Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014; Second Reading

6:07 pm

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

I am continuing my contribution by expressing the Greens' opposition to this bill. We consider that it will have adverse outcomes for job seekers and we do not believe this is the appropriate approach. In fact, we believe the evidence to the committee showed that this bill would discourage people from re-entering the workforce quickly, and we know that is vital for positive outcomes. We believe this bill is overly punitive and there is no need for this type of change.

I left off by saying that we are concerned about some of the adverse human rights impacts of this legislation; I was also talking about some of the issues raised by the parliamentary joint committee on human rights. We also need to be considering this particular piece of legislation in light of other changes the government is proposing to make and in light of the circumstances that people are currently facing. We are concerned about the community impacts of a number of pieces of legislation on job seekers and that the government is, once again, relying on charities to respond to and solve the crises that people will face.

While the government perpetrates the myth that people have to be forced into work, witnesses to the inquiry clearly said that people actually want to work. Dr Falzon articulated his concerns about the bills, but also said:

As opposed to the set of assumptions that this legislation is predicated on, people do want to work and they love the opportunity to meaningfully participate economically and socially

The truth of the matter is that job seekers far outnumber the available jobs. We received evidence that there are ten times as many job seekers as people on Newstart, Youth Allowance and the Disability Support Pension who have the capacity to work and whom the government is encouraging into work. We also have to look at the number of people who are in the labour market but under-employed at the moment. I found one of Senator Abetz's answers in question time today incredible. I partly understand where he is coming from, but he implied that many of the jobs that people get are not advertised. A lot of the information we received in the inquiry was about advertised jobs. However, to suggest that there are nearly enough jobs out for the people who cannot find work is just ludicrous and lends no credibility to the government's argument of encouraging people in employment. The simple fact is that there are no enough jobs out there for the people who are currently unemployed.

In his evidence to the committee, Professor Mallett said:

My experience, as well as in the research evidence, suggests that people are highly motivated to build independent lives. They actually do not, for the most part, want to be reliant on income support; they want to build independent, sustainable lives.

This issue is not a behavioural issue; it is a structural issue. Those jobs are not there, and it is ludicrous to try to suggest that simply looking hard enough will find you a job. We know that there are a high number of people who are currently unemployed, particularly young people. We know that youth unemployment is growing; it is not that young people do not want to work. They do want to work and, as evidence to the inquiry pointed out, they want to build independent lives. They do not actually want to live in poverty and they do not want to be stuck on the $36 a day from Newstart. People do not actively choose that lifestyle; they want to find work and they need some support to overcome barriers they have to employment. One of the issues that arose in the speech pathology inquiry was that having information and communication disorders impacts on people's ability to engage with the workforce or learning to engage with the workforce. These are the sorts of things that we need to be looking at. The prevalence data indicates that this is a significant issue. My point there is that there are many things that are barriers to people's employment.

This kind of tough approach is not an incentive, but punitive and acts as a disincentive. They have perverse outcomes. I have had constituents calling my office with concerns about these and other changes that the government is bringing in. These reforms we are deeply concerned will have negative impacts that are counterproductive to supporting job seekers into work. People who have worked in this area for a long time have had experience and evidence that shows that this approach does not work and will not work. As the president of National Welfare Rights Network, Ms O’Halloran told the inquiry:

Our network opposes the introduction of the bill before you, fundamentally on the ground that we question the purpose of the bill—whether it is actually to punish people or to help people into paid work. We would think that we would all be united in the view that helping a person who is unemployed into paid work should be the goal, and we do not believe that this bill will achieve that goal—in fact, we think it will be counterproductive. That is based on our casework experience with the heavy penalty system introduced in 2006 and the many changes to that system since that time.

If the aim is to get job seekers to comply with requirements and move into employment, it seems unwarranted to punish people once they have complied or intend to comply. Dr Mestan told the inquiry:

Worse than ineffectual, the policy is likely to be counterproductive because, once a person is sanctioned, they have no incentive to meet requirements, whereas in the current regime, where payments are recommenced upon compliance, there is a strong incentive for a sanctioned person to quickly meet requirements.

