Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

10:36 am

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Payments) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013. I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the wide range of issues covered in the provisions of this bill. As you have heard from my Labor colleagues in the other place we will be lending our support to a number of the measures contained in the legislation. I will focus my contribution on the aspects of the legislation we cannot support.

We will be opposing the interest charges in relation to certain welfare debts, the student start-up loans and the proposed extension of the Child Care Rebate limit. I understand the government will be moving to remove the amendment delaying the implementation of the new definition of 'charity', but I will be putting on record the overwhelming evidence we received during the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee hearing on this element of the bill.

We are also proposing amendments to the provision seeking to amend the National Gambling Reform Act and the Paid Parental Leave Act. As I have said, there are some measures in this bill that we support because they are sensible and prudent savings; however, I have deep reservations about other measures that have been cobbled together in this bill. These provisions are just the start, laying the foundation for the kinds of vicious cuts which will follow the Commission of Audit report. They are savings, not well targeted, for savings sake and cuts for cuts sake, for the sole purpose of contributing to the government's balance sheet.

For many people, for families all across the country, who each and every day struggle with the cost-of-living pressures, this is just more of the same. This is exactly what they can expect from this government. We have seen this all before with the government's attempts to scrap the schoolkids bonus as part of the repeal of the minerals resource rent tax. Like some provisions in this bill, cutting the schoolkids bonus impacts on millions of families across this country, a great many of whom may be experiencing financial stress. What this government fails to understand is that $400 for a primary school student and $820 for a high school student is an important sum of money for ordinary families dealing with cost-of-living pressures.

The first proposition in the bill that I wish to speak about is the proposal to charge interest on certain welfare debts. This includes debts incurred by people on Austudy, youth allowance and Abstudy. To apply an interest charge to these debts is mean and the evidence says it will not be widely successful. To put further stress on vulnerable people on these payments is not a fair way to chase repayments. These people should be supported, not punished. The government claims that these punitive measures will encourage debtors to repay their debt in a timely fashion.

Labor listened to the submissions of organisations that work directly with students, including the Student Representative Council of the University Of Sydney and the National Tertiary Education Union, which highlighted the financial stress under which many students already find themselves, including reference to research which shows that up to two-thirds of tertiary students are already under significant financial strain. We also note that during the hearings the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition argued that this measure is unlikely to make students pay back their debts on time. They said: 'In cases where young people are already struggling to pay existing debts the additional interest charge is not likely to serve as an incentive to pay on time.' The National Tertiary Education Union also argued that this measure may act as a disincentive to students seeking access to appropriate support, because of the fear of punitive debts, and this may lead to decisions not to engage in tertiary education. The government yet again seeks to punish those who are already vulnerable—the very people who most need support. Rather than encouraging people to repay their debts in a timely fashion, this proposal will simply make it harder to get by and harder to get a tertiary education, so we will not support this measure.

We will also not be supporting the student start-up loans that are proposed in this legislation. This measure seeks to change the current Student Start-up Scholarship program into an income-dependent loan program available to full-time higher education students in receipt of youth allowance, Austudy or Abstudy. When we were in government we proposed a similar measure, but it must be made perfectly clear that we proposed this measure as part of our plan to fund the Better Schools Plan, to make a significant contribution to increasing funding for our schools and for our children. It has become abundantly clear that the government have abandoned the so-called unity ticket on school funding. This government have shown time and time again that they have little regard for anything they said before the election. There is no real indication that savings from this measure will be used to fund education.

We know that only a Labor government can be relied upon to truly support higher education in Australia. In Labor's term in government we saw a massive increase in investment and participation rates of tertiary students. There are 190,000 more students at university today as a result of Labor's reforms, along with a 73 per cent increase in funding. This is in comparison with the record of those opposite which saw billions of dollars ripped out of the system through neglect when they were last in government. Now we have the ominous review of demand-driven funding for universities being led by the former Liberal minister Dr David Kemp at the behest of the Minister for Education.

As the shadow minister for higher education, Senator Kim Carr, has said, the Labor Party would be extremely concerned if this review becomes the stalking horse for increasing student fees for undergraduate courses, thereby limiting access for poorer students. In government we said we would be making changes to higher education funding to slow the rate of growth and ensure that our Better Schools Plan was appropriately funded. This approach was intended to develop and improve the education system as a whole from primary through to tertiary. However, as we now know, the government has turned its back on the commitment it made to education before the election. As parents and teachers now know, the Liberal government cannot be trusted on school funding. We cannot and will not support this measure.

Another measure in this legislation that Labor cannot support is the extension of the freeze on indexation of the upper limit of 7½ thousand dollars on the annual child care rebate. This proposal sits in stark contrast with the Abbott government's rolled-gold Paid Parental Leave scheme. On the one hand the government looks to implement the Paid Parental Leave scheme which will advantage the wealthiest in this country whilst at the same time effectively cutting the Child Care Rebate in real terms.

Labor understands the importance of increased support for Australian families struggling to meet the costs of child care. When in government we increased the Child Care Rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent and we increased the annual cap from $4,354 to the current limit of 7½ thousand dollars. When we were in government and proposed the temporary freeze on indexation of the rebate, the $100 million in savings was to support the implementation of the Early Years Quality Fund. The $300 million Early Years Quality Fund was intended to support quality outcomes for children by increasing professional wages of early childhood educators, helping early childhood services attract, train and retain these educators.

