Thursday, 7 December 2017
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise to speak specifically about schedule 12 of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. I understand that government senators indicated in earlier speeches that it is not their intention to implement the drug trial that is outlined in schedule 12, but I note that, in providing that information, senators, such as Senator Brockman, indicated that they do remain committed to the measure, just not to legislating it today. So I want to take this opportunity today to speak about why this measure is so damaging, so unfair and so wrong.
This schedule proposes a two-year trial of compulsory random drug testing for 5,000 new recipients of Newstart and youth allowance. Under this trial these 5,000 welfare recipients will not be able to receive benefits without agreeing to be tested and their welfare will be cancelled if they refuse a test. Recipients who test positive will have income management for two years and will have to pay the costs of the second and any subsequent positive tests. It is hard to think of anything more punitive.
In speaking about it, Mr Turnbull said:
… I think it's pretty obvious that welfare money should not be used to buy drugs.
He went on to say:
If you love someone who is addicted to drugs, if you love somebody whose life is destroyed by drugs, don't you want them to get off drugs?
Well, certainly, but it offends the intelligence of participants in this debate to suggest that the only mechanism to support people into a drug-free lifestyle is a punitive measure of this kind. Of course, we wish to support people to beat addiction, Prime Minister, but what your government is proposing is not going to help people on welfare not to take drugs. But it does do something—it creates additional risks of causing very great harm to vulnerable people.
If you want to help people with addictions, you work with medical experts and addiction experts. If you want to make social change, you work with communities and you identify the relationship that drug use might have with other problems. You tackle the issue with evidence, with experts, with logic, with respect for human rights and, in recognition of our social contract to support the vulnerable in our society, by not forcing them into great hardship.
This ill-informed policy—shelved for now, but not forever, apparently, according to the speeches given earlier by senators in this chamber—is consistent with the government's simplistic and dismissive approach to young Australians. But this policy actually goes further than that. It is ill-informed and simplistic but it is also unproven and has the potential to have a significant and negative impact on vulnerable people.
When the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee looked at this, they found that not only had the minister failed to consult with anybody who had expertise in these areas but when those experts were asked, they were nearly universal in condemning the policy. In expert evidence from Associate Professor Adrian Reynolds, the President of the Australian Chapter of Addiction Medicine at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, he said:
We are quite honestly at a loss to see why a drug testing trial is considered a necessary or effective way to address these issues.
Our analysis and advice is that the measures will be costly and ineffective and that government should consult with the sector on the development of evidence-based solutions to prevent and better address substance use disorders and increase the availability of treatment services …
It's a direct criticism. The AMA submission argued that it considers substance dependence to be primarily a health problem and those affected should be treated in the same way as other patients with serious health conditions. This approach includes access to treatment and supports for recovery, and they added that currently services for people with substance dependence is severely underresourced in terms of equitable and sustainable funding and personnel and geographical reach. They stressed their concern with the approach, arguing:
… [it] could inadvertently result in increased incarceration for welfare recipients with a substance dependence. Moves to disregard or discount medical advice about the capacity of those with substance dependence is also problematic. In order to minimise the risk of unintended consequences associated with the Bill, thorough consultation and refinement of the Bill is recommended.
This is something that government ought to have done well before a bill reached the committee stage. Why is it that both the AMA and the Australian Chapter of Addiction Medicine at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians felt that consultation hadn't taken place? Why wouldn't you ask them? Why wouldn't government go and seek the advice of experts? The answer is: it is part of an ideological campaign, not one aimed at supporting people who are afflicted with substance dependence.
The RACP, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, were very, very clear. They argued that substance abuse is a complex issue, not simply a personal choice. And they damned the government's refusal to engage with the medical evidence on this question. They were amazed that the minister and the department asked for but ignored their advice. They were dismayed by what they described as no genuine consultation with addiction medicine, nor with the alcohol, tobacco or other drug sector more generally, or the wider health sector, as far as we're aware. They added:
Instead of pursuing these, at best ineffective and at worst directly harmful, measures we call on the Australian Government to appropriately invest in alcohol and drug treatment services and suitably trained workforce and work with experts in the field of addiction medicine and alcohol and other drugs …
Submission after submission continues in this vain. The National Drug Research Institute perhaps put it most succinctly. They said:
In our expert assessment this proposed amendment is poorly conceived and counterproductive. It is not based on reliable research, and there are no grounds for adopting it as a measure to reduce alcohol or other drug use or related harm. Instead it has the potential to increase harm, including stigma, marginalisation and poverty.
So it doesn't do much about addiction. What might it do as a measure around unemployment? The evidence suggests that drug use is not necessarily a major barrier to employment.
The National Drug Strategy Household Survey in 2016 found that 43 per cent of Australians had used an illegal drug in their lifetime and almost 16 per cent of Australians have used an illegal drug in the last year. But these figures refer to all kinds of drug use at any level. In presenting this policy, the government has no idea how many of these people have taken drugs once in the last year or are regular drug abusers facing addiction. And just like the household survey, the proposed drug tests contained in this measure cannot differentiate between users and addicts. Neither the minister nor the department has provided any evidence on prevalence of addiction amongst welfare recipients and no evidence on the impact that addiction may or may not have on finding employment. What we do know, though, is that drug use is often connected with other health, economic and social issues. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey data does show that people suffering from mental illness or people who report psychological distress are much more likely to use drugs. People living in regional and remote areas are more likely to use drugs. Twenty-five per cent of people in these areas reported that they were recent users, compared with approximately 14 to 15 per cent in cities and inner and outer regional areas.
But what the evidence does point to is that there is never a simple fix. Research by Scott Macdonald published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that many factors—such as physical and mental health problems, lack of job skills, perceived discrimination and lack of transportation—are major barriers to employment. He and his colleagues argued that a disproportionate emphasis on drug use as a factor for not obtaining employment could be ineffective if these other factors are not addressed as well. Other writers, other researchers, find the same thing. Lisa Metsch and Harold Pollack examined welfare reform and substance abuse in the United States and drew very similar conclusions. They found that broad trends of substance abuse amongst temporary welfare recipients appeared to reflect trends in the general population. They found that widespread substance use was not a major cause of their continued economic dependence. Their findings included:
Although substance use disorders attract widespread attention, they appear to be no more common, and are no more important to employment and welfare receipt, than are such concerns as poor physical health, poor academic skills, psychiatric disorders, transportation difficulties, and more general concerns such as racial minority status, language barriers and immigration concerns.
Where was the evidence that led the government to introduce a bill that so closely linked drug use to unemployment without tackling the myriad of factors that actually drive worklessness and are, we all accept, so significant in driving poverty and disadvantage in our country?
These tests also breach the human rights of welfare recipients. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights looked closely at this and made two very important findings. They first said that the measure is unlikely to be compatible with the right to privacy. While the measure is aimed at a legitimate objective, there appear to be other less rights-restrictive ways to achieve this objective. Second, they said that the measure is likely to be incompatible with the right to equality and nondiscrimination, noting that the measure appears likely to have a disproportionately negative effect on particular groups and it appears that the measure is unlikely to be the least rights-restrictive measure. You have to work pretty hard to get a statement as fierce as that when you introduce a bill into the committee system.
The committee noted the lack of evidence from the minister that the policy would work. In fact, when they sought a response from the minister on the policy rationale, the objectives and, most importantly, the evidence that the policy was based on, the minister responded that international evidence on the effectiveness of drug testing of welfare recipients is limited. He admitted that his plan was essentially—and this is to paraphrase him; not his words—to use Australian welfare recipients as guinea pigs. The committee observed that income management may be effective when it's applied to participants after considering their individual circumstance and consensually, rather than where it is applied coercively and compulsorily. It is, therefore, not evident that the measure, which is not targeted to appropriate individual cases or consensual, is effective to achieve its objectives. And they questioned the effectiveness of withholding payments when there is evidence that addiction often involves cycles of relapse before recovery. This evidence comes from the Australian National Council on Drugs and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
There are, of course, other approaches. We know that this measure would have impacted very significantly on young people, and we know that many of our young benefits recipients are living below the poverty line. There are other things that we might do to engage young people, and I want to talk about one such measure. It's particularly relevant given that the trial that was planned was in the Canterbury-Bankstown region in New South Wales, because there were three test sites proposed, and in New South Wales they intended to subject 1,750 of the people in my state to a trial of this kind. The Canterbury-Bankstown area in Sydney's south-west includes the suburbs of Bankstown, Bass Hill, Canterbury, Campsie, Chester Hill, Earlwood, Eastlakes, Lakemba, Milperra, Padstow, Picnic Point, Punchbowl, Revesby and Roselands. We talk a lot about an ageing population, but this is an area with a lot of young people. Almost one-quarter of the residents there are aged 17 years or younger. And it's really multicultural. It's home to people from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa. And it is a community with strengths and with challenges. Sometimes it's better to look at the strengths, because the strengths in this area include local leadership, strong local leadership, and a solid commitment in the community to work together to help young people rather than punish them.