We know from the evidence that punitive approaches do not work. We need to be looking at how we support people entering employment while recognising the structural barriers in terms of the labour market and also the other barriers to employment that people face. The government should be looking at those, rather than continuing down this ideological route that demonises people, takes a punitive approach and does not recognise the value that people place on finding work. The government should recognise that people do engage with work when they are given support to overcome the barriers to employment and when they are provided with a case management and individualised approach that does not treat people as simply a number on a piece of paper. Such an approach treats them as individuals and recognises that they each have their own concerns, needs, barriers to employment and need for particular areas of support. Ms O'Halloran also said:

If you look at the number of appeals, the appeals also dropped. Our casework experience was that people were getting penalties but they stopped appealing because it was a much faster, better route for them to just re-engage and do a compliance activity.

The point being made to the inquiry was that people do engage with the current regime. You are better off taking that approach than taking a punitive approach like the one that is outlined in this bill. We will not be supporting this bill. We will continue to oppose a punitive approach, because we do not believe that it produces the best outcomes.

6:16 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I find the criticisms of those opposing the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill to be quite extraordinary and not based on any sort of fact. What I saw during the inquiry into this bill was a regime that gives every opportunity for those genuinely seeking work to get the support they need and to continue to receive benefits. The only ones we are talking about in this bill are those who simply, after being given umpteen chances, refuse to help themselves. Those are the people we are talking about. We are not talking about people who are genuinely looking for work and genuinely complying with their obligations.

We heard from Senator Siewert, Senator Cameron and others. Senator Cameron did not address the bill in his speech. Senator Siewert at least addressed the bill. She had the right bill. Senator Cameron, the shadow minister, was talking about something completely different. I can address some of what Senator Siewert had to say in terms of those who are looking for work, those who are doing their best. The good news is that this bill does not impact on those people. It does not impact on those people in the slightest. I will read a little bit from the evidence we had from the department about who it actually applies to. I will talk the Senate through how many chances someone has to be given under this legislation before a penalty can even potentially be applied. It is important that we get these facts on the table because I think, if most Australians heard how many chances people had, they would easily dismiss some of the criticisms that we have heard from some people in this chamber and other people who appeared before the committee. Just to put people's minds at rest, I will quote from some of the evidence that we had from the department:

The bill will not impact job seekers who cannot get work despite their best efforts. It will not impact those whose failure to meet their participation requirements is beyond their control and of course it will not impact the 98 per cent of job seekers who do not incur these types of failures. Rather, the bill targets those who have received but refused an offer of suitable work without a reasonable excuse or have been found after an in-depth assessment by the Department of Human Services to have been persistently and wilfully non-compliant.

That is what we are talking about. We are not talking about people who are doing their best and we are not talking about people who make the odd mistake in their efforts to try and find a job. We are talking about people who simply refuse work when it is offered to them or who simply refuse time after time to comply with their obligations. It is absolutely critical that we get this on the record, because some of the commentary in some of the speeches has given a completely misleading impression about what we are talking about here. The coalition believes that we should support those who are looking for work and this legislation will continue that support. But it will not do what the former Labor Party did and effectively provide no penalty in the end when people persistently and wilfully do not comply with their obligations. We believe that at some point, after rigorous process, there does need to be some direct incentive.

Taxpayers deserve better than what they were given under the Labor Party. They deserve better than the statistics we have seen. I will touch on some of the statistics. This is not about the 98 per cent; it is about the two per cent who persistently and wilfully do the wrong thing. When we lump all of these people together, it undermines those who are genuinely seeking work and who are genuinely using their best endeavours to get a job in difficult circumstances. This bill does not affect them. The approach that the Labor Party are advocating is a slap in the face to those genuine jobseekers who do try to do the right thing. But there are some in our community who simply will not. They are given more and more chances and eventually we have to say, 'Well, there does have to be a penalty.' We saw the statistics and we heard from the department, who said in their evidence:

In 2008-09, the year before the introduction of waivers, 644 penalties were applied for refusing work. In 2012-13, 1,718 penalties were applied for refusing work and 1,227 of these were waived. This means that on 1,227 occasions job seekers who had been offered a job refused that job and returned immediately to income support payment. For this reason, it is intended that job seekers who refuse work should not be able to have their penalty waived and return immediately to payment. We hope that this will provide sufficient incentive for job seekers to accept work when they are offered it.

Let us look at the overall penalties when we are talking about persistent non-compliance. Again quoting from the department:

In 2012-13 there were 28,237 penalties applied for persistent non-compliance; 73 per cent of these were waived and 30 per cent of these waivers were the job seeker's second or subsequent waiver. This indicated that unlimited waivers is undermining the deterrent effect of penalties by allowing a significant number of job seekers to persist in their non-compliant behaviour without consequence.