The fund, which has been recognised by the early childhood education industry as an important reform, has now been redirected by the government. The freeze on indexation of the rebate is now completely unjustified and will have unnecessary impacts on the industry, and on the children, parents and families who utilise child care without any benefits from the sector and these families.

Any of us who have had the opportunity to use child care or go to a childcare centre to talk to the parents and early childhood educators will know that one of the main issues they have is about the wages that are on offer for their staff and the wages that they are able to offer to retain their staff. Many of us here have been involved in the campaign that saw the Early Years Quality Fund come into being, the Big Steps campaign by United Voice. We know this was a campaign supported not just by United Voice but also by the parents and the families and the people who run childcare centres. They were all on board to ensure that something was done about the very low wages that are offered to early childhood educators.

This proposal also undermines the work currently being done by the Productivity Commission, which is undertaking a public inquiry into future options for child care and early childhood learning. The government's proposal to freeze indexation of the rebate makes a complete mockery of claims they have made about wanting to make child care more affordable for families. This proposal also shows that the government has no interest in dealing with the challenges of boosting workforce participation, particularly for women. The Labor Party understand that quality, affordable and available child care is critical to the nation's productivity and supporting women to participate in the workforce. We cannot and we will not support this measure.

As I stated earlier, I understand the government will be moving to remove the amendment delaying the implementation of the new statutory definition of 'charity'. However, I think it important that we put on record the evidence we received in the Senate committee hearing on this element of the bill. The sector has been waiting a long time for government to tidy up the definitions around the statutory definition of what constitutes a charity. The Labor government's Charities Act 2013 creates a statutory definition of what constitutes a charitable entity. The importance of the definition is that it guides the Australian Tax Office, the ATO, as to whether or not an organisation is eligible for certain tax benefits.

The bill codified existing case law and also explicitly stated that charities are free to critique the policies of political parties and candidates. The bill had widespread support in the sector. As Mr Nathan Macdonald, acting director of Justice Connect, told the committee on 9 December:

In our view the Charities Act is a step towards certainty and clarity for those seeking charitable endorsement and goes some way towards addressing the proliferation of statutory definitions on 'charity'.

We feel the Charities Act represents a piece of policy that is long overdue, having been considered and recommended by several major inquiries, including the 2001 charities definition inquiry and, more recently, the Productivity Commission inquiry in 2010. Consultation on the current definition was adequate and, while a number of the 200-plus submissions asked for some degree of tinkering to the Bill, it is fair to say that there was broad support for a single definition on 'charity' across the Commonwealth, with the end result being a definition that largely preserves and clarifies the common law.

There is broad support within the charitable sector for a statutory definition of charity, as very few want to be bogged down in court cases to decide if they are a charity. Mr David Crosbie, the CEO of the Community Council for Australia, also told the committee:

We recognise, as would everybody who has ever looked at the legislation and the definition of 'charity', that the current provisions are woefully inadequate, that they discriminate against small charities who cannot afford tax lawyers, and they are complex even for the most well-resourced charity in terms of understanding what is charitable and what is not. It was a massive step forward to get the level of consensus that was agreed through the 2011 consultations, the 2013 consultations and the 2001 consultations on a new statutory definition of 'charity' and we, like most of the charitable sector, celebrated the fact that we had clarity and some sense of being able to plan our activities based on a clear, concise definition of 'charity' that included things previously not included like advocacy, Indigenous disadvantage, housing and disaster relief.

Mr Crosbie's thoughts were echoed by the Reverend Tim Costello, who is chair of the Community Council of Australia and the Chief Executive Officer of World Vision Australia:

This new definition is extraordinarily important for all of us. With the consultations and over 200 submissions made, I have not heard of anyone in the sector who was troubled by this definition.

Ultimately, the coalition's policy is to scrap the definition of 'charity' and disband the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission in one move. Labor opposes both of these moves. The case has been put very strongly that the current legislation is important, and Labor is listening to the sector in opposing what was to be the delay of the implementation of the Charities Act. For a long time the sector has been calling out for a body like the ACNC, as well as for a statutory definition of 'charity'. We on this side think that, after several reviews and inquiries, their opinions should be listened to as they go about their important work.

I would also like to address the proposed changes to the National Gambling Reform Act which are contained in this bill. Problem gambling is a very real and very serious issue affecting around five million Australians, including friends, families and employers of people. The social cost of problem gambling in this country was estimated to be around $5 billion in 2008-09. This social cost is in addition to the almost $19 billion which is lost annually by gamblers around Australia. This is an enormous financial burden for Australian families. In 2012, Labor introduced measures aimed at tackling problem gambling. The bill before us removes all of the measures contained within the National Gambling Reform Act that would help these problem gamblers.

As outlined in the Labor senators' dissenting report on this and the other measures in the bill, we will be proposing an amendment to this legislation to ensure that, where there is a state-wide precommitment scheme in in place, venues must continue to have the capability to connect to that scheme. The government's legislation also recommits to further consultation across stakeholders. Such consultation and engagement is strongly supported by the Labor Party. The Labor Party remains committed to supporting meaningful measures to tackle the complex issue of problem gambling in our community. As the shadow minister outlined in the other place, Labor will revisit this issue and determine the best way forward, together with stakeholders across the community.