Earlier this year, Canterbury-Bankstown council formed a partnership with Mission Australia, Barnardos, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, OzHarvest, Metro Assist's Dress for Work and Bright Hospitality to create a two-month program for 240 young men aged 15 to 24 years in a program that's called MENtors. Through MENtors, these young men learned practical life skills, including how to cook healthy food, how to dress professionally and, importantly, how to apply for work and prepare for job interviews. The program also helped young men to understand the risks of drugs and alcohol. At the end of the program, these men left the course with a suit, a CV—electronically and in paper form—and a range of practical skills to help them live healthy and productive lives. These men gained skills and confidence, buttressed by the knowledge that their community believes in them and supports them. I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate the MENtors program and its community partners for winning the 2017 Outstanding Partnership award at the recent New South Wales Youth Work Awards. I want to congratulate the young men who completed the course and I want to encourage others to join in when the course is run in 2018.
The Labor-led Canterbury-Bankstown local government works closely with community service organisations. This isn't a political leadership seeking to punish; this is a community working together to build a social plan, built on evidence, that will actually support young people in the area. The council is developing partnerships with local businesses and with youth agencies to raise awareness of training and apprenticeship opportunities. The council is working with Police-Citizens Youth Clubs to develop employment opportunities. There are drug and alcohol programs at the Belmore Youth Resource Centre and the Canterbury Bankstown Youth Service. The community is looking at building youth engagement through sport and music. They would like to be able to fund more outreach and harm minimisation programs. This is a community attempting to engage with the complex relationship between mental health, drug use and unemployment.
The government haven't revealed the costs that they expected of their proposed testing program but, I tell you what, you could have a pretty good guess that the money would be better used in this community supporting these leaders with a serious commitment to working on the ground. And that's how we on this side of the chamber approach social policy. We are committed to working with communities, not against them—not crushing them, punishing them and humiliating them. We're committed to working with them to address their needs with policy ideas that are relevant, evidence based and focused on positive change.
The thing about the proposal that the government brought forward is that we don't know if it would have worked. We don't know how much it would have cost. What we do know is that the advice of medical addiction experts was ignored. We do know that organisations that included the AMA, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the National Drug Research Institute thoroughly condemned the approach. We do know that there were serious concerns around human rights, privacy and the right to welfare raised by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. We do know that this is dangerous political grandstanding. And we do know that it targets vulnerable and young people and it creates risks of harm.
This bill forms part of a long list of pointless and expensive uses of taxpayer money by the government to punish the poor and the young. It is polarising, moralising and dangerous rhetoric. It's a mythical creation—the deserving and non-deserving poor, where poverty and unemployment are recast as personal or moral failure rather than a result of complex people facing complex challenges and often dealing with health issues alongside their social and economic factors. We should reject this. We should reject it now and we should reject attempts to introduce it in the future. The government should go back to the drawing board rather than insisting on retaining this as part of their policy plans. The government should go back and engage with complexity. They should use evidence and they should take the advice of experts. Most importantly, the government should work with local communities, like the community in Canterbury-Bankstown, and see if they have ideas that could be used to address serious social and health issues in a way that might actually make a difference.
I too rise with many of my colleagues from the Labor Party here to put a very particular view about the reasons that we oppose this bill and to give, in my commentary here, some encouragement to the members of the crossbench to make sure that they do not allow the government to get away with this further attempt—to add to their many attempts—to marginalise those already marginalised and to make harder the life of those who are vulnerable.
The piece of legislation that is up for discussion here in this place this afternoon is the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. I have actually spoken quite a bit in the chamber this week, and I have been able to describe so many of the names of the bills that we have been discussing as misnomers. This one is just a cover. Sometimes the government attempt to pretend that they're doing something that they're not doing. This time they want to again signal to the Australian population that they're the 'welfare reform government'. The problem is that the people they are attacking are people in our community. They're our brothers and our sisters and they're people who live near us.
Maybe it's different for the government. Maybe where they live they don't see so many people who actually need the support of welfare. Maybe they live in a rarefied world where that's not something they have to encounter. They're making their policy in the vacuum of a lived experience that simply denies the reality of the needs in our community, particularly with regard to drug and alcohol treatment. This bill has been in the papers over the course of this year and we've heard things like, 'We're going to crackdown on those really, really bad people, those terrible druggos'—those people they take their names away from and categorise—and 'We're the only government who'll do it.'
The problem is that drug and alcohol addiction exists across the entire community, and people who are in need of health care need to be able to receive it. That's what's so wrong about what they've proposed here. People walk around this building every single week saying, 'We need more resources in our health sector. We need resources for people who have drug and alcohol issues so that they are able to access the services that they need.' The government know that. They know that they're not meeting that need already. Yet, despite that reality on the ground, they've just looked for a headline. They've looked to create an impression of toughness—that they're big and strong and tough and they are going to clean up all those dirty bludgers out there. That's the implied language. If it's not always the language that Malcolm Turnbull uses, it's embedded in what he says. So we end up with a very divided community. We end up with people whose needs are demeaned and whose access to services is limited—and this bill, if it is passed, would only exacerbate the problem even more.
Today, we've had the government say that they're going to take the drug testing of welfare recipients from this bill, and the question you have to ask is: after having beaten their chests for such a long period of time, why did they do that? This morning Minister Christian Porter had this to say:
… we are absolutely committed to that policy of drug testing welfare recipients in a trial … and the reality is at the moment we can't quite get the crossbench support …
So let's be clear that there hasn't been a change of heart. It's not that the government's figured out that people want to access treatment for addiction and health services that will help them manage their addiction and then move to taking themselves from addiction. It's not that the government's heard that there's great need in the community. It's just that they haven't got the numbers right now. And I dare say there'll be a huge amount of pressure going on behind the scenes to try and get the crossbench to push this through. If they're unsuccessful tonight, then we've got a clear indication from Minister Porter that he's ready to come back and have another go.
The problem is what they're proposing is such bad policy. It's based on prejudices and, as we've heard many speakers in this debate say, moral judgements on people who end up in addiction. I will always say—in the many years I was a teacher, I was very clear in talking about social issues with my students—'It would be much better not to take drugs. Don't start. If you start, try and stop early. Get services and get help. If it's bigger than that, get the treatment that you need.' But a life of addiction is not a life of freedom, and people who need treatment for addiction are provided with that care—not as much as we'd like in this country; certainly not as much as Labor would like to see—by a number of agencies that are held in high esteem in this country, and one of them is the Salvation Army.
I want to go to the Salvation Army submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill. The Salvation Army table of contents in itself is an instruction of why what is proposed in this bill is so wrong. Given the option to deal with the bill and give evidence-based advice about what would be helpful for people who find themselves in addiction—about which the Salvation Army know quite a bit—some of the key concerns they listed were, firstly, that there was a lack of evidence to support it. Secondly, it was likely to lead to increased poverty. The third point was that it increased stigmatisation. The fourth issue was a lack of clarity around assessment process. The fifth was an increased burden on AOD treatment services and emergency relief agencies. Sixth was the potential shift in consumption patterns.
We know that a lack of evidence can only lead to bad policy. If you haven't got evidence to back up what you're attempting to prosecute, clearly, you're basing it on something else. This government has a significant track record of prejudicial attitudes towards people who find themselves out of work, unwell and unable to work, and who find themselves in addiction. This is what the Salvation Army had to say with regard to the lack of evidence for the government's proposal. They refer to studies in Florida reported in an academic journal by Rachel Bloom in 2012. They said:
In many cases, testing costs more than it saves monetarily, for example, a four month trial occurred in Florida in 2011, the cost of this trial outweighed the savings in welfare payments.
How can you attempt to run a trial when the cost of running it is more costly than actually giving people the basic living allowances that they need?
The Salvation Army also talked about the problem of increased poverty, and we know that adverse effects of substance use are unlikely to deter those with substance use disorders from problematic substance use. They wrote very eloquently in the report about their encounters with people who experience poverty through the course of their treatment and how significant the concept of harm reduction is. Harm reduction is a part of the National Drug Strategy—to create a context in which poverty is not an additional problem that people have to deal with when they're trying to get their treatment. The government's calls for this, even before they have got to an implementation phase, have led already to an increased stigmatisation of people with addiction. We know that this bill should not be supported. We know that the support that it hasn't been given— (Quorum formed)
I was about to remark that we know why the minister can't get support for this trial: because it fails the test on so many measures. It's expensive; it will, as I said, further stigmatise welfare recipients; and, worst of all, it won't even work for those who are experiencing drug addiction. Labor absolutely understands that addiction to alcohol and other drugs is ruining lives, tearing families apart and disrupting communities. We know that, when people are struggling with addiction and they attempt to seek help, there's a very small window of opportunity to intervene and help them and their loved ones. This was never more clearly brought home to me than on one occasion when I was teaching at a school on the Central Coast, and the Salvation Army, as part of the treatment for young addicted people they were looking after, brought a few people to the school to talk to the students. Telling a story and explaining what was happening was part of the therapeutic model that they were adopting and implementing.
