Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2007


Social Disadvantage

7:07 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak tonight on issues of fairness and to share some stories that have been brought to my attention as to how Australia has become less fair in recent times. I also want to reflect on the release this week of the Dropping off the edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia report by Professor Vinson, which was jointly supported by the Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australila groups, and what it tells us about poverty postcodes—those areas of ongoing entrenched disadvantage, where multiple measures of social exclusion converge to create what have been described as ‘black holes’ of isolation and despair.

The main point that I wish to make about disadvantaged Australians who are falling off the edge in this time of prosperity is this: we can clearly identify a small number of suburbs, towns or postcodes which account for a significant amount of our unemployment, crime, poor health, domestic violence and despair. We know that in these hot spots this disadvantage has been entrenched for some time and has been getting worse. And we know a lot about the kinds of things that work to build resilience in our communities to ensure that young Australians growing up with disadvantage can still get a fair go.

With this insight, knowledge and experience, if we cannot improve these areas of disadvantage in our community in these so-called economic good times and so-called times of prosperity, when can we do it? I strongly believe that during the current time of plenty we as a nation should be sharing our resources to tackle disadvantage. We should be investing in the future by targeting these hot spots, building up our communities and ensuring that all Australians get a fair go. But in this country, unfortunately, this is not what is happening. We are not addressing these hot spots. We seem to be constantly divided between the haves and the have-nots. We are going further: we are punishing those who have not. I have three stories tonight which highlight what I have said and highlight the adverse impact that Welfare to Work is having on major elements of our community.

This week I received a letter, and I have had a number of phone calls as well, from a Western Australian woman with breast cancer who had been driven to despair by the callous treatment she continued to receive at the hands of Centrelink during a time of severe illness and immense personal crisis. I read this to you with her permission. It says:

Dear Rachel,

There’s a lot of promotion about breast cancer awareness, and its effects on women, and we all sympathise with these high profile women who are diagnosed and their brave battle, but I wonder how many people really spare a thought for single women, ordinary people who do battle not only with breast cancer but also with Centrelink and the Job Network.

The fact is that if you are single, working part-time or unemployed for whatever reason at the time of diagnosis, and are unable to work due to surgery and treatment ... in order to get your Newstart Allowance, you will be given a job capacity assessment ... and if it’s deemed that you are unable to work for any given time, you will be given a ‘looking for work exemption’ and be put on to ‘Newstart Incapacitated’.

As treatment for breast cancer is sometimes a long process involving various treatments, every time you submit a medical certificate you will be given a job capacity assessment. The people who assess you are not doctors or psychologists, and have little or no knowledge of the physical and emotional effects of this disease.

I have heard of a woman who battled breast cancer, then brain cancer, whose hair had just started to grow back after chemotherapy, being assessed as being able to work X amount of hours a week, despite her medical certificate and who was told to start looking for work or lose her Newstart allowance.

Personally I have had three job capacity assessments in five months. One was after my second round of surgery, where I was still awaiting pathology reports. I was in a large amount of pain due to auxiliary clearance, had trouble even showering and dressing ... and was assessed as being able to work 22 hours a week, despite my medical certificate. Luckily after speaking to someone else from Centrelink I was given a ‘looking for work’ exemption.

During this time I was also told by someone from Job Network that three months was more than enough time to get over breast cancer and I should just be getting on with it. I’ve recently been told by someone from CRS

that is the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service—

that breast cancer isn’t a major concern and perhaps I need counselling. (I’m awaiting follow up tests at the clinic in Perth and am naturally a little concerned.)

It can be quite distressing having to justify your illness and treatment to someone who is totally lacking in compassion and understanding towards the sort of pain, fear, anxiety and disfigurement that breast cancer patients are faced with. Let alone having to answer questions that even the medical profession doesn’t really have the answers to.

I think any woman who has gone through this journey knows how agonising it is waiting for the next lot of pathology reports or dreading further surgery or treatment ... Let alone dealing with the fact that they may not survive at all. The last thing any woman in this situation should be concerned about is how many hours a week they think they could work. There’s also a big difference between going back to your old job when you feel ready ... and having to get out there and look for work while you’re still coming to terms with your condition and recovering from treatment.

In the old days, before Mr Howard’s ‘Welfare to Work’ reforms, if you have a serious or life threatening illness you would be put onto sickness benefits for the duration of your medical certificate and be expected to do nothing more than to have your treatment and get better, or even die with at least a little dignity.

Well, that seems to be a luxury that only married women are allowed, or women who have enough money to support themselves through their illness without help from the government.

This to me is blatant discrimination.

Single women with breast cancer who need financial assistance from Centrelink aren’t chronically unemployed or ‘dole bludgers,’ and deserve to be treated with the same amount of dignity and respect as any other woman who has been diagnosed with this awful disease ... Unfortunately this is not the case.

When I see the government promoting breast cancer awareness with their high profile functions and dinners I can’t help thinking about all the brave women who are sitting through the indignity of job capacity assessments, just so that they can keep the roof over their head and pay a few bills.

Personally, I have felt devalued and degraded by every interview I have had to have, and wholeheartedly support any change to this current system that seems to go against even Mr Howard’s own description of Australia being a caring, compassionate, Christian society.

Has Australia really sunk so low that we subject women to this sort of treatment? How ridiculous that we have such an inflexible and inhuman system that subjects Australians to that sort of treatment.

I have two other examples—which unfortunately I will not be able to give due time to now—where it has become apparent that even if sole parents are meeting every criteria they need to meet for their activity test, they are still being required to turn up to Centrelink offices every two weeks. Despite the fact that they are supporting their children, meeting their job activity requirements and working, they still have to turn up to Centrelink centres to justify their benefit. I have written confirmation from DEWR on that.

Then there is the issue of the impact that the Welfare to Work so-called reform is having on Aboriginal communities. Earlier in the week I asked the Minister for Human Services if he had any ideas of what they were going to do about the very significant increase in the number of Aboriginal Australians who are being breached under the new Welfare to Work policy. Unfortunately, he could not answer my question. To reiterate what I said then: the number of Aboriginal people in my home state of Western Australia who were breached in the first three months of Welfare to Work was 50 out of 170. That is nearly 30 per cent, and I can tell you that Aboriginal Australians do not make up 30 per cent of the population of Western Australia. It is clear that Welfare to Work is having an unfair impact on Aboriginal Australians who are already suffering from massive disadvantage.

Those are but three examples of the impact that Welfare to Work is having. It is completely the opposite of what we should be doing. We should not be punishing people. We should be looking at how we can support the most disadvantaged in our society. We should be looking at the significant areas of disadvantage, the so-called black holes, and looking at how we can support community members, build community resilience and strengthen our communities. We should be targeting our resources at these areas of multiple disadvantage. As Professor Vinson said this morning, we should be putting in place compelling, sustained, remedial action at all levels to tackle these issues. We should have a sustained, systematic effort to address disadvantage in Australia. (Time expired)