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

Do you ever look at vulnerability indicators?

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Indeed we do. I will touch on vulnerability indicators. This goes to how many safeguards there are. It is worth talking people through what it takes for someone to get to a point where they could potentially have a penalty applied for persistent and wilful non-compliance. It does not happen the first time, it does not happen the second time and it does not happen the third time. It happens after a series of occasions and a series of reviews. What has to happen is that a job seeker has to fail to comply with their obligations three times in six months. But it goes much further than that; there is a process all along the way to get to that point. What we know is that we have service providers working with job seekers—we heard from some of those service providers, and I do not doubt that those service providers are compassionate. Many of them are in the not-for-profit sector, but regardless of whether they are from the not-for-profit sector or otherwise they are compassionate and they are doing their best to help job seekers to find work.

We know that for someone to get to the three breaches in six months they have to go through a first process, because there is discretion from that service provider as to whether it then goes to the department. In all likelihood, by the time it gets to the department it has happened a few times, because the service provider is not going to refer them to the department on the first occasion if there is a good excuse. They are going to work compassionately and as best they can. So by the time they are getting to the department's attention, where we are talking about the first strike, this is a person who, in all likelihood, has failed to comply on several occasions. We do not know exactly how many, but there is a discretion there, and we know that many of these service providers are doing their best. I do not think anyone in this chamber thinks the service providers we heard from would capriciously be reporting someone to the department. There has to be a level of non-compliance over a period of time before they come to the department.

Then it gets to the department, and at each level it is reviewed. Sometimes there will be a good excuse, but this is about three occasions where it is deemed there is no reasonable excuse. By the time they get to that third occasion in six months where they are deemed to have not complied with no reasonable excuse, you can safely say that that individual has likely been non-compliant in a significant way on a significant number of occasions. Then we have a further process where these non-compliances are reviewed. We were told there were about 75,000 in the last financial year who got to this point. Then that gets a detailed review, where a number of factors are considered. Even though they have failed to comply several times, we have a situation where a comprehensive review is done to see whether it is a genuinely systemic problem and there is genuinely persistent and wilful non-compliance. Of those 75,000, we heard that only one-third were then potentially having penalties applied to them. Two-thirds, who have failed to comply on many occasions, will never be subject to a penalty. Let us be clear on that—they will never be subject to a penalty. Then we have a situation where those one-third are able to have the penalty waived. In fact, that will continue under this legislation. They will still be able to have that penalty waived. Then we have a situation where the individual has the ability to appeal the decision. If the department has acted in an unreasonable way, they can appeal that and the decision can be overturned.

Any reasonable observer would say that that is a lot of chances. We are not talking about someone who gets right to the end of that process and has a penalty applied—they can still have that waived under the new system. They just cannot have it waived on multiple occasions, which is what has been happening under the current legislation. Surely, any reasonable observer or any reasonable member of the Australian community—be they a job seeker, be they in paid employment, be they low- or middle-income earners—would look at this and say, 'That is a fair go.'

We are doing our bit to support people. We are giving them every chance to continue to have that support. All this bill does in regard to persistent and wilful non-compliance is to say that you go through those umpteen chances, decisions are reviewed that many times, and the two-thirds who have persistently not complied are reviewed and two-thirds of them might have some reasonable excuse. We have applied the vulnerability indicators, which look at a range of things that might be affecting someone. Whether it is someone suffering from homelessness or mental illness or a whole range of other things, those vulnerability indicators are applied. Then there is an appeals process. We are saying that if someone has had that many chances and they get the penalties, they can have them waived once but they cannot have them waived on multiple occasions. We talked about the 25,268 serious failures for repeated non-compliance, and of these the penalty was waived in 73 per cent of cases. And this is an important point—of those waived, nearly one-third were for a job seeker's second or third episode of non-compliance. This is right at the end of that process I have outlined.

The Labor Party, the Greens and others are saying that, in the end, there should be no penalty and that you can just persistently, time and time again, not meet your requirements. Surely, we should demand better. Surely, we should say that, after you have had that many chances and had the penalty waived once, we are not going to waive it again. We are not going to waive it a second and a third and a fourth time, as is occurring in some cases. Surely, that is not good enough. The Labor Party, the Greens and others have tried to put out this story that it is somehow unjust. I do not think the average taxpayer would see it as unjust if, after umpteen chances and after a waiver, we say, 'Enough. You can't have multiple waivers. You can't just keep doing the same thing. We are eventually holding you to a standard that the community expects.' I think that that is a reasonable way to go.

