a smartphone. And many of Centrelink's own requirements need you to come in, and this is a perfect example of that—where people will actually be worse off if they use the online option rather than coming in, but their options to come in are extremely limited. The closure forced people to travel to Belconnen, Woden or Gungahlin to access face-to-face services, and my constituents who are struggling to survive on the disgraceful $43-a-day Jobseeker payment will have to spend a significant portion of that very low income on transport to get there.

The illogical aspect of this bill is that, despite closing shopfronts and pushing customers online, if jobseekers are forced to use online services they could be, on average, at least 8.4 days of pay worse off than jobseekers who use face-to-face services. At a time when the government is closing shopfronts to cut costs, this bill will act as a disincentive for jobseekers to utilise online employment services and appears to be at odds with the objectives of the new employment services model.

Labor recognises that the current employment services system is in need of reform. We are not opposed to changes designed to improve the system to make the best use of available technology for the benefit of jobseekers. That is why Labor will support the bill only if schedule 8 is removed and amendments are made as negotiated with the Australian Council of Social Service. These amendments include protections for jobseekers who are principal carer parents or have a partial capacity to work and a digital code of ethics to protect people from automated decisions and to protect privacy. I note that while the government have advised that they are prepared to remove schedule 8 from the bill they have not reversed this policy. This has again proved that Labor is the only party that can deliver fairer employment services.

10:33 am

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021, but before I get into the bill, I just want to congratulate my elderly mother, who yesterday managed to FaceTime me for my birthday. It's a huge achievement for her, but it speaks very much to what the member for Canberra was just a saying in relation to the closure of face-to-face Centrelink offices as well as other Commonwealth offices and the ability of people like my mother, who is a pensioner, to access services through digital pathways. My mother has just learned, as I mentioned, to use FaceTime. But it is highly unlikely that she would use online platforms or gateways to access government services. She, like many other pensioners, relies on that face-to-face service.

That brings me to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021. This bill introduces changes to mutual obligation arrangements as part of a move to a new model that incorporates digital services. Those who have spoken before me have noted that there is a particular schedule within this bill that is particularly affronting, and that is the inclusion of schedule 8. To my mind, schedule 8—and the inclusion of schedule 8 in this bill in the very first place—speaks volumes about this government and its agenda. Schedule 8 could be described as a budget saving measure that saves money by targeting the most vulnerable. We're concerned that schedule 8 of the bill would mean that, in a given year, around 144,000 new jobseekers could lose between $300 and $450 in payments because, within schedule 8, there are changes to the start date for receiving payments. The reduction in payments is linked to when a jobseeker is able to enter into an employment plan, which means that new jobseekers who use online services will be disadvantaged compared to those who choose to use face-to-face services even though there are fewer Centrelink offices—fewer options—for face-to-face service delivery. As the member for Canberra mentioned, with petrol prices being what it is, the cost of transport or driving to a face-to-face appointment for many people on a fixed or low income can be quite prohibitive. They could wait up to 10 days before getting their first payment.

I've been in that position. I've had to walk into a Centrelink office after fleeing a violent marriage. I remember walking into that office with my two babies. I remember the humiliation; I remember how depressing it was. I remember sitting in front of a bureaucrat, like many of the other bureaucrats that were there, doing the best they could with the resources they had. I remember being told that it would take five weeks before I could get a payment. I remember breaking down in tears and saying to this man, 'How am I going to feed my children for five weeks?' Imagine, through no circumstances under your own control, if you had to wait 10 days to get any kind of payment from a government that should be there to look after you when you are at your most vulnerable, in your greatest time of need. It's just cruel; that's what it is. It's cruel to deliberately write into legislation something that makes people have to wait 10 days to get a payment. It's cruel because it makes them wonder, as I did at that point in time, how they're going to feed their children, pay their rent, put petrol in their car and live. Ten days may not seem a long time, but, let me tell you, when you go to your bank account and your balance is minus $6, 10 days is an eternity.

Peak bodies have also raised their concerns about schedule 8 of the bill. Indeed, the National Employment Services Association have said that they're supportive of the bill should schedule 8 be removed. Although we have some indication that there is some willingness or preparation to remove schedule 8 from the bill, we're yet to see a reversal of the inclusion of this policy within the bill.

As with many members here, I imagine, a great bulk of the workload in my office is devoted to people who come in who have had issues dealing with Centrelink and job service providers. Some of the most heartbreaking stories that have been shared with me, which I have had the privilege of hearing, come from people who have had some fairly heart-wrenching experiences with Centrelink, with the system and with job providers, particularly where they have a disability that prevents them from meeting their obligation to report on a fortnightly basis. In fact, I believe it was just a couple of weeks ago, when I was out doorknocking, that I met a woman with a daughter who was on JobSeeker and who suffered from some fairly severe health conditions—multiple health conditions, as a matter of fact. Although this young woman should be living her best life, a full and vibrant life, as all of us deserve, even her doctor said that this young woman had so many health ailments that it really was impossible for her to hold down employment, yet she was required to report every two weeks in order to continue to receive JobKeeper. The mother, who is her main carer, was just beside herself about how the system had treated her daughter and about her own frustrations in dealing with the system on behalf of her daughter.

I came here, as I imagine many of us did, because I wanted to make sure that the people I represent, and indeed the broader community of Australians, don't go through these kinds of things—that they have a government they can turn to and trust in their time of need. I know that all of us, from both sides, are dedicated to this mission of ensuring that we look after everyone and that nobody is left behind. It doesn't matter what side of the aisle you sit on in this place. From my personal interactions with people on all sides, I believe in my heart that every single one of us is here because, fundamentally, we care about the people we represent. If we care about the people we represent, then we should ensure that the policies and the legislation that we pass do not disadvantage them in any way. Unfortunately, this bill, particularly schedule 8, does that. It creates a disadvantage where a disadvantage does not need to exist. That's the main point here. It doesn't have to create this disadvantage. This disadvantage doesn't need to be there. This bill actually creates it. It creates a gap where there doesn't need to be a gap.

