Senate debates

Thursday, 7 December 2017


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

12:06 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | Hansard source

The measures in the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 of greatest interest to Australian Conservatives are schedule 12, regarding drug testing trials, and schedule 15, regarding the targeted compliance framework—in effect, adjusting the consequences for failing the mutual obligation. Firstly, I would like to make a few comments about welfare reform generally and outline just how big the task ahead of us is. Reforming the cost of the welfare budget to the taxpayer is of critical importance. When I refer to the taxpayers, I refer to the heroes of the system who pay more in tax over their lifetime than they receive in benefits. They are a diminishing number in a growing welfare state. I and the Australian Conservatives consider them to be the heroes who are upholding our country. Indeed, they are the cash cows that parties like the Greens, the Labor Party, the Nick Xenophon Team and so forth milk time and time again to fund failed wealth redistribution schemes.

But it's not just the Greens and it is not just the Labor Party. You've got past and present crossbenchers, including the Nick Xenophon Team, whom I mentioned, who have shown zero interest in addressing the ballooning welfare budget. They are champions of the squeaky wheels. They rush out with their oil cans filled at taxpayers' expense to appease the so-called welfare groups who demand more and more and more. They are more and more and more dependent on government for their outcomes. In effect, they are the enemies of self-reliance. They trade away the dignity of having a job, owning your own home and taking some personal responsibility. That is why Australia is suffering and why Australia is struggling to manage a ballooning debt. A massive amount of money is injected into the welfare portfolio and we are seeing increasing demands on it. It's time for that to change.

I note that yesterday there was a motion moved through this place by the Australian Conservatives, supported by the Senate, including the Nick Xenophon Team, that observed the spending levels, which are currently at Whitlam-esque levels when compared with our gross domestic product. The Nick Xenophon Team support the view that we need to reduce government waste and spending and refrain from raising taxes. I would suggest that they should then vote accordingly and support particular bills to redress this and to get people off welfare, including some of the tougher measures in this bill.

But the budget papers show that $8 billion in interest alone is attributable to borrowings in the Social Services portfolio. That's $8,000 million. And a pie chart that occasionally appears on tax returns—and I think it should be explained in greater detail for taxpayers—shows that 35.3 per cent of government spending this financial year will be on social security and welfare. The trend over the forward estimates is that real growth in expenses, by portfolio, will be $15 billion in social services, just over the following four years of the forward estimates. That dwarfs the less than $2 billion in spending growth in health, education and defence spending. Let me put that into perspective: $15 billion growth in the social security portfolio; $2 billion growth in health, education and defence spending.

There are a couple of measures in this bill, as I outlined, that will make a dent in that, but we have to recognise that we have even more demands coming down the pipe in our social security and welfare portfolio. Perhaps the greatest of these is in the disability area going forward. The cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme is going to rise from $3.4 billion this financial year to an astonishing $20 billion-plus in 2020-21. That's an astonishing amount of money, and I suspect that won't even touch the sides of it, because we are continuing to see increasing demands for disabilities worthy of inclusion in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Governments rarely like to say no to anybody. Are they going to be brought into the realm of saying, 'Your disability makes you more worthy to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme than someone else's disability does'?

Another large share of growth in the welfare budget relates to the age pension. I think the age pension is a good thing and age pensioners deserve a fair go, but unfortunately they have been displaced, if I can put it like that, by all the tinkering around superannuation, around housing and around the cost of living. We're finding people are trying to manipulate the system to enable them to get an age pension because of the benefits that go with it, even if they don't particularly need it. There is a lack of confidence now in the superannuation area, because of the constant changes by governments, including by the current government, when they promise they're not going to deal with it again. We've had, again and again, promises that there will be no changes to superannuation. Then they introduce a change. Then they say, 'That's it; there's no more.' Then just the other day this place passed another change to superannuation, allowing first home buyers to access some superannuation savings. You just can't rely on it. Little wonder people are now critically concerned about what's going on.

That brings us to the levels of debt in this country. We are borrowing money, and eventually we will have to pay the money back. Governments are enlisting all sorts of measures in order to recover money from people who get it in unlawful manners or who do not pay their bills, effectively, or pay what is due to the government. The government don't enlist debt collection firms, for example, but there are debt collection firms out there who will do astonishing things. I would like to quote from one, Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions. Marlinspike are a relatively new firm, but they've got their shingle out there:

From our early origins as a very small company Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions had turned itself into a very aggressive debt collection company which specializes in the recovery of the maximum amount of debts for small business who remain unpaid. We will chase people to the ends of the earth and will pursue all legal avenues to vindicate our client's commercial interests. At the end of the day we only get paid if you get paid. We look forward to collecting debts on your behalf no matter how small the debts and no matter how difficult pursuing it may seem.

You wonder why I read about Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions? It's interesting. We live in a society where people feel they don't have an obligation to others or they don't feel they have to pay their own debts. We've seen it, in fact, in this place.

We've seen Senator Dastyari, when he was on the hook for $1,000 or $1,500 from an excess travel bill, turn to a benefactor, a Chinese benefactor, to get that money paid. Lo and behold—who'd have thunk it?—as I was browsing through the levels of debt that we have in this country and I stumbled upon Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions, I also stumbled upon a court case that was lodged on 2 December 2017 in Sydney by Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions—case file No. is 2017/0032625. I mention that because it piqued my interest. I don't know how it came up. It may have been a Google alert. It has the defendant as a Mr Dastyari.

