Senate debates

Monday, 3 December 2018


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Promoting Sustainable Welfare) Bill 2018; Second Reading

7:49 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

As my colleague Senator Griff outlined last week, Centre Alliance is not, and was never going to, support the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Promoting Sustainable Welfare) Bill 2018. Non-humanitarian permanent migrants already have a higher work participation rate and lower reliance on social services than the general population. They contribute to Australia's social fabric and economic prosperity, lifting the three Ps: population, participation and productivity. They should not be penalised if an unforeseen incident arises after their arrival. Starting a life in a new country is hard enough and, if things don't run smoothly, you may need a helping hand. If you can't find a job as quickly as you expected, or the company you're working for closes down, you could find yourself facing dire financial circumstances. That, of course, is risky for a new permanent resident—especially one with dependants—if there is no safety net on the horizon.

This bill will introduce a two-year wait for parental leave, carer payment and dad and partner payments. It also doubles the wait for a number of working age benefits to four years—that is, four years before new residents can claim Newstart or youth allowance, sickness or bereavement allowances, Austudy or parenting payments. These wait times have been increased due to a deal that's been done between the Labor opposition and the Liberal government. It's all because of the $1.3 billion forecast in savings. It's low-hanging fruit as far as the two alternative governments are concerned, and it's something they want to bank for election promises. But there's no reason we should make it harder for permanent migrants to make a new life here. This is a waiting game where nobody wins.

Instead of taking this decision based on any sound policy grounds, the government is treating new migrants as an easy source of revenue and savings, with no consideration of the impacts such a move might have on individuals and their families. As a matter of fact, on the proposed changes to the eligibility for family tax benefit part A, we think this is the first time Australia has discriminated in the way it taxes permanent residents. As pointed out during the inquiry, this could set a dangerous precedence that could be extended or applied to other sections of Australian society. Once we take this step, there's no guarantee other Australians won't be targeted down the track. For example, a future government could decide to deny family tax benefits to people under a certain age. It may also decide to extend newly arrived residents' waiting periods from four years to five, or even to 10, or exclude recent migrants from government provided health or education altogether.

For many migrants, their only safety net within this waiting period is the special benefit payment, which is paid at the Newstart or youth allowance rate. The payment is for people who cannot claim any other benefit, and successful claimants can then also access a limited range of other benefits. Many claims for the special benefit payments are rejected, and many will continue to be rejected under this bill despite its changes, leaving migrants to suffer financial hardship due to circumstances that may well be well beyond their control. They will fall through the cracks, either because they don't qualify for or don't even know about the special benefit payment.

Most, if not all, newly arrived residents aspire to become citizens. We should not be throwing obstacles in their path. We should be doing what we can to make sure they establish a successful life here in Australia and get a helping hand as needed, to ensure they do indeed prosper and contribute to Australian societies. Thank you.

7:54 pm

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to indicate the support of the Liberal Democrats for the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Promoting Sustainable Welfare) Bill 2018. It's a bill that delays the eligibility for welfare of migrants. Of course we support this because it is Liberal Democrats' policy. Inch by inch in recent times the government has been quietly introducing the Liberal Democrats' migration policy. That is because the Liberal Democrats' migration policy is eminently sensible. The Liberal Democrats believe that migrants should have to meet health, criminal and character tests as is the case now, but on top of that they should have to pay an entry fee to reflect the fact that they have not contributed to paying for the infrastructure that they will soon enjoy, which has been paid for by other Australians via their taxes. The government has moved towards this by increasing existing visa charges. By charging migrants for entry, we will increase the productivity of migrants as those who have no hope of recouping the entry fee by getting a well-paid job will be dissuaded from coming.

Another element of the Liberal Democrats' migration policy is to remove the eligibility for welfare of migrants other than refugees. This will further increase the productivity of migrants as it will further dissuade those who have no hope of getting a well-paid job from coming. Those migrants who are confirmed to be refugees don't come here by choice, so they should not be subject to an entry fee or restrictions on access to welfare. I am in favour of Australia's refugee program provided we accept refugees who have nowhere else to go and are keen to integrate. For this reason I oppose Senator Anning's amendment, which attempts to restrict the existing access to welfare for genuine refugees.