They brought along a wonderful young woman who described the way that she had fallen into addiction. She was at university, she was smart, and it looked, for all intents and purposes, like everything was going really well in her life. She met a slightly older man who was an irregular user of heroin. He encouraged her to use with him one evening. She was introduced to it. He moved on, left her life and never fell into addiction—from what she said—but she, very, very quickly, became addicted to heroin. She was a very resourceful and smart young woman. She told the students how she managed to never get caught up in the justice system. She was able to do high-paying work in a corporate situation and managed to get her way through that. However, it got to the point where her life was just about falling apart. Her parents were aware of the issue. They tried to offer her support. They couldn't get her treatment at a time when she was ready. The cycle continued for some time. Suffice to say, it was about Christmastime and she ended up on the steps the William Booth Centre in the middle of Sydney, down in Surrey Hills. She said, 'I had already earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. I had no car. I barely had any clothing. I had nothing to show. I'd spent nearly every dollar that I had on securing heroin. I thought I was fooling everybody.' She was standing there with two green Glad garbage bags with the sum total of her possessions. That is what she said about her experience of addiction.
She encouraged the students not to go there. The thing that was so significant for her when she explained why she went and sought treatment at that point was because in her life she was actually ready to undertake it. She had got to a point of impairment in her life and a sense of loss and a sense of loss of control. With the support of her parents, she found that small window of treatment—which could be as narrow as 24 to 48 hours. The Salvation Army know that. The treatment access for people is already limited. Those windows of opportunity and response are already limited.
What this government are basically proposing with this legislation—and I'm glad they removed this part for the moment—is to drive people to the cliff's edge, supposedly having to get into treatment to maintain some form of payment, putting that person in that context where we know there is already an unmet need. That's what is so wrong about it. When you know that, how can you possibly construct a system that is going to put more pressure on a system that is already failing, where the cost of failure is people's lives?
It's remarkable to me that this government remains committed to drug testing 5,000 recipients of Newstart allowance and youth allowance in three locations, when all the experts continue to say it will not work. The lack of support across the entire sector has actually been a critical element in ensuring that the resistance to this bill has been raised, and people in this place have been listening to it. I know that we have comments from the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, which indicated that had the Turnbull government consulted experts before unveiling this plan they would've been advised to drop these measures pronto. Clearly that didn't happen.
Unsurprisingly, the government has not provided a single skerrick of evidence to support the establishment of the trial, except that it is their will against the experts, it's their will against common sense, it's their will against everything that we might hope in terms of fair and equitable access to treatment services when required. The reason they haven't provided any evidence is because none exists. Medical professionals, including mental health professionals, and a range of drug and alcohol treatment sector advocates continue to condemn the proposed government trial. The serious concerns I've indicated already from the Salvation Army have been raised by very many people. We know that the Salvation Army declared that there are far more effective measures for decreasing drug-related harm among welfare recipients, but their plans and their insights into how to achieve that have not been taken up by the government. Places like the Salvation Army and other providers of services such as Odyssey House and WHOS are well placed to make such an assessment, managing more than $5 million in the case of the Salvation Army of alcohol and other drug services and programs across Australia.
No health or community organisation has come out, publicly, to support the trial—not one. Mental health expert and former Australian of the year, Professor Patrick McGorry, called the government's plan to drug test welfare recipients an 'absolute disgrace', and who could disagree with him. We saw an open letter from hundreds of addiction specialists, hundreds of doctors and hundreds of registered nurses who wrote to the Prime Minister, begging him, really, to halt this drug-testing trial. This is what they said collectively: 'If we'd been consulted, we could have said that people cannot be punished into recovery. Using drug testing to coerce people into treatment treats drug and alcohol problems as some sort of personal failing, not the serious health problem that it is.'
Drug testing has been tried and has failed in the international context. In New Zealand, there was a spend of about a million dollars on testing around 8,000 people. The find was that there were 22 positives. It was a huge cost. If this government was serious about giving people relief from addiction, they would be investing in services and not investing in testing. The UK government consulted on drug testing, and the experts absolutely did not recommend random drug testing. Experts warn that these changes will not help people to overcome addiction because they understand that that is not how addiction works.
We already know, as I've said, that there are very long waiting times for access to public rehabilitation programs. The scale of that is something that is important to put into context in light of this piece of legislation. There are 32,000 requests a year for Australians to get into rehab and there are 1,500 residential rehab beds. That is not a fair match. That is not a good match—I see Senator Williams looking up. I know he's a great advocate for his community for access to those sorts of services—32,000 requests for addiction treatment and 1,500 residential rehabilitation beds. The alcohol and other-drugs sector estimates that the waiting times for residential services can be several months on average and up to six months in some jurisdictions. Professor Ritter hypothesised that resources in the three trial sites—Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah—would need to double to meet existing unmet demand in these three areas. It would need to double to meet the demand right now, before adding anything on to the top. The treatment regime that we see just does not meet people's needs. This government isn't committing to doubling treatment services. This is an absolute mismatch. If someone fails the first-time test, as proposed by this government, they are going to be placed on income management for 24 months. I know that other contributions in this place, in the course of the day, have talked about how sensitive some points of the recovery journey can be for people who have finally come to a point where they go and seek drug treatment and support.
I would like to conclude with the comments of Sandra Goldie from the Australian Council of Social Services: 'There is no evidence that this drug testing proposal will lead to improved health, social or employment outcomes for people. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary. Drug test measures would direct very precious dollars to a measure that has been widely condemned by leading health experts.' That should be the last word on this. It's not evidence based; it's punitive and it will cost more than it will deliver.
I wish to advise that, regrettably, Senator Pratt cannot be here in the chamber to deliver her speech. I wish to make very clear that I am delivering this speech on behalf of Senator Pratt.
I rise to note concerns on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. There are some measures in this bill that Labor would support. They are separated from other measures in this bill, which is why we will be moving a series of amendments. Labor is asking the government to separate the controversial aspects of this bill to ensure that the sensible measures can go ahead. But Labor cannot support some of the measures in this bill. Many of them do not have enough detail for us to consider them properly. Many of them have been included with little consultation or consideration of their broader impacts. We're particularly concerned about the impact some of these measures will have on some of the most vulnerable people in this country—the very people we should be protecting. This is yet another attempt by the government to attack jobseekers and to attack those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society.
The bill introduces strict new compliance measures, applying penalties to people who fail to comply with obligations tied to their welfare payments. The government's proposals are expected to double the amount of penalties that are currently applied, but they are yet to make a case that demonstrates that punishing people by cutting off their payments will lead them into work in the short term or even in the long term. There is no evidence to support that these tough measures will do anything except create more problems. This bill removes the use of waivers and discretion for service providers and the secretary, which creates an unnecessarily harsh system that does not recognize the complexity of many of the situations that would require some kind of discretion. Uniting Care have said the removal of waivers was 'punitive' and would have, 'Sustained impacts on jobseekers, as well as any dependents they may have.' Mission Australia said this change could:
… increase the risks of people becoming homeless and have negative outcomes for their physical and mental health, self-esteem, relationships and engagement with the labour market.
Labor will be moving an amendment to keep these waivers in place, which we believe is an important part of maintaining the fairness of the system.
On the issue of drug testing, one of the most significant parts of this bill was, of course, the establishment of the government's drug-testing trial for jobseekers. This week we've heard reports that the government will seek to remove these provisions—yet another example of flawed policy from Minister Porter and Prime Minister Turnbull. The drug trial will not work; the evidence tells us that. It will not help people who are suffering from drug addiction. Mick Palmer, the commissioner of the Australian Federal Police from 1994 to 2001, has even said the flawed policy could see an increase in crime. He made the comment:
It certainly hasn't got much chance of reducing crime. It does have the potential in some cases to aggravate it …
He also said:
All of my experience tells me that this policy won't work.
… what it will do is create more damage, and most damage and most harm to those people who are most vulnerable and most in need of support and protection.
He goes on to say, 'It's pretty stark that this can only aggravate an already pretty serious problem and make more vulnerable people who already need more help than they're now getting.'
Labor has formed its position on this trial after extensive consultation with experts. What do these experts actually say? Dr Marianne Jauncey, from the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs, has said:
At a time when we desperately need money for frontline services, it's being spent in a way all the available evidence tells us won't work.
… … …
Doctors don't necessarily speak with a united voice—we're a very varied group of specialists and people with different backgrounds across the country, so when you do hear doctors speaking with a united voice I think people should listen.
Dr Adrian Reynolds of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians has said:
Existing evidence shows drug testing welfare recipients is not an effective way of identifying those who use drugs and it will not bring about behaviour change. It is an expensive, unreliable and potentially harmful testing regime to find this group of people.
Patrick McGorry, a mental health expert, has said:
It's an absolute disgrace. It fails to recognise that mental illness and drug and alcohol problems nearly always coexist, they're a health problem and not a lifestyle choice.
Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, director of St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne's department of addiction medicine, has said:
International experience shows when you push people to the brink, like removing their welfare payments, things just get worse.
There will be more crime, more family violence, more distress within society. We can expect at Centrelink offices there will be aggression and violence as people react to this. Had [the government] spoken to the various bodies who work in this area and know about this work, we would have been able to advise them this is not the right way. Pushing people to the brink won't make it better.