Finally, I want to discuss the proposed changes to the administration of the Paid Parental Leave scheme. It was, of course, Labor who introduced the country's first ever national Paid Parental Leave scheme—a scheme which, as at 31 December 2013, has seen over 364,000 people access paid parental leave since its introduction in January 2011. An additional 65,000 people have accessed dad and partner schemes since its introduction. Since the Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced by Labor, it has been administered, in part, by employers. The scheme was specifically designed with this role for employers in order to help employers retain their skilled staff and to help employees remain connected to work and their careers while they were taking time out of the workforce to have a baby or adopt a child. The scheme was designed to be a workplace entitlement rather than a welfare payment. The scheme was designed to be simple for business, and a recent evaluation found that most employers have found their role straightforward. It also found that compliance costs have been minimal.

In its submission to the Senate committee inquiry into the provisions of the bill, the ACTU referred to the Productivity Commission's recommendation that employers should act as the agent for the government and pay its statutory leave on its behalf. The Commission noted that structuring payments in this way would strengthen the link between employer and employee, which should increase retention rates for the business and lead to higher lifetime employment by women. Evidence supplied to the same inquiry by officials from the Department of Social Services referred to the legislation review of the PPL that is due to be finalised in the very early part of this year.

Our shadow minister has outlined that we will be making amendment to the provision that the government is putting forward. We propose allowing small businesses with fewer than 20 employees to have Centrelink make paid parental leave payments— (Time expired)

10:56 am

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a short statement about one component of this bill, and that is the requirement to repeal the hard won reforms of the previous parliament around poker machines. This bill seeks to repeal the very modest reforms that were introduced by the previous government with the reluctant support of the Greens. The previous parliament had a wonderful opportunity to take action on the issue of problem gambling. It was an issue that came to national prominence on the basis of the fact that we had a minority government with several crossbenchers who recognised that this was one of the great unmet challenges of government because successive state governments had failed in their duty to protect ordinary people who were losing billions of dollars on poker machines. They also recognised that Australia had a very unique problem because our poker machines were equivalent to the most aggressive and rapacious machines anywhere in the world. If they were guns they would be the semiautomatic weapons of the gun world.

Some very modest reforms were proposed initially. There was a Productivity Commission backed proposal for one dollar bet limits. The Prime Minister agreed to a scheme of mandatory precommitment. Most disappointingly, those reforms fell apart when there was a change to the composition of the parliament and Peter Slipper was elevated to the position of Speaker. That is the history of that reform. Ultimately, the previous government suggested a scheme of voluntary precommitment, at least ensuring that every machine that was replaced and that every new machine would have mandatory precommitment technology and the opportunity to network those machines.

The Greens reluctantly supported it because we knew that we were not going to achieve reform other than the one that was proposed by the then government . We supported it because it was a small step forward, but we were disappointed that the level of ambition, in terms of attempting to address the issue of problem gambling, was so limited. Ultimately, the proposal that passed the parliament would, for the very first time, have put the federal government in the poker machine space. Up until that time this had been the domain of state governments. As far as my own personal commitment to this issue is concerned, for the first time I was pleased that we finally got a federal government to recognise that what we have here is a regressive tax, predominantly targeting people on low incomes. The federal government was finally prepared to act—not in a way that we would have liked, but at least taking a step into this issue, which future parliaments could build on.

This new government always opposed reform in this area because it is hand in glove with the gambling industry. It was remarkable that, in the lead-up to the election, the now minister introduced the now government's policy on the Clubs Australia website. It is absolutely remarkable that we would have a minister who is charged with gambling policy and who believes that—rather than balancing the needs of industry and protecting ordinary members of the community who become addicted to poker machines—he should act, essentially, as the industry shield—as someone out there campaigning for the pokies industry. That the now minister in this area announced the coalition policies on the Clubs Australia website was, I think, a reflection of where this government's priorities lie.

It was even more disappointing that, despite all of the pain and the anguish that this issue brought the Labor Party in their last term of government, the Labor Party have effectively backed the government's repeal of the very modest poker machine reforms. For me, in my short time in this place, that was a huge shock—a huge disappointment. It was probably the greatest disappointment that I have had in the area of gambling policy. It is an issue that brought so much pain and political discomfort to the previous government; I find it remarkable that, after they had finally mustered that courage to introduce such modest reforms, they would now back away from those reforms. I was going to say that I do not understand it, but I do understand it. I understand it because it represents everything that is wrong with politics in Australia—that is, that we have vested interests who patrol the corridors of parliament. People are walking in and out of offices every day. If they are not walking in and out of offices as lobbyists, they are employed as parliamentary staffers, and they are doing the bidding of big business and ensuring that members of parliament are subjected to concerted lobbying and pressure. And politicians do not have the guts to stand up to them.

That is why we are here today. We are here today because Clubs Australia have mounted a successful campaign. Both sides of politics are essentially standing up for the interests of big business. They are standing up for the interests of an industry that strips billions of dollars from people on low incomes. No-one on either side of the chamber has the political courage to stand up and say: 'We're going to take a stand here. We're going to stand up to this industry. We're going to stand by these very modest reforms that were introduced.'