We heard very compelling evidence on the statistics that I mentioned and the process that I mentioned. We talk about the vulnerability indicators. That is a detailed process that is there to make sure that we do not penalise someone who has had a minor failure to comply—that is not who we are talking about. We are not talking about the 98 per cent of job seekers; we are talking about the two per cent of job seekers who refuse to do the right thing. After giving them so many chances, we should hold them to a standard.

The Labor Party used to be the party of workers. They are now the party, in arguing the case that they have argued, of defending dole bludgers. That is what we are talking about.

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is outrageous!

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, it is not, actually. What you do is lump all job seekers together. Ninety eight per cent of them are trying to do the right thing. Two per cent consistently refuse to do the right thing, and that is what you defend.

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senators, please come to order!

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I see the sensitivity across the aisle about what they are defending when you put it out there as to what they are defending. You go out to your community. Go out to the hardworking people in your community and say, 'I'm not going to just defend them on one, two, three or five occasions; I'm going to defend them on as many occasions when they breach their obligations as they like. There will be no penalties under the Labor Party. They will consistently have those penalties waived.'

What we are saying is that, after you have been through all those processes and had all those chances—you have had your appeals and had your penalty waived once—we are not going to waive it twice or a third time. Surely, that is a reasonable thing. Take a good look at what you are defending. In the speeches by senators from the Labor Party, we did not actually hear you talk about the legislation—and I am not surprised you did not talk about the legislation.

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

You've just said exactly what your government thinks about the unemployed.

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Your response to this, Senator Brown, indicates your sensitivity on this point. Senator Cameron, your shadow spokesman, did not mention this legislation. He did not mention one aspect of this legislation; he did not mention one clause of this legislation—and there is a reason for that. The reason is that it is very hard to defend your claims when you go to the detail. You can talk in abstract, but, when we put the facts on the table about how detailed the process is and about how many chances people have, surely it is reasonable that we eventually hold them to a standard. That is what the coalition is advocating here—nothing more, nothing less.

We will continue to have all of those safeguards so that the vast bulk, the 98 per cent of job seekers who do the right thing, want to get a job and are trying their best, will not be affected by this legislation. But the Labor Party's argument is that there should be no standards. We should not hold anyone to account at any stage. We take a different view and we do not shy away from it. I commend this bill to the Senate.

6:34 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Prior to the last election, Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised to create one million jobs within the next five years and two million jobs within the next 10 years. If the Prime Minister was on track at all to meet his promise, by now more than 166,000 jobs would have been created. But what we have instead is the highest unemployment rate in 12 years and labour force figures which show the government well short of this target. It is little surprise to us on this side that the government fails so miserably when it comes to job creation. Having created close to one million jobs, despite the largest global economic downturn since the Great Depression, Labor has the runs on the board when it comes to job creation and when it comes to looking after those who are looking for work. We know what is needed.

You can imagine how frustrated people are when they listen to Senator Seselja misrepresent what the legislation before us today will actually do. They make every effort on that side to sideline those who are vulnerable and may have trouble finding work because there is not enough work available. What is really frustrating is when they stand idly by and watch thousands of jobs go, as they did, from Alcoa, Qantas, Holden, Toyota, SPC, Electrolux and Gove. Even in my home state and that of Senator Brown, who is in the chamber, Tasmania, we are watching jobs go at Mount Lyell and the Henty mines, while those on the other side, especially the Liberal member for Braddon, Mr Brett Whiteley, do nothing for those 350 workers affected.

I have heard Mr Abbot speak about the government being like a fire crew fighting the fire. When it comes to job creation and helping people get jobs, this government is more like the pyromaniac who turns up to the house fire with a deckchair and sits to watch it. There is evidence emerging from economists that many of the cruel cuts in this budget will add fuel to the fire and actually damage the economy and kill jobs. What do the government do when they are confronted with their abject failure on jobs? They try to blame someone else. That is their modus operandi. Of course, they will blame the previous Labor government—they have spent a whole year blaming the previous Labor government for everything that ever happened—despite our job creation record and the decisive action during the GFC. But they will have to really turn their thoughts to how they will deal with people who cannot seek work, and they will have to do it in a way other than what they have suggested so far, which is so punitive and unfair, especially to those who are vulnerable. They cannot avoid the inconvenient truth that they are failing to create jobs, so why not just blame the unemployed and say that the unemployed are not looking and are too lazy and unmotivated to get up and get work. To suggest that anyone would be happy to live on $35 a day, if it meant not having to get off the couch and do any work, is absolutely ludicrous. It is also ludicrous to suggest that all they really need is a good kick in the pants. It was this kind of attitude that was behind the Abbott government's ridiculous proposal that would have seen Australian businesses, including small businesses, swamped with a million job applications a day.

