Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 September 2014


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014, Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014; Second Reading

1:06 pm

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

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014 and the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014 amount to a serious attack on the Australian welfare state. In his budget reply, our opposition leader, Mr Shorten, said about the budget that was brought down that it was an attack on the freedom of integrity, on the freedom of respect, on the freedom that gives every person dignity and the right to be treated equally and on the freedom of compassion and respect that gives individuals the opportunity to fulfil their potential. This is the freedom we believe in, and this budget undermines that freedom. It weakens it. This budget tears at the fabric of our country. Indeed, these bills are the heart of that budget. They attack the most vulnerable in our community. I believe that the government is trying to destroy our system of a 'fair go' specifically through these bills.

We know that through the proposals that we have before us millions of pensioners, families, people with disability, carers and young people will be worse off; cuts will throw Australia's most vulnerable citizens into poverty. Is this what the Prime Minister meant when he said that he was going to protect the vulnerable? As has been said many times, there are a series of broken promises in this legislation: broken promises to pensioners, broken promises to Australian families, broken promises to people with disability, broken promises to carers and broken promises to young people who do not have work.

Before the election, this Prime Minister promised Australian pensioners that there would be no cuts or changes to the pension, yet within these bills we see cuts to pension indexation which will undeniably diminish the living standards of age pensioners, disability pensioners, veterans and carers. Despite what the government says—despite the rhetorical discussion about whether these are cuts or reductions—these are cuts. People will have less money; to me, that is a cut.

Before the election, Australian families were promised by this Prime Minister that they would be better off under an Abbott government. They are now counting the cost of the cruel cuts to family payments contained in these bills. There is a fear which was raised by Bill Shorten in his budget reply that this budget—and, I believe, in particular these bills—will make Australia a colder, meaner and narrower place. This is a failure of this government—a government that promised govern for all of us—in its mutual obligation to young job seekers as they look for work.

I know that many senators in this debate will talk about particular elements in this bill, and there are so many about which to talk. I want to raise a few. The bills will tear up our system of social contracts—social contracts that have been built by successive governments of all particular flavours over the last century. They are based on the pillars of the Australian welfare state: access to universal health care and education, a fair and secure pension system, support for people who cannot work due to disability or caring responsibilities and support that helps get people into work. It took more than a century to develop the system that we have today; these bills will take that system out.

We have a social welfare system of which Australians can be proud. No-one claims that it is perfect. We accept that, and we need to consistently work together in our communities to see how we can make it better. Importantly, I say 'work together'. When the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs looked at this legislation, every one of the witnesses that came to see us said that they wanted to engage with government to look at the system. They were not just rejecting and saying no—though they were rejecting the changes in these bills, there is no doubt about that—they were prepared to work with the government to find alternative ways to make our system stronger. The statements from government that only they care about our budget and our society and that only they are aware of the need for change are just not true. We need to have security in our system. It is that very security that these bills seek to destroy.

The Abbott government is making a false and misleading argument to support these cuts. We heard on budget night one element which continues to infuriate me and many people in the community: a claim that we are a nation of leaners and lifters and that the leaners need to do more heavy lifting. Apart from the fact that that claim is offensive, what does it mean? Does it mean that anyone who has any need of reliance on welfare is automatically not worthy? Is that what the government is saying? Once again, people are not being treated with respect through this process.

We agree with the comments made by the Council on the Ageing:

If the argument is that pensions need to go down in terms of Commonwealth expenditures because of a fiscal crisis, we do not think that is a sufficient argument …

In fact, there is compelling evidence that the proportion of Australians who are welfare-dependent is decreasing. Despite the cries of the government and its compliant media, who run regular media statements about people who are taking down the system, the statistics in the June analysis of the Melbourne Institute using the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey showed that Australians have reduced their dependence on welfare. In 2001, 23 per cent of working-age people in Australia received a welfare payment each week. In 2011, that had dropped to 18.5 per cent, and it continues to drop despite the rhetoric and despite the claims that our system is falling over and is unsustainable.