In closing, I'm going to reiterate what my colleagues on this side of the House have said about this bill and our position, which echoes the position of experts, the position of ACOSS and the position of peak bodies. We will support this bill if we have an assurance about schedule 8, which in its application is quite cruel, which in its application creates disadvantage and which in its application creates more hardship for the people we are supposed to be here for. If schedule 8 is removed then we will support this bill. I urge those on the other side to stand up. Stand up and remember those you represent, and think about the impact that this bill would have on them.

10:46 am

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank everyone who has contributed to the bill. I especially thank the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Corio, for his constructive leadership and for working with me, to his enduring credit. This bill modernises and streamlines social security law by reducing duplication and enabling jobseekers who are job-ready the opportunity to self-manage their pathway to work using a digital platform, giving them more flexibility and more choice. It enables a key element of the new employment services model known as Workforce Australia. Workforce Australia aligns with the recommendations from the Employment Services Expert Advisory Panel's report, I want to work, Employment Services 2020, which was the result of extensive consultation with stakeholders.

Current social security law is constraining the government's ability to provide the best service to jobseekers. For example, jobseekers who want to enter study or training into their job plan need to call the Digital Services Contact Centre to talk to a human delegate. It's an unnecessary burden on the hundreds of thousands of jobseekers who are job-ready and who can and should be able to manage their requirements online. Having to contact a government call centre may also deter some jobseekers from accessing activities that are beneficial to them. Once passed, the changes in the bill will give jobseekers the option to enter activities into their plan online without talking to a human delegate, reducing the administrative burden on those seeking work.

It's worth clarifying that the amendments do not mean that employment services or approving plans will be automated or that jobseekers will be forced into a digital-only pathway. Human oversight and assistance will remain an integral part of all employment services. At any time, a jobseeker can contact a person in the digital services contact centre for assistance or opt out of online employment services and agree to their job plan with a delegate at an employment services provider. In addition, it's an overarching principle of the administration of the social security law that services must be delivered fairly.

Jobseekers using online employment services are also covered by extensive existing legislation regarding privacy and the protection of personal information. But, responding to stakeholder concerns, the government has agreed to make amendments to require a digital protections framework be contained in a legislative instrument, providing greater assurance that employment services are indeed administered ethically.

The bill will streamline and reduce the complexity of social security law to better support the transparency and administration of existing mutual obligation policy and ensure the legislation is fit for purpose now and in the future. It'll do this by consolidating repetitive provisions and removing redundant and outdated provisions. Crucially, existing protections in the law will be retained; however, the government has agreed to strengthen these protections by removing amendments to the bill to ensure that jobseekers who are the principal carer of a child or have a partial capacity to work cannot be penalised for refusing work of more than 15 hours per week.

One of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into the bill was that guidance be published on certain aspects of how jobseekers may meet their mutual obligation requirements and information that must be provided to them. While this guidance is largely already public, to provide additional clarity and assurance to stakeholders the government has agreed to move amendments to require a legislative instrument be made, including this guidance. The government has also agreed to move amendments to require arrangements so jobseekers are not disadvantaged by the transition to points-based activation under Workforce Australia. In practice, the amendments will have the effect that, during the transition to Workforce Australia, jobseekers will not face compliance action for failing to meet a points requirement as part of the new points-based activation framework.

The amendment to require completion of a comprehensive review of Workforce Australia within two years of the commencement of the program will ensure that the effectiveness of the new model is thoroughly and transparently examined. The review will include consideration of jobseeker experiences as described by jobseekers themselves. It will also include qualitative and quantitative data and input from employment service providers, key stakeholders such as employers, and social security experts.

Schedule 8 of the bill, as it was introduced, includes amendments supporting the 2021-22 budget measure to align payment commencement for jobseekers referred to online services for those who are referred to a provider. Stakeholders have expressed concern that the current measures under schedule 8 will have adverse impacts on jobseekers. It's important to note that protections within schedule 8 would ensure that jobseekers do not face delays in payment for reasons beyond their control. However, the government does not wish the passage of other important improvements to social security law to be delayed, including changes to support the new model. Accordingly, the government has agreed to move amendments to remove schedule 8 from the bill.

Other changes to the bill include a minor amendment to clarify the existing policy that certain Commonwealth workplace laws do not apply in relation to a person's participation in Commonwealth employment programs; providing more transparent legislative authority for employment programs; enabling quicker implementation when employment programs are modified or new programs introduced; removing the word 'must' from provisions in the targeted compliance framework and instead referring to circumstances in which a person may be subject to compliance action to better reflect the operational policy; ensuring that employment services assistance is not counted as income under social security law; clarifying that the approved program of work delegation is a legislative instrument; clarifying arrangements for youth allowance recipients who are undertaking study as a jobseeker; and tidying up social security law by making other technical amendments and removing redundant provisions.

I again thank the Deputy Leader of the Opposition for a very constructive engagement between our offices in relation to the bill and associated amendments, and I thank him and the opposition for their support for the revised bill. The bill will significantly modernise and streamline social security law, whilst maintaining existing protections, and provide critical support for the new employment services model. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that the bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Corio has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a few to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Messages from the Governor-General recommending appropriation for the bill and proposed amendments announced.