Migrants have made a huge contribution to Australia in the past. In the future their contribution could be even greater and their entry welcomed by incumbent Australians, but that is far more likely if we continue down the path of the Liberal Democrats' migration policy to further improve the productivity of migrants.

7:56 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Promoting Sustainable Welfare) Bill 2018 is a shocking attack on multicultural Australia and a shocking attack on people who are migrating to Australia expecting that they are here to contribute and expecting that in return they will be treated as equals, expecting that the Australian values of a fair go for everyone will apply for them too. This bill is attacking all of that. This bill, by making migrants wait four years before they are eligible for Newstart, is essentially relegating them to being second-class residents. They have to wait four years for Newstart, four years for a low-income health card, four years before they can access bereavement allowance and four years before they can access a parenting payment.

We have got a culture in Australia of welcoming migrants. We have been built on migrants. Other than the First Australians, everybody in Australia has got a history of migration to this country. And one of the wonderful things about our migrant basis is that everyone is welcome for who they are, regardless of their background. That is the theory. That's what we pride ourselves on: welcoming people from all over the world. They come here. We treat them as equals. Everyone works hard, does their best and reaps the rewards of being Australians. But yet, by making people wait these extraordinarily long periods for welfare payments, it is cutting out one of the critical parts of our social welfare net and it is saying that new migrants to this country are not eligible for the same benefits that Australians are, regardless of the fact that they are here and they have been welcomed here, in theory, to be equal to the rest of us. It is treating migrants as second-class citizens.

I must admit it is actually what I've come to expect from this government—this government, with their agenda of racist dog whistling, of attacks on migrants, of attacks on multiculturalism. It's what we've come to expect. But the absolutely appalling thing is that Labor are supporting this bill—Labor, who call themselves the party of social justice, call themselves a party that support the welfare safety net, call themselves a party that supports multiculturalism. They have done a deal to support this legislation. And, in terms of how bad the legislation is, we've just heard Senator Leyonhjelm say that this legislation is actually implementing stuff that's in the Liberal Democrats policy and we know that, at least on the basis of where the Labor Party say they line up, that should be anathema to the Labor Party. But, no, the Labor Party has cooked up a deal with the government in the back room to attack multicultural Australia and attack migrant communities.

And this deal has got consequences. People who arrive here with the best of intentions—skilled migrants or people arriving here with the expectation of work—can very easily find themselves out of work through no fault of their own. They might work for a while for an employer that they had lined up, and that employer might go bust. Whereas the rest of us are able to rely on Newstart to find access to other work, they can't. They are left with no income at all. People might arrive here, set up a small business and work hard to get their small business underway, but that small business might fail. Again, rather than having that safety net, like the rest of us have, which would enable them to work out where to go from there, they find themselves very quickly spiralling into poverty. When you haven't got an income, when the pay cheques are not coming in and when the benefits aren't there, it means that you can't pay the rent or put food on the table for your kids. When you can't pay the rent or put food on the table for your kids, you are then at huge risk of ending up homeless and that having the impact of children ending up living in poverty.

This bill was roundly slammed in the Senate inquiry, and, although there have been substantial amendments, the worst aspects of this bill still remain. Some of the submissions to the bill's inquiry show the expectations of the welfare sector—the people who are working with migrants who are likely to be put into these circumstances—of what they think the impacts are going to be. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said:

The bill would impose unnecessary hardship on individuals and families, and may impact the ability of people to be self-sufficient if they are not adequately supported in the early years of their arrival …

And they said:

The changes will impact the demand on the social services sector in Australia. As waiting periods to access to the welfare payment system are extended (and in some cases introduced), people may face destitution and homelessness and will turn to the social services sector, placing greater demand on an already stretched sector.

