Senate debates

Thursday, 7 December 2017


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

11:28 am

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017, which is the latest government attack on some of the most vulnerable members of our community—their relentless campaign to attack those trying to survive on the low payments of our social security system. The measures in this bill will have significant impacts on vulnerable people, particularly those with drug and alcohol dependence, older people looking for work, people with disability, bereaved pregnant women and, as usual, a favourite target of the government, people accessing Newstart and youth allowance payments.

This bill is yet another mishmash of measures that will erode our social security and our social safety net, making it increasingly less accessible and more paternalistic while insidiously reducing some payments. The most well-known measure in this bill is the plan to drug test 5,000 people trying to access income support. Of course, while the government has circulated some amendments, the minister has made it very clear that this is not the end of the matter. They still want to do that.

Other measures in the bills create a single jobseeker payment, establish a harsh new two-phase jobseeker compliance framework, remove existing exemptions for jobseekers experiencing drug or alcohol dependence, increase activity requirements for people aged 55 to 59, increase the waiting time for the start of Newstart and youth allowance payments and establish a harsh new compliance regime. Representatives of the health, mental health and addiction sector have unanimously expressed significant and deep concern about the impacts these so-called trials, the drug trials, will have on income support recipients and have called on the parliament to reject this schedule.

The drug-testing trials, as well as the measures to remove temporary exemptions from mutual obligation requirements because of an income support recipient's drug or alcohol dependence or crisis relating to it, and the change to problems relating to addiction being considered a reasonable exemption from activity requirements or mutual obligations, are going to make circumstances far worse for people struggling with addiction, which is a health issue.

These three measures, schedules 12 to 14, fail to understand and indeed actively ignore the medical nature of addiction and the complex biological, psychological and social underpinnings of drug addiction. Placing people on income management or withholding payments for people who test positive to illicit drugs if they don't comply will not help them to recover from addiction or stop them using drugs but, rather, further isolate and stigmatise them. There is a distinct lack of evidence to support the efficacy of drug-testing income support recipients. Such measures have failed in the US, and proposals have been abandoned in the UK and Canada.

Witness after witness to the inquiry into this bill highlighted the problems with this approach and also the significant lack of appropriate drug and alcohol services across the country. This measure forces users into mandatory drug treatment despite the fact that many treatment options are simply not available. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia are chronically underfunded and overstretched, despite the evidence of their cost-effectiveness.

It is deeply concerning that the government is not only spending taxpayer dollars on measures that the evidence shows will be ineffective at managing alcohol and drug dependence; it is ignoring the fact that fewer than half of the people seeking treatment in Australia can find it. If the government is serious about helping people with addiction, it must dramatically increase funding to high-quality treatment services and treat this issue as the health issue it is.

At the inquiry, the CEO of the Ted Noffs Foundation, Matthew Noffs, described these measures as penal populism and said:

The way that Australians frame a drug user is that they are a person who uses drugs because it was their bad choice. That's not what the evidence says. The evidence says it's poverty or trauma—or all of these other scientifically validated reasons why a person becomes addicted to drugs. We still have a large percentage of our population that believes that a person addicted to drugs is addicted because they're a bad person. We know that's not the case, but I can't convince everyone.

…   …   …

… there might be some people who think they can win some points by doing so and jumping onto the wagon of penal populism—that's what we call it in criminology.

Addiction is a complex health issue closely related to poverty and trauma, and we should treat those suffering with compassion, through the health system.

This bill also contains a couple of measures that will make people applying for Newstart and youth allowance wait longer to receive their payments. Here we have two measures: a change to the start date for participation payments and a removal of the intention to change provisions, which will ultimately make people wait longer to receive a payment when they have no other form of income. These measures will particularly disadvantage people with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women and children escaping domestic violence, people in hospital and those in rural and remote areas. With the estimated savings from these two measures at $266 million, it is once again clear the government is seeking to make savings off the backs of those with the least—yet again. Look at it this way: these savings mean people aren't eating, paying rent or having the resources to find work.

