Senate debates

Monday, 21 June 2010

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

Second Reading

9:08 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

As I said earlier today, time is more precious than usual in this last sitting week before the winter break and possibly an election, so I will keep my remarks brief. The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 is a very important piece of legislation and, I acknowledge, a quite controversial one. I agree that there is a fine line between respecting people’s rights and acknowledging people’s responsibilities, and I agree that when it comes to issues raised in this bill we need to be aware of all the circumstances and possible consequences that may occur. There is no question that adults can, do and should make decisions for themselves: where they go, what they eat and how they spend their money. However, when a person’s ability to make good decisions is obscured by drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, and when children, vulnerable people and the safety of the community are at stake, that is when we as a parliament need to step in. As a society, it is our responsibility to make sure that people who need our support receive it. Sadly, a reality that we cannot ignore is that people who receive this support are not always able to make the best decisions about how they use it, and the ramifications for others affected by that, particularly children, can be quite severe.

This is not to say that all people who receive support are helpless and at the mercy of alcohol, drugs and gambling; far from it. But I think we need to look at the issues involved. This is not about finding a quick fix to complicated problems by taking away people’s power and responsibility. This is about acknowledging that there are real problems in our society and trying to find ways to address them. Quite simply, there are some circumstances where the government has to act in the public interest, especially when children are disadvantaged or put at risk as a consequence of their parents’ behaviour.

Income management was introduced to try to combat passive welfare and to encourage welfare recipients to be more engaged with their social responsibilities. It was also designed to help protect children and other vulnerable people who may be victims of misspent payments. It is a sad fact that children who grow up in households or environments where welfare payments are abused may become adults with similar views and may perpetuate the cycle. Noel Pearson, the noted Aboriginal land rights activist, lawyer and founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, discussed the sense of victimhood in his 2007 essay, ‘White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre’. He writes:

I want to talk about two problems with victimhood. The first is that we pay a high price for casting ourselves as victims in the morality field. The tactic of victimhood moves from an outlook and a mentality to become an identity. The long grassers and under-the-bridge dwellers are the most visible, end-stage subscribers to this tragic and self-harming tactic. It damages our people wherever they are—from the young student who believes that academic achievement at school is ‘acting white’ and defeats him or herself with such a pernicious outlook, to those who tolerate domestic violence because it is ‘understandable’ given the history of the people concerned.

I believe the sense of victimhood can be extended to other groups who become dependent on welfare payments. I acknowledge the concern surrounding the legislation. In the past few months, my office—and, I am sure, those of many of my colleagues—has received a number of submissions as to why I should oppose this bill. But we have to remember that the intent of income management is not malicious. The scheme is in place because we need to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are being protected and that there is money to pay the rent and the bills and to put food on the table and that children are sent to school. There have been suggestions that the scheme should operate on an opt in, opt out basis. While I appreciate that this may be suitable in some cases, unfortunately it is those who are most likely to choose to opt out of the system who are most in need of it. A key example of this is people who are trapped by gambling, drug or alcohol addictions, and people who may not feel comfortable admitting to financial troubles because of those addictions or who simply do not want to change their lifestyle.

I also note that during the consultations the government undertook on income management, some communities mentioned that gambling activity had reduced. Comments were made that kids were staying away from card games and that chronic gamblers and their families now had food to eat. I see this as a positive step and I encourage the government to specifically ensure that the issue of gambling activity is part of future reviews. I look forward to an undertaking from the government in relation to that.

Welfare payments enable those who receive benefits to fulfil basic responsibilities such as paying rent, purchasing food and ensuring that children attend school. This makes all the difference to the recipients’ families and to the wider community. There is a lot more that needs to be done to address these problems and broader social issues, and we cannot rely on this legislation to be an instant, easy solution, but it is a first step and it is one we need to take if we are serious about ending the cycle of victimhood. Finally, I commend the second reading amendment moved by Senator Siewert. I will be supporting it. Data collection is something that is important, and I look forward to the government providing details at the end of the second reading stage as to what steps there will be to ensure that the data collection from this program of income management is being disseminated, so that we can be guided in terms of our policy decisions in relation to that. With those remarks, I indicate my support for this bill and I look forward to its passage and to the undertakings that I have requested from the government in relation to this.


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