Senate debates

Thursday, 7 December 2017


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

12:44 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader (Tasmania)) Share this | Hansard source

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 implements a range of complex measures across the portfolios of social services, employment and human services. Labor is committed to ensuring that the proposed measures are in the best interests of supporting and empowering Australians, not demonising and isolating them. Unfortunately, most of the measures proposed in this bill do not promote fairness or equality. Mr Harbourside Mansion has said that this legislation is an act of love. Well, what a twisted and bizarre perception of love he has. Australians expect the federal government to look after the most marginalised, disenfranchised and victimised people in our community. This piece of legislation does precisely the opposite. Prime Minister Turnbull really is the Christmas Grinch. There are measures that Labor would potentially support if they were separated from the other measures in this bill. We will move amendments in this place to do just that.

The Liberals, as per usual, tried to rush this bill through and tried to shield the proposed changes from scrutiny, but Labor referred this bill to a Senate inquiry to ensure that it was scrutinised and ensure that all relevant information on the proposed measures is available. Over the last few months, the Liberals have bumped this bill further and further down the list because they knew they didn't have support. Here we are, on the very last day of the parliamentary sitting year, and they are so desperate. They've been forced to shelve their controversial drug-test measure—another embarrassing defeat for a government balancing more Christmas turkey than they can handle.

I'm still going to speak about the flawed measure. Simply shelving it won't do. The government need to dump it altogether. There are still a lot of measures in the bill that the government need to provide more detail on. Policy on the run is what the government are renowned for. If they're not trying to ram through policy very quickly, we know that the Prime Minister will try to catch another thought bubble or the government will backflip, because they know that they don't have the numbers and they won't get it through this chamber. Policy on the run just doesn't cut it, particularly when it's affecting so many vulnerable Australians in our community.

This bill was considered by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee last month and its views were reported in Scrutiny digest 10of 2017. The committee made a number of points, which are all valid and provide even more evidence that the government hasn't thought through this bill properly. The Scrutiny digestsaid that there are significant issues relating to the drug testing of welfare recipients and the new compliance framework regarding participation payments. Further, the Scrutiny digestsaid there are issues surrounding the broad delegation of administrative powers regarding the appropriateness of allowing private contractors to make referrals on who will be subjected to income management under the drug-testing trials. So there are significant concerns from the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. No wonder the community are rejecting these measures.

While Labor are open to supporting some of the measures, if they were presented separately, as I've already said, there are several measures that Labor will not support. We will not support schedule 4—the cessation of the bereavement allowance. We already know that the Liberals do not care about women in this country, but what I can't understand is that the government are actually in favour of measures that specifically disadvantage women like this. The bereavement allowance is a short-term payment for people whose partner has died. It's paid for a maximum of 14 weeks at the rate of the aged pension and is subject to the same income and assets test. Schedule 4 of this bill will replace the bereavement allowance with short-term access to the jobseeker allowance, which is paid at a lower rate. Without the bereavement allowance, people who have just lost their partner will be $1,300 worse off. You can bet your bottom dollar that those opposite won't be putting this in their newsletters that go out to their communities. I guarantee that it is not something that they will be telling their constituents over a cup of tea, and they certainly won't be campaigning on it. It's a shameful act—14 weeks of payment at the age rate. The government have no heart. If the Turnbull government gets its way, a pregnant woman who has just lost her partner won't get any support whatsoever from the bereavement allowance for 14 weeks. I guarantee you that those opposite will not, as I said, be out there tooting their horns and celebrating this or even campaigning on it at the next election.

Labor will not be supporting schedule 3, the cessation of the wife pension. If this bill passes this place, I'd like to know what those opposite will have to say to the 3,100 women who will be worse off with the cessation of the wife's pension. I'd really like to know also what the Turnbull government's key message is going to be to the 2,900 women who will be transferred onto the jobseeker payments or the 200 wife pension recipients living overseas who will no longer be able to access any income support. Overnight, these women will become $330 worse off per week or $670 worse off per fortnight—that's $670 per fortnight, a significant amount of money when you're already living on a very limited budget.

The women impacted by these measures are some of the lowest income earners in this country, and they're going to suddenly be left with nothing to live on other than their partner's pension. Has the government actually read this legislation? Does it actually understand what it's supporting? This government is so out of touch with the community, but, if it's possible, it is even more out of touch with women in this country, because we see, time and time again, how heartless it really is.

I'd also like to turn to another schedule that Labor has rejected from day do—that is, schedule 12, the establishment of the drug trial testing. It's a measure that the government has now rolled over on, as I said, but I think it's important to touch on this because it really speaks volumes as to how the Liberals in this country really think. The government hasn't been able to provide any evidence of support of its measures and has been condemned by everyone. Those opposite should be commended, though, on the extent to which they've managed to unite the experts from the sector on this bill, because they're all against this bill. All the experts were pleading with the government not to proceed with this. It's not the first time they've managed to unite the sector against their own bill, but it's quite extraordinary.