With regard to the changes to the compliance system, it is good to see the government acknowledging that the current system is flawed. The Greens have long advocated for an overhaul to the compliance process. However, we have deep concerns about the proposed demerit-points system. I flag that I will be moving an amendment that says that there should be a proper review of the compliance system because that has not occurred. These changes have not resulted from a comprehensive review of the compliance system. The measure introduces a demerit-points system whereby jobseekers are given seven demerit points which can be lost for breaches such as not showing up at appointments or interviews. There are financial penalties for people who fail to meet their mutual obligation requirements for five or more times over six months. The first three demerit points, which can result in payment suspension, may be issued by the employment provider with little review by DHS. DHS does not get involved until the fourth point. We don't know how DHS will ensure that the first three demerit points have been reasonably and consistently applied or ensure that a reasonable excuse has been accepted in the appropriate circumstances. This is concerning given that a jobseeker can lose payment after four demerit points, once they enter the so-called 'three-strike phase'. This measure also removes the discretion of employment providers to take into account the real impacts of a suspended payment on a person's wellbeing and financial vulnerability before they issue a breach for non-compliance. It is expected that up to 80,000 people would lose at least one week's payment if this measure were to go ahead. Losing one week's payment when you are on a very low income has a substantial impact.

A key concern in this measure is that, while the maximum loss of payment at one time is reduced from the current eight weeks to four weeks, by the time you get to four weeks you have already lost three weeks. Also, this penalty cannot be waived as it can be currently; nor will payment continue if the person is challenging the correctness of the decision to impose it, unlike the current system. As Anglicare told the inquiry into the bill:

Australia already has one of the most targeted and compliance-heavy social security systems in the world.

Discretion is incredibly important in supporting vulnerable people to find employment, as we heard from ACOSS in their submission. They said:

The proposed system relies very heavily on drawing a clear distinction between people who are willing to comply but face difficulties, and people who wilfully and repeatedly avoid activity requirements. Our experience is in fact more blurred, people's circumstances do change, and many vulnerabilities go unreported. Discretions to tailor responses to noncompliance is essential to ensure that any compliance system remains humane.

Any changes to the compliance framework must be humane. The new approach proposed in this measure will exacerbate problems, not improve them. As advised by stakeholders in their submissions and at the inquiry, we need a thorough and independent review of the compliance framework and mutual obligation requirement system. We must have an independent, public review into the compliance system before any reforms of the existing framework happen.

It is also very concerning that the government is tightening up mutual obligations for older Australians aged between 55 and 59. Instead of having to complete 30 hours per fortnight of paid or voluntary work, older jobseekers will now be forced to find a minimum of 15 hours of paid work. Senators were told during the inquiry process that this change will not only have a negative impact on jobseekers in a vulnerable cohort but also be detrimental to the volunteer sector that provides an estimated economic and social contribution of $290 billion.

As Anglicare Australia's Jobs availability snapshot shows, the shortage in the number of positions available for low-skill jobseekers runs at six jobseekers for every position advertised. Older workers, in particular, face significant barriers to finding work. This measure goes nowhere in terms of helping to fix this problem, as Anglicare told us during the inquiry. They pointed out that forcing people aged 55 to 59 to complete Work for the Dole or search-for-work programs will not create any new positions or reduce discrimination against older workers. It also devalues and dismisses the value of the voluntary work completed by people in this age bracket in terms of its value to our community and as an appropriate means of lifting skills, providing meaningful community work and engagement and potentially finding employment derived from volunteering.

Volunteering gives people a sense of wellbeing and belonging in their communities as well as an opportunity to develop skills for future employment. Volunteering is also an important way for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and people with disability or mental illness to gain skills and confidence to enter and re-enter the workforce. Unemployment is often an isolating experience, and volunteering is an important way for people to stay connected to their communities. Cutting down volunteering hours to compel people to look for jobs that simply aren't available is nonsensical. Unemployment requires a multipronged and multifaceted approach rather than punitive measures that result in jobseekers being financially penalised for being unable to fulfil activity requirements due to the unavailability of jobs. These changes will disproportionately affect older women, a category of jobseeker particularly disadvantaged in the labour market and who also make up the majority of the volunteer workforce.