We know that across the OECD Australia spends less on welfare than any other country except Iceland. Earlier this year, Minister Andrews claimed that Australia is a risk of becoming a welfare state like nations in Europe, but welfare spending in Australia is well below the countries in the OECD.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Compared to Greece, Italy and Ireland?

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

In fact, our welfare expenditure accounted for just 8.6 per cent of GDP in 2013 compared to the OECD average of 13 per cent. Perhaps Senator O'Sullivan can give me the figures which he is mumbling about. The government's claim that Australia is heading for some sort of welfare crisis is complete rubbish.

These bills build up the premise that people are not supporting Australia, but they are. These bills are an unprecedented attack on pensioners and seniors. The Prime Minister said that pensions would not be cut. Well, they will be. The real amount of pension will be cut. The pension indexation changes will impact on what people are able to get from their pension. Treasurer Hockey admitted that the Abbott government's changes to pension indexation will result in massive cuts to the age pension, saying:

… in 2024-25, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office, instead of being $74.8 billion a year it is $67.9 billion a year.

In Senate Estimates, answers from Minister Fifield showed that the changes to the pension indexation have been put in place in an effort to slow the rate of pension increase.

What has occurred is that people have been made afraid. They have been made afraid about the security of their future. They have been made to feel as though they are doing something wrong, when in fact they have not. That is not the intent of our system. It is to engage and support, not to demonise.

The major advocacy organisations that support aged people in our country are saying they want to have a discussion about retirement in Australia. They think it is an important thing to do. They do not like their members—older Australians—being referred to as 'leaners'. They want a discussion about how we can work together to best work as a nation. We need to look across the board at our retirement system and not take a blunt instrument like the indexation tool to rip money out of the fortnightly payments of Australian pensioners.

I remember, as you would, Mr Acting Deputy President Gallacher, that when we had the call several years ago to increase pensions, our government, the Rudd government, actually increased pensions. The people on this side were saying we should do more. So their argument is not consistent. With our superannuation changes, again, we believe that we should be protecting superannuation and not ripping it away.

But it is not just age pensioners and veterans who are being affected by these bills. Self-funded retirees are also being betrayed in the budget. The bills include the abolition of the seniors supplement, an annual payment of $876 to people who receive the Commonwealth seniors health card. Already the government has cut the pensioner concessions that are linked between the Commonwealth and state governments, a process that of course is blamed completely on the states, but that is just not true.

We believe that there is a clear indication in these two bills that people in Australia will now be divided into those who have and those who have not, and this government is ripping more money off the people who have not. We consistently talk about the issues of the cumulative effect of these cuts. You cannot take one issue and look at it in isolation. We had evidence during our inquiry about what the cumulative effect would be of the range of cuts. This needs to be addressed by the community and by the government.

In regard to the age pension and superannuation, I will be moving amendments to the bills today to remove the following cruel cuts from the bills: cuts to pensions, through the indexation changes; increasing the age pension to 70; abolishing the seniors supplement; the resetting of the social security and veterans entitlements test deeming thresholds; cessation of the pensioner education supplement; the removal of the three-month backdating of the disability pension under the Veterans' Entitlement Act 1986; and a pause to indexation of the income-test-free areas for all pensioners. Labor will not support these measures.

When we get to families there is another series of attacks. These bills contain measures that can only be described as a full-scale cost-of-living attack on Australian families. It includes a massive $7.5 billion in cuts to family payments. This legislation will put more pressure on the budgets of millions of families, and low-income families will be hit the hardest. We have figures from independent modelling agency NATSEM saying that the government has no credibility in claiming that this is a fair budget. NATSEM research showed that around 1.2 million families will be, on average, $3,000 a year worse-off by 2017-18. In contrast, the top 20 per cent of households will experience either no impact, a negligible impact, or in fact a positive impact.