The Australian Medical Association has said:
… the AMA considers these measures to be mean and stigmatising. The AMA considers substance dependence to be a serious health problem, one that is associated with high rates of disability and mortality. The AMA firmly believes that those affected should be treated in the same way as other patients with serious health conditions, including access to treatment and supports to recovery.
Dr Michael Gannon of the Australian Medical Association said:
It simply won't work.
… … …
If you discriminate against them, if you impair their return to full functioning by labelling them as a drug user, then you impair their ability to get their life back on track.
… … …
It's not evidence-based. It's not fair. And we stand against it.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine had this to say:
The RACP and AChAM are concerned that these measures are not based on evidence of what works—either at a policy or a clinical level.
In our view, they will not only fail to achieve the Bill's stated aim of assisting people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction to access treatment and secure employment, but will harm an already vulnerable group of people and increase their social and financial disadvantage.
Nadine Ezard of St Vincent's Clinical School had this to say:
What it can do is actually make people's social circumstances even more precarious and perhaps tip people into more dangerous ways of living, and even more criminal ways of living if they can't support themselves.
The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre said:
There is no evidence that any of these measures will directly achieve outcomes associated with reductions in alcohol or other drug use or harms, and indeed have the potential to create greater levels of harm, including increased stigma, marginalisation and poverty.
Mr John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute, said:
I strongly urge the Government to reconsider and reverse this retrograde approach to welfare before we see the increase in crime it is likely to create.
In Australia there is a real lack of funding for drug treatment services—including medically supported drug treatment. The Government would have been better off making stronger investments there rather than attacking the vulnerable.
No health, community or welfare organisations have come out in support of the trial, and addiction specialists have expressed deep concern about how this trial will operate and its effectiveness. Anglicare's submission to the Senate inquiry said that involuntary referral results in high levels of noncompliance by those referred and leads to poor rehabilitation outcomes. Further, having people who have been forced into rehabilitation present in facilities primarily designed and run for people who have voluntarily referred themselves is likely to also undermine the outcomes for others. So it may indeed have the opposite impact on the drug problem this government purports to solve.
The majority of community-based drug and alcohol counselling and rehabilitation services are set up with a model based on voluntary referral and attendance. There will be a significant shortage of services that are designed to deal with the kind of forced referral that this legislation provides for. These are also services that are already overloaded, with long waiting lists for treatment around the country. Experts have warned us that these changes will not help people to overcome addiction, but they will throw people into further crisis, poverty, homelessness and even crime. Nobody doubts that we face significant problems with drug addiction in the community, but there is no evidence that this trial will work. Labor supports the idea of helping people with drug addiction. Welfare should not be used to support drug habits, but we will not support measures like this that will not work. The time has come for Minister Porter to rule out ever bringing in such a measure. Instead, the government should invest in drug rehabilitation services that are proven to work.
On the issue of volunteering, Labor also opposes schedule 9 of the bill, which makes changes to mutual obligation requirements for people aged 55 to 59. Currently, people in this age bracket are required to carry out 30 hours of activity per fortnight to meet their mutual obligation requirements. This requirement can be fulfilled by doing 30 hours of volunteering. The changes that the government are proposing in schedule 9 of this bill will require that half of those hours are allocated to job or job search activities rather than volunteering. Senator Pratt met with Volunteering Australia recently, who are strongly opposed to these changes because of the impact they will have on the volunteering sector. Their submission to the Senate inquiry noted that, if this schedule were to pass, these people will have to significantly decrease or even cease their volunteering. Of the total volunteer engagement in Australia, 278,496 people are aged 55 to 59. What a shame it would be to lose any number of these people from our volunteering sector, to stop them doing their bit for our communities. It's important to them, it's important to the community and it certainly should be important for us. This is short-sighted, punitive policy that fails the importance of volunteering and its usefulness to the volunteers themselves and the broader community.
On the issue of discrimination against older Australians, these changes are also simply quite unfair. We know there are more jobseekers than there are jobs, and older Australians are already disadvantaged in the job market. The Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability found in 2016 that older people experienced greater levels of discrimination in the workplace and when applying for jobs. The evidence given to the Senate inquiry overwhelmingly pointed to the challenges faced by mature jobseekers, particularly age discrimination. It can be demoralising, frustrating and often fruitless.
Volunteering Australia's response to this bill includes a case study from a volunteer manager in Victoria. It sums up this problem perfectly. I quote:
As an experienced and respected leader in the volunteer sector, I am responsible for a (400 strong) volunteer program in Geelong, Victoria. This region, encompassing a Victoria's second city and outlying townships, has experienced drastic changes in the employment market in recent years with closures at Ford and Alcoa and other employers in the region forcing many folk into early redundancies and unemployment. I meet many hundreds of potential volunteers each year and a significant number of these individuals are 55 to 59 years of age and above. Invariably, the experience recounted to me is of a demoralising period of job hunting, applying for roles that they are never offered, let alone interviewed for, within a job market so competitive that they rarely if ever receive an acknowledgment for the considerable effort made in each application.
The government don't have an adequate plan for getting older Australians back into the workplace. They have provided no additional support to this cohort to assist them in getting back into the workforce. The Career Transition Assistance Program won't come in until two years after these changes come into effect. Too late. Instead of addressing the real cause of the problem, they plan to punish 55- to 59-year-olds by forcing them out of meaningful volunteering work where they make a very important contribution to our communities. They will now need to spend that time looking for work that either doesn't exist or that they won't be hired for. Engaging these people to serve their communities in volunteering is a much better use of their time and makes a much better contribution to our communities and to our economy. We hope that the government come to their senses on this schedule.
In conclusion, Labor opposes many of the measures in this bill. Many of the measures in the proposed bill only further disadvantage already vulnerable people. They contribute to inequality; they do not address it. It is yet another example of this government attacking those most vulnerable in our community. Labor will not stand for it.
I rise to speak to this bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. I follow my Greens colleague Senator Rachel Siewert and commend her for her longstanding interests in the community affairs and social welfare area. She is certainly someone who has a lot of expertise in this broad field and the specific aspects that have been dealt with by this legislation. I would encourage people who want to know more about the specifics of why this package of measures is such an unwise step to examine her remarks in the second reading debate on this piece of legislation, as well as the comments that Senator Siewert put in Senate committee report on the inquiry into this legislation and the dissenting report she issued on behalf of the Australian Greens. Senator Siewert has also circulated a range of amendments on behalf of the Greens that will go more explicitly to some of the problems in this legislation.
I want to speak on this bill in the context of my own personal experiences and knowledge in this area and some aspects of the legislation and my wider experience both in this chamber and more broadly in the wider community with regard to social security and income support issues as well as in the area of drug and alcohol addiction and dependency.
The area of this legislation that has perhaps received the most attention—although there are a whole range of measures proposed in this legislation—is the drug-testing trials. One of those trials was to be within the city of Logan in my state of Queensland, a city just to the south of Brisbane. It, effectively, sits in between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. As many people in Queensland and South-East Queensland would know, Logan City and the region are often very unfairly stigmatised and seen as having a high proportion of people who are on income support, and the community is portrayed negatively because of that.
All you have to do is listen to the public debate on this, much of the political debate by some of those involved in it out in the wider community, and commentary in the media from the general public to know that this drug-testing proposal is seen as a punitive measure. I know the government is not trying to frame it that way in a technical sense, but, when you scratch the surface, it's very clearly seen as a punitive measure and as stigmatising, very unfairly and unreasonably, income support recipients—playing on the myth that people on welfare are supposedly bludgers and are more likely to be people experiencing drug addiction issues.
In policy debates in this place we often hear about the importance of evidence based policy. The Senate committee inquiry into this legislation, and also people involved in this area, have been pulling together a lot of evidence. The evidence of people who actually work in the real world, in the community, at a community level on this issue shows that the approach the government have taken, whatever their agenda may be, whether it is miserable partisan, narrow politics or a genuine attempt to help—I will leave others to make that judgement; my commentary here today simply goes to whether or not it will work—simply won't work and that, in many respects, it will make things worse. It is also quite likely, as previous speakers have indicated, to increase rather than decrease crime. Another of the myths that is put forward about this sort of measures is that it will somehow reduce crime. Well, it won't, because it won't deal with the underlying issues, the systemic issues, that create some of these issues with regards to drug and alcohol dependency.
As Senator Siewert's dissenting report on this legislation said:
the drug-testing trial—
fails to understand, and indeed actively ignores the … nature of addiction and the complex biological, psychological and social underpinnings of drug addiction ...
If you don't want to listen to Senator Siewert or the Greens, because you think that that is a partisan argument, listen to the evidence of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. They specifically talked about the inadequate funding provided for alcohol and other drug treatment services. If we are not providing enough services now to deal with the issue, why on earth are we introducing a punitive measure that blames the victim and that will clearly make things worse?
Let's hear from Mr Noffs from the Ted Noffs Foundation. I hope everybody would acknowledge that he has immense expertise. He has devoted years of his life in a genuine attempt to assist people. He is not somebody who has a vested political or personal interest in this. He is someone who has clearly shown his personal commitment to help people in ways that are effective. In his evidence to the Senate committee inquiry he was scathing about this measure and these types of measures, because they do not work. They have been tried in other locations in other countries and they have been shown to fail. Other efforts to introduce them have been withdrawn because it was clear that they weren't going to work and, if anything, would make the issues worse.
