Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012; Second Reading

1:27 pm

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

I have some significant concerns in relation to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012. At the outset, it is important to note that the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee report on this bill raised a number of key issues, and let us put them into perspective. I read from the committee's report, which says:

Schedule 1 of the bill seeks to remove 'grandfathering' provisions established on 1 July 2006 and would supersede transitional amendments passed in 2011 and earlier this year. If the bill is passed, from 1 January 2013—

less than three months away—

• eligibility for parenting payment for partnered recipients would cease when the youngest child under their care turns 6 years old, or when the youngest child of a single parent turns 8 years old.

• all grandfathered recipients would have participation requirements when their youngest child turns 6 (currently this is not until that child turns 7).

So this is a further tightening up. This is further penalising of those recipients. I note your contribution in the media, Mr Acting Deputy President Cameron, which I thought expressed in a very measured way concerns about these measures. I thought they were wise comments about proceeding in such haste. I think your comments, Mr Acting Deputy President, reflected widespread community concerns.

The recommendations of the report of the committee were that this bill should not be debated until the Joint Committee on Human Rights had concluded its inquiry and until the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee had completed its references inquiry into the adequacy of the Newstart Allowance and other payments. The Joint Committee on Human Rights also recommended that the bill not be debated until the inquiry into Newstart is complete. That makes a lot of sense. Why are we rushing this? I do not believe it is appropriate to go against the recommendations of these two inquiries to debate and vote on this bill now. It is hasty. It is unwise.

If the government are serious about the intention of this bill, which they have stated is to encourage people to join the workforce, then surely it is worth the time to make sure there will not be any unintended consequences and, furthermore, that these measures will actually work. This bill will have a significant effect on the people it is targeting. This is the second time this group will have an end date put on their parenting payments, and I find it very concerning that this date is continually being brought forward. These kinds of decisions make it hard for people to plan for the future, and the financial uncertainty this has caused for them is nothing short of unfair.

We must also keep in mind that this group represents something like one-third of parenting payment recipients. The other two-thirds of recipients are already living under the harsh conditions this bill seeks to enforce. There are two facets to this problem. Firstly, there is the issue of Newstart. It is a woefully low allowance, and it is very easy to see how it could hinder, rather than help, job seekers. It grinds people into the ground. If it demoralises them, if it dispirits them, if it means that they are just living from hand to mouth on a week by week basis, I cannot see how that empowers people to look for work, to be job ready. In my view, it is vital that this bill be delayed until the inquiry into this allowance is complete and any recommendations it makes are implemented. Things are bad enough already for the people on this allowance. We do not need to add to their number at this stage.

Secondly, there is the issue of reducing allowances to encourage people into employment. I agree with the government that it is important for people to have a job, and not just for the fiscal argument—being gainfully employed, in whatever field, whether full or part time, plays a vital part in a person's self-esteem. It helps to keep us connected, to know that we and our contributions are valued. I do not see how this bill will encourage people to work. Punitive measures are not the solution. If the government genuinely wants to help people, particularly single parents, transition back into the workforce, then they need to work towards that aim. Everyone here knows it is not as simple as, 'Do it or else!' If higher employment in these areas is genuinely the goal then we need to look at targeted measures to support and encourage people. We need to have a bit of carrot rather than just all stick.

These kinds of programs are not cheap, but just throwing cash at the problem will not solve it either. In fact, if the government were serious about their stated aim, they would not be looking at it as a saving—anything but. Instead they would be setting money aside and working out where to spend it for the best impact. They would be consulting with experts, community groups and people working at the coalface on these issues. But it appears that none of this has happened. Instead, they are insisting on punitive measures, which we know just will not work.

There is another argument here: that all parenting payment recipients should be on an equal footing. I agree with that, but, instead of reducing the allowance to meet the lowest common denominator of Newstart, what if we raised it? What if we just take into account the special circumstances that sole parents are in in so many cases? What if we raised Newstart too? And what if we looked at getting people into work as more than a 'follow the rules and tick the boxes' process? Then maybe we would see the outcomes the government is predicting.

Ultimately, I cannot support this bill. I do not support its intentions in the sense that they appear to be primarily punitive. Of course we want to encourage greater participation in the workforce. Of course we all want people to have meaningful work. But I do not support this bill being rushed through, debated in this place and being voted on against the recommendations of two committees—two committees that have carefully considered the implications of this bill. It is time for the government to take a step back and to take the time to look at the whole issue and how it can be appropriately addressed. This bill is not the solution. It is not even part of the answer. I cannot support this bill.


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