Thursday, 20 August 2015
Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Consumer Lease Exclusion) Bill 2015; Second Reading
I too rise to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Consumer Lease Exclusion) Bill 2015. Hopefully my voice will last long enough to make my contribution, though I apologise if I have to drink a lot of water on the way through! Senator Cameron has introduced this bill, and in his explanatory memorandum he has indicated the reasoning behind his decision to do so. He has explained that the purpose of this particular bill is to provide that consumer leases are 'excluded goods' for the purposes of part 3B of the Social Security (Administration) Act. He has gone further. He says that he believes that there is a need to remove the potential for harm to Centrelink clients—and we underline Centrelink clients—and participants in the income management regime, who in his opinion have a potential to suffer financial harm as a result of entering into a consumer lease for household goods. Consumer leases should no longer be eligible to be applied through the Centrepay system.
I think the first thing that we need to realise is the fact that the Centrepay option provided to people is voluntary. They can choose whether they wish to avail themselves of this particular service. Centrepay has been around, I believe, for 25-plus years. It was put in place as a budgeting and financial capability tool to assist people who are on Centrelink to be able to better manage the payment of the accounts and bills that they choose themselves to enter into. We need to be very clear that there is a difference between a mandatory income-management scheme and what is being offered here by Centrepay. As I said, it was established back in about 1988-89, and I understand that to date more than 600,000 people have availed themselves of this service. But that 600,000 people have made a decision to use this voluntarily and have made a decision as to which goods and services they wish to have paid through this service.
Unfortunately this bill singles out one group of people in our community and makes the decision that they are not able to access the capacity to, over a period of time, purchase goods such as a washing machine, a refrigerator or other such household goods that all of us here take for granted that we are able to have. If they are excluded or precluded from that or even have their capacity to access those sorts of goods diminished, then are we not differentiating between somebody who is on a Centrelink payment and somebody who is not? I think it is very dangerous to treat somebody on Centrelink differently from the way we treat somebody else in the wider community—in a sense lessening our belief in their capacity to make sensible decisions on their own behalf.
Obviously we do not like a situation where we have people preying on those in our community that are less fortunate than others. We do not like people preying on anybody in our community, no matter who they are. But to create a situation where somebody, just because they are on a Centrelink payment, has a greater level of oversight of what they choose to spend their money on, no matter where they get it from, is something that is potentially fraught with danger. In a sense, what we actually inadvertently do is say to those people, 'Okay, we're going to make your decisions for you, so you don't have to do it.' We weaken their understanding of their responsibility to their community to be responsible for themselves and their expenditure.
I would like to think that we could come up with some methods and means by which we can actually increase people's understanding of their financial arrangements and make them better managers of their household budgets. But taking away some of their power to make decisions about themselves and how they spend their money is absolutely fraught with danger. The fact that somebody is on social security or a welfare payment does not preclude them from being able to make decisions for themselves.
If we really want to look at the underlying issue that Senator Cameron is trying to establish—and that is to protect those people who are on lower incomes and have probably got less capacity to absorb an unforeseen additional expense—then we should be looking at protecting everybody in society and making sure that our consumer leasing laws are such that nobody can be scammed in the way that Senator Cameron is suggesting is occurring to the people who are using Centrepay.
I do not think anyone would doubt the benevolent intent of Senator Cameron's bill; I am just not sure that the outcome would be in the best interests of the people he is seeking to look after. On the back of that, Centrepay has been around for 25-plus years, and there is no harm in looking at whether it is actually operating in the way in which it was originally intended to operate. I do not think that anyone in this chamber—on either side or on the cross benches—would say that to review something like this on a regular basis is not a good idea. We find with many pieces of legislation that the original intent is often a very good one but, unfortunately, sometimes in the process of it evolving there are unintended consequences. We are quite happy to look at that. As Senator Reynolds, Senator Lindgren and even those on the other side have acknowledged in their contributions, the actions of this government in seeking to make some changes to Centrepay—to tighten up some areas where things might not have been working quite as well as they might have been and to streamline it so that it provides a better service to the people for which it was designed—are good. We certainly have got an acknowledgement of that.
Centrepay has been particularly well received by the wider community, given how many people have chosen to use it. But some interesting findings came out of a 2012 income management review that was undertaken by Luke Buckmaster, Carol Ey and Michael Klapdor. Included in the findings that came out of the review of the income management scheme as it was operating in Australia was a review of Centrepay. One of the things that was very interesting in the review was that there did not appear to be, to that date, any other programs in developed countries that operate in a reasonably similar way. Some countries do have provisions that allow them to do the same sorts of things as the Centrepay arrangements, but generally they are not available for food, which is quite interesting.
The closest that I could come to finding a system anywhere else in the world that was the same as Centrepay was actually in the United States food program, where welfare recipients and other low-income groups receive vouchers or electronic cards along the lines of the BasicsCard which could be used for the purchase of particular products and specific food items. It was very interesting to see that, despite the obvious and apparent success of this particular program in Australia, it was unique to Australia and nowhere else in the world had actually sought to replicate it.
Whilst the underlying sentiment of Senator Cameron's bill is obviously very noble, there are a number of reasons that I, like the rest of my colleagues on this side of the chamber, will not be supporting the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Consumer Lease Exclusion) Bill 2015. In summary, the reasons that I cannot support the bill include, firstly, that I believe it would unduly influence and interfere with people's ability to get access to what we would consider in our everyday lives as necessary goods. I do not believe that it should be the role of government to tell somebody that, if they cannot afford to buy a refrigerator or a washing machine because they are unable to fork out the full sum of the purchase price on the day that they purchase it, they should be excluded from being able to get access to such a good simply because the government will not allow them to use Centrepay, which is often the only source of credit that they are able to get. We certainly cannot support that, because it is discriminatory to those people who are on Centrelink payments.
Secondly, as I said, the government is already working on a suite of changes to Centrepay—many have already been implemented—to make sure that we end up with an improved system. A number of major changes were announced in May this year, and I think that we need to give the changes that were made in May the opportunity to take effect. Thirdly, I do not think the bill, as introduced, will impact on Centrepay but it will impact on the people who are supported by income management. If you are going to introduce a bill you need to be very careful that it actually delivers the outcome that you are seeking. I think if you really read the detail of the bill, you will realise that it will possibly not deliver the outcome—that is, to get a better outcome for people on Centrelink—that it is purporting to deliver.