Senate debates

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Bills

Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016; Second Reading

6:20 pm

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

They combined, as I was saying, to not enable a hearing, so in fact it was up to the Greens and the crossbenches to hold our own hearing into the measures and the impacts of these measures. We gathered some valuable evidence which, although it was not official, is certainly evidence from stakeholders and people that are interested in these cuts. I will go into some of those details in a minute.

It is once again the coalition making cuts—they were trying to make more—at the expense of the most vulnerable in our community. In the years since the horrific 2014-15 budget, which of course was notorious for the cuts it was trying to make—thank goodness many of those did not get through, but that does not stop the coalition. They will keep going and going until they can get some of those cuts through. They are continuing to pursue cuts to income support and to other supports and services that are aimed at the most vulnerable in our community. They are continually trying to cut away our social safety net and, as they do so, they increase inequality, creating a less fair society.

As the Australian Council of Social Services said to us in the informal hearing that was held on Monday, 'The critical question is why the government is pursuing a cut to this payment'—they were talking about the energy supplement at the time—'and consideration being given by the opposition to support that cut.' And thank goodness they did not. I am well on the record of saying thank goodness they did not, although I will come to the bits that they are still supporting in a minute. At the same time, they are prepared to spend $4 billion over the forward estimates to deliver another tax cut to people on $80,000 or more. It will be about $6 a week of additional cash in hand of somebody who is already on about $80,000, and that will be loose change.

They went on to contrast that to the cuts in the energy supplement, which is a cut of $4.40 to Newstart, a payment that we know is well below the poverty line now. This seems to me to be grossly unfair. It captures the fundamental inequality in the coalition's approach. They are prepared to make cuts to the most vulnerable but really baulk at addressing some of the largess that is doled out to the wealthier.

One of the most significant cuts and one which we have been discussing a lot is the cutting of the clean energy supplement. One of the issues here is the impact that this would have. People think $4.40 a week is not very much, but it is if you are struggling to survive on Newstart. For many payments, this has been the only real increase in decades. Newstart has not been increased beyond CPI for a number of decades. Quite frankly, it was unbelievable that the coalition thought it was acceptable to go in for this $4.40 when there has been no increase for decades. There has been a campaign to increase Newstart by $50 a week for a significant period of time. In fact, that campaign to get the $50 increase has been going for so long that we have had to increase it to $55 a week because the cost of living has risen so much over the time of the campaign.

But, no, instead of increasing it, listening and working on that to deliver a cut, the government chose to try to cut Newstart by $4.40 and give the better off a $6-a-week increase through tax cuts. Community organisations have for years, as I said, been campaigning for a real increase in Newstart. We have had campaigns. We have had inquiries. There has been widespread evidence collected about the need to address the issue of one of the most fundamental pieces of our social safety net.

So the question is: now that there have been some changes there—which I am pleased to see—will the coalition commit not to try to go after the energy supplement again into the future? Can people on Newstart be secure in the knowledge that in fact the government will not come for them again and try to cut their payments?

Last time, the schedule dealing with psychiatric confinement and trying to take DSP off people in psychiatric confinement was a whole bill all on its own. We did previously have an inquiry into that particular piece of legislation. All the evidence showed it was so bad that the government itself was not continuing on with that piece of legislation. In fact they had effectively, as the stakeholders took it, abandoned it. But just so that I can remind people of just how bad this piece of legislation was, or is, if it ever comes back, I want to quote Alison Xamon, President of the Western Australian Association for Mental Health, who gave evidence to the informal hearing on Monday. She said:

What we do know is that people with mental illness can be appropriately treated, and often medicated, and released on conditional release orders. But the problem is that if you have withdrawn all of their supports—

that is, taking away DSP—

because these are often people that are on disability support payment—then what will often happen is that they will lose their accommodation, which is one of the key social determinants for recovery. They can't keep their rent going, they can't keep their mortgage going if they have mortgages, or keep the utilities happening, for the temporary that they are being detained within mental health facilities or prison … There are no long term savings to be made in this, but there are certainly far more expenses to be incurred by these measures.

…   …   …

The reason why you need to keep receiving an income, particularly for people with mental illness, is because you need to be able to maintain those supports externally, while you are being temporarily incarcerated and receiving treatment.

Patrick McGee, from the Aboriginal Disability Justice Campaign, also provided some evidence. He said:

These are people who've been found unfit to plead. They are being detained for the purposes of treatment, and that treatment is designed to return them safely to the community. The DSP is used as a cornerstone mechanism for enabling that pathway.

