Senate debates

Thursday, 7 December 2017


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

1:42 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

If you were here for the earlier part of my speech, Senator Williams, you would have heard me talk about the fact that Labor has already put forward a number of savings measures, most particularly around negative gearing and capital gains tax, which this government continues to ignore. That's because the government always takes the easy option. Rather than taking on the powerful interests of property investors, some of whom are in your own ranks owning multiple properties and getting tax concessions to make those investments, it's always easier to come in and kick the unemployed and the disability-pension recipients, all to save, as Ross Gittins says, $478 million over four years. If the government actually tried hard, there are much better ways to find budget savings that don't hurt vulnerable people and that deliver bigger savings with less economic fallout than what's being proposed here.

In the evidence received in the Senate inquiry, it was very clear that what was really necessary, if the government was sincere about trying to get people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol off those substances and into work, was real investment in drug and alcohol rehabilitation and much better investment and programs around employment and training. Not only did the evidence that we received in the inquiry show that everywhere else in the world where this had been tried had failed but, in actual fact, even if the government had managed to get this proposal around drug testing through, there was not enough trained drug and alcohol counsellors in Australia to be able to provide those services. From memory, the original proposal was that this trial would run from 1 January next year—whatever date it actually was. We ran the very real risk that, had this program got up, welfare recipients would be required to be drug tested without drug and alcohol counsellors there to help them get off the drugs and alcohol.

Regardless, the government charged on. It's only at the 11th hour, when they've realised they haven't got the numbers to get that aspect of this bill through, that they've backed off. I hope that they have backed off in a permanent sense. I hope that they really do have a good look at the evidence in that inquiry and that they apply themselves to some genuine measures that would really help people who are drug and alcohol addicted to get back into work and off those substances.

There have been a number of other measures that have been put up in this bill that haven't attracted the degree of attention that the drug testing proposal did. Again, I will use Ross Gittins' article to say what some of the other aspects in this bill include. He says they include:

… freezing benefit rates to wives and widowed pensioners until they're no greater than the "jobseeker payment"—


getting rid of the 14-week bereavement allowance.

What kind of government does that? What kind of government decides to target people who have lost their spouse and are entitled to a 14-week bereavement allowance? They're going to rip it off them as a way of generating savings. They're not going to go after big mining companies and they're not going to go after big banks—in fact, they want to give them tax cuts. Instead of that, they'll pick on people who've lost their spouse and they'll rip away their 14-week bereavement allowance. The other proposals include tightening the job search requirement for those aged 55 to 59, who already find it incredibly difficult to find work, and making it easier to suspend people's dole payments, even if they haven't done the wrong thing.

I can't put it any better than Ross Gittins does on the types of cuts this bill contains. He says:

They're the cuts a government makes when it wants to be seen to be acting to reduce the budget deficit, but lacks the courage to take on a fight—

with the big end of town—

with medical specialists, drug companies, chemists, mining companies or other powerful interest groups guarding their own, much bigger slice of budget pie.

If this government was actually serious about getting its budget back in order, it would be targeting the real rorts in the system, rather than the rorts they make up in this area.


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