The bills seek to freeze the payment rate for family tax benefits. They seek to freeze the low-income-free area for family tax benefits, including the low-income-free area for those who receive the maximum rate of family tax benefit A. According to the Department of Social Services, a freeze to the low-income-free area for FTB-A alone will see more than 370,000 families around $750 a year worse off in 2016-17. Over the life of the children's schooling, eligible families will be around $15,000 worse off as a result of this budget, including the measures in these bills. By 2016, a single-income couple family on $65,000 with two school-age children will be around $6,000 worse off each year. We have the figures. Through Senate estimates we tried to get information about these cuts. We tried to find out exactly who was going to be impacted. We found out slowly through Senate estimates that around 700,000 families will lose family tax benefit B, if the government actually gets these bills through.

Families will lose their payment when their youngest child turns six. We have been fighting these kinds of reductions for years, looking at the need for effective parenting. Again, removing this payment when the youngest child turns six does not engage effectively with what we know is best practice for families and for parenting. It erodes the sense of security, the sense of harmony, that people should have with their government.

Today I will also move amendments to reflect that Labor will oppose the indexing of parenting payment (single) by CPI only—the government is moving the wages benchmark. Labor will oppose the government's move to freeze the rates of family tax benefits; oppose revising the family tax benefit end-of-year supplements to their original values, and cease indexation; and, oppose limiting family tax benefit part B to families with children under six years of age. The new allowance, which as been put in because the government knew this was going to have an impact, further complicates the system and does not adjust effectively for the loss from the original cut. Labor will also oppose freezes to the income-free-areas for family payments.

The bills also include a measure to tighten the means testing for FTB-B from $150,000 to $100,000. Labor accepts the need for means testing. We in fact have implemented means testing for many payments, such as the age pension and the private health insurance rebate. We originally introduced means testing to family tax benefit part B. You will remember that when we did that, the people who are now in government but were on the opposition side of the chamber at the time and they abused our changes, saying that we were heartless, that we did not understand the need, and that we were not effectively fulfilling our role in government. It is always dangerous when you go back and read past Hansards. But I would encourage people to have a look at what this government said when they were in opposition about changes to our system. Compare the rhetoric and compare the allegations, then you will see—when you hear their statements—that there again is no consistency.

There was considerable debate in our inquiry and also considerable information from people who have written in to many of us through the committee process—through email and phone calls—about their concern about the young job seekers' changes. There were a series of questions that we put to the department at our inquiry about the impact and the research behind the singularly unique and harsh changes that the government has brought in, which will withdraw the safety net for young job seekers. I know many senators will be putting information on the record about how concerned they are about this.

The National Welfare Rights Network stated in our inquiry that the changes in this measure to unemployment eligibility for young people under 30 is:

…a fundamental attack on the basic right to social security and the principle of adequate income support based on need.

ACOSS said:

The removal of any income support for a group of people not in paid work fundamentally changes the Australian income support safety net.

The St Vincent de Paul Society said:

We find very concerning the idea that the government would intentionally remove any semblance of a social safety net for a particular group of people.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has also pointed out that amongst all the changes that were brought forward, this particular attack on young, unemployed people does not meet the requirement to fit the human rights expectations of our community. Again, I stress that these bills—as part of a wider budget—actually attack the relationship between our citizens and our social welfare system. These do not respond to the way that we have committed to ensuring that people in need will have support.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It will be a lot harsher if we do not get the budget in order.

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


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

There is gross unfairness at the heart of this government's budget. We now know that people will not be benefited by these processes. We will also be moving amendments in this particular section of the bill. We will be removing the following sections to extend the ordinary waiting period for working age payments, we will be rejecting the cessation of the education entry payment and we will be rejecting moving people under 25 from Newstart onto youth allowance, which would be with weekly cuts to their already minimal allowances.