Here we are. The federal government is now backtracking on the poker machine reforms. It is a great disappointment. It reflects everything that is wrong in Australian politics—the power of big business and the power of vested interests. The undue influence is not just in terms of this issue; we have seen it time and time again. We saw it during the debate on the mining tax. We have seen it in a range of areas and now we are seeing it here in relation to poker machines.

It is a great disappointment and the Greens absolutely oppose that section of the bill that seeks to remove protections for ordinary people in relation to poker machines. Quite simply, this is an issue that could be addressed in this way: put one-dollar-bet limits on machines. This would allow ordinary punters to have a punt on the pokies and it would reduce the amount of money that people will lose from several thousands of dollars in an hour to a few hundred dollars. In that way, we would ensure that young kids do not go hungry at night, that people do not lose their homes and that marriages do not break up. But, unfortunately, we have taken a step back from that today, and it is to the shame of both sides of politics.

11:05 am

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 includes a range of issues, most of them to do with savings. There are so many issues involved in this bill that I will not be able to speak on all of them in the time that I have. I will begin on the issue of gambling because, as Senator Di Natale has said, it is a particularly sensitive area.

The bill before us takes away the legislation and the processes that our government put in place around the sensitive issue of gambling. The current government has put in place a proposal based on the fact that—on this this incredibly vexed area, where there is so little agreement—the government believes that the best thing to do is to ensure that all the stakeholders and the people who are concerned about this issue have the opportunity to look at the best way forward. The government is determined not to support what we put in place but they have made a commitment. They see that there has to be action, and they are moving forward. We on this side of the chamber will support the government on this.

We are putting forward a number of amendments, particularly around what we consider needs to occur, but we have decided—because of the sensitivities, the pain and the frustrations—not to continue with the measures that were in place and which had not received full commitment across all of the various interests in this area. We saw that in the committee hearings that were held. I know, Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, that you attended some of those committee hearings. We know the range of views, but the minister has put on record his intent to make sure that the people who are engaged—the various stakeholders—will be brought together so that we can come up with reforms that the government will support. Indeed, we want to be involved in that. We want to be part of what is proposed, and we will see whether the proposals put forward meet the needs of the various people who have told us so clearly that this area is important to them.

It is important—and we have had a number of debates in this place—to put on the record that the concerns that Senator Di Natale raised—and I know other senators will raise them—are shared by the Labor opposition. We have listened; we have heard. It is not a debate or a fight over who is more concerned about gambling in our community. It would be, I think, unfortunate for our work into the future if it degenerated into that. It is not some kind of struggle of strength around who has more commitment than anyone else; this is about genuine efforts to move forward to ensure that we have processes in our country that will effectively respond to the identified needs.

The government has put on record that it believes that this issue mainly concerns the states. There is truth in that. We know that the immediate legislation looking at the volume of machines, the processes and the various ways that taxation works are state-level issues. So we have committed to work with government into the future to make this succeed—and to come back to this place regularly to question, to be involved and to see what happens next. That is important. We have had a number of discussions recently in this place about whether critical questioning is supportive of government measures. I put on record again that the role of all of us in this place is to critically question. And it is to make sure that we can come up with the solutions that are best, that we review them and that we keep that constantly on the agenda. That is the government's proposal in that area and, with the amendments we are bringing forward later in the committee stage, this principle of moving forward with regenerated discussion with stakeholders will be supported by the opposition.

Another area I want to look at is the issue around the extension of the Cape York income management trial. We know that the government necessarily, because of the timing of bringing this legislation forward, will move practical amendments about introduction dates and those kinds of things, but both parties have been involved in the Cape York income management trial—through the specialised work that has been done in the cape with that local community, looking at what is best to ensure that people in that area have an effective and well-supported economic future. The Cape York income management trial has been in place over a number of years. It has been reviewed. Our Senate committee has met with them on at least two occasions to get updates about how the trial is working. We believe that maintaining this measure with the full engagement of the local community is practical and effective.

One reason this trial has been successful is that people across that community have chosen to be involved, and there has been regular interaction with that community to explain the basis for and the outcomes of the trial, and to work with individuals impacted by decisions around their own income management, providing immediate and personal support for them, with the major outcome never to be punitive. The income management trial in Cape York was never meant to be a punitive process where people were treated harshly because of their situation with social welfare; rather, it was designed to be a community response: so that people who were having difficulty with income management—their own issues or family issues—would have support mechanisms locally that would help them to plan their futures and look effectively at their income management, with the intent of looking towards employment and education outcomes.

It is important that we commend the work of the Family Responsibilities Commission because those local people working in the community have made it succeed. Too often, this kind of assistance is seen as being exported from outside and imposed. From the very start of the Cape York process, the intent and engagement was focused on local people; of course, working with people with expert knowledge from outside, but working together and taking into account people's individual situations in that extraordinarily beautiful part of the world.

We have seen progress with the reforms—but the world has not changed. Anyone who gets into this area will know that you will not work miracles overnight. When you look at the data, there have been improvements—but people who are critical can say, 'There have not been enough.' The most important thing is that the local people in Cape York feel that this is benefiting them and that they can work with it. Our challenge is to look at what has worked, see the impact on individuals and move it forward. The lessons that have been learnt in that area need to be shared across other areas of the country.