Under this bill, Newstart allowance, sickness allowance, wife pension, bereavement allowance and widow B pension will transition to the jobseeker payment. There are a whole host of problems with the transition arrangements in the streamlining of these payments; but the most heartbreaking cut is to the bereavement allowance, with the highest cut affecting grieving women who have lost their partner during pregnancy—I have to wonder whether it is really worth the menial savings that the government is trying to scrape back. For some context, reducing the bereavement allowance will save $1.04 million over four years, whilst the creation of the streamlined jobseeker payment will cost $11.6 million and leave some people worse off.

I'm also deeply concerned about how schedules 12 to 15 in this bill will impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities, particularly those participating in CDP, and share the concerns regarding the issues raised by the Human Rights Law Centre at the inquiry. Those on the Community Development Program, the CDP, are not specifically excluded from the measures proposed in schedule 12—drug testing and income management trials—and schedule 14—changes to the use of drugs or alcohol dependence as a reasonable excuse. This bill does, however, exclude people participating in CDP from schedules 13 and 15—the removal of temporary drug or alcohol dependence exemptions for activity requirements and targeted compliance framework.

This 'exclusion' is facilitated by giving the secretary an exceptionally broad power to determine by legislative instrument that remote Work for the Dole program participants are declared program participants, and also to modify how social security law will apply to them. This is an extraordinary power to give an unelected government official, as Ms Walters, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, pointed out:

The power to be given to the secretary is far broader than what is necessary if the purpose is only to exclude remote participants from schedules 13 and 15 of the bill. The power allows the secretary to modify how social security laws will apply generally, including after a person has left the program. More fundamentally, it delegates far too much legislative power in an unelected government official with only limited parliamentary scrutiny, including a power to create different classes of social security recipients subject to different conditions. This extraordinarily broad power to be given to the secretary would create a dangerous precedent and render it easier for future governments to alter access to basic social security entitlements and protections for remote Aboriginal communities or to other classes of people determined to be declared program participants.

This bill also contains amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act to provide exemptions to social security law, which I have deep concerns about. According to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights:

It should be noted that section 45 of the Disability Discrimination Act already exempts special measures "designed to assist people who have a disability to obtain greater equality of opportunity or provide them with benefits to meet their special needs". An exemption therefore is not required in order to pay benefits to people with disabilities, but would be required for measures which negatively impact people with a disability, such as reducing or suspending payments to those who fail to meet mutual obligation requirements due to their disability where that disability is a drug or alcohol dependency.

The Greens are concerned that an exemption is required for measures which negatively impact people with a disability, such as reducing or suspending payments to those who fail to meet mutual obligation requirements due to their disability where that disability is a drug or alcohol dependency, or imposing mandatory drug testing on people with disability. What exactly does the government have in mind here?

The bill targets vulnerable people for minimal savings. Drug testing and changes to claim provisions could have significant flow-on impacts, resulting in homelessness and negative mental and physical health outcomes. Drug testing and changing the activity requirements for people struggling with substance abuse will demonise and isolate people struggling with addiction.

This bill targets people with serious health problems. While I'm deeply concerned about the human consequences of such an invasive and punitive approach to people with addiction, the overall financial cost of implementing the drug-testing trials and dealing with negative social outcomes will be large.

The government keeps talking about the need to make savings, but it wants to spend $47 million on making older people find jobs that aren't even there and $28 million on removing compliance exemptions for people with drug and alcohol dependency. As Professor Reynolds from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians told the inquiry, these drug testing measures are 'magical thinking':

Addiction is a disorder that's described by the WHO and in the DSM-5—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—as involving impairment or loss of control; the continuation of use, notwithstanding harm to the individual; and compulsions and cravings, alongside the physiological changes of tolerance and withdrawal. We know that there are structural and functional brain changes that are increasingly identified in the literature. There's work being done through the National Institutes of Health in America. This is not something that is amendable to simply saying, 'We're going to manage your income.' It is, really, magical thinking, or at least it's uninformed thinking. We're quite gobsmacked by this idea that we have a value system that says we want people to behave well and not spend their money on unhealthy commodities. As a doctor, I wish that the entire Australian community would spend less on unhealthy commodities.

The evidence to the Senate committee was very clear: these measures will not work and are likely to have a detrimental effect. We cannot afford to erode our social security system any further. We oppose this bill. We oppose the schedules in the bill, and we will be moving amendments if this goes through the second reading. (Time expired)


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