Earlier, when we were debating this bill, I made these points and gave a large amount of evidence about the detrimental impacts of this particular measure. It is tragic that the government, having seen that evidence, having heard that evidence, pushed ahead to try to push this schedule through. They tried to ram it through this place without proper scrutiny. The further tragedy is that, with the magnitude of the impact it would have caused, all that was saved over four years was $30 million. The government are that mean-spirited that they would subject people that rely on this payment and these circumstances to the appalling consequences of withdrawal of DSP. I am glad to see that this is off the agenda. Again, I ask: will the government now commit to the fact that this particular idea is dead and buried? We do not want it coming back a third time. Do the sector and the community have to keep fighting these appalling ideas?

Then, of course, as has been discussed in the chamber, there are the cuts to ARENA. And we are supposed to be celebrating the fact that we have managed to save part of the funding. But I cannot celebrate the fact that we have lost half a billion dollars worth of funding out of ARENA. My colleagues have been eloquently arguing the issues over that, and they are issues that signal where the government is coming from.

There are other measures that still remain in this bill. For example, the bill still contains cuts to the carer allowance. This is another mean-spirited cut that takes backdating of payments away from carers. As we know, carers are often thrown very suddenly into caring for their loved ones and their friends. Often that is the only thing on a carer's mind—they have, all of a sudden, become a carer. They do not know about—and they do not have time to apply for—carer payment. At the moment, people can claim some backdating of carer payment. As I said, they often do not have time to think about applying for carer allowance, because they are too busy coming to terms with supporting their loved ones. It helps carers quite a bit if they can get a bit of back pay. This is what Carers Australia said in their submission to the bill:

It is hard to over-dramatise the devastating effect of the combined shock of someone you love suddenly becoming disabled or incurring a debilitating illness—having to deal with their pain and suffering and the loss of life chances—accompanied by the sudden loss of income; especially at a time when extra expenses are incurred as a result of having to adjust to the tragedy.

…   …   …

The capacity to be reimbursed for even a comparatively modest amount of the extra cost carers have incurred can make a real difference when they have finally reached the point of understanding that they are entitled to financial assistance.

Again, you are making money off some of the most vulnerable members of our community and trying to make savings from them. These are people who are providing billions of dollars worth of care to our community. It is short-term, mean-spirited thinking.

As I touched on before, the bill contains cuts to the energy supplement. While part of those cuts are going to be opposed, as per the discussion we had earlier, the energy supplement will still be taken off families receiving FTB. They will continue to lose the supplement. This is what ACOSS said about that:

… low income families will still be hurt by the loss of the Energy Supplement from family payments. A single parent family with two teenage children will lose $284 a year, or $5.50 a week.

The loss of the energy supplement to families follows a series of cuts to these payments over the last few years. We cannot afford to further cut away at family payments.

So we are still going to see an impact on low-income families. There is still a lot that we do not know about the impact of the changes to the family tax benefit payments, and so we will be asking some questions in the Committee of the Whole about that.

The bill also makes changes to the Aged Care Funding Instrument and other aspects of aged-care legislation. I make the point that this comes at the time when the government is also trying to take $1.6 billion out of aged-care funding. That is not contained in this legislation, but the changes that are made come in addition to those particular changes the government is trying to make. There were submissions expressing some concerns around putting in place increased compliance measures, some of the amendments that were made there and what impact they will have.

The bill also applies interest charges for those on income support. The interest rate will apply to debts under a range of income support payments. It will be seven per cent higher than the market rate—that is, it will be the market rate plus seven per cent. That is quite possibly more than the government is actually paying on its own debt at the moment. This is the second cruel attack. The coalition is changing the legislation so that a debt incurred because of administrative error will now incur an interest charge. Previously, where there was a debt because of administrative error, it could not result in an overcharge. Now the coalition wants to charge people interest even if it is not their own fault. So this is charging interest on debts from mistakes that have been made in income support payments due not to the person who is receiving the payment but to administrative error. The National Welfare Rights Network said in a submission:

Our members regularly provide information and advice to current and former recipients of social security and family assistance payments about debts. Many have relatively small debts … which are nonetheless a significant burden for them due to their low incomes. Most are willing to repay their debts and do so steadily, although it may take some years for them to repay even small debts. Despite this, many of them miss repayments and repayment deadlines at times. This is for a range of reasons, such as mental health, homelessness …

Sometimes it is simply because of the challenge of managing the household budget on a very low level of income. The submission goes on:

Although in many of these cases, the person might be eligible to have their debt repayments suspended for a period (known as "write-off" …) or negotiate a lower rate of repayment, in our experience the same circumstances which lead to them missing payments often lead to them not advising DHS of their situation.

Or seeking relief. In other words, this is another cruel measure, the same as the harsher debt recovery measures that are contained in this bill, attacking once again some of the most vulnerable members of our community. For these reasons, I foreshadow that I will be moving a second reading amendment addressing the issues around this government attacking the most vulnerable members of our community. We will be opposing this bill.

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