So we welcome the extension of this plan. We need to examine why it has worked there. You cannot just automatically—and this is a note of caution for anyone in the policy area or the political sphere—take what is happening in one place and force it onto another community. I think people know that but, too often, for ease and immediacy of impact, we say, 'Whacko, it's working there, so we'll just make it work everywhere else.' I certainly do not believe that, and neither does anyone on this side of the chamber. What we are saying is that the positives from this trial—which have been documented—are there. So, when other communities are looking at what may work in their area, we should learn from those positives, and engage communities in talking to communities.

It is one thing to have parliamentarians talking to parliamentarians or even to have people in the Public Service—those in the extraordinarily supportive public sector, who have worked so hard to make this operate—talking to other people in the Public Service; that is of course valuable. But what will make any of these trials about effective income management and community development work will be people in the local communities talking with each other and saying, 'This is what we did, this is what worked and this is what we are hoping for our future.' So I would like to take that up.

Senator Brown went through a range of specific measures which we will look at later. We have taken up and will be supporting a number of the government's proposals, which were proposals in our budget. Some of them are tough, and that particularly occurs when you are looking at changes around entitlements and at what works best. Things like extending the rules for Australian working life residency are tough. This brings us in line with other pension schemes across the world. Again, a word of caution: our pension scheme works significantly differently from those in Europe, and people who make simplistic comparisons in their arguments will get themselves into trouble. Nonetheless, under the changes to the working life residency requirements, the expectation is that people will spend a longer period of time in our country before getting the full benefit of our pension scheme when they cease working. The pensions bonus scheme will finally be closed down, and I think people are well aware that that is an administrative change, as that scheme has been overtaken by another scheme.

There is discussion about the legislation that extends deeming rules to account-based income streams. Again, this is a change for people. It certainly leads to significant savings in the budget. You can see that when you are looking at the calculation concerning which of these areas harvests the most savings to government. I believe it is important that we have consistency in our welfare system. The McClure review has commenced, and I say to the Assistant Minister for Social Services, who is in the chamber, that we are really keen to see the terms of reference for that review.

We are looking at our general welfare system. This is not a one-off process; we have had many reviews in the past. A consistent element of community concern has been the complexity of our system. I think that is a really genuine point. Changing the deeming process brings the assets and income test—which is the basis for people being able to claim a payment—into line with other forms of welfare entitlements. While there is pain in that, I think there is logic to the process.

I will touch briefly on some of the provisions that we are not supporting or that we are putting up significant amendments to. Acting Deputy President Furner, as you were a member of the committee, you would remember the issues around the paid parental leave scheme and the process of businesses taking ownership of supporting their workers through a period of paid parental leave so that it is not seen as a welfare or a tax issue but as a workplace issue. We have had significant discussion about that over a period of time. Again, I say to the minister that we are still waiting for the paid parental leave review, which we are hoping will bring out all the issues.

In our most recent Senate inquiry we received evidence from departmental officers that being the paymaster—as some in industry had called it—for the paid parental leave scheme had not been raised as a major issue in the preliminary areas of the review. Certainly there were questions about how the scheme would work. As part of the review, there has been an interactive process between the department and various business groups and individuals about what the issues were and how they could be addressed.

Particularly after listening to people from very small businesses, who may not have access to the types of HR systems that larger businesses have, our position is that it would be reasonable for businesses with fewer than 20 employees to choose either to opt-in, so they could choose to provide payments through their own payment systems, or to have payments go through Centrelink. We strongly believe, as we maintained during the development of our own paid parental leave scheme, that one of the clear aspects of paid parental leave is that it is a workplace entitlement—workers actually become eligible to receive paid parental leave. Senator Collins, who is sitting to my right in the chamber, was also involved in discussions on this scheme.

The important thing is to ensure that both workers and employers know that workers have the right to claim paid parental leave. On that basis, when a worker receives paid parental leave payments they are still intrinsically engaged in the workplace as an employee. That link, which we were so clear in our wish to maintain, means that for the period of time that the worker is out of the workplace they should remain intrinsically linked with their employer in things like information-sharing and discussion—just having it known that they are still employed by the employer. We believe that being responsible for making paid parental leave payments, in the same way as you would make wage payments, enforces that link. So our amendment stipulates that employers who have fewer than 20 staff will be able to defer to Centrelink to provide those payments; however, we strongly believe that bigger business should take administrative responsibility for the entitlement for paid parental leave, as they have the HR systems in place and are already responsible for other forms of workplace entitlement.

We are not supporting a number of the processes. We are not supporting placing an interest charge on certain welfare debts, although the previous government had brought forward that proposal, as indeed it had brought forward a proposal for student start-up loans to replace the scholarship process. Each of those are savings measures.

When we made the decision to take up those saving processes, we were very clear that they would be part of how we would build the Better Schools program. As the Better Schools program is not happening in the way that we had developed it, and as it is not looking at the way that we were bringing together funds from other areas to help fund it, we are not supporting those two processes. The interest rate area was always problematical; I think that should certainly be part of any review of the welfare system. As we are blessed now with Mr McClure and his team looking at this, perhaps more involvement in these areas could be taken into account.