I'd like to share with you a story from one of my constituents which illustrates why this measure won't work. The constituent I refer to is on the pension, and his 30-year-old daughter, who lives with him, has been addicted to drugs for most of her adult life. Occasionally, his daughter turns to stealing other people's belongings and resells them to buy her drugs. My constituent said to me, 'If you take away her welfare payment for failing a drug test, all she'll have to pay for food will all have to come from my pension. How is this going to make Australia better off?' I ask the Prime Minister: how will this make Australia better off?

This is a policy that could increase homelessness and could well increase crime in our community. It's a policy that will make Australia less safe. It's a policy that those opposite have shelved for another time. We know, when the going gets tough and they can't get the support that they need for certain pieces of their legislation, they just put it in the bottom drawer. When they are able to secure the numbers, they will try and ram it through again.

This is of real concern to my home state of Tasmania, because we are concerned about the lack of drug and alcohol services that people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol need. We have a state Liberal government that hasn't done enough in this area. The community are crying out for more rehabilitation centres. They are crying out for more money, but the Hodgman government has closed its mind to it—the Premier has a deaf ear when it comes to supporting people who have significant drug issues in my home state.

The measures in this bill will do nothing to assist Tasmanians who have drug or alcohol abuse issues. Having access to these vital services is terribly important—and not just for my home state of Tasmania but for every Australian. Every Australian who needs help to get off their drugs or to give up alcohol needs support, and that's not a short-term fix. You need to have long-term strategies to ensure that these people are giving the opportunity to be able to contribute again to society in a positive sense. The sorts of measures that the government were trying to get out into the community through this bill would do nothing to address those issues. Every expert has said that this is bad policy and it won't work. Why didn't the government listen? Why did they proceed so far in trying to get this bill through? They now know that the drug-testing provisions won't be accepted by, I believe, the majority in this chamber, but they are still trying to push this bill through. I ask my fellow senators to oppose this legislation.

An open letter from 109 specialists, 330 doctors and 208 registered nurses has called on the Prime Minister to stop the drug-testing trial. That's the sort of unification that's been achieved on this piece of legislation from the government. Medical professionals and the drug and alcohol treatment sector have raised significant concerns about the trial—not only about the impact it will have on jobseekers but also about how ineffective it will be in identifying those with a serious problem and providing them with treatment. Dr Adrian Reynolds, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said:

Existing evidence shows drug testing welfare recipients is not an effective way of identifying those who use drugs and it will not bring about behaviour change. It is an expensive, unreliable and potentially harmful testing regime to find this group of people.

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

International experience shows when you push people to the brink, like removing their welfare payments, things just get worse.

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

Drug testing trials for people on income support have been trialled and abandoned in a few countries. In addition to causing significant harm to affect people and the wider community, they came at an enormous cost to the taxpayer.

These are the experts. So it's not just Labor saying this; these are experts in this field condemning this government for their attempt to introduce drug testing to jobseekers.

There's not a senator in this place who doesn't think that our communities would benefit greatly if substance abuse was reduced. It's common sense; of course we believe that it will be of benefit. But this bill isn't the way to do it. To reduce drug addiction, we need to support and enable access to services. The government's bill as it stands once again targets and demonises vulnerable welfare recipients. They have become easy targets for this government—something that has become commonplace for the Liberals, hasn't it, when you look at the legislation? It started with the Abbott-Hockey government, with their first cruel budget in 2014, and the same strategy has continued with 'Mr Harbourside Mansion'. They haven't learnt anything. This bill is just another one of their unfair and out-of-touch policies dressed up in a better suit. That's what it is. If this legislation gets passed, it won't just be the women who are affected; their families and communities will also be affected. This is, once again, a heartless attack by those opposite on the most vulnerable people in our community.

I conclude my remarks with some advice to those opposite: if you are truly committed to doing more than grabbing a headline, then you should go out and actually talk to the people who are trying to turn their lives around and listen to the experts. If you really want to help people who have drug addiction, you need to listen to them and you need to listen to the experts. Shelving your flawed policy for the time being, as Minister Porter said, doesn't cut the mustard. Australians know they can't trust this government. This is such an elitist government. Their target is always the most vulnerable in our communities. We're almost on the eve of Christmas and they're committed, as ever, to making things harder for vulnerable Australians—that's their trademark. Mr Turnbull's predecessor John Howard was renowned for being a Christmas Grinch and a Scrooge, but Malcolm Turnbull really takes the cake. He's the biggest turkey of them all, and that's how the Australian people see him.


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