And the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre know what they're talking about because they've been picking up the pieces for many years now for people who are left without any other support—people who have come to this country and who deserve our support but haven't been getting it. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre are the ones left picking up the pieces, and they are fearful that there will be even more demand on their services and even more demand on charity. That's not how we should be running our welfare system. That's not the way the Australia that I know and love works. The Australia that I know and love actually thrives on knowing that we have got a really good safety net that people can fall back on when times get tough. The Federation of Ethnic Communities' Council Australia submission states:

FECCA believes the proposed Bill would impose considerable hardship, and create an underclass of migrants who find themselves facing dire financial circumstances as they try to settle into Australia.

The submission went on to say:

FECCA strongly believes that providing support for people in the early stages of their journey is critical to ensuring that they are able to fully establish their lives in Australia.

We know, however, that, when Labor had done their deals in the back room and decided that they were supporting the government's bill, FECCA decided to come out and say they were actually happy with it until their constituents told them that no, they weren't. And FECCA, the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Council, had to do a bit of a backflip and an about-face and say, 'I'm looking at this amended bill, and it's actually still really bad.' It is still going to have the impacts that they were worried about, and they are now calling on Labor to not support this bill because of the impacts it's going to have on ethnic communities right across the country. And the Labor Party is saying, 'Well, we had to do a deal.' No, they didn't. They did not need to do a deal that is so appalling that it's going to put people's wellbeing at stake. If it's because of the impact of what maintaining a really good welfare safety net means for newly arrived migrants, if it's because of what it's going to cost the budget, may I suggest to the Labor Party there are many other ways to gain money.

First of all, just look at the big end of town and get a few more of them to pay their fair share of tax. Look at the massive number of companies, the huge businesses in Australia, that don't pay any tax at all. Just look at the rebates to fossil fuel companies and the fuel tax rebates they get—billions and billions of dollars that we could be bringing in if we had a much fairer tax system. But instead, we are picking upon the people who are most in need. We are picking on the people who are least able to fight back for themselves.

These newly arrived migrants haven't got their lobbyists in here sort of doing the rounds, trying to get all of the good deals that suit them. No, they haven't got the big donations that are given to both the Labor and the Liberal parties to do big deals that suit them. The people who this bill will affect are the people at the bottom of the pecking order who are just being shafted. Rather than having a fair system and rather than continuing that investment, we could continue to have a welfare system that works and that would mean that you don't have the problems of people being left homeless, people being left in poverty, and that affects us all. The impact of people who have got no income coming in, who find themselves homeless, who find themselves with nowhere to live, who find themselves on the streets, is not good for us. That is not good for Australia as a society. It's not good for their kids going to school hungry. It's not good for their kids to not even be able to get to school. It's just not good for any of us to have this increasing inequality. There is so much evidence that what we need to be doing to be creating a thriving, prosperous society, is reduce inequality. But measures like this are increasing inequality in Australia.

Labor say that they are all about reducing inequality but that's just what they say. This is a classic example of the Labor Party saying one thing and doing another. And it's just what we will expect that if, as is expected, we have a change of government the next election, if we turf this appalling mob out, if we have a Shorten Labor government then I think we can expect that they are going to be saying one thing and doing another. They'll talk about social justice as they are cutting welfare payments. They will talk about trying to create a more equal society as they are taking actions like this that are actually increasing inequality. It's exactly what you're going to expect from a Shorten Labor government.

The Greens are going to continue to fight. We are going to continue to fight for everybody in our society, regardless of how long they have been here, regardless of their background, regardless of their ethnicity. We are going to continue to fight for fairness. We are going to continue to fight for justice. We are going to continue to fight for equality and, in doing that, we are certainly not going to be supporting this bill tonight.

8:08 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Treasury and Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank senators for their contributions and the number of senators, including the opposition and crossbench, who have indicated their support for this bill. Australia's welfare payment system is designed to support Australians who are most in need. This government understands that making responsible decisions to keep welfare spending in check now is the best way to maintain our welfare payment system for future generations. This government also understands the role the welfare payment system plays in encouraging self-reliance and independence for all Australians.

Through this bill, the government is making sensible changes that will promote the sustainability of Australia's welfare payment system, encourage self-reliance for those who can support themselves and better target assistance to those most in need. Australia is a proud and successful multicultural nation. There is no doubt migrants make a valuable contribution to both our society and our economy. It is a longstanding expectation that skilled and family migrants who choose to come to Australia to enjoy all the opportunities our nation has to offer should support themselves when they first arrive. The changes in this bill reflect this expectation.