So why is it we are not listening to the people who actually have the expertise, the people at the coalface and the people in the community? Why is it that in my home state of Queensland the community of Logan is going to be again unfairly stigmatised and unfairly targeted? Many people in that region of South-East Queensland are not aware that the city of Logan is experiencing enormous growth, enormous economic opportunities and enormous problems because of inadequate infrastructure funding and support for people in the community to enable them to stay and work within the community.
We are talking about income support and welfare payments and people who are having difficulty finding jobs or finding permanent and stable jobs. If you actually want to help rather than stigmatise, victimise, blame and target, you need to look at what the barriers are in that community. So let us put the resources that are being proposed for this punitive, ineffective measure instead into providing assistance and removing the barriers for people in places like the city of Logan to enable them to access employment and stay in steady jobs. One of the key issues in that region is transport infrastructure. It is a huge, growing region but, because of a whole range of planning failures and planning problems with state government laws, there is the classic problem of big developments being put in place before the social infrastructure, the transport infrastructure, the schools, the social services and the health services to support people who may have substance dependency or substance abuse issues are there. Adequate social infrastructure supports are not there. Bringing them in under the cover of a punitive drug-testing trial is totally distorting the best way to use those resources.
This is also targeting just one group of people in regard to drug use and completely ignoring the much larger proportion of people in the community who are also drug users and also have alcohol and drug dependency or abuse issues. They are not being targeted. Why on earth would we be specifically targeting people who are on income support payments and putting extra stress and pressure on people who are already, by definition, disadvantaged, are on low incomes and often have insecure housing and other circumstances? Why put extra pressure on them? Why put up extra barriers? Why put up extra challenges, extra difficulties and extra threats in regard to their already inadequate income support? The only reason I can see, frankly, is because it is just part of an ongoing ideological and, presumably, also politically motivated approach of targeting, attacking, deliberately penalising, punishing and stigmatising the poor.
In the short time I've been back in this place, I've spoken already a number of times about the real problem with inequality and the real problem that so many of the decisions made in this place do not consider the actual impacts on the people that the measures are relating to, and they particularly do not consider the impacts on those who are already disadvantaged. They don't consider that they're already under massive stress when it comes to the lack of affordable housing, the lack of social infrastructure and the lack of other supports in so many parts of the community, including the community of Logan, which is going to be targeted by this trial.
It's the same thing we're seeing in a separate piece of legislation with regard to the cashless welfare card, which, thankfully, isn't going to be pushed through this year. I certainly urge the Senate to reject that measure. That's another measure with which communities in my state of Queensland are specifically being targeted. The people who are being targeted certainly do not want it. They do not support it. They recognise that it's going to make life harder for them. They are battlers. I met with a number of them on a visit with Senator Siewert when she came to the community of Hervey Bay in Queensland a few months ago. Some fabulous people were there who had self-organised their own local opposition—people on pensions, people who are carers, people who, by any description, are battlers and are, nonetheless, making it through and making a fist of things. They recognise that these measures will just make things harder for them. They recognise that these measures are targeting them and stigmatising them, when they are doing a better job than, frankly, I bet most of us, and certainly I, would manage when it comes to finding ways to get by on incredibly low incomes.
These are people who are often more resourceful, more capable and better at managing money than many of us here or in the community would be, and that's because they have to be. The fact is that they have survived for so long in so many circumstances and through so many challenges that many of us would have great difficulty dealing with. They have got through and they have survived. The last thing they need is to be stigmatised and singled out as somehow a problem, as somehow undeserving, as somehow potentially rorting or needing to have their income managed and their lives managed—to have even less power and control and agency over their own lives. I just think: how would any of us like it if we were told how we had to spend 80 per cent or 75 per cent of our income?
We've seen these measures time and time again, where the Big Brother government comes in and tells people, 'You must do this. You must do that,' taking all power away from people. Particularly when you're talking about people who, because of a whole range of circumstances, are in a situation where they have drug dependency issues, it simply doesn't work. It's the same with the welfare quarantining approach we've seen. It's no coincidence that that approach has, more often than not, been targeted particularly at Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal people, often directly and explicitly, as we saw with the Northern Territory intervention or some of the earlier trial sites for the cashless welfare card. It's targeted at communities with a high proportion of Aboriginal people because governments are so used to being paternalistic with regard to Aboriginal people, and they are extending their paternalism with regard to this to other people who are poor, disadvantaged and easy to stigmatise.
It's particularly ironic that, since One Nation returned to this chamber, they have been, by far, the party that most regularly supports the Liberal-National Party's agenda in a whole range of areas. They like to portray themselves as friends of the battlers, yet they support measures like these that are specifically targeted at making life tougher for battlers. We see it time and time again. Since I've come back to this chamber after being away for 10 years, people often ask, 'What's changed?' Some things have changed, but one thing that sure hasn't changed is these bits of legislation coming forward with the words 'welfare reform' in the title that are actually just about making life harder for people. For how many more years will it happen? Are there no other ideas? Clearly, that's the case when it comes to the coalition. They just have no other ideas when it comes to how to assist people who are on income support or how to assist people who are lower-income earners other than making life harder for them and putting it under the guise of welfare reform and more of this new paternalism—the pretence of being here to help. It's actually just about stigmatising, making life tougher again and again, with an underlying narrative—sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit—that somehow these people are undeserving, that they shouldn't be able to receive these things or that they should jump through yet another hoop. The size and expense of the bureaucracy put in place to create hoop after hoop after hoop, to make life tougher for people, are just extraordinary. It's been going on for decades now.
If the government wanted to do one thing to make life easier for people on income support, they would make Centrelink actually answer the phone. Let's do that. I can recall, over 10 years ago, asking questions in this place about the outrageous length of time people had to wait on the phone for Centrelink and how many times they couldn't get through, how many times they had to call back, how many times they'd fall off the line and how many times they'd lose payments because of their inability to contact and have a proper conversation and communication with Centrelink. The only thing that has changed since then is that it has got 10 times worse. It is scandalous. This is a Public Service department—and I'm certainly not blaming the staff there, but how simple can it be to actually get a department that is meant to be there to service and support people, battlers, whose income is crucial?
As we all should know, if you miss just one payment when you're a low-income person with virtually no money in reserve, and you've got rent to pay and all these other bills, like electricity bills, to pay—and you've got a problem with Centrelink and you can't get through—it can be a catastrophe. And you want to target them for taking some drugs? Get your own act together if you really want to do some proper reform. Actually assist people rather than making life harder and harder and stigmatising them again and again. The stigma should be on governments, of all persuasions, that have simply failed to fix that basic problem of not having a department that can provide proper service to the people they are meant to be helping, people who are clearly known to be in need and in need of assistance. Let's see if we can fix that up instead.
There are a range of other measures in this legislation as well, and some of those will be dealt with in the committee stage, so I won't go on about those now. But there are other measures here that, again, are just about making tougher new compliance frameworks. Before I came into this chamber the first time around, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a social worker with what was then called the Department of Social Security. It was before Centrelink existed, when the old Commonwealth Employment Service existed. I can recall even back then this focus on compliance and the mindset that would come down through the political narrative and the internal directions about compliance. Of course we need to make sure that people are not rorting the system, but the obsession with more, harsher and more complicated compliance, and just doing more and more on that whilst letting things get worse and worse when it comes to the basic service and support provided to people, is ridiculous.
I was in Townsville a couple of weeks ago, speaking to people at a local community legal centre there about the challenges that so many of their clients face, particularly with regard to dealing with Centrelink, actually being able to get a problem sorted out with Centrelink. We all know about the scandalous robo-debt attack and farce that this government has been perpetrating on people on income support. How about actually helping the battlers instead of bashing the battlers? That's what we need to see if we want to get a real change here. If we actually want to help people, we need to see investment in proper assistance to people, including through the social services that the Senate committee inquiry highlighted as not being provided now. And let me take the opportunity to put on the record the need to significantly increase the scandalously low basic payment for Newstart, which has been going backwards in value for years. The gap between Newstart and the pension has been getting bigger and bigger. As I said in this place last week, people on income support trying to afford a home anywhere in any capital city in the country—certainly in Brisbane in South-East Queensland—are paying over half of their income just on rent. That's before food. That's before childcare. That's before getting to a job. That's before everything else. Let's see some action on that, rather than this latest hotchpotch of measures that is mostly focused on making life harder and reinforcing that political narrative which targets and stigmatises people on income support. It's about time we had a change in that regard. Some of the Greens, including myself, will continue to push on into the future.
The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Siewert be agreed to.
The question is that the bill, as amended, be read a second time.
Senator Gallagher did not vote, to compensate for the vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator Parry.
Senator Farrell did not vote, to compensate for the vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator Nash
Senator Pratt did not vote, to compensate for the vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator Kakoschke-Moore.
