Thursday, 7 December 2017
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017; Second Reading
This government has an appalling record on dealing with welfare recipients and jobseekers: no understanding of the differences between a welfare program and an employment program, and always trying to conflate the two and creating chaos and deep unfairness. We have to ask ourselves: how does cutting off welfare from people and families lead to better job outcomes?
Questions that continually come to mind when looking at this government's disastrous Community Development Program, CDP, are: is it a jobs or labour market program; is it an alternative to welfare; or is it meant to create jobs? A lot of questions; not too many answers. What is clear, however, is the abject failure of this government's approach to CDP, and it's failure in the approach to this legislation—a punitive approach designed to punish welfare recipients for the crime, as they see it, of being on welfare.
While the Minister for Indigenous Affairs has said many of the measures in the bill will not apply to participants in the CDP, there are still concerns about the potential impact on remote area participants, and the measures from which it's proposed CDP participants be excluded include the compliance framework. These punitive measures should not be imposed on any jobseeker.
While CDP participants are excluded from this provision—not that it will give remote area jobseekers any relief—there are real concerns about the mechanisms in this bill that bring about certain points of exclusion. This was an issue raised by ANU research scholar Lisa Fowkes in her submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill:
The mechanism in the Bill to give effect to the exclusion of CDP participants from the changes is one whereby the Secretary may identify people in a particular employment program as 'declared program participants' and then determine (by legislative instrument) the way that social security laws apply to them (Schedule 13 Items 1 and 2).
As Ms Fowkes noted:
A similar proposal was put forward in the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Community Development Program) Bill 2015. That Bill would have allowed the Minister for Indigenous Affairs to declare an area to be a 'remote income support region' and to vary the application of certain parts of the social security law to income support recipients in those regions.
At that time, Labor noted that the wide scope of those powers were inappropriate and unnecessary and that they gave the minister discretionary power over the design and implementation of an entirely new social security arrangement for remote jobseekers.
The measures proposed in this bill appear to go further than the earlier CDP bill, by allowing the government to set up separate social security arrangements for any group of program participants, including, but not limited to, those in CDP. On the face of it, the changes could extend to changing entitlements and appeal rights and to outsourcing delivery. The separate arrangements need not be more favourable than those applying to others, nor is any consultation process required. No requirements for monitoring, evaluation or reporting are included. Does the government intend to use these powers to make changes that would undermine the rights and conditions of CDP participants even further? Ms Fowkes raised a concern that:
The mechanism proposed for excluding CDP participants from changes in the Bill would give the Government extraordinary powers over these participants. … the Bill would open up the possibility for future Governments of making rules that reduce the rights and entitlements of any group of unemployed citizens.
According to the Department of Employment estimates, of the 40,000 people identified who might be affected by the new jobseeker compliance framework, 25 per cent are Indigenous, even though only 10 per cent of the total case load are Indigenous. I understand these figures exclude the CDP participants. We know that, over the last decade, the rate of financial penalties applied to Indigenous people under social security law has increased. Around 12.5 per cent of those within the total jobseeker case load are Indigenous. According to analysis by Ms Fowkes:
… the percentage of all penalties applied to Indigenous people since June 2010 has increased from 15% in the quarter ending June 2010, to 61% in the quarter ending March 2017. The percentage of penalties applied to Indigenous people for 'persistent non compliance'—that is, where at least 3 minor breaches have occurred—went from 17% in the quarter ending June 2010 to 84% in the quarter ending March 2017.
Why? Where is the evaluation? Where is the scrutiny? Where is the care and the concern as to why the number of penalties has risen to such an enormous number over that period of time? What has been the impact of those penalties?
By contrast, the rate of penalties applied to Indigenous people for refusing or abandoning suitable work averaged 11 per cent over the whole period. Have a think about that. Indigenous people are substantially overrepresented in that group who fall foul of program requirements, but there is no evidence that they are more likely to avoid work—no evidence of that at all. So what is the issue? What is it about these serious penalty breaches that keep coming back time and time again?
It is this group that will be subject to harsher measures under the proposed compliance framework—further punishment. What will be the effect of increased penalties on a group that are generally poorer and have poorer health? How much will this widen the gap even more?
We've heard from jobseekers recently in Brewarrina, in western New South Wales, about the issues with Work for the Dole there. Mostly Indigenous jobseekers are frustrated with the menial tasks and lack of real training being offered. Of course, it is even worse under the CDP Work for the Dole scheme, where participants have described it as demeaning and akin to adult child care. The compliance framework, of course, is that much tougher. We already see, under CDP, how making it so much tougher does not work. It doesn't get jobseekers into work. It doesn't create jobs where there are few and far between. It increases the stresses on families, people go hungry and old people get humbugged, and there is some evidence that crime increases. Do we want to extend this to other jobseekers? Probably not.
I'd like to draw attention to another group in our community that will be further impacted by this bill: the millions of Australians who contribute to our community by volunteering. Currently, people aged 55 to 59 are required to carry out 30 hours of activity per fortnight to meet their mutual obligation requirements. The person may fulfil this requirement by doing 30 hours of volunteering alone. The proposed amendments in schedule 9 outline that 15 of the 30 hours per fortnight must be allocated to job search or another job-related activity, like Work for the Dole. This represents a large cohort of volunteers who were previously engaged in volunteering but will now have to cease volunteering if the proposed amendment is passed. The tightening of the activity requirements will do little to improve the job prospects of older Australians, who are already a disadvantaged group in this job market, and it will affect their compliance. It will also affect the service provision, workforce capacity and long-term financial viability of volunteering support services and volunteer organisations who provide essential services to the community.
Volunteering can be an incredibly effective way to engage in society. It acts as a pathway back to gainful employment, encourages economic participation, builds work skills, keeps people healthy and active, and is a social network. These punitive measures for older Australians fail to recognise this; instead, forcing people to give up voluntary work to undertake job-related activities that fail to improve their job prospects. This bill does nothing to increase the job prospects and build the potential of Australian jobseekers. Instead, it takes an even more punitive approach towards people who are already amongst our most vulnerable.