When Senator Abetz was asked by the ABC's 7.30 presenter, Emma Alberici, whether there would be enough positions to apply for in a place like my home state of Tasmania, where jobs are sparse—and Senator Urquhart, another Tasmanian senator, who has just joined me in the chamber, will also understand this—Senator Abetz replied:

When jobs are sparse, it means that you've got to apply for more jobs to get a job.

That is what they think: 'There are not many jobs, but you just have to apply for more.' They do not take into account people's skills, development, ability to do work, or the fact that people might not be able to get a job for reasons that include, for example, psychological issues. Those on the other side just simply say, 'If you have not got a job, you are not trying hard enough.' Never mind whether you are living in an area of high unemployment; never mind that you might not have the financial means to relocate; never mind that moving might mean leaving your family or your support network. Once again, if you are one those vulnerable people who perhaps have a psychological illness, you will need your family around you. Just packing up and moving is not the way to go. Never mind that there are few training opportunities available or that you are struggling to learn because of poor literacy or numeracy. No, if you want a job, then you can apply for a job—any job.

We heard from Senator Abetz in question time today the fact that most jobs are not advertised. I cannot remember the exact quote but I thought that was pretty funny. So you can just want a job and just apply for it. I would suggest a lot of people start applying for Senator Abetz's job, because I am sure that people could do a lot better than those Liberal senators representing Tasmania. If you do not have a job in this day and age, according to the government it is all your own fault.

We are talking about the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill. I just want to talk about an article published in The Australian a couple of weeks ago. It featured an excellent profile of a young man from Bernie—his name was Josh Smith—and the challenges that he faces. I quote:

His prospects of finding work are grim. He doesn’t have a driver’s licence because he’s never had access to a car, or someone to teach him to drive, and he can’t afford lessons; there are no trains and the bus service is patchy. He left school in Year 8 and while he’s done a couple of courses, he has no real qualifications.

The article revealed that in Burnie job vacancies in entry-level positions such as waiting tables or stacking shelves can each attract up to 200 applications. Josh Smith lives with his ex-partner and they have a three-year-old daughter. The article poses some interesting and quite useful questions. It goes on to say:

So where does someone like Josh Smith move to? Would anyone employ him? And what about his kid? And, if he doesn’t move, what happens if he loses his dole payment for six months?

What does happen, I wonder, if he loses his dole payment for six months? Well, I suppose he will find it pretty hard to feed his child, let alone himself.

These are really important questions. But as far as this government is concerned the difficulties faced by the Josh Smiths of the world are their own fault. That is why if you are under the age of 30 this government wants to cut your income completely—your social safety net—for a period of six months. That is right—completely. Under this cruel proposal, job seekers under 30 would have to live on nothing but fresh air for half a year. Who knows what they would have to do for food, rent and utilities, or to provide for their children, let alone how they would afford simple things like postage stamps, the paper to submit their job applications, or bus fares or petrol to get to job interviews.

This government is trying to introduce these changes under the cover of mutual obligation. But what this government seeks to do goes way beyond mutual obligation and into the realms of punishment—punishing job seekers for their failure to get a job. It is easier for the Abbott government to punish a vulnerable group in society, one that simply does not have the means to fight back, than it is for them to create the jobs that they have promised. This bill is just one in a suite of proposals to deliver this cruel punishment.

Before I get to the provisions of the bill I will briefly explain the current situation. Under the current provisions of the Social Security (Administrative) Act, job seekers in receipt of a participation payment may incur an eight-week non-payment penalty for serious failures. The main participation payment is Newstart, but the term also encompasses youth allowance, parenting payment and special benefit. Serious failures can include things like refusing suitable work or persistent noncompliance with their participation obligations, such as turning up to meetings with their job service provider.

