Thursday, 17 October 2019
I too rise to speak on this motion brought to this chamber by Senator Siewert, and I sincerely thank Senator Siewert for this opportunity to do so. Through the chair: I commend you, Senator Siewert, for your ongoing commitment to this issue. I've seen your involvement in this debate over a long time and, particularly since coming into this chamber, I recognise and acknowledge that the commitment comes from a very sincere and real place.
No-one in this government is saying that it's easy living without a job. There's no doubt about that. Having worked for over a decade in employment services and with people who have been long-term unemployed, I've seen how difficult it is. For some people, there are some really tough and challenging barriers to employment. It can be a very confronting exercise to get up the courage to face, acknowledge and deal with whatever barriers to employment they might have. But when they do deal with them, when they undertake the training they need to address the skills gaps they have, develop their skill base and get a job—as someone who has worked in this space, I know that walking through that with people is one of the most rewarding things that you could ever do. You know that it's made a difference not just to them but also to their families and their wider community.
I think in particular of a program in Geraldton called Real Futures. Real Futures is a program aimed at helping long-term unemployed Aboriginal people in that area get work. Wendy Arnold, the leader of that program, opens the door of their little shopfront on the main street, and people come in. It's amazing what happens there. They reach out with open arms to everyone who walks in, and big changes and big transformations happen. I went and visited them prior to coming into this place as a senator, and I saw people walk in there. I remember one fellow who walked into that place who wanted to get a job. He was interested in working in a traffic control business that had a policy of no tolerance for drugs and alcohol. As part of applying for the job, they had to pass a medical, and it's obvious that, if someone has drugs in their system, that would prevent them from getting the job.
One of the services that Real Futures offer is prescreening. They'll do a drug test before someone needs to go before the employer's own drug test. They can check whether there has been an issue of substance use or abuse. They're able to test that it is in fact out of their system. I watched a fellow walk in. He walked very quietly to the front desk and spoke to the people there. He very quietly asked if they had a drug test. They had a little conversation about the situation. I thought, 'Isn't that great? Here's an organisation—Real Futures are offering this service—right in the middle of Geraldton, and people are confident and bold enough to go there.' I entered into the conversation myself, and the guy said that he'd been off marijuana for over four weeks and he was confident that it's out of his system, but he just wanted to check because he really wanted to get the job.
Senator Bilyk said that it's a trite comment: the best form of welfare is a job. Well, I've seen the impact that it has on people's lives. When you get a job, it absolutely transforms your life. I reject the characterisation of that because it does make a difference. You can politicise it as much as you like, but it really does make a difference. Senator Scarr spoke about the cashless debit card. I just want to add a little bit to what he was saying. I'm from Western Australia, and we've seen the trial of the cashless debit card for some time up in Kununurra. Kununurra and Ceduna, in South Australia, have been running it for the longest time of the trial sites, and the results are there.
No-one is saying that the cashless debit card is a panacea to the social problems that come from drug and alcohol abuse in these communities, but you only need to talk to, for example, the senior sergeant of police, who tells us that prior to the cashless debit card there used to be four or five nights of continuous chaos in the town after welfare payments hit. The ambulances service would respond and had a significant rate of call-outs on the nights immediately following the welfare payments. You can see what happens. I haven't got the stats in front of me since the introduction of the cashless debit card. I just wanted to add to what Senator Scarr was talking about. I know, through my own observation of what has happened and from speaking to people on the ground, that, instead of there being four or five nights of issues, there are now only one or two. It doesn't mean that there aren't still issues, but the ambulance service says that there has been somewhere in the order of a 30 per cent reduction in the number of alcohol related call-outs to deal with situations.
What I'd like to see, though—and I'd like to make a contribution now with regard to the cashless debit card—is a real focus on the technology that is the cashless debit card. I really want to call on the banks and on the retailers to work together to develop the technology and augment it so that it becomes a product that is offered, in fact, by all banks. One of the issues that you hear is that anyone who is on the cashless debit card has a very identifiable card. While it's just a silver card, the reality is that, if you've got that silver card, it is obvious to people in those towns that you must be on welfare. One of the good things that could happen is that the product is offered by any bank—the Commonwealth Bank or ANZ or Westpac or whatever—and it is an unidentified product. I think that would make a big difference to the stigma issue, which I acknowledge can be an issue for people. I urge the banks to cooperate with this government and to work with the retailers as well to improve the technology. One of the limitations of the cashless debit card as it stands right now is that it works by limiting the merchant. So you can't use the cashless debit card at a merchant that sells alcohol. The problem with that is that the merchant could also sell groceries. You need to ensure that welfare recipients are able to purchase those necessities. So, if there were any expansion of the cashless debit card, you would have to address that fundamental issue, because, if you were to take it ubiquitously across the country, merchants across the country would need to be able to take it. Unless you get down to item-level blocking, where you're restricting the sale of particular items rather than blocking it on an entire merchant level, it would prevent its ability to be rolled out. I want to call upon the banks and the retailers to work together, because the technology solution is there and it can be developed and it could make a big difference to people if that were able to happen. You could limit the sale of particular items rather than limiting a merchant. That would remove any of those physical barriers that are in the way, those things that actually might get in the way of someone just being able to go about their lives without any great interference.
Just quickly, the other thing that I want to acknowledge in this debate is that there is a great program. I spoke a little about it in my contribution to the take-note session. Youth Jobs PaTH really is a great example of a program that actually provides greater assistance to people. Those opposite didn't support it in its introduction. They said that they were going to remove it had they won the election on 18 May, and that's really disappointing, because one of the parts of this program, which I just wish we'd take the politics out of and think about for a minute, is the fact that an extra $200 is provided to the participant of that program, to the intern that signs up to it. They get an extra $200 a fortnight which assists them with those important things of getting to a job and keeping that job. I think it's something that we should really sincerely work together on, to look at how the mainstream employment services system, which is jobactive—it's got a $7 billion price tag on it—could over time actually be developed and that those sorts of ideas, like we're seeing with Youth Jobs PaTH to provide that extra assistance to people, could actually be considered in future in the employment services system. I'll finish my remarks there.