The forcing of young people under 30 to wait six months without any support at all then becomes a rolling punishment. It is not just once; but it is six months on, six months off. Think about what that will do to Australian families. This applies to people under 30. These are independent people who now will be forced back to relying on family or charity. That does not meet any requirement under our acceptance of what should be what our nation does. We are also rejecting the pauses to indexation for the low income-free area for student payments, including the student income bank limits. We are also rejecting pausing indexation of income-free areas for all working age allowances.

There are many other elements of this bill that need consideration. They are enormous piece of legislation, but I think it is important that senators across the board can identify elements that offend them, that cause fear and that we should be addressing. We believe the government has not effectively shared the pain of the budget. They said that there would be pain in the budget, but it has not been shared fairly. The most vulnerable, who are the people who are reliant on support, will bear the greatest punishment. We reject this process and we will actually be ensuring that the through this debate, we will be focusing on what needs to change.

1:26 pm

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

The Greens oppose these bills. They are so bad that we do not think that you can amend them to save them. They are fundamentally cutting at the fabric of our community and we will be opposing both of these bills. ACOSS says that these bills are radical structural changes to our social security system. I agree with their comments, but I go further: these are radical changes to our community.

Our community, once these changes come into effect, will no longer look or be as an inclusive as it is now. We will no longer have a land of the fair go, where we help the most vulnerable and where people are considered to have access to opportunity. It will be changed into a meaner, less inclusive community where if you have money or your parents have money, you will have an advantage and you will have access to opportunities that many others do not. We will move away from a community where we expect that we will help the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community and where we provide help to people who need it. These budget measures do not discriminate against specific peoples, because they are having a go at everybody: at young people, at older Australians, at single parents, at people with disabilities and at families.

We have had overwhelming evidence that shows the negative impacts of these measures. Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has made the point that they do not consider that the measures that deny people access to social security are compatible with human rights. Accordingly, it says that:

…the committee considers that the measure is incompatible with the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living.

When they looked at the age criteria for the Newstart allowance and the exclusion periods, which will chuck under 30-year-olds off income support, they said:

Accordingly, the committee considers that the measures in Schedules 8 and 9 are incompatible with the rights to equality and non-discrimination on the basis of age.

They have also sought further advice from the minister about the impact of these measures on equality and nondiscrimination on the basis of gender and family responsibilities.

These measures are fundamentally unacceptable. As the National Welfare Rights Network says, these measures are not fair and they are not equitable. The harshest cuts in these budget measures are to the most vulnerable, yet these are the people who we should be helping; the most vulnerable are the people who should be supported by our community. Not supporting people, in the way that these budget measures would cause to come into effect, is not fair and it is not equitable.

The government is in fact making a concerted attempt to rent giant, great big holes in our safety net. There is absolutely no doubt that that is what is happening. These changes have been universally rejected by all submitters to the Senate inquiry, except for the government's own department. People can see through what the government is attempting to do—that is, to destroy our safety net. The community does not like it and neither do the Greens. We expect our safety net to provide a basic but adequate standard of living for our citizens and a foundation from which they can see beyond barriers to inclusion in our community and barriers to employment, to overcome their disadvantage.

We need a well-grounded, reasoned, evidence-based, credible, ethical approach that is person-centred and ensures their wellbeing, making sure they are included in decision making and giving them control over their lives. We should be working with people's strengths, hopes and aspirations and building on these. This approach will generate lasting change to those persons' lives; while blaming, punishing and demonising does not help people to overcome their disadvantage and in fact entrenches dependency and hopelessness. These bills will do that. These bills will increase inequality, particularly for young people who will be set back, potentially, for life. Living on nothing for over six months at a time, which is what these bills enable, creates dependency. It will create hopelessness and it will create a revolving door of people having to go on and off income support because barriers to employment and to inclusiveness are not being overcome with these measures.