A penalty is not applied when the job seeker has a reasonable excuse. Reasonable excuses can include such circumstances as the death of a family member, imprisonment, family violence, mental illness, disability or caring responsibilities. Now, quite reasonably, the act also has some waiver provisions through which the public can, for certain reasons, stop short an eight-week non-payment penalty. These include, for example: that a job seeker may start to comply with their participation obligations during the non-payment period; that a job seeker may end up in serious financial hardship if the non-payment period was applied; or that the job seeker may not have had the capacity to comply with a serious failure requirement. What the government is seeking to do with this bill is to make a couple changes under the guise of strengthening this framework. The bill provides that job seekers who incur an eight-week no-payment penalty for refusing suitable work will no longer have the penalty waived.

My Tasmanian colleague, the member for Franklin and shadow minister for employment service, Julie Collins, has been briefed by the Department of Human Services on provisions of this bill and has come to the inescapable conclusion that it is unnecessarily harsh. In her second reading speech, Senator Collins emphasised the point that these changes would discourage re-engagement. Discouraging re-engagement seems to be completely at odds with the aims of getting jobs seekers into work. If the participation obligations are aimed at encouraging job seekers to actively look for work, then why not offer some incentive to reengage? Instead, this bill consigns those job seekers to the too-hard basket.

These changes mean that job seekers who refuse suitable work will serve the eight-week non-payment penalty regardless, unless they have a reasonable excuse. So there is no waiver—no consideration for whether the job seeker is re-engaging with their participation obligations, no consideration of their capacity to comply with the requirement, and no consideration of whether they would experience financial hardship if the penalty is applied.

The other changes in this bill provide that job seekers who persistently fail to comply with participation obligations will only be able to have the penalty waived once during each period of continuous receipt of the participation payment. There were questions asked in Senate estimates to determine exactly what the effect of this provision would mean. The department revealed that even when Newstart recipients were undergoing a six-month period of no income, as is proposed in the government's cruel budget changes for job seekers under the age of 30, they will be regarded as still being a Newstart recipient, but one who is in receipt of a nil payment. So not only could they be penalised while not receiving any income, but the one waiver restriction could continue to apply for years, depending on how long the job seeker remains unemployed. If they incur the eight-week penalty during their six months of not receiving any income, then the penalty simply extends the period of non-payment.

The changes to social security for young people under the age of 30 are one of the cruellest measures contained in the budget, but if you combine the six-month non-payment period with the provisions of this bill we could potentially see some long-term job seekers going without a payment for up to 11 months. That gives them only one month before they head into the next six-month period of non-payment. In other words, they would have one month of income support during an 18-month period. So I ask those opposite: is that not just the absolute height of cruelty? These harsh changes will have the greatest impact on some of the most vulnerable job seekers in Australia.

Senator Seselja was quite happily sprouting statistics when it was his turn to speak. Let me give a few statistics. Last year Centrelink applied 5,263 eight-week non-payment penalties to job seekers with Centrelink vulnerability indicators on their files—that is right; they had vulnerability indicators on their files. This included 1,483 with psychiatric problems or mental illness, 1,149 with homelessness flags on their files, 131 just released from prison, 107 who had experienced a recent traumatic relationship breakdown, and 102 job seekers with a cognitive or neurological impairment.

I heard Senator Abetz recently, in a debate on a disallowance motion, refer to all the reasonable-excuse provisions that apply, such as suffering a mental illness, having family responsibilities and so on. But let me just point out that vulnerability indicators were on the files of those people to whom the penalty was applied. In other words, their mental illness, homelessness, relationship breakdown et cetera was not considered a factor in the serious failure for which they received their penalty. Let me just point that out for those opposite: their vulnerability indicator issues, such as mental illness, homelessness, relationship breakdown et cetera, were not considered factors in the serious failures for which they received their penalties.

We can see from these figures that, despite the reasonable excuse provisions, the penalties were still disproportionately applied to the most vulnerable job seekers. No matter what those on the other side of the chamber say, or try to spin, that is how it was. As at 31 March this year, there were just over 118,000 job seekers with vulnerability indicators on their files. If this bill passes the parliament these job seekers will be at greater risk than others of having their payment suspended.

Indigenous job seekers have traditionally also been over-represented among those penalised. Over the 2012-13 period, there were 6,895 eight-week penalties applied to Indigenous job seekers, compared with 29,563 for non-Indigenous job seekers. So Indigenous job seekers represented almost one-fifth of those receiving an eight-week penalty. The restrictions of waivers would disproportionately impact some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Are these the people—people with mental illness, people experiencing homelessness—that Australia should reach out a hand and support? Are these the people that Joe Hockey described— (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.