People actually accrue debt through the welfare system. I remember, to my shame, raising a number of debts when I worked in the then department. The way it operates is that you look at someone's entitlement, see whether they maintain their entitlement, and if they have not been receiving the right payment then the process is put in place to have that money repaid. That is what we will continue to do in this area. We are not supporting that particular amendment. Another area is the start-up scholarships. We strongly supported the scholarship process as opposed to the loans in that area, and that is on the same basis. In terms of the childcare rebate, this is a particularly important issue; again, on the basis that the savings in this area were particularly developed to respond to what we as government were doing to inject significant funding into the childcare area to provide enhanced wages for these workers—who are working incredibly well and with great professionalism to support our children in child care. The whole process was to ensure that they would have a salary more reflective of the work that they were doing. As the government has chosen not to take that forward—and part of the reason for the backing of the government's changes here was to help fund that—we are not supporting that element either.

In terms of where we go from here, there are a number of other issues that I have not mentioned because of the time remaining. In terms of the discussion around this process, there are many things on which we can agree. We understand that savings need to be taken, and that we are building to ensure that people get the most effective processes no matter which part of the welfare scheme they operate in. We feel very strongly about paid parental leave, as we do about the issue of gambling. In terms of our commitment to further engagement in the gambling process, I must end my particular contribution by saying: we do not move away from the need to take action in the area of gambling. However, we are not actually moving forward with the proposal that we had when we were in government. We are keen, as I said earlier, to be involved in any further action towards an appropriate response in this area.

11:25 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I have already made my position on this bill very clear. I will be focusing my remarks in relation to the government's attempts to repeal the gambling reforms, and to introduce any of the other measures in this bill, on the gambling reforms.

When the Gambling Reform Bill 2012 was introduced I said it was a Hobson's choice for me; one that is ostensibly a free choice, but in reality no choice at all. At the time, I voted against those reforms for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the then government had bowed to industry pressure and had broken their promise with Andrew Wilkie, the member for Denison, rather than make a stand on poker machine reform. Secondly, because the reforms that were included in the legislation were so watered down compared to what was promised that they would not have been anywhere near as effective as they needed to be. Thirdly, because I believed there was still the capacity to negotiate for a better deal for problem gamblers. And fourthly, because I did not want to be seen to be complicit in such a breach of faith by the former government—a promise broken, I believe, so cynically. Having said that, I do not and I cannot criticise Mr Wilkie, the member for Denison, or Senator Di Natale for their support of those reforms, because I believe they at all times acted in good faith and with good hearts.

However, I cannot deny that the former government's reforms did at least set a precedent in terms of the federal oversight of gambling reform; that, constitutionally, it is clear that the Commonwealth can act and should act in respect of problem gambling reform—because you cannot trust the states when it comes to gambling reform. When state governments between them rake in something like $4 billion a year in taxes on gambling, most of that from poker machines, then they are hopelessly conflicted when it comes to tackling problem gambling. And we know that the predominant cause of gambling addiction in this country is poker machines.

I oppose this government's reform because it too is behaving in an extraordinarily cynical manner. Never before have problem gamblers and their families been so cruelly abandoned by those with the power to put in place a framework that would help limit the harm caused by poker machine addiction. I also include the opposition in this. I note Senator Moore's contribution; Senator Moore, too, has approached this issue of gambling reform genuinely and with a good heart. But it seems clear that the Labor caucus, and the ALP caucus as a whole, has voted to walk away from even the minimalist reforms they came up with.

This federal government's proposed encouraging responsible gambling policy, as it is called, will do nothing to curb the extent of problem gambling in our communities. It will only further stigmatise those who suffer from this addiction and it will make it harder for problem gamblers to control their spending and to limit their losses. So I do not want to be part of what I see as a very cynical move by this government—which caved in to the club and hotel lobbies. In fact, it was largely the hotel lobby and the poker machine lobby, but the clubs were a convenient cover for them, because the clubs took the running on this, whereas the for-profit pubs basically let the clubs do their work for them.

I oppose the current government's moves to repeal these minimalist reforms. The system in place now is not perfect; far from it, but it has at least provided a foundation to go further. Voluntary pre-commitment, which is central to this legislation, is not an effective way to help problem gamblers or to make poker machines safer and less addictive. Problem gambling is an addiction. It is not as simple as a matter of choice or willpower, as the government and Minister Kevin Andrews would have us say. In the most basic sense, the problem of voluntary pre-commitment is that, no matter how many loss limits the gambler sets, or how much the system restricts their activity, there is nothing to stop them pulling their pre-commitment card out of the machine and continuing to play outside the system.

The government's proposal to allow venue based precommitment is even worse. Not only is it still voluntary, but there is nothing to address the issue of gamblers going from venue to venue as they reach their limits. The very fact that the government do not seem to understand or appreciate this shows they have little or no understanding of problem gambling as a whole. I say that with one caveat. Back in May 2012, I stood side by side with the then Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott to speak about the impact of online gambling, and I was very heartened by what the now Prime Minister said in relation to that. There was genuine concern on his part in relation to the proliferation of online gambling and 'how mobile phones could be turned into a virtual casino', to paraphrase his words at that conference. I appreciate what Mr Abbott said then and I do not believe his views have changed in relation to that. There was a genuine concern about the impact of online gambling.

