Senate debates

Thursday, 7 December 2017


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:09 am

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | Hansard source

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 has measures that will expose vulnerable people in our communities and increase hardship and suffering. It attacks the most disadvantaged people in our community. It tightens the screws on people who are already struggling to make ends meet. People require support, not penalties and punishment. The government proposes these changes without any evidence to justify them. The only evidence put forward in this debate presents compelling arguments against the proposals. The government is trying to rush these changes through without listening to the experts or the people that they will impact. It's a mean-spirited bill, another one in a long line which, if passed, will make life harder for people who already face disadvantage and hardship.

Labor opposes this bill. There are some measures, if separated from the rest, that Labor will support. Labor is proposing a series of amendments that reflect that position, including an amendment to schedule 15 to reinstate waivers and discretion from the secretary and employment service providers when assessing compliance measures for jobseekers. There are schedules in this bill that Labor rejects outright.

It's important to put this bill into its proper context. The bill follows on from a long line of measures designed to punish low-income people—measures that increase inequality and entrench disadvantage. The coalition is on a restless mission to destroy the social safety net while, at the same time, giving tax concessions to big business. The bill must be seen in the context of this government's 2013-14 National Commission of Audit and its 2014-15 horror budget. Remember the Commission of Audit? It was made up of former coalition parliamentarians, rolled-gold Liberals and the government's business mates proposing a slash-and-burn approach to Australia's welfare system.

That led to the 2014-15 budget, which ACOSS described as having permanent and crushing effects on low-income people. Funding was pulled from the higher education and schools system—except for the school chaplaincy program; don't touch that! And I'm joking. Cuts were also made to Medicare, and co-payments were introduced for visits to the doctor. Co-payments were introduced on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. These were blatant attempts to destroy the universal application of our healthcare system. A total of $534.4 million was pulled out of Indigenous funding over 4 years. Cuts were made to legal aid and legal services in an attempt to disenfranchise the poorest in our community from accessing equal treatment before the law. The regulators and corporate watchdog whose job it is to ensure business complies with legal obligations and pay their fair share of tax were subject to significant funding cuts. The corporate regulator, ASIC, had its funding cut. The ACCC had its funding cut. The Australian Taxation Office had its funding cut by $142.8 million.

Business gets off lightly, while working families, the poor and the disadvantaged in our society are attacked every time this government brings a budget to the parliament. The omnibus savings bill, put to the parliament in February this year, was just as cruel. It was designed to cut family tax benefits, cut paid parental leave, scrap the energy supplement, impose a five-week wait for Newstart recipients for the under-25s, push 22- to 24-year-olds onto a lower youth allowance payment and cut pension payments for people travelling overseas. This is the government that brought us the PaTH internship program, where the number of young people who had their payments suspended exceeds the number that have achieved employment. They have delivered the Community Development Program, where astronomical numbers of suspended payments endured by first nation people in remote communities is a national disgrace. There were nearly 300,000 penalties applied to around 20,000 participants over the first 21 months of CDP.

They want to increase the pension age to 70 for everyone born after 1 January 1966. This one is particularly egregious. Blue-collar workers, workers on building sites, workers who have had hard labour throughout their whole life, are now expected to work until they are 70 years old. Those across from us, who have done probably nothing but been looked after by their parents, gone off to university and maybe worked in a politician's office, end up sitting in this place in comfort and wealth. They don't know what it's like to have to do a hard day's work in their life, never mind when you are 70.

This terrible bill joins other disgraceful measures that the government are seeking to make into law, including proposals to cut back education payments that support single parents, people with disabilities and carers to undertake the study they need to get jobs. It makes over 2,000 older Australians wait longer to access the pension because they were born overseas and limits pensioners' freedom to travel. They cut back payments for middle-income households with children. They make unemployed people wait longer for income support and force them to spend down their savings even more before they can receive support.

Schedule 3 is the cessation of the wife pension. Labor opposes schedule 3, which would reduce payments to 2,900 women receiving the wife pension. Payments would stop completely for 200 women currently living overseas. Overnight they would lose all income support and be $670 worse off per fortnight. Schedule 4 is the cessation of the bereavement allowance. Labor opposes schedule 4. It seeks to reduce the short-term payments to people whose partner has died. This will mean that a bereaved person in need of income support will receive $1,300 less over the 14-week period than they do currently. The entitlement for a pregnant woman is even greater. This is a cruel cut to people during what can be the most traumatic time in their life.

Labor opposes schedule 9. It seeks to cut the time that 55- to 59-year-old income support recipients are able to volunteer in the community and still receive Newstart payments. These measures will rob community organisations of the valuable contributions being made by mature age jobseekers. It will force people to cease their volunteer work and to undertake activity testing, when it is well known that this older cohort face particular barriers to re-employment. Anglicare rightly points out that there are not enough jobs in the labour market for all jobseekers. Their jobs availability snapshot shows that there are six jobseekers for every entry level vacancy. This provision will prevent people from volunteering their time and skills while it fails to provide the additional support to assist them back into work.

