Senate debates

Monday, 21 June 2010

Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009

Second Reading

8:34 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

The Greens oppose the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. We opposed the Northern Territory Emergency Response. We opposed that process and we oppose this flawed bill. There is no proof that income management works. There is no hard evidence at all. To claim that this is implementing successful policy is absolute nonsense. The only hard evidence that is there is that income management does not work. There is evidence from the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association that shows the negative emotional and social impacts that it has on communities. There is statement after statement from local people in the Northern Territory about the negative impact of income quarantining.

There is the report from the Menzies School of Health Research—and, by the way, if the government had paid as much attention when going through the details of their own evaluation process as they did when nitpicking the Menzies School of Health Research report, or had put in place a proper evaluation process in the Northern Territory intervention, we would not be standing here debating this bill right now because they would know their legislation is flawed. They would know there is no evidence to show that income management works. The government’s own six-month progress report shows that. The intervention has been in place three years today, and yet the government’s own report, released last Saturday, the 19th, shows this. For the second report in a row—that is 12 months, folks—child malnutrition is up, despite 88 licensed stores and 16,695 income management customers. This was supposed to be about the children. How come malnutrition is up?

On crime, we have increases in sexual assault reportage, convictions and reports of child abuse.

All personal harm incidents, besides armed person and sexual assault, are up with some, such as attempted suicide/self harm and mentally ill person, increasing quite markedly …

I am quoting from a report on the progress report released today by Jon Altman on It goes on:

It is emphasised (page 52) that increases in reported crime are likely to be associated with increases in police numbers and may be associated with improvements in community safety. This may be the case, but for attempted suicide and mental illness?

Why are those up when we are supposed to be addressing underlying causes of disadvantage in these communities? It is not working and I can give you quote after quote from people who talk about the way it has disempowered them. In the words of an Aboriginal community member:

It is taking away our self-management and autonomy, disempowering us. People are feeling pain in their hearts. There seems to be nowhere to go and all the road seem to be blocked no matter which way we turn.

I have quote after quote after quote. These bills do not fully restore the application of the RDA to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which took away the coalition’s only real reservation about this legislation—they did not want the RDA fully restored, but do not worry: the legislation does not do that.

The bills present a fundamental and unacceptable shift in social security policy in this country. There is no hard evidence to support extending income management to vulnerable communities across Australia. The government have not consulted properly in the Northern Territory despite their claims that they have. It was a flawed process and you have only to read the reports from there to see it was a flawed process. There was no fully informed prior consent to any of this from those communities in the Northern Territory.

The Rudd government do not have a mandate for these sweeping social security reforms, which are in direct contradiction to the policies that they took to the last federal election. They took to the Australian community a policy about social inclusion. This is the very opposite—it excludes people. As for the farcical claim that this increases people’s dignity, please! Have you spoken to any members of the Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory? Have you spoken to them about how having control of their finances taken away, queuing in a separate queue and having to turn up at Centrelink to get permission to spend their money on, say, a washing machine or a fridge infringes their dignity? Have you heard them talk about the shame they feel about income management? Have you heard them talk about going back to the ration days? No, probably not. The minister trots out claims that, ‘It reduces humbug—I’ve spoken to women that say they like it.’ Good—they can use voluntary income management. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with their taking a failed experiment in 73 communities in the Northern Territory that is discriminatory by its very nature—and we know that because the previous government had to exclude it from the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act—and then all of a sudden making it acceptable because they are going to roll it out across the rest of the Northern Territory and then across the rest of Australia. That is simply increasing discrimination. We have had advice from human rights lawyers that laws based on a law that is initially discriminatory make that law discriminatory.

That takes me to the farce that we are restoring the Racial Discrimination Act. For a start, the government is claiming that the intervention measures that will still be in place are suddenly special measures. For them to be special measures, for a start you need fully informed prior consent. They do not have that—strike one. There is supposed to be positive discrimination—these are not positive measures, they are discriminatory measures. They still take people’s land from them, they still put alcohol restrictions in place and they still carry out all the other functions that are listed under the Northern Territory intervention. So, for a start, they do not meet the requirements of ‘special measures’.