But I believe those genuine concerns are in complete discord with what the government is now doing in respect of even minimalist gambling reforms. Let us go to the issue of voluntary precommitment. Some two years ago, a study into precommitment, prepared for the Nova Scotia Gaming Foundation in Canada, reported that voluntary schemes consistently and miserably fail because they rely on the willpower of players—that is, players had to have the willpower not to keep playing outside the system when they reach their limit. Further, the study found that high-risk players are less likely to take precommitment options and will continue to play unless they are locked out of the system completely when they have reached their limit.

I know that some people are arguing we should not be forcing people to set limits, and then shutting them out of what is essentially a form of entertainment. So I ask this: in what other form of so-called entertainment can you lose $1,200 an hour? According to the Productivity Commission, that is how much you can lose in an hour of poker machine gambling. What other form of so-called entertainment is there that causes such levels of depression, family break-up and criminality? Gambling addiction is one of the biggest causes of crime, outside of drug addiction, in this country. What other form of so-called entertainment can lead to people harming themselves and, most tragically of all, taking their own lives?

The worst part of my job is sitting down with family members who have lost a loved one through a gambling-related suicide. To anyone who is listening or who reads this in the Hansard, if you know someone who has got a problem, there are agencies that can help. There is always hope. They should not be embarrassed or ashamed because of their gambling addiction. The ones who should be embarrassed and ashamed are the industry that so capriciously feeds on that addiction and the governments, state and federal, that have stood by and failed to act adequately to tackle this enormous problem in the community.

If we really want to consider poker machines as entertainment we need to reduce the intensity. One of the things that makes them so addictive is their volatility. In the Senate inquiries I have sat on, that is absolutely clear from the evidence of the experts we have spoken to. We need to introduce limits on bets, on spin rates and on the amount of credit that the machine will accept at one time. A significant and key recommendation of the Productivity Commission's 2010 report was the introduction of a $1 maximum bet and the reduction of the maximum loss to $120 an hour.

I, along with Senator Di Natale and Senator Madigan, have already introduced a bill that would have achieved these aims. When I introduced amendments to the former government's bills in line with these measures, they were not accepted by the former government or by the former opposition. If you take into account that 88 per cent of recreational gamblers do not spend more than $1 per spin at any time, then what would the harm be? It would be of no inconvenience at all to recreational gamblers.

The government's rationale for repealing the national gambling regulator is that the states and territories already have control of gambling regulations. Just recently, a survey by British consultancy H2GC revealed that Australians are per capita the biggest gamblers in the world. Australians lose over $1,000 per adult—more than any other country. Nearly half of that amount, $460, is lost on non-casino poker machines, outstripping the US by a margin of 18 to 1. These amounts are per capita and assume that everyone in Australia shares an equal split in the losses. But the Productivity Commission estimates that around 30 per cent of people play the pokies regularly, so the losses are probably around $1,500 per head for those who actually play poker machines. Of course, the majority of losses come as a general rule from problem gamblers—those who play on a regular basis—which skews the amount even further. These numbers prove that state and territory governments are not effectively regulating gambling.

We have heard from the Productivity Commission again and again that something like $5 billion a year, or 40 per cent of the more than $12 billion a year lost on poker machines, comes from problem gamblers—people who can least afford it, people who are suffering hardship, people who are in the grip of an addiction. That makes it particularly tragic that there is a loss of political will on both sides to effectively tackle this problem. We know from the Productivity Commission's report that the number of Australians who play poker machines regularly—that is, at least once a week—is 600,000. The number of regular players of poker machines who are problem gamblers is about 15 per cent. Another 280,000 people are categorised as being at moderate risk of problem gambling—people on the way to developing a gambling addiction.

We know that things have not improved since 1999, when the Productivity Commission did its first report, so I cannot understand why the government would now believe things will suddenly be okay—unless they are deliberately turning a blind eye to problem gambling. We cannot underestimate the vested interests in this argument. Ever since the then Prime Minister Gillard announced a national approach to poker machine reform, the clubs, the hotels and the industry generally have been waging a hysterical campaign that claims they will all be left penniless and unable to serve their communities. Research undertaken in 2012 by Dr Charles Livingstone of Monash University, together with UnitingCare Australia, proved that claim to be as false as all the others. In the New South Wales electorate of Blaxland, losses on poker machines equal 8.2 per cent of median individual income, based on the entire population, not just those who play the pokies. For people who use the pokies, losses average a staggering 34 per cent of their income—over one-third of their income!

According to Dr Livingstone, Blaxland's 2,240 poker machines each collect an average of more than $79,000 a year in losses, a total of $177.5 million. That means that the average annual pokie expenditure for every adult in the electorate is $1,690. But according to community benefit claims made by clubs to the New South Wales government, in 2010 only 1.4 per cent of the amount lost on pokies was returned to the community. That is not an isolated case.

