Senate debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

7:45 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Josh Park-Fing was 18 years old in April 2016. He was 18 years old when he accessed income support and he was 18 years old when his employment services provider sent him to a worksite to collect rubbish. He was 18 years old when he died after falling off the back of a truck. For Josh's family and friends, I know that the passage of time cannot dull their grief or diminish their pain. The aching gap of a missing life stays with us. It was four years later, in 2020, that the government finally released the report inquiring into his death. Josh would've been 22 if he hadn't died that day on the site that was providing a Work for the Dole program.

As we debate this legislation today, it is important to remember that this matters for people's lives across the country. It's easy for some of us to forget, here in our air-conditioned building after a day of speeches and an evening of plenty to eat and drink, that we have a moral obligation to those we represent. We particularly have a moral obligation to the people across Australia who have faced and continue to face a cruel and punitive system who have not received the support they need or they deserve, and to people who have been forced to live below the poverty line by ministers who just do not know what it's like, who don't care about the impact on people's lives and who refuse to act.

The very title of this bill, 'streamlined participation', doesn't speak to people's experience of having to live with this system. It speaks to a bureaucracy who are getting that machine working in a very streamlined way and of people just being cogs in the machine, being corralled through a heartless system.

The Greens have got a different vision. We believe that no-one should be living in poverty in a wealthy country where billionaires and big corporations are being subsidised by the government. In last night's budget, we saw the horrific figure of $38 billion being given in subsidies to coal, oil and gas companies, but they cut funding for climate by 35 per cent. In a country that can afford to subsidise coal, gas and oil companies by $38 billion, we think we should be ensuring that no-one lives in poverty, not looking after billionaires and big corporations.

Interestingly, during the pandemic we had a little experiment where governments worked to lift payments above the poverty line and ensured a strong safety net where it was needed. And they suspended mutual obligations. That's what the Greens think we should be doing permanently. We want to see a livable income guarantee that would lift people out of poverty and the abolition of the punitive system of mutual obligations. We want to abolish these punitive measures from our social security system so it is genuinely and easily available to those who need it.

Our vision is for a radically different income support system, one with a guaranteed livable income where people are treated humanely, not treated as just cogs in the machine. Let me be clear: the pandemic showed that this is possible. Poverty is a political choice, and it's a choice being made every day by ministers in the Liberal government who are earning six-figure salaries. The Greens have consistently raised significant concerns about the current bill. As outlined by my predecessor, Senator Rachel Siewert, in the dissenting report on the inquiry into the bill:

The Australian Greens are extremely disappointed by the rushed nature of the inquiry into the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021. This bill encompasses significant changes to employment services, mutual obligations and compliance for income support recipients… Unfortunately, stakeholders were only provided with a few business days to consider the bill and make submissions to the inquiry. This is wholly inadequate for a suite of such significant changes. While there are some positive changes, such as more flexibility and agency in creating a job plan, a number of the proposed changes do raise deep concerns and need more careful consideration.

I acknowledge that in the time since Senator Siewert wrote that dissenting report there have been changes to this bill and there have been changes made in the House of Representatives. I do want to note the work, particularly of the Australian Council of Social Service, in working to improve this bill. We recognise that these amendments will improve this bill and so we support these amendments. I want to note, however, that even this process of these amendments has been rushed. While I thank people, and thank those involved in their work to consult and the work that ACOSS have put in, the amendments weren't introduced in the House of Representatives in their final form until today. We are pleased to see that the key measure which was in schedule 8 that would have taken more money from those who were really doing it in the most difficult way is gone. We're pleased to see greater protections for those who are principal carers and who have a partial capacity to work. We welcome the guidelines—recognising that they reflect an amendment introduced by the Australian Greens. We do think these are genuine improvements on the original bill and we support them.

I will note that we still have incredibly significant concerns about fundamental aspects of the employment services framework. Based on our understanding, including of the draft delegated legislation, the framework is going to involve more people being forced into Work for the Dole, as participants are required to undertake it at the six month mark rather than the one year mark, and fewer people having the opportunity to actually engage with a human being.

We recognise the improvements made by the amendments, but we have still got really fundamental concerns about some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who are forced to live below the poverty line, having their requirements dictated to them by an impersonal system. The loss of people that jobseekers are going to have to interact with is profound.

I received an email today from a person who works for what they describe as a high-performing employment agency who wanted to highlight to me what these changes will mean. On the issue of how many fewer people are going to be employed, real people to engage with people looking for work, to give them the support that they need to create the human system this person writing to me said, 'It is estimated that from April this year 15,000 frontline case manager employees, predominantly female, will also be looking for work.' So there will be 15,000 fewer people being employed supporting jobseekers. This person then continued, 'As an individual, my work every day is about changing people's lives through employment, helping jobseekers to move off welfare payments and become active contributors to the local and national economy. The recent Australian government announcement of changes to established service providers will result in far-reaching disruption across the industry. It is highly likely that many of my colleagues will be made redundant. I worked for a high-performing provider that has failed to have their contracts for the rebranded jobactive service renewed in my area. My colleagues and I would like to know why the government removed high-performing providers from the market at a time when employers are crying out for staff and many of the most vulnerable jobseekers have an opportunity to take up work with our support and guidance. This unnecessary disruption to the market will impact employees like me, vulnerable job seekers already struggling to navigate the system as well as local employers struggling to find workers. The changes are likely to result in poor performance for a long period and will cost the taxpayer millions.'

Fundamentally, we're going to have a system that is now going to employ fewer people, providing less support yet with punitive measures of mutual obligations still being maintained. Fundamentally, the whole model is wrong. Fundamentally, we should be supporting people to find work without punitive mutual obligations. We should scrap that system entirely and provide genuine support for people without making them jump through useless hoops that actually don't help them to find work. Again, when mutual obligations were paused during the pandemic, it in fact enabled and encouraged more people to seek work. They weren't having to jump through useless hoops to try and find work.

While we recognise the improvements that have been made to this bill, we still have fundamental concerns, and I would like to move my second reading amendment in relation to this bill to address some of those concerns. Basically, we fundamentally do not think that the changes being proposed are enough to guarantee the protections that are needed for hundreds of thousands of Australians who are forced to interact with a system that is cruel, that is punitive and that does not provide the support that people need or deserve. I move:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) notes that punitive mutual obligations have unfairly restricted people's access to income support; and

(b) calls on the Government to abolish the Work for the Dole program and provide income support to everyone who needs it".

I want to finish by reflecting upon another woman that I met two weeks ago when we were launching our liveable income guarantee policy, which would lift people above the poverty line, give them $88 a day and abolish mutual obligations. We launched it outside the South Melbourne Centrelink. This woman told us that she was homeless, she was living on the streets and she had zero income but she had decided that she was not going to continue to even try and engage with our social security system, because she found it just too damaging to her mental health. She had poor mental health. She had anxiety. She said she should have been on the disability support pension but that was impossible. For her, the system was just too hard, too harsh and too punitive. It was making her more unwell to even engage with the system, so she decided that she would prefer to have zero income and be living on the streets, homeless, rather than make herself more unwell by forcing herself to engage with the system.

I find it absolutely heart-wrenching that, in a rich country like ours, we have put people in this system. This bill is not going to change that system to make it a system that would work for women like that, and that is why the Australian Greens will be opposing this bill.


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