Then, of course, the NTER is newer legislation and if it comes to a conflict with the older legislation, the RDA, then the new legislation overrides the old legislation because there is no ‘notwithstanding clause’. Again, the RDA is not fully restored. So what had the opposition temporarily quaking in their boots because the RDA was going to be restored is nonsense, because it is not going to be restored. The committee had advice after advice after advice to say that. So that is that argument out of the way.

On the claim of its having a positive social agenda and being aimed at inclusion, it is the most socially exclusionist policy and legislation that this government could have come up with. Again, that is absolute nonsense. The minister claims that it has community support and she can name about three organisations. When I looked the representatives of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in the eye at the community affairs committee inquiry into this and asked: ‘Do you support compulsory income quarantining?’ they said: ‘No, we couldn’t go that far, Senator.’ No community based social justice organisations support this legislation—for instance, the Australian Council of Social Services do not. By the way, apparently I have scared them all into thinking that this is bad legislation. They all think this because the Greens say so. Give every single peak organisation in this country some credit for the years of work they have spent in these communities and other communities around Australia.

The minister conveniently nearly always talks about the Northern Territory when talking about this legislation and says I was scaremongering when I talked to West Australians about this legislation, as if this legislation will never affect them. For a start, we already have a form of income management in WA, so why would the community not think the government may bring in other forms of income management to WA? Secondly, this legislation is Australia-wide legislation, a punitive, discriminatory approach to broad classes of people because they happen to live in disadvantaged areas.

Most Australians do not know this yet, because the government have framed this debate around removing the discrimination in the Northern Territory. It does not just do that. It expands the discriminatory approach, first off to the Northern Territory, where it may be in place for two years and where the government will put in an evaluation process—which, by the way, they have not quite done yet and which they have not managed to do for three years. Their evaluation process is this: ‘Let’s ask the people who are already subject to income quarantining whether they think their kids have put on weight or are eating more.’ When half of the 76 people they have asked—of the over 15½ thousand people who are quarantined—say yes, they say that that means that income management is working. And when you ask the people whether they have reduced their gambling and whether this was because of the intervention, and they think, ‘They are saying we gambled too much, so of course I’m going to say I have reduced my gambling,’ then that is another tick for income management. There is no quantitative data whatsoever.

Then the government comes out and runs the line that the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare approves this and says income management works. Oh no, they do not. In fact, when I asked in estimates, the institute said that it refused to be involved in the first part of the evaluation because its ethics committee said not to. Yet that is suddenly a claim that income management works. But, to get back to the story about rolling this out across Australia, we supposedly have this evaluation process in two years time—which is not in the legislation, by the way—and then we will think about where else we are going to roll it out across Australia. This legislation applies to everybody, potentially—to all regions across Australia. If there is a change of heart by the government, or if there is a change of government, they can apply this any time. It could be coming to your neighbourhood any time following the passing of this legislation.

Australians will then know what their parliament has done. They will know that the parliament has agreed that, if you are a single parent under 25 who has been on income support for a period of time and you live in an area that has been designated as a declared area, you will be subject to income management whether you are a good parent or not. If you are over 25, it is a slightly longer period, but you will still be subject to income management whether you are a good parent or not. If you have been on Newstart, you will be subject to income management regardless of whether you meet all your participation requirements or activities. And why is that? Because your sole crime is that you are unemployed or you are on income support—and if you are on youth allowance it is the same thing—and you live in that area.

The government knew that they could not extend it to age pensioners as well, so they invented another class called ‘vulnerable’. So, if you are vulnerable, Centrelink can put you on income management. This is a nice little catch-all, by the way, to go back to the Northern Territory. If you are on the age pension in the Northern Territory and you are in the 73 prescribed communities, the government do not really want you to come off, so you will be described as vulnerable because you might be subject to humbugging or you cannot manage your financial affairs. To find out who will be vulnerable, you just have to look at the list that the government has put out in the exposure draft of the guidelines. It is a catch-all for anybody that they want to class as vulnerable and can put on income management. It includes things for which you would normally go to Centrelink for advice. If you are having trouble paying a bill or having a bit of trouble with financial management, you put up your hand to Centrelink to get some advice and ping! You are income quarantined because you have sought advice from Centrelink. You are classed as vulnerable.