Dr Livingstone's research found similar examples across New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the ACT. And, dare I say it, the situation in my home state of South Australia is really no different. In the most affluent electorate of Kooyong, in Victoria, losses account for about 2.2 per cent of median individual income for pokie players, but community benefits claimed by clubs in that area amounted to only $27,400 from over $19 million in losses, or 0.1 per cent. So claims that clubs were the main support for entire community structures, and that our little kids would be left wandering around deserted ovals football-less and guernseyless, are as exaggerated as the rest of the club's claims.

It is worth mentioning that the state that has the greatest degree of sporting participation; the state that seems to do better in community participation in sports, is Western Australia, which does not have poker machines outside of the Burswood Casino.

Even if these claims by the clubs were true—and we know that they are not—we cannot forget that over 40 per cent of that money comes from problem gamblers. So that group of people is losing a disproportionately large percentage of the total. I wonder how parents feel about the fact that their kid could be wearing a uniform paid for by an organisation that is responsible for someone else's child missing out on breakfast.

The government's position on this is untenable. While I cannot pretend the provisions of the National Gambling Reform Act are anywhere near the best outcome, I also cannot support its repeal without better provisions to replace it. This is a very cynical move by the government. This issue will not go away: the fact that there are literally hundreds of thousands of Australians directly impacted today by poker machine addiction means that it will not. We know from the Productivity Commission that for every problem gambler there are, on average, seven people affected by it. So right now, around this nation, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are suffering directly because of poker machine addiction. We need to do something about it. This attempt by the government is a clear abrogation of their duty of care to the community and the opposition has cynically joined them in that.

Photo of Mark FurnerMark Furner (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Xenophon, I understand that you may have a second reading amendment to move. Is that correct?

11:40 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate notes the desire for gambling reform amongst the wider community, and calls on the Government to hold a plebiscite not later than next federal election on the need for a Commonwealth approach to poker machine reform, including the implementation of the Productivity Commission's recommendations of maximum $1 bets and $120 hourly losses."

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I thank colleagues for their contribution to the debate and acknowledge that there are some areas of agreement in the bill that is before us, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013.

I indicate that I will shortly be moving some amendments to defer the commencement of several measures in the bill in the light of its delayed passage. Colleagues would remember that we got a start on this bill at the end of last year, but obviously did not conclude it.

One key measure in the bill delivers the first stage of the government's commitment to a different approach in addressing problem gambling. Our new direction will provide meaningful and measurable support for problem gamblers and will reduce bureaucracy and the duplication of functions between the Australian government and state and territory governments in this important area.

Most Australians who gamble do so responsibly. But it has to be acknowledged that gambling is a major problem for some people and effective measures are needed to help those people.

The bill will repeal the position and functions of the National Gambling Regulator, along with those provisions relating to supervisory and gaming machine regulation levies; the automatic teller machine withdrawal limit; the dynamic warnings; the trial on mandatory precommitment; and matters for the PC review. The bill will also amend the precommitment and gaming machine capability provisions to clearly express the government's commitment to the development and implementation of these measures in the near future, informed fully by consultation with industry, state and territory governments, and other stakeholders.

In a further step towards reducing bureaucracy, especially easing administrative burdens on business, the paid parental leave legislation will be amended to remove the requirement for employers to provide government-funded parental leave pay to their eligible long-term employees. Employees will be paid directly by the Department of Human Services, unless an employer opts to provide parental leave pay to its employees and an employee agrees for their employer to pay them. This measure will apply from 1 July this year, as indicated in the amendments that will be moved shortly.

The measure in the bill that would have delayed the commencement of the Charities Act 2013 by nine months, from 1 January 2014 to 1 September 2014, will also be withdrawn under the amendments that will be moved. The measure is obviously no longer appropriate because the 1 January commencement date has now passed and the act is in operation.

The bill will also seek to continue income management as a key element of Cape York Welfare Reform, as part of a two-year continuation of the initiative, until 31 December 2015. Cape York Welfare Reform is, as colleagues would be aware, a partnership between the Australian government, the Queensland government and the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. It aims to restore local Indigenous authority; rebuild social norms; encourage positive behaviours; and improve economic and living conditions in the participating communities of Aurukun, Coen, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge. Since Cape York Welfare Reform began in July 2008, the four participating communities have seen improvements in school attendance, parental responsibility and the restoration of local Indigenous authority.

The bill will implement several measures affecting family and parental payments—the closed Pension Bonus Scheme, the rules for receiving certain payments overseas, the income test treatment of account based superannuation income streams, and certain student entitlements. Lastly, the bill will make some minor amendments, including ensuring that funding under the National Disability Insurance Scheme that is paid into a person's account that is set up for the purpose of managing the funding for supports for a participant's plan cannot be garnisheed for debt recovery purposes—and I am sure that is something that all colleagues would be in very strong agreement about.

11:45 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—The second reading amendment essentially calls on the Senate to note the desire for gambling reform amongst the wider community and calls on the government to hold a plebiscite not later than the next federal election for a Commonwealth approach to poker machine reform and in particular to implement $1 bets and $120 hourly losses. I move this amendment on the basis that, if there is a lack of political will within the parliament, then at least give it to the people; if there is a deadlock, if the major parties cannot agree on this, then at least this is one way of outsourcing that responsibility directly to the people by way of a plebiscite, which I believe would be carried given the overwhelming desire for gambling reform.

Question negatived.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that the bill be read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.