Labor certainly does not support this bill. This is a bill that is attacking the poorest, poorest people in this country, and we just do not believe that this is either humane thing to do or the proper thing to do. So Labor will be indicating our opposition to all these amendments that are up from the government, and we will be speaking on each one of them.
by leave—I move government amendments (1) to (3), (10) to (14) and (16) to (20) and request (5) to (9) on sheet JC466 be taken together:
Clause 2, page 3 (table item 16), omit "Schedules 12 and 13", substitute
Schedule 1, page 14 (after line 23), after item 93, insert:
93A Subsection 603AA(2)
Omit "newstart allowance", substitute "jobseeker payment".
93B Subsection 603AA(2) (note)
Omit "newstart allowance", substitute "jobseeker payment".
93C Subsection 603AA(2A)
Omit "newstart allowance" (wherever occurring), substitute "jobseeker payment".
Schedule 1, item 352, page 46 (after line 8), after subitem (1), insert:
(a) immediately before the commencement of this item, a person was receiving newstart allowance under the Social Security Act 1991; and
(b) at the commencement of this item, the person starts to receive jobseeker payment;
then, while the person continuously receives that jobseeker payment on and after that commencement, the reference in subsection 603AA(2) of that Act to jobseeker payment is taken to be a reference to newstart allowance.
Schedule 9, items 1 and 2, page 166 (lines 5 to 19), omit the items, substitute:
1 Subsection 603AA(1)
Omit "subsection (3)", substitute "subsections (2) and (3)".
Schedule 9, page 166 (after line 27), after item 6, insert:
6A After subsection 603AA(1)
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply in relation to a person who has reached 55, but is under 60, years of age and to a period of 2 weeks (the relevant period) if that period begins before the end of 12 months starting on the day the person starts to receive newstart allowance. Instead the person is taken to satisfy the activity test in respect of the relevant period if the person:
(a) is engaged, for at least 30 hours in the relevant period, in a combination of:
(i) approved unpaid voluntary work for an approved organisation; and
(ii) paid work that the Secretary regards as suitable and that is at least 15 hours in the relevant period; or
(b) is engaged for at least 30 hours in the relevant period in paid work that the Secretary regards as suitable.
Note: Because of the definition of receive in section 23, this subsection applies separately in relation to each occasion the person starts to receive newstart allowance.
(2A) If newstart allowance ceases to be payable to a person for a period of less than 3 months (except because the newstart allowance was cancelled), then, for the purposes of subsection (2), the person is taken to be receiving newstart allowance during that period.
Schedule 9, items 8 and 9, page 167 (lines 4 to 20), omit the items, substitute:
8 Subsection 731G(1)
Omit "subsection (3)", substitute "subsections (2) and (3)".
Schedule 9, page 167 (after line 22), after item 10, insert:
10A After subsection 731G(1)
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply in relation to a person who has reached 55, but is under 60, years of age and to a period of 2 weeks (the relevant period) if that period begins before the end of 12 months starting on the day the person starts to receive special benefit. Instead the person is taken to satisfy the activity test in respect of the relevant period if the person:
(a) is engaged, for at least 30 hours in the relevant period, in a combination of:
(i) approved unpaid voluntary work for an approved organisation; and
(ii) paid work that the Secretary regards as suitable and that is at least 15 hours in the relevant period; or
(b) is engaged for at least 30 hours in the relevant period in paid work that the Secretary regards as suitable.
Note: Because of the definition of receive in section 23, this subsection applies separately in relation to each occasion the person starts to receive special benefit.
(2A) If special benefit ceases to be payable to a person for a period of less than 3 months (except because the special benefit was cancelled), then, for the purposes of subsection (2), the person is taken to be receiving special benefit during that period.
Schedule 9, item 13, page 168 (line 3), after "item", insert ", whether the person started to receive newstart allowance or special benefit before, on or after that commencement".
Schedule 13, item 2, page 189 (lines 21 to 24), omit subsection 28C(3).
Schedule 15, item 1, page 195 (lines 26 to 34), omit paragraph 42AC(1) (a), substitute:
(a) the person fails to comply with a requirement that was notified to the person under subsection 63(2) or (4);
Schedule 15, item 1, page 196 (lines 6 to 8), omit "(except a notice containing a requirement described in subparagraph (a) (i) of this subsection)".
Schedule 15, item 1, page 196 (line 36), omit "Note 1", substitute "Note".
Schedule 15, item 1, page 197 (lines 1 and 2), omit note 2.
That the House of Representatives be requested to make the following amendments:
Schedule 4, item 39, page 100 (line 25), after "period", insert "(the relevant period)".
Schedule 4, item 39, page 100 (line 34) to page 101 (line 1), omit section 567FB, substitute:
567FB Amount of payment
(1) The amount of the person's payment is worked out using the following formula (except if paragraph 567FA(g) applies in relation to the person):
Daily rate of person's youth allowance on the relevant day x 14 x 2
(2) If subparagraph 567FA(g) (i) applies in relation to the person, the amount of the person's payment is worked out using the following formula:
[Daily rate of person's youth allowance on the relevant day x 14 x 3] x $2,000
(3) If subparagraph 567FA(g) (ii) applies in relation to the person, the amount of the person's payment is worked out using the following formula:
[Daily rate of person's youth allowance on the relevant day x 14 x3] + Additional amount
additional amount means the amount worked out in accordance with the following table:
Schedule 4, item 54, page 105 (line 27), after "period", insert "(the relevant period)".
Schedule 4, item 54, page 106 (lines 1 to 4), omit section 660LI, substitute:
660LI Amount of payment
(1) The amount of the person's payment is worked out using the following formula (except if paragraph 660LH(g) applies in relation to the person):
Daily rate of person's jobseeker payment on the relevant day x 14 x2
(2) If subparagraph 660LH(g) (i) applies in relation to the person, the amount of the person's payment is worked out using the following formula:
[Daily rate of person's jobseeker payment on the relevant day x 14 x3] + $1,000
(3) If subparagraph 660LH(g) (ii) applies in relation to the person, the amount of the person's payment is worked out using the following formula:
[Daily rate of person's jobseeker payment on the relevant day x 14 x3] + Additional amount
additional amount means the amount worked out in accordance with the following table:
Schedule 6, item 3, page 141 (lines 29 and 30), omit paragraph 603AC(1) (c), substitute:
(c) she ceased to be a member of a couple after turning 40;
I did indicate we'd be opposing all the government's amendments. If, as I understand it, NXT is backing this bill in then we will have to have a look at the amendments and deal with them on their merits as they come up.
I just want to clarify—are the government amendments all being moved together?
The CHAIR: That's right, but they'll be split into parts 1 and 2. I'll put the question on part 1 unless someone wishes to speak.
I have a series of questions that I would like to ask the government about a number of the schedules. As we know, there are a lot of schedules in this bill. I figure it's better to get them done now, and then we'll go through the specific amendments. I want to ask a few questions about the compliance framework, which is schedule 15. First off, I want to ask about the four weeks—once they go through the seven-point process and they end up with a four-week cancellation, it's my understanding that people won't have to reapply for the income support payment that they're on.
I'll give a basic explanation very quickly to ensure that I'm on the same page as you. You're right—the measure will introduce a new compliance framework to replace existing compliance arrangements for all jobseekers except, as you know, those in the CDP. As you know, all jobseekers commence in the personal responsibility phase, which we're calling the demerits phase. Every failure without reasonable excuse will result in payment suspension until re-engagement and the accrual of demerit but no actual penalty. If a jobseeker accrues four demerits in six months, they will enter the intensive compliance phase—that is, the three-strikes phase—in which they will face stronger penalties. This begins with the loss of half their fortnightly payment for their first failure without reasonable excuse. It then progresses to loss of all of their fortnightly payment for their second failure and payment cancellation for four weeks for their third job failure.
Jobseekers in the three-strikes phase who remain fully compliant for three months will return to the demerits phase. In either phase, any jobseeker who refuses work without a valid reason will have their payment cancelled for four weeks in recognition of the seriousness of this. To ensure that genuine jobseekers who simply are having difficulty meeting their requirements do not enter the three-strikes phase, their provider will assess their capability and requirements after their third demerit, and DHS will also do so after their fourth. At either point, if they are found to be unable to meet the requirements, those requirements will be reset, and they will return to the demerits phase.
Yes. If a jobseeker accrues four demerits in the six months, they enter into the intensive compliance phase. This begins with the loss of half their fortnightly payment for their first failure without reasonable excuse and the loss of their fortnightly payment for their second failure.
Senator Siewert interjecting—
Sorry, it must have been the terminology.
Yes, it's the terminology. In terms, then, of the process of engagement, once you've lost your four-week payment—so you've got your seventh; you've got your four weeks. So—and I'm sorry if I've misunderstood what you just said—you don't have to reapply. Is there a process of engagement over those four weeks, or are they just left for four weeks? Is there an intensive process of engagement for those four weeks?
I can understand that that's what you think is going to happen, but, in fact, we know there are not enough jobs out there for people to get a job. So what is going to happen for those four weeks? People are going to have no income. There's no incentive for them to re-engage voluntarily, because they've just been dumped off income support, and they actually don't have the resources to go and find a job—pay the phone et cetera—or even buy food.