These bills contain the government's cruellest welfare measures, their cruellest budget measures. They will take billions of dollars out of our social security system, money which should be invested in helping people. These measures do none of what I am talking about in terms of the way we should be supporting people to overcome disadvantage, how we should be supporting the most vulnerable. These changes are, I believe, purposely designed to hurt the most disadvantaged. The inquiry into these bills heard repeatedly of the negative and potentially dangerous effects that these budget measures will have. The government is making a determined attempt to radically change our social security system in this country and our safety net.

This is not the first time attempts have been made. Previous Prime Ministers Howard, Rudd and Gillard all made changes that were negative but these take the cake. These will fundamentally change how we care and support the most disadvantaged. These bills will add to the growing inequality in Australia. They will have long- ranging effects as wealth, interest and power are concentrated more and more with a few. These measures will affect generations ahead. When combined with other budget measures, people will be priced out of the housing market. People will be unable to find accommodation. Education will become more inaccessible to people. There will be more insecure access to income support and if they become sick people will not be able to access adequate assistance. The submissions and evidence to the inquiry into these bills show that, if enacted, these bills will compound poverty and hardship in our community and will not help improve employment participation. As St Vincent de Paul said to the inquiry:

We cannot agree with measures that will drive people even deeper into poverty, above all in an environment where there simply aren't enough jobs for the numbers of people looking for work.

A number of organisations raised concern about the cumulative impact of these measures, with National Welfare Rights Network saying:

These Bills contain a wide range of measures which have complex interactions with each other, and with other measures proposed in other Bills the harshest reductions to income are felt by the more vulnerable social security recipients and low income working families.

These bills are fundamentally a shift in the wrong direction on income support. Again the National Welfare Rights Network described the proposals in the bills before the committee as containing:

… some of the most significant changes to the Australian system of income support since it was first introduced in a consolidated Social Security Act in 1947.

I agree with them. These measures include forcing young people to live for six months and potentially longer without any income support, and changes to indexation of the pensions which will have an increasing impact on the ability of older Australians and single parents to meet their living expenses. Increasing the retirement age will have a significant impact on many older workers. Cutting and freezing payments for families and single parents will have a significant impact. Reassessing payment eligibility for people with disability will also have a significant impact. As NATSEM said, and I go back to the point I made earlier, the government know what they are doing. They know they are going to be impacting the most disadvantaged. That is why I think this has been designed that way. They had advice from and modelling done by NATSEM which made it clear that:

… this budget is raising revenue by taking income from the disadvantaged people in far greater proportions than from the affluent. As a result of changes to pensions, family allowances, unemployment benefits, and other social security payments, the poorest one in five Australian families will be hit up for up to 10.8 per cent of their income in 2017-18. By contrast, the richest Australian families can expect to forgo a maximum of 1.7 per cent in the same period.

In their submission to these bills, St Vincent de Paul said:

We cannot agree with measures that will drive people even deeper into poverty, above all in an environment where there simply—

is not enough work. These measures will impact on a range of Australians. Let us look at the budget measures which affect younger Australians, in particular the harshest budget measure of all, the one that shows this government simply does not understand what they are doing to young people. They think they will motivate people to find work because they think there are jobs out there for the picking, if people were motivated. Well, there are not the jobs there. There simply are not enough jobs for all young people, but we will dump them onto no income support anyway and expect them to live with nothing. While I am on this point, please, I beg the crossbenchers: do not compromise on this measure. Even a month, which I have heard some people talk about, is too long without income support—you already sow the seeds for homelessness and for people's inability to meet their basic needs.

We need to be generating and adopting a system that is supportive of young people, that helps them overcome their barriers and that helps them see a future beyond being able to sometimes access a part-time, casual or temporary job where they cycle in and out of employment. That is not how you can build a family; that is not how you can build a secure future. This budget measure dumps young people onto no income support for six months and, potentially, longer if you happen to breach one of your requirements. There is this neat, cute little description of 'new payment', but you still have to meet your requirements if you were, in fact, getting income support. This is an ideological approach to how this government thinks you support young people. It has got it so wrong, and the evidence clearly shows that. Also, the human rights committee now says it is incompatible.

