Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 August 2022


Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Self-Employment Programs and Other Measures) Bill 2022; Second Reading

1:08 pm

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

I rise to speak to the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Self-Employment Programs and Other Measures) Bill 2022. The Australian Greens believe that all people have the right to a livelihood; to pursue their preferred work; and to have freedom, dignity, economic security and equal opportunity in that work. Therefore, we support the objectives of the Self-Employment Assistance program, which is what's being addressed in this bill, and those of its predecessor, the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, to help people find meaningful employment by creating their own jobs. It's a good thing. But we believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone can exercise their right to meaningful work, and what's being done in this bill is only a small part of what needs to occur. Successive governments have failed to ensure that everybody can exercise their right to meaningful work.

Particularly for people who aren't currently working, there is so much more that we need to be doing. We have people on income support living in poverty, which is the last place you need to be to get the support that you need to access work. There's no point setting up schemes, fiddling at the edges and encouraging people to start their own small business if those people are languishing in poverty and can't afford to have a roof over their heads or put food on the table. These are not the conditions that enable people to find work. We need to completely overhaul the systems in place that are in many cases barriers to people finding work.

I want to spend some time talking about those new systems in Workforce Australia. The experience of the introduction of Workforce Australia is that it not doing anything to help many people find work. These are people who want to be able to find work but find themselves battling a government bureaucracy and a system that is not supporting them to find work. We are very disappointed that, earlier this year, the new Labor government began rolling out the previous government's broken and punitive employment system, Workforce Australia. I note that today we got notice in the House that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Burke, is proposing that there needs to be an inquiry into Workforce Australia. I think there needs to be more than an inquiry. Certainly, when the terms of reference are that this inquiry proposed today wouldn't have a reporting date until September next year.

We know the problems that exist with Workforce Australia at the moment, and they need to be fixed. Under this new system, people on income support have to complete enough activities to accrue 100 points a month or else have their payments cut off. Despite this being a major overhaul of the mutual obligations system, the Labor government provided little or no communication on the transition. According to a survey on the transition conducted by the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, 43 per cent of their members received no information from the government about these changes. Community members have expressed to me their confusion and distress as a result of this poor communication.

But this isn't the end of the issues and the pain that Workforce Australia has caused and is causing. Despite Minister Burke's promise that this new system would be a clean slate, we have seen demerit points carried over from the jobactive system, which is in complete contradiction to the promise made by the minister. We have seen the deadnaming of trans people in communications with them. We have seen inaccessible communications to culturally and linguistically diverse communities and people with disabilities. There have been privacy issues and technical difficulty after technical difficulty. If we're serious about getting people work, and if we're going to try to get systems set up, we've got to do better.

The Guardian recently reported that a 63-year-old woman from regional South Australia had to make a 250-kilometre round trip to meet her mutual obligations and keep her benefits under Workforce Australia. Despite living to Yorketown, she was referred to a job agent in Kadina, which was a 1½-hour drive—or 125 kilometres—from her home. Shockingly, these appointments and the long, tiresome journey that comes with them don't count towards the new points based system. Workforce Australia is causing people harm and stress. The system is already failing and yet it is jobseekers who are being held over a barrel and threatened with payment suspensions. People are terrified and confused. One user of the platform said, 'I am panicked, frustrated and have no idea what's going on.'

Workforce Australia has failed people from day one. Unemployment advocates, people on income support and the Greens have been calling for a minimum three-month pause to payment cut-offs while people attempt to navigate this new, confusing system. We initially had a one-month pause because there was a recognition from the government that maybe the communication and the system weren't set up for the transition. Last week, Minister Burke announced that, in terms of accruing points, there would be an extra 30-day pause, acknowledging the problems with the system. Today we have a proposal for a House inquiry into Workforce Australia. I urge the government to listen to the unemployed advocates and people in income support, and take immediate action to ensure that no-one loses their income support payments. Without those payments, if you've got people being cut off and living in fear of being cut off you are not going to have a situation where people are capable and able to be their best and to get work, whether it's through applying for jobs or, like in the bill we're discussing today, assistance to start up their own small businesses.

The second area I want to talk about in particular is the absolute inadequacy of income support under our JobSeeker payments. We are in a cost-of-living crisis, and poor and working-class people all over the country are feeling desperate. Again, if you've got people living in poverty that can't afford to put food on the table they are in no position whatsoever to take up initiatives to help them find work by setting up their small business. According to an ACOSS survey more than half the people currently on income support are skipping meals, and the demand on food charities has seen a 50 per cent increase since the start of the pandemic. We have millions of people in this country who are living in poverty. We have got to address that as a core issue if we are serious about getting people into work.

The Greens think we need to abolish mutual obligations. They are not helping. In fact we had a real-life example of that during the COVID pandemic, when mutual obligations were suspended and people's income support was doubled to account for people's lack of ability to find work. And what happened? The evidence is in: we actually had more people able to find themselves work during that period than in previous periods. The evidence is there: if you give people enough to live on and you don't make them jump through ridiculous hoops of mutual obligations, people want to get work. You then have people in a situation where they are able to pick up on the incentives provided in the Self-Employment Assistance program.

Anyone who has ever struggled to put food on the table or had to make a choice between paying the rent on time on one hand and paying for their medication on the other knows the constant and crushing stress of living in poverty. In this wealthy country something is deeply broken when around 20 per cent of our population are receiving payments that aren't enough to survive on and you've got one in six children living in poverty. Think about what that means for those people's lives—the trajectory of their life ahead of them. If you start off life living in poverty, if you start off absolutely having to scramble, not having the opportunities that other people get, it sets you so far behind in terms of being able to realise your full potential. No parent should have to wonder how they are going to feed their kids this week or buy them new school uniforms next term.

We need a plan to end poverty. They're the sorts of initiatives that are really important, that are going to do something about getting people into work. If we actually had a plan to end poverty—we know huge swathes of people are struggling every day to take care of their families and to get their most basic needs met. Governments are meant to serve people. Millions of Australians are hurting, and this parliament just can't ignore them. People want to be able to live their lives with dignity, without the constant fear of how they're going to keep their heads above water. It's not too much to ask.

The Greens believe that a fair, socially just, democratic and sustainable society rests on the provision of an unconditional liveable income, complemented by the provision of universal social services. If everybody had a guaranteed liveable income, everybody would be in a position to realise their potential, to have the capacity to seek work, to undertake training programs, to know they're not going to have to work out how they manage to survive and scramble from one day to the next.

We're supporting this bill today but it is a tiny piece on the edge rather than tackling the fundamental problems we are currently facing that need absolutely serious overhaul. We need to reform the social security system to introduce a liveable income guarantee. By doing so, and by abolishing the broken and punitive mutual obligation requirements, the Greens plan actually would give every Australian a fair go and stimulate the economy. We know that the No. 1 thing that this parliament can do to address the cost-of-living crisis and help get people into work is to lift income support, as well as providing access to affordable housing and essential services, so that people aren't living in poverty.

Yes, we'll support this bill today, but we are calling on this government to do more: to abolish the mutual obligations, to lift income support to above the poverty line and to raise all payments to at least $88 per day, which is what is needed to keep your head above water. By doing so we would be giving every Australian the opportunity to get into employment and live a full and flourishing life.


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