Again, they are encouraged to obviously engage with jobactive or, alternatively, not get to this stage, because, along the way, there has been in-built the ability to actually engage with your provider and to engage with DHS. So, at each phase, you're actively engaging to ensure that you don't get to this stage.
This process happens over the six-month process. I'm trying to understand, then, what happens if I've been in the intensive four-week phase. Is it possible that I could end up going through the intensive phase again in that six months and end up on four weeks loss of payment again?
In terms of what will actually occur, there will be two levels of assessment, as I just outlined. First is the assessment by the employment services provider after the third failure—you're still in the demerits phase at that stage—and then there is an assessment by DHS after the fourth failure. In terms of your previous questions, what all of that is intended to do is discover any serious issues at the earliest opportunity and allow tailoring of requirements so that jobseekers don't have trouble meeting those requirements. As you know, jobseekers who do have a reasonable excuse for not meeting requirements will not be penalised.
Existing protections for the 200,000 jobseekers who have some sort of exemption from their mutual obligations or are fully meeting their obligations through approved activities will also be preserved. If a jobseeker does reach the three-strikes phase and again fails to meet their requirements, no penalty will be applied if they have a reasonable excuse for their failure. As is currently the case, all financial penalty decisions will be made by DHS and not by providers. As you are aware, we've also ensured that jobseekers will be able to continue to appeal against the financial penalties that have been put in place, first to a Centrelink-authorised review officer and then to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. So, again, there are safeguards built in along the way to ensure that you don't get to or limit the possibility of getting to that final phase.
I do apologise, as I was somewhat distracted earlier in the piece as the marriage equality bill had just passed through the House of Representatives. I think it's a great day for this country, and common sense and equity has prevailed. I'd just like to go through some of these schedules and indicate Labor's position. We oppose schedule 4, items (39) and (54)—the cessation of the bereavement leave. The Xenophon party have basically caved in on this. I don't know what baubles they received in return for selling out some of the poorest people in South Australia. I just cannot for the life of me understand why NXT would support this. That now means that we've got to try and do the best we can to ameliorate the worst aspects of this.
On schedule 4, in terms of the bereavement allowance, it's a short-term payment for people whose partner has died. It's paid for a maximum of 14 weeks at the age pension and subject to the same income and asset tests. For a pregnant woman who's lost a partner, the allowance is paid for 14 weeks. Schedule 4 of this bill will replace bereavement leave as it currently exists with short-term access to jobseeker allowance. This schedule would mean that recipients will receive only the rate of jobseeker payment, which is $535 per fortnight, the same as Newstart allowance. How the Xenophon team can justify that I don't know.
It's easy for the coalition to justify this, because they've got form when it comes to going after the poorest people in this country. This means that a bereaved person in need of income support will receive $1,300 less over the 14-week period than they currently do. The cut is even more pronounced for a pregnant woman. This is a cruel cut to people receiving short-term income support without justification following the loss of a partner.
What is the government's rationale for cutting a short-term income support payment to low-income people who have lost their partner? Have you got no shame?
To ensure that no existing recipients will be worse off, people in receipt of bereavement allowance on implementation will continue to receive it until the end of their bereavement period, which is a maximum of 14 weeks, or for a pregnant woman until the end of her pregnancy.
I now go to schedule 9. I'm happy to get through ours as quickly as I can. I know the Greens have some questions. I just want to put our position on the record. Labor opposes schedule 9. The amendment that the government has proposed ameliorates this to a very small extent, but schedule 9 removes the ability of Newstart allowance and certain special benefits for recipients aged between 55 and 59 to be taken to satisfy the activity test by engaging in voluntary work alone. Instead, it requires them to undertake a minimum amount of paid work. The amendment, as I understand it, allows jobseekers to be taken to satisfy the activity test through voluntary work alone after 12 months. But we still think that this schedule is another attack on those that Robert Menzies described as falling through the cracks—people that Robert Menzies, the icon of the Liberal Party, indicated should be looked after. And I'm sure Robert Menzies would not understand what is going on with the Liberal Party these days. But this is about punishing community groups by cutting the amount of time people can volunteer and still receive jobseeker payments. So the amendments are there. We don't like it. We are opposed to this bill generally but, given that this does ameliorate some of the issues, we will support the amendment.
We go now to schedule 12, which is on drug testing. Thankfully, the professionals who deal in this area were so loud and so vocal about the stupidity of the coalition position that they've been forced to remove it from the bill. I think that's a great credit to all the community groups—and the Labor Party and the Greens—who have been opposing this, that the Liberal Party have been forced to understand the stupidity of this position. So we're glad that that's been removed.
Schedule 13 removes the exemptions due to drugs or alcohol for people who are not declared program participants. Item (2) allows the secretary to make a legislative instrument that defines a declared program participant and modifies provisions in the social security law as they apply to declared program participants. This amendment removes this latter power. But I think it still does make a minor improvement to what is an egregious bill—a bill that typifies the coalition, a bill that attacks poor people in this country and a bill that I am absolutely amazed that the NXT team have agreed to support. I just haven't quite got to the bottom of what baubles the NXT team have been offered to cave in to these egregious changes to welfare systems in this country. So, I think that's basis of where we are at.
We think this is a terrible bill. I just don't understand how anyone can sit in this chamber on a $200,000 basic salary—anywhere up to $400,000 for ministers—and vote for this and try to justify cutting the welfare payments for the poorest in this country. I'll summarise our position: we think this is an atrocious bill. We think it typifies what this coalition government is all about. However, we've got no option, given the capitulation by NXT to the Liberal Party and the coalition, once again, but to actually agree to these small amendments that ameliorate it in a very small way. I hope I've made our opposition to this clear and how terrible this is for people on welfare in this country.
I'm sorry this seems a bit disjointed, and I also thank Senator Cameron for clearing up the ALP's position on the government amendments. I will come to my comments on the government amendments shortly. However, I don't want to detain the chamber longer than necessary, but this is an extremely long bill—18 schedules—with a number of different things happening in the bill. I do have a few more questions around schedule 15 to do with the compliance process. The minister had been explaining the process to go through from demerit point 3 to 4, the support and the process to go through to demerit point 7 and the four weeks off. I'm trying to clarify: they re-engage and they come back to four again—that's correct, isn't it? You re-engage and you come back?
Thank you for clarifying that because it was unclear. It is then possible that they could get another four-week suspension if we're not meeting people's needs and they're continuingly in noncompliance. It is possible they could end up with another total of seven weeks noncompliance over that six-month period. Is that a correct understanding?
I appreciate that. If the issues people have are not met, for whatever reason—we've also had quite a lot of evidence that people often don't disclose straight up—it may be a process where they are still noncompliant. Is there still a capacity for people over that six-month period to go through the seven-week process again; there's nothing to prevent that from happening?
That's what I understood that you did—I'm genuinely trying to find out how this works. They go through the intensive phase again—just say you accumulate your four points again; okay? Once you've accumulated your fourth point again, you go through the number of weeks, again; that's correct, isn't it? You can then end up in the four-week phase again?
How about I take us chronologically through from the start to the end and it might end up making some more sense. All jobseekers commence in the personal responsibility phase. Every failure, as we have stated, by a jobseeker to meet their requirement will result in payment suspension until re-engagement and accrual of a demerit, but no actual loss of income support payments whilst in that phase. That's the first phase.
You're right, we then move to the second phase. If a jobseeker accrues four demerits within the six months, they move into the intensive compliance phase, where they will face stronger penalties, as we've explained, beginning with the loss of half their fortnightly payments, which is the one for the first failure, moving through to all of their fortnightly payment for the second failure. Then, you are right, their payment will be cancelled for four weeks for their third failure.
As I've also said, to ensure that genuine jobseekers don't enter that compliance phase, they will be worked with by the job provider along the way. Once a jobseeker is in the three-strikes phase, they can still avoid any penalties by meeting all of their requirements—this is, those who remain fully compliant for three months will return to the demerits phase, with the demerits reset to zero. This is obviously all about providing a strong incentive for jobseekers to change their behaviour and start to comply.
Jobseekers in either phase who refuse an offer of suitable work or who fail to start in a suitable job without a valid reason will have their payment cancelled for four weeks. Again, this penalty is identical to that imposed on jobseekers who have reached three strikes and it recognises the seriousness of refusing work and the importance of reducing reliance on welfare, wherever possible. Again, we're building in safeguards along the way. Before any loss of payment or cancellation, the jobseeker will get to discuss the failure with DHS. If DHS determines that the jobseeker had a good reason for their actions, no penalty will apply. Again: we are building in safeguards along the way so that you are ultimately targeting those who are wilfully noncompliant as opposed to those who have made a genuine mistake or have a genuine excuse.
Technically, yes, but that is only for those who are not meeting their obligations—hence why we're building in the safeguards along the way to ensure that we are assisting people to meet their obligations at all times and incentivising them to do the right thing, meet their obligations and go out to find work.
They are called demerit events. Fail to enter into a job plan: one demerit point. Fail to undertake job search: one demerit point. Fail to attend a provider appointment: one demerit point. Fail to attend a third-party appointment: one demerit point. Fail to attend an activity—for example, Work for the Dole—one demerit point. Failure to attend a job interview: as I previously explained, you are automatically referred to an immediate jobactive or DHS assessment, but that is when you are actually failing to attend a job interview. Failure to accept suitable work—you've been offered a job, it's suitable for you and you say no—your payment is cancelled and there is a four-week exclusion before reapplying. Again, that is because you have failed to accept suitable work; there was a job available and you said no. That is the list of demerit events.