The Abbott government's attitude to employment for young people, as I said, assumes that these jobs are readily available and young people are making a lifestyle choice. None of the young people I have spoken to are making that lifestyle choice. They have told me of the dozens and dozens of jobs that they have applied for and the circumstances where there are 1,000 people applying for one job. I heard, in fact, over the weekend from a young person who said that Target was opening a new store in Western Australia, and they had over 900 applications for around 100 jobs. That is 800 people that will be disappointed. And those 800 people, you could bet, would have applied and applied for jobs.

The government thinks that by making life unbearable for young job seekers they will see the light and their barriers to employment will suddenly be overcome. That is so far from the truth. It will condemn young people to poverty and to probably forcing them to lose their accommodation and not be able to meet their basic needs. That is not a safety net. That is simply getting rid of any form of social security for those young people. Poverty, we know, is another barrier to employment. Workforce exclusion is complex and enduring, particularly for people who are disadvantaged. This simplistic ideological approach will not help people into work. It will not overcome those complex and enduring problems. Denying income support to job seekers under 30 for more than six months and then subjecting them to Work for the Dole regimes—and I do not have time to go into all of the problems there—is a major problem. It is fundamentally unacceptable. It is wrongheaded and needs to be rejected.

If you look at indexation, the government says that these bills propose to change the indexation for age pensions, disability support pensions and parenting payments. However, the indexation for parenting payments changes come in straightaway. The others do not come in until after the next election. Again, who will that hit the most? Of course, single parents. Single parents have already copped cut after cut. But if you then look at what it will do to age pensioners and to people on disability support pension, ACOSShas calculated it will be about an $80 per week impact by the time those indexation changes come into effect. That is a cut to the pension. Whether the government likes to describe it like that or not, it is a cut to the pension. We reject it. Likewise, we reject the increase in the retirement age because older people's exclusion from the workplace once they fall out of employment has not been addressed. And we know that one-third of the people on Newstart have barriers to employment, and we are not adequately addressing those payments. The combination of the changes to retirement age, indexation and freezing of assets will have a significant impact on older Australians.

As COTA pointed out, in their submission and to the Senate inquiry, they are not opposed to looking at how you address retirement income. There are many perverse incentives included which the government is not addressing in these measures that COTA and others think need to be addressed. We think their idea of a retirement income review is a very good idea. Wouldn't you think it would be sensible to do that first before you bring in these ad hoc changes? And, of course, it is very cute for the government to say that they are not breaking their promise. They are breaking their promise. This is a cut to the pension that will adversely impact many Australians. If you then look at the other changes in this budget, such as co-payments and changes to access to health, these are other impacts that older Australians have to face.

The government are also talking about changes which—and I just cannot understand it—are seeking to demonise disability support pensioners, who are now having their portability changed from six weeks to four weeks. Why? They are trying to demonise people. They trying to say, 'It is because you are travelling overseas; therefore, you should not be doing it because you are on a disability support pension.' I have had a number of people contact my office saying that they have been saving up for years and years to be able to travel overseas. And it is harder when you are travelling overseas with a disability. They are travelling to see relatives or because of a dream that they have always had to see the world or to see a specific place. They save up for years, and what are the government saying? 'You can only go for four weeks.' It is mean and demonising to people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are extremely concerned, also, about the reassessment for those under the age of 35. They do not think the process is well thought out. There is the impact on families in terms of, particularly, single parents due to changes to the family tax benefit. Again, this is another impact on single parents. It is ill-thought through. How many times are we going to have a bash at single parents in this place? Government after government has. And yet this government talks about trying to support families. Obviously single parents do not count as families to this government. The supplement of $750 will not adequately compensate single parents.

And then of course we are taking away again the pensioner education supplement, which is particularly important for single parents. The previous government, the Gillard government, took it away but saw sense and restored it. It was only restored this year and now it is going again. People with disabilities are extremely concerned about the demise of the pensioner education supplement and the impact that will have on them when they are trying to get better qualifications so they can engage in work. The problem for people with disabilities is it is hard to engage with work; they have many barriers to overcome. Single parents are the same.