A declared community can be a postcode, a suburb, a town, a region, a territory like the Northern Territory, a state or, in theory, anywhere. All it has to do is go through a regulation through this chamber. And, with the coalition and the government supporting it, do you think anyone is ever going to say, ‘No, that poor area’? That is what they will pick on: ‘That poor area can be income managed.’ So, as I said, just because you live there and you are on income support, you will be subject to income management. Income management has not been proved to work at all. It has been proved that it has negative impacts. It has been proved that it has poor social and emotional outcomes. It has not been proved to increase the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables, because they did not have any baseline data in the NT. I will acknowledge that there is now more fresh fruit and vegetables in stores in communities—but that could have been brought about in a far better way than bringing in a Northern Territory Emergency Response that takes away people’s rights and is a discriminatory, top-down, punitive approach. And did I mention it is paternalistic? But the government does not have any baseline data to show whether it is income management or whether actually stocking fresh fruit and vegetables means that people can purchase them. My experience in community is that, if they have fresh fruit and vegetables in the stores, people will buy them.

You have only to go to the website to look at the submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs’ inquiry into this bill to see the number of organisations who oppose this legislation. They oppose it because it is top down and it is not proved to work. It takes away people’s decision making by not including community in the decision making. The Australian Council of Social Services says:

The primary and proper role of the social security system is to reduce poverty by providing adequate payments and supporting people into work. Appropriate activity requirements to assist people into employment are consistent with this objective. Compulsory income management which does not increase payment levels and removes individual autonomy does not further this objective. Rather, it locks people into long-term dependence on others to make financial decisions for them without enabling them to manage their finances independently.

Catholic Social Services also agree. They believe that:

Adequate income support is an entitlement. It should not be a tool for governments or public sector managers to grant, withhold or modify in an effort to achieve ‘outcomes’. Increasingly, it seems policy makers regard the right to income support as itself a cause of disadvantage and as an impediment to the efficient and effective pursuit of policy goals.

Anglicare make the same sort of statements. The National Welfare Rights Network has similar concerns. The Australian Council of Trade Unions Indigenous Committee has similar concerns.

The list of organisations opposing this legislation is extremely long and the list of those supporting it extremely short. This is not good social policy. The NTER is a failed top-down punitive, discriminatory approach which the government is making worse by keeping the intervention in place. This legislation is solely about keeping the intervention in place. It is taking the opportunity—as most Australians do not know this is coming to a neighbourhood near them—to keep the NTER in place. It is about slipping in place the most fundamental reform to our social security system in decades—basically since the Second World War. It is taking away the inalienable right to income support in this country.

The government should be ashamed of itself. The coalition has been dreaming of getting this policy in place for years, and you are now facilitating it. We will never get it changed. You wait until the people in the communities out there realise what you have done and how you have fundamentally changed our social security system, how you are demonising people and saying this is because single parents and those on income support gamble all their money away, they take drugs and they drink. That is just terrible. The Leader of the Government in the Senate said those things in this place when I asked him a question. He implied that people on income support cannot manage their income and do not look after their children.

You should be ashamed of yourselves. This is poor legislation. It is lazy legislation instead of addressing the underlying causes of disadvantage, instead of actually helping Aboriginal people into meaningful jobs. We just saw the latest employment figures for Aboriginal people and they have got worse. The CDEP has changed and so these are multiple hits to the Aboriginal community in the NT.

This legislation is not just about the NT. It is not just about the Racial Discrimination Act much as this government likes to say it is. It is about fundamental change to our social security system in this country and it should be opposed. The Greens are the only party in this place that is opposing this draconian legislation and we are proud to oppose it. I am ashamed that an Australian parliament could think that this is the right way to go, that the people in this place think it is okay to demonise those on income support and that this is the way you get them off income support. It will not work because it has not worked in the NT—the indicators have got worse not better and we spent billions—


No comments