So you've got Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions chasing a Mr Dastyari through the Sydney civil court for non-payment of debt. The plaintiff is a debt acquisition firm. The defence has not been filed as yet, and yet, due to the sleuth-like detective work that has been a characterisation of this place, it would appear that the debt that is owed is circa the $100,000 region. Mr Dastyari is being pursued for $100,000, and I'm advised that the debt is being claimed on behalf of a Chinese company or individual. These sorts of things always pique my interest, if I can say that. It's a confluence of things. You've got a Chinese entity or individual, you've got $100,000 worth of debt that's owed, you've got a new debt collection firm called Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions, which is located in Chifley Tower in the Servcorp offices who are pursuing a Mr Dastyari for that debt. I don't know whether it is the same Mr Dastyari that we have in this place, Senator Dastyari, who has a habit of not paying his bills. I don't know whether it is Senator Dastyari or this Mr Dastyari that turns to Chinese benefactors to mop up his financial excesses. I don't know the answers to those questions, but I think they're important questions to have resolved on the final day of the sitting year. I note that this Mr Dastyari has a couple of weeks to file his defence, and then everything will be on the public record, I understand. It's curiouser and curiouser.

How can we be trying to address the burgeoning welfare debt in this place when I think there might be some people participating in the vote who have some unexplained debts of their own? These are genuine questions that I think we need to get to the bottom of. If we don't, we risk having our parliament fall into even greater disrepute. We risk having our government struggle under the yoke of debt that sees them perhaps pursue the same desperate mechanism that we've seen individuals pursue when it comes to debts—that is, compromise yourself to risk your reputation, to traduce your loyalties to your country in the name of a few measly dollars to ease you out of a burden.

We don't know the circumstances and exactly how deep it runs at the individual level in the case of this Mr Dastyari—and we'll have to get to the bottom of who he is—but the principle is the same. If you don't pay your debts, as this Mr Dastyari is alleged to have done because he's being pursued through the courts by Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions to the tune of $100,000, I'm advised, then you've got to pay another price. It is the same in this country. Unless we arrest the booming welfare debt that is consuming 35 per cent of our budget, then we have very little prospect of paying back the debts that we have accrued over the last 10 or 11 years—and those debts are massive. They're intergenerational, moral obligations. We all have moral obligations—and I think I've reminded a couple of people of theirs today—to the next generation, and we can't avoid them.

I was particularly proud of the Australian Conservatives' contribution to this bill when it was first announced, because we strongly advocated for drug testing for welfare benefits. We will be moving amendments to seek to remove the limits on the trial sites, but I'm advised also that a deal has been done with the Nick Xenophon Team, which is why I earlier referred to them so much, to get rid of the drug-testing regime. This is very disappointing because I think the Nick Xenophon Team, in doing this, are ignoring the devastating personal and social impacts of illicit substance abuse. They will say we need more treatment, but the greatest treatment is to say: 'Get off it. You're not entitled to welfare, if you're going down that path.'

The number of meth users in Australia has doubled in the last six years. We've got a mortality rate which is six times the general population. Surely, it's enough to say: you should pass a drug test before you're entitled to Australian welfare. I do note that the Nick Xenophon Team's Senator Patrick's—aka SA-BEST; whatever—staffer, Nick Xenophon himself, who was a former senator, said that a root-and-branch review of bail laws was needed nationwide and sought a reversal of the presumption of bail if a person was using ice. He said that people who commit crimes while they're using ice should be treated like terrorists. I want to put this in perspective: according to the Nick Xenophon Team, an ice user can be refused bail; you can keep them in prison; and you should treat them like terrorists, if they're committing a crime; but you're not allowed to stop giving them welfare. I find that extraordinary. Wouldn't it be better to take away the ability to buy the ice, drugs, marijuana and whatever else rather than put them in prison, which appears to be their way of looking at it? It's all over the place.

I'm here as a member of the Australian Conservatives. We support schedule 12. We will be doing everything we can to uphold it because we think it's important for people to be accountable for their choices—accountable not only for the use of public moneys but for their use of illicit substances, which I do not endorse or condone; and accountable to the taxpayer: if they want welfare, they shouldn't be using illicit substances. It's what I say to every individual senator in this place: 'You should be accountable for the debts you accrue. If you happen to owe some Chinese firm or benefactor $100,000 or thereabouts, you should pay that if you owe it to them.' You shouldn't allow Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions to pursue you to the ends of the earth to get maximum value for their clients. It's counterproductive; it doesn't work.

We need to make sure that people in this country are accountable for the decisions that they take, that they tell the truth and that they don't sell out, if I can say it like that, or compromise themselves or their values—just like this government shouldn't compromise itself or its values. Doing a deal with the Nick Xenophon Team where they think crystal meth users should be refused bail and treated like terrorists if they commit a crime but should also be entitled to access welfare every week is tantamount to selling out our responsibilities as a nation to the Australian taxpayer and to the onus of mutual obligation. I wait and see, however, how this bill fills out in the end. It will be fascinating to see the end result, and I reserve my right, as a member of the Australian Conservatives, to vote accordingly in the third reading.


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