We will be opposing these two bills. There are a couple of measures in these bills that in fact could be supported, but we think the bills are so bad that it is not worth amending them. The equal remuneration case for Western Australia is an example. Dealing with superannuation and the seniors' health card are important measures, but the government is trying to maybe sugarcoat the other measures by putting these ones in there. If the government wants support for those measures, it can pull them out of the bill and put them separately. We will not be seeking to amend these bills because they are not saveable. They fundamentally affect our social security safety net and they should be rejected, both of them.

1:46 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with pleasure that I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014 today. I am not going to have the opportunity to say everything this afternoon but I am going to specifically comment on the less than accurate—I know Senator Moore, I know Senator Siewert and I work closely with them so I will not use the word 'mischievous'—comments that have been in the paper today about the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and its deliberations. I will come to that in a moment.

It is with pleasure that I rise to speak on the bill today because this legislation is designed to do something long overdue in this country. All of us in this parliament are committed to assisting the most vulnerable in our community. We all share an interest in helping those who are unable to fend for themselves financially. I happily believe that senators from other parties share that same aspiration, which makes some of the attacks we hear from those opposite all the more galling.

No political party in this country has a monopoly on compassion. And the consistent attempts by some of those opposite to cast debates on these matters in these Dickensian terms are as false as they are tiresome. But the simple fact is that if we want to make sure that the generations to come enjoy the same sorts of social support, networks and frameworks as current generations, we have a responsibility today to get government spending in our country onto a more sustainable footing. I know that this is a point that many opposite either cannot or will not accept but we cannot continue to spend the way we have been spending. Without wanting to traverse the same ground at length, we have to look at the situation this government inherited when it came to office just over a year ago. We face a situation where government debt, in the absence of any action to correct our current course, was on track to hit $667 billion in a decade's time. I would have thought it was pretty clear that was a very obvious signal of the unsustainable nature of our spending.

Looked at another way, between 2012 2014, the former Labor government was planning to increase government spending by about 16 per cent. On an international basis, that puts Australia right at the top of the list in government spending. While there are certain tables where it would be good to see Australia at the top, this is certainly not one of them.

In more immediate terms, what Labor's runaway debt position means is an interest bill for the nation of around $1 billion every month. That is a huge opportunity cost for this generation and for future generations. Just imagine what a government could do with an extra billion dollars per month in delivering critical infrastructure, providing support for health and education services or, indeed, giving the people's money back to them because it is not government money ultimately, it belongs to those who paid the tax in the first instance. But, bizarrely, the position of those opposite is that we should continue living it up today and let tomorrow look after itself. That is not the responsible way; that is not the new government's way. We were elected because we said we would get the budget back on track and that is what we are determined to do and that is what we will do.

Future generations will not thank those of us in this parliament today if they find the cupboard is bare when they need support down the track and, indeed, in more perilous times. Let me declare: I have supported all of the government budget measures. I am not just on the public record in Western Australia but I am on the public record in many of our nation's papers as supporting the budget measures, all of them. These are difficult times; they require difficult answers.

I was not surprised to learn that Labor today had sought to scaremonger, to misrepresent the report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. I was disappointed that ACOSS, who I have met a couple of times, decided to join in that scaremongering. What ACOSS said was not wrong; it Was just not completely true. What Labor has said was not wrong; it was just not completely true. I am personally disappointed because Senator Moore and others will know that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights in our parliament, like other scrutiny committees, has a cherished and valuable role. It is free from the partisan politics that dominate other committees.