Thank you for clearing that up. It seems to me from what you've just read out—and I understood what you've just said—that there's no occasion where you would lose two points at once. It's either you lose a demerit point or you go straight to seven, basically, if you refuse suitable work?
In terms of this new system, there will be people at Centrelink and there will now be people on the Serco process. What arrangements are in place to make sure that they are thoroughly across this new system when people ring up? I appreciate that the providers will be available, but I strongly suspect that people are going to run into problems with payments and things like that, where they don't understand what's happening. Will there be specific lines people can ring around this new system?
I'm instructed that there will be an expanded call centre brought into play, and people will have access to that expanded call centre. The people manning the call centre will have the same training as DHS.
I have a specific question around schedule 6. I figure we'll get them all done now and it will make it easier later. I don't know about misunderstanding, but there is some confusion about the number of people who are going to be affected by some parts of the jobseeker payment and the changes to the jobseeker payment, and I particularly now focused on schedule 6, the widow allowance. How many women who will be on the jobseeker payment immediately before 1 January 2022 who would have been eligible for widow's allowance before 1 January in 2018 won't be eligible for the age pension as they won't meet the residency requirements? This was an issue that came up during the inquiry, and I've actually heard a couple of different bits of information around that.
In responding to that, I'll take you through what the schedule does. Schedule 6, as you know, closes the widow allowance to new entrants from 1 January 2018. It ceases the widow allowance from 1 January 2022. From 1 January 2018, women who would otherwise have claimed the widow allowance may claim the age pension, if eligible; Newstart allowance, if under the age pension age; or special benefit, if over age pension age but not residentially qualified for the age pension. All existing widow allowance recipients will be of age pension age by 1 January 2022. Those who are not residentially qualified for the age pension by 1 January 2022 will be transferred to the age pension under one-off transition arrangements. This measure is part of a broader reform package which will create a simpler payment system that will drive the efficiencies et cetera and create greater administrative consistency within the welfare payment. So all existing widow allowance recipients will be of age pension age by 1 January 2022, but those who are not residentially qualified for the age pension by this date are going to be transferred to the age pension under what has been put in place: the one-off transition arrangements.
I take it, then, that you're saying that, of the women who are on the jobseeker payment before 1 January 2022, there'll be none who would have been eligible or were eligible before 1 January who won't get the age care pension? That's the bottom line. You're saying everybody will, in fact, get the age pension, regardless of residency?
We don't actually have the numbers, but you are right: the widow allowance does close to new entrants from 1 January 2018. Over the forward estimates, the total population of people who will be on Newstart allowance from March 2020 who would otherwise have been granted the widow allowance—so these are the people you are referring to; we do have it as a figure—is estimated as 4,818 over five years to 2021-22.
Existing widow allowance recipients will be unaffected by the closure, remaining on the payment until they reach age pension age and transfer to the age pension. From 1 January 2022, the widow allowance, as you know, will cease and 400 recipients, who are over age pension age but do not meet the age pension residence qualification rules, as I said, will be transferred to age pension under the one-off transition. Does that give you the statistics?
Thank you. I'd like to now turn to the government's amendments. The Greens will be supporting the government's amendments. They don't go as far as our amendments, so we'll still be moving our amendments. They do make a couple of things slightly better; they don't go as far as we would like.
I'm particularly pleased to see the schedule 12 drug-testing trial process removed from this bill. As you know, we did not support that. We are disappointed—in fact, we had amendments and the ALP had amendments to remove schedule 12 as well, so I'm pleased to see it's happened. However, we wanted to go further because we don't support schedules 13 and 14 either. I do acknowledge you've made a slight amendment to schedule 13, and of course we'll be supporting that.
I also acknowledge that for schedule 9, the activity test, we don't support the amendment to reduce it to 12 months. We don’t support that schedule, and I'll still seek to remove it, but my understanding is that it will be 12 months and then somebody will not be subject to that schedule anymore. So of course that's a significant improvement in that area beyond what was currently in the bill.
It's the same with schedule 4—a slight improvement on bereavement allowance and an improvement on schedule 6 So, I'll indicate that the Greens will be supporting these amendments; however, we do have a large number of amendments ourselves.
The CHAIR: So the question is that amendments (1) to (3), (10) to (14) and (16) to (20) and requests (5) to (9) on sheet JC466 be agreed to.
Question agreed to.
The CHAIR: The question is that schedule 1 and schedule 12 stand as printed.
I'm going to move our first lot of amendments. Sorry, I was expecting the LDP or the AC to move their amendments. One of them is amending something that's in conflict with the government, so I presume they're no longer going to be moving their amendments.
The CHAIR: I just advise the chamber that the LDP and the AC amendments can no longer be moved as schedule 12.
by leave—I move amendment (2) on sheet 8243:
(2) Schedule 3, item 25, page 75 (after line 23) , after subsection 654(5) , insert:
(5A) The woman’s wife pension transition rate during the period from the day after the transition day to the day before the day on which the transition rate is ceased (the transition period) is worked out using Pension Rate Calculator A at the end of section 1064 (see Part 3.2).
The Greens also oppose schedule 3 in the following terms:
(3) Schedule 3, items 45 to 49, page 79 (line 20) to page 80 (line 4), to be opposed.
These amendments relate to the transition payments for wife pensioners. Amendment (2) provides for the transition rate for wife pensioners to be indexed. Amendment (3), which also relates to the transition rate of wife pension, seeks to oppose schedule 3, items 45 to 49 in the terms circulated.
The government does not support the Greens' amendments. While the government understands the concerns of the Greens in relation to bereavement allowance, we do not believe that those issues are rectified by these amendments.
The bill represents the most comprehensive reform of Australia's working-age welfare payments in decades. The current income support system of multiple payments is very complex and difficult for people to navigate. The new jobseeker payment will be the main working-age payment, consolidating the current seven payments and creating a single payment for those of working age with the capacity to work now or in the near future. The jobseeker payment will simplify the income support system and treat people in similar circumstances consistently.
The Greens' opposition to schedule 4 is unfortunate because, under the jobseeker payment, those who are bereaved will receive significant up-front payments which would enable them to meet some of their expenses early. The proposed amendments to schedules 3, 5 and 6 will add to the complexity of the system rather than simplifying the already complex arrangements.
While I appreciate what the government is trying to do in terms of creating a new, simpler payment, we don't want people to be worse off under this process than under the previous payments. That's why we are seeking to move these amendments. We do understand what the government is trying to achieve, but it's unfortunate that people are going to be hurt along the way. That's why we are seeking to make sure that we have an appropriate indexation rate in place.
Senator Cameron, you are right: these recipients are no longer eligible for any other social security payment as they are under age pension age and, based on available information, would not be eligible for another payment under an international agreement or a portable agreement. If these recipients returned to Australia they may be eligible for the jobseeker payment.
Given we are debating this bill tonight, I find it quite perplexing that you don't have the figures to hand for a cut to the indexation payments for women transitioning onto the jobseeker payment. Are you in a position to provide that information tonight?
In relation to the cessation of the wife pension—Labor opposes this schedule. The wife pension is paid to female partners of age pension or disability support pension recipients who are not eligible for a pension in their own right. It's not activity tested, and it has been closed to new applicants since 1 July 1995. The wife pension was granted to women solely on the basis of their partner's eligibility for the age pension or the disability support pension. This schedule would cease the wife pension from 20 March 2020, at which time it's estimated there will be around 7,750 recipients. Of these, 2,250 will transfer onto the age pension and 2,400 onto carer payment. These women will be no worse off. Labor is concerned, however, about the 3,100 women who will be worse off. A total of 2,900 women will transfer onto the jobseeker payment. While they would continue to receive the pension rate of payment rather than the lower jobseeker payment rate, its indexation would be ceased, meaning that they would be worse off in real terms over time.
Our view is that it would not take a lot of money to look after 3,100 women. Labor is particularly concerned about the 200 women living overseas who will no longer be able to access any income support. Overnight they will be $670 worse off per fortnight. These recipients are under age-pension age and would not be eligible for either another payment under an international agreement or a portable payment. This group of low-income women will be suddenly left with nothing to live on other than their partner's pension, perhaps having been out of the workforce for many years. They have been receiving the wife pension for a minimum of 22 years. It would seem reasonable that this group should be grandfathered to avoid them facing financial crisis, particularly given the small number and the minimal cost of doing so.
Our view is that this is a cruel and unnecessary cut. Minister, we just can't understand how, as Minister for Women, you could support this. It's a minimal cost to the government's budget. It would mean a significant continuation of income for some of our vulnerable women. I'd just like to ask again—I see there have been some people talking to you—whether you do have the cost of this and what it would cost to maintain the indexation.
I table a supplementary explanatory memorandum relating to the government amendments that have now been moved to the bill.
Ordered that the committee have leave to sit again on the next day of sitting.