This bill will encourage new migrants to be self-sufficient while providing appropriate safeguards for those who are more vulnerable. This bill extends existing waiting periods to four years for working age payments, like Newstart allowance and the parenting payment, and certain concession cards, including the low income health care card. This increase will apply to new migrants granted a permanent visa through the skilled and family streams of the migration program on or after 1 January 2019.

There will be no changes to the existing waiting period for the carer payment, which will remain at the current two years. The increase to four years for working age payments other than the carer payment recognises that those on skilled or family visas should not need to rely on payments when they first settle in Australia. By virtue of their visa type, they are well placed to support themselves for longer either through work or through the support of the family members they came here to be with.

Importantly, there will continue to be a safety net through access to special benefit for people who experience a substantial change of circumstances and are no longer able to support themselves as planned. This includes people who come to Australia to take up a job but subsequently lose that job as well as people who experience domestic violence or family breakdown.

This bill also introduces new waiting periods for other payment types. The government has listened to the concerns raised through the Senate committee inquiry process, and these new waiting periods will be shorter than the waiting period for working age payments. The waiting period will be two years for parental leave pay and for dad and partner pay, and one year for carer allowance and family tax benefit part A. These arrangements reflect the nature of these specific payments and provide a more proportionate increase for payments that do not currently have a waiting period. In order to maintain support for those who need it most, there will be no waiting period for family tax benefit part B. This will allow single-parent families or those who have one main income earner to be supported as they balance their work and caring responsibilities.

In recognition of their often vulnerable circumstances, people who come to Australia on orphan, relative or remaining relative visas will not be subject to the new waiting period arrangements and will have no increase in their waiting period. New Zealand citizens on a special category visa will also not be affected by these changes. They will continue to have immediate access to family payments as per the existing rules and will have no increase to their existing waiting period for concession cards. The government is also maintaining the current range of exemptions from the waiting periods. This includes exemptions for humanitarian entrants and their families, in recognition that this cohort are generally not in a position to plan to support themselves financially before coming here.

Carer visa holders who have come to Australia to care for a relative who is unable to access other care options will also continue to be exempt for the waiting period for the carer payment. Migrants who become a single parent after coming to Australia and who no longer have the support, financial and otherwise, of a partner will continue to be exempt from the waiting period for principal carer payments, including Newstart allowance and the parenting payment. As previously mentioned, there will also continue to be an exemption from the waiting period for special benefit for others who experience a substantial change of circumstances and find themselves in hardship. There will be no changes to this exemption, which will continue to provide protections as per existing arrangements.

These exemptions provide a comprehensive safety net for people who are less able to support themselves or who are no longer able to support themselves for reasons beyond their control. These new arrangements strike a balance between promoting a sustainable welfare system that encourages self-sufficiency and providing a safety net for those in need. By reinforcing and strengthening the expectation that migrants should be self-reliant when they first arrive in Australia, the bill will improve the long-term sustainability of the welfare payment system for future generations.

The bill also includes measures that are designed to make the family assistance system fairer, simpler and better targeted. The government is making the income test taper rate for family tax benefit part A consistent by replacing the current taper rate rules, which apply two different taper rates to different families with the same income above the higher income free area, with a consistent 30 per cent taper rate. In addition to making the income test taper rates consistent, from 1 July 2019 the government is also increasing the higher income free area from $94,316 to $98,988. The government's also extending the existing indexation pause to the higher income limits for family and parental leave payments for one additional year, from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. This pause on indexation will apply to the new increased family tax benefit part A higher income free area as well as the family tax benefit part B primary earner income limit. The pause on indexation for the income limits for parental leave pay and dad and partner pay will also be extended as part of this measure. These changes combine to create a simpler and better targeted family assistance system.

Through this bill, the government is legislating a number of measures that improve the long-term sustainability of Australia's welfare payments system. These measures are targeted to provide support for those who need it most, while promoting self-sufficiency for those who are in a position to be able to support themselves. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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