Just for the information of senators and those who might have an interest, let me just explain what it is that the committee does. The main function of the committee is to examine bills and legislative instruments that come before the parliament for compatibility with human rights, as defined by seven core international and human rights conventions to which Australia is a party. In simple terms, those conventions define a range of civil and political rights, as well as rights collectively described as economic, social and cultural rights. To understand the way in which the committee undertakes its examination of legislation it is critical to note that, aside from absolute rights such as the right not to be subject to torture, human rights may be generally subject to what are termed permissible limitations under international human rights law. Accordingly, the committee's analytical framework focuses on, firstly, identifying if a proposed measure might have the effect of limiting the enjoyment of a specific right and, secondly, whether any such limitations may be regarded as permissible or justified.

Today we read about an issue in The Australian newspaper and, again, I was disappointed because the journalist concerned—whose stories I normally like reading—did not have the courtesy to speak to the chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. If she had chosen to, if Labor had been interested in a thorough debate on the human rights implications and if ACOSS had been concerned about engaging in a thorough debate on the human rights implications, they would have gone not just to the report but to the chairman's tabling statement, the statement that I give in this parliament every time I present a human rights report. What would they have found? I might just add here that Senator Siewert or Senator Moore did not talk about it; they gave incomplete explanations. What did the chairman say? I would like to draw senators' attention to one bill in this report, which is of particular interest and relevance to the committee's task of assessing legislation for compatibility with human rights. The bill, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014, seeks to amend various acts relating to social security, family assistance, veterans' entitlements and farm household support to make a number of changes to certain Australian government payments. The report says:

The committee previously sought the advice of the minister—

that is accurate—

as to whether the measures are compatible with these rights, noting that the statement of compatibility did not adequately identify and assess how potential limitations on the right to social security, the right to an adequate standard of living and the rights to quality and non-discrimination would be reasonable, necessary and proportionate in each case.

That is not a sin. Many government departments do not meet the statement of compatibility test in the first instance. That is not new to this government; it was a feature of the previous government. And Senator Moore is nodding her head in agreement! But this is the critical point:

The further information provided by the minister in this case is an excellent model—

I did not hear that from either Senator Moore or Senator Siewert.

for the kind of detailed information and analysis required to assist the committee in its assessment of the human rights compatibility of legislation. This further information has allowed the committee to conclude that the measures are largely compatible with the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living, with identified limitations of rights being generally assessed as reasonable, necessary and proportionate in pursuit of a legitimate objective.

This is the other point that Senator Moore, Senator Siewert, The Australian, ACOSS and the Labor Party omitted from their coverage today.

Significantly, out of the twelve matters raised by the committee in relation to measures in the bill, the committee has concluded that ten of these are compatible with human rights.

I do not know about you, Mr Acting Deputy President, but in my language that is a distinction. It is more than a pass; it is a distinction. But this is the critical point: in an effort to prosecute their argument, Labor, ACOSS and The AustralianI cannot believe I am saying it—decided to go for a half-truth, not the full truth. That is very disappointing.

In the few moments available to me, let me say that it is not new for governments to suffer the ire of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which speaks to its scrutiny value and its parliamentary value. I was just reflecting this morning: what other common, familiar issue was there last year or the year before? Of course, it was Labor's media reforms that fell foul of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. They, deservedly, fell foul. I now read from a report in TheSydney Morning Herald:

Of particular concern to the committee—

that is, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights—

is Labor's proposal to appoint a single person—the public interest media advocate—to oversee newspaper regulators and judge whether media ownership is ''in the public interest''.

''These bills appear to limit the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association,'' wrote the committee about the two bills that govern the self-regulation of newspapers.

It is true and I think that many Australians would be surprised to learn that there is a human right to an adequate standard of living and a human right to food and shelter, but the fact is that our country, under the stewardship of then Prime Minister Holt—and I might add, for the benefit of my National Party colleagues, also at the table was 'Black Jack' McEwen, the Deputy Prime Minister—rightly or wrongly, signed up to international treaties. It has a parliamentary committee to oversee them. It is doing good work, but Labor could not resist the temptation. I expect better from ACOSS, the Labor Party and The Australian.