Senate debates

Thursday, 23 August 2018


Human Rights Committee; Report

6:27 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on document No. 8, which is Human rights scrutiny report: report 8 of 2018, a report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, a committee that came into being during the period when I was not in this chamber. This report demonstrates again—as with some other processes, like the scrutiny of bills—the limitations of the process that this committee goes through. That does not mean it's not of value, but it does mean there are limitations.

This report, amongst a number of other pieces of legislation, specifically examines the cashless debit card trial expansion. We were debating that legislation in the chamber yesterday and this morning, as well as speaking separately to the Auditor-General's report about it, so I won't revisit the debate on the legislation; I want to stick just to what's in this report. The report itself—and Senator Siewert spoke to this yesterday as well—and the committee's responses contained within it, particularly about the proposal to expand the trial to Hervey Bay and Bundaberg, clearly indicate the committee's unanimous concern about the appropriateness of doing so, the human rights implications of doing so. Their final conclusions, their final response, are that concerns remain as to whether the trial is effective in achieving its stated objectives and whether it is a proportionate limitation on human rights.

There is a bit of a dismissive approach to human rights by some in the community and some in this chamber. But the ones this committee has in its terms of reference are pretty fundamental. They're not massively wideranging but narrow, targeted and proportionate themselves. If we have a report where the committee expresses its ongoing concerns that measures are not proportionate in regard to limiting basic human rights then we should be noting that. This legislation is still before this chamber. It has not been voted on. It's at the second reading stage, but there are still amendments to consider. Again I would urge those crossbench senators who still have an open mind on this issue to look at the concerns raised in this report, particularly when it comes to the government amendment before the chamber. I will be gone from this chamber after this evening and won't be here when the legislation comes back, so I make a final plea, particularly to Senator Storer and Senator Leyonhjelm, to consider that.

But I was concerned, when we were talking about human rights, that it was put on the record by a number of speakers, including a government speaker on the legislation, that getting social security payments is not a right; that welfare is charity. It is a legislated right just as solidly embedded in law as our right to get paid—or overpaid—for the work we do here. I think the age pension has been a legislated right for over a century now, and it's one that we would all defend. When people are attacking social security or welfare payments, they're targeting unemployed people, sole parents and some people with disabilities, but the largest social security payment category is people on age pensions. Despite all of the massive tax breaks over the last 20 years or more to encourage superannuation accumulation, most of them favouring the better-off, the majority of Australians still rely very heavily on the age pension, and will do for the foreseeable future. I don't see anything wrong with that. The amount of money that has in effect been spent, via foregone revenue and tax expenditures, through giving all those tax breaks that have benefited the better-off has been far more than what would have been spent if those people had simply been getting the age pension. It is a right and needs to stay a right.

We need to defend the right of people to have a basic income. We all know that Newstart as it now stands is not sufficient for many people to survive on. It is completely linked to the growing homelessness problem. There is a basic link between poverty and homelessness. We need to make sure, amongst all the political soap opera of the moment, that we don't forget about those core issues affecting people's lives right now. Tens of thousands of thousands of families are in major housing stress and at imminent risk of homelessness. Tens of thousands of other people are actually homeless. There are more vacant apartments in Brisbane than there are homeless people. The market has completely failed in this regard.

Alongside that is a deliberate attempt to continue to drive down and eradicate the whole concept of the basic right for people to have enough income to survive. From my point of view, as part of the social contract of a unified society that delivers for all of us—not just for the able-bodied, the well-connected, the better-educated and the well-off—that legislated guaranteed basic income has to be available for everybody. Ample economic evidence shows that keeping people out of poverty and reducing economic inequality enhances employment and economic activity in a way that giving tax cuts to the wealthiest is never going to. Plenty of case studies demonstrate beyond doubt that minimising social inequality, social disconnection, alienation, homelessness and poverty reduces crime, dislocation, social breakdown, family breakdown and other associated problems, whose costs end up having to be covered and paid for in one way or another down the track.

I strongly resist this trend we're seeing to dismiss that basic right for people to have social security payments. It's a legislated right that has been whittled away over decades now by successive governments hostage to the neoliberal agenda. It needs to be defended as a basic right, to stop people from being pushed into poverty, and not be seen as some sort of act of charity that can have all sorts of strings attached, can be withdrawn capriciously and can be subjected to the swings and roundabouts of the political winds and currents in this place as people position for political advantage in the short term. People need to have that basic guarantee, and as part of that we need to be recognising why this parliament has seen fit and why this chamber has seen fit to put in place processes that assess whether or not what we are doing here meets some of those basic standards of human rights.

With regard to the welfare card, if you look at some of the evidence that people provided to the committee inquiry into this—not the derisory one that happened previously, which didn't even bother listening to the people of Hervey Bay and Bundaberg, but the previous one, which did go to the Goldfields and actually had the chairperson of the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia, Ms Nelson-Cox, speak about their concerns as a result of the card in Kununurra:

Since the introduction of the cashless card in Kununurra there has been an increase in crime, an increase around elder abuse, an increase around soliciting and black market trades happening with service providers that can trade off the card for cash. So it hasn't dealt with the contentious issues that were identified; it has actually caused a major influx around other issues.

It had also been a contributing factor in why people have actually succeeded around suicide and, importantly, suicide is one of the outcomes. There had been over 474 cases of self-harm that these people, from their community, say can be linked at least in part to this cashless card and the constraints around it. We should be listening to people at community level with experience of this. We should have listened to people in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay about their concerns and what its impacts on people's lives will be—not the ideology, not the philosophy but the actual human impact. We're talking about 474 cases of self-harming that people in that community believe are partly linked to that card.

Again, if you want to look at mental health issues, if you want to look at issues around self-harm, there is an inextricable link between the propensity for self-harm and poverty. Of course mental health issues can strike anybody, with any level of income, but it is far more likely to happen—and particularly unable to be resolved and to be chronic and lead to more instances of self-harm—among people who are in poverty or are under threat of homelessness or are experiencing homelessness. There is a direct link to that. That's why we talk about human rights, not as some flowery international instrument but because it's directly relevant to people's daily lives.

Question agreed to.