Schedules 10 and 11 of the bill seek to leave unemployed people without income for longer, by pushing back the start date and backdating the receipt of income support. Labor opposes these schedules. These measures combined will remove $266 million of financial support from jobseekers who have no other income. There is no justification for these changes. These measures simply serve to reduce the level of support to unemployed people at a time when they most need it.

Schedule 17 of the bill seeks to increase the capacity for investigations and prosecutions against income support recipients, an already vulnerable group of people on low incomes with limited access to quality legal representation. Labor is concerned that this will expose people to self-incrimination and deny them a basic common law right, and we will oppose this schedule.

And there are schedules 12, drug trial; and 13 and 14, exemptions and reasonable excuses for drug and alcohol dependence. If this bill passes, people suffering from drug and alcohol dependence will face draconian compliance regimes. Schedules 13 and 14 seek to exclude drug- and alcohol-dependent people from relaxed activity testing and participation when they are unwell, and increase the likelihood that people will end up in crisis. Schedule 12 in the bill, currently before us, seeks to establish a drug trial that would compel income support recipients to undertake drug testing or have their income support withdrawn.

If the reports that we hear are correct, then Minister Porter has suffered yet another failure and the government has been forced to shelve its flawed drug-testing plan. The government proposed the drug trial that has no basis in evidence and has been completely condemned by experts and medical specialists. The government was advised in 2013 by the Australian National Council on Drugs in their position paper on drug testing not to proceed with random drug-testing policies. The paper states:

There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or for society, and some evidence indicating such a practice would have high social and economic costs.

In addition, there would be serious ethical and legal problems in implementing such a program in Australia. Drug testing of welfare beneficiaries ought not to be considered.

The head of the Australian Medical Association, Michael Gannon, in his recent address to the National Press Club said of the trial:

It's simply unfair and it already picks on an impaired and marginalised group. It's not evidence-based. It's not fair. And we stand against it.

President of the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine of the Australasian College of Physicians admitted to the Senate inquiry that the chapter was:

… quite honestly, at a loss to see why a drug-testing trial is considered a necessary or effective way to address these issues.


Our analysis and advice is that the measures will be costly and ineffective and that government should consult with the sector on the development of evidence-based solutions to prevent and better address substance use disorders and increase the availability of treatment services across the nation.

Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, Director of the Department of Addiction Medicine at St Vincent's Hospital of Melbourne said:

International experience shows when you push people to the brink, like removing their welfare payments, things just get worse. There will be more crime, more family violence, more distress within society.

Dr Alex Wodak, the President of the Australasian Drug Law Reform Foundation said:

Had the Turnbull government consulted experts before unveiling this plan, they would have been advised to drop these measures pronto. Drug testing trials for people on income support have been trialled and abandoned in a few countries. In addition to causing significant harm to affected people and the wider community, they came at an enormous cost to the taxpayer. Isn’t the government supposed to be reining in wasteful spending?

The drug trial was and still is a bad idea. Pushing unwell people into further crisis by stopping their only income is a terrible policy. The government might take the drug trial out of this bill, but it remains a disgraceful attack on vulnerable people.

Schedules 13 and 14 are draconian and flawed approaches to drug and alcohol dependence, and, according to the experts, are destined to fail. Labor oppose them, as they will do more harm than good. Schedule 15, the new compliance framework, seeks amendments to restore discretion to the secretary and employment service providers to waive penalties. Schedule 15 of the bill proposes changes to the compliance network and for income support recipients, subject to mutual obligations and participation payments.

According to the government's own modelling, these changes would double the number of financial penalties already being endured by people on income support—increasing the number of breaches from 72,000 a year to 147,000. The government is proposing this change without providing any evidence that cutting more people off welfare will improve their ability to get a job. On the contrary, evidence from the United Kingdom shows that tougher compliance sanctions have the opposite effect. They increase the risk of participants becoming homeless and have negative outcomes for mental health, physical health, self-esteem, relationships and engagement with the labour market. Instead, sanction regimes harm psychological wellbeing and disrupt people's efforts to secure work in unintended ways, such as fulfilling compliance requirements rather than searching efficiently for the best job available.

The government's modelling shows that Indigenous people will be disproportionately impacted by these changes, with 25 per cent of serious suspensions likely to impact first peoples, when they represent 10 per cent of the entire case load. The response from the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, to first peoples raising the issue of the shocking unfairness in the welfare system under the Community Development Program was to say:

It is important we stop characterising penalties as punishment.

What an outrageous statement of paternalism to justify discriminatory and damaging social policy. These are simply policies that punish people for being poor by making them even poorer. The government has not properly consulted with anyone in developing these policies. This is not a genuine attempt to help people overcome addiction or seek treatment. These changes will impact people with serious illness, pushing them into financial hardship.

Mr Turnbull claims his flawed and hateful drug policy is a policy based on love. How out of touch can this Prime Minister get? It's a blatant attack on the most vulnerable people in our community with no basis in evidence. In a country with an affordable-housing crisis, where underemployment is a persistent and growing feature of our labour market, this government is doing nothing to fix these issues. Instead, they serve up a never-ending supply of nasty cuts to our social safety net that drive further inequality. This government does not care about the poor and the disadvantaged in this country. This government is a disgrace.


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