Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014; Second Reading

6:16 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Indeed we do. I will touch on vulnerability indicators. This goes to how many safeguards there are. It is worth talking people through what it takes for someone to get to a point where they could potentially have a penalty applied for persistent and wilful non-compliance. It does not happen the first time, it does not happen the second time and it does not happen the third time. It happens after a series of occasions and a series of reviews. What has to happen is that a job seeker has to fail to comply with their obligations three times in six months. But it goes much further than that; there is a process all along the way to get to that point. What we know is that we have service providers working with job seekers—we heard from some of those service providers, and I do not doubt that those service providers are compassionate. Many of them are in the not-for-profit sector, but regardless of whether they are from the not-for-profit sector or otherwise they are compassionate and they are doing their best to help job seekers to find work.

We know that for someone to get to the three breaches in six months they have to go through a first process, because there is discretion from that service provider as to whether it then goes to the department. In all likelihood, by the time it gets to the department it has happened a few times, because the service provider is not going to refer them to the department on the first occasion if there is a good excuse. They are going to work compassionately and as best they can. So by the time they are getting to the department's attention, where we are talking about the first strike, this is a person who, in all likelihood, has failed to comply on several occasions. We do not know exactly how many, but there is a discretion there, and we know that many of these service providers are doing their best. I do not think anyone in this chamber thinks the service providers we heard from would capriciously be reporting someone to the department. There has to be a level of non-compliance over a period of time before they come to the department.

Then it gets to the department, and at each level it is reviewed. Sometimes there will be a good excuse, but this is about three occasions where it is deemed there is no reasonable excuse. By the time they get to that third occasion in six months where they are deemed to have not complied with no reasonable excuse, you can safely say that that individual has likely been non-compliant in a significant way on a significant number of occasions. Then we have a further process where these non-compliances are reviewed. We were told there were about 75,000 in the last financial year who got to this point. Then that gets a detailed review, where a number of factors are considered. Even though they have failed to comply several times, we have a situation where a comprehensive review is done to see whether it is a genuinely systemic problem and there is genuinely persistent and wilful non-compliance. Of those 75,000, we heard that only one-third were then potentially having penalties applied to them. Two-thirds, who have failed to comply on many occasions, will never be subject to a penalty. Let us be clear on that—they will never be subject to a penalty. Then we have a situation where those one-third are able to have the penalty waived. In fact, that will continue under this legislation. They will still be able to have that penalty waived. Then we have a situation where the individual has the ability to appeal the decision. If the department has acted in an unreasonable way, they can appeal that and the decision can be overturned.

Any reasonable observer would say that that is a lot of chances. We are not talking about someone who gets right to the end of that process and has a penalty applied—they can still have that waived under the new system. They just cannot have it waived on multiple occasions, which is what has been happening under the current legislation. Surely, any reasonable observer or any reasonable member of the Australian community—be they a job seeker, be they in paid employment, be they low- or middle-income earners—would look at this and say, 'That is a fair go.'

We are doing our bit to support people. We are giving them every chance to continue to have that support. All this bill does in regard to persistent and wilful non-compliance is to say that you go through those umpteen chances, decisions are reviewed that many times, and the two-thirds who have persistently not complied are reviewed and two-thirds of them might have some reasonable excuse. We have applied the vulnerability indicators, which look at a range of things that might be affecting someone. Whether it is someone suffering from homelessness or mental illness or a whole range of other things, those vulnerability indicators are applied. Then there is an appeals process. We are saying that if someone has had that many chances and they get the penalties, they can have them waived once but they cannot have them waived on multiple occasions. We talked about the 25,268 serious failures for repeated non-compliance, and of these the penalty was waived in 73 per cent of cases. And this is an important point—of those waived, nearly one-third were for a job seeker's second or third episode of non-compliance. This is right at the end of that process I have outlined.

The Labor Party, the Greens and others are saying that, in the end, there should be no penalty and that you can just persistently, time and time again, not meet your requirements. Surely, we should demand better. Surely, we should say that, after you have had that many chances and had the penalty waived once, we are not going to waive it again. We are not going to waive it a second and a third and a fourth time, as is occurring in some cases. Surely, that is not good enough. The Labor Party, the Greens and others have tried to put out this story that it is somehow unjust. I do not think the average taxpayer would see it as unjust if, after umpteen chances and after a waiver, we say, 'Enough. You can't have multiple waivers. You can't just keep doing the same thing. We are eventually holding you to a standard that the community expects.' I think that that is a reasonable way to go.

We heard very compelling evidence on the statistics that I mentioned and the process that I mentioned. We talk about the vulnerability indicators. That is a detailed process that is there to make sure that we do not penalise someone who has had a minor failure to comply—that is not who we are talking about. We are not talking about the 98 per cent of job seekers; we are talking about the two per cent of job seekers who refuse to do the right thing. After giving them so many chances, we should hold them to a standard.

The Labor Party used to be the party of workers. They are now the party, in arguing the case that they have argued, of defending dole bludgers. That is what we are talking about.


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