Senate debates

Thursday, 14 February 2019


Sustainable Development Goals

8:55 pm

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

I rise tonight to speak on the jobactive program. A report was tabled earlier this afternoon on the jobactive program. There were so many reports tabled today that unfortunately there were many that we didn't get to talk about. The report outlines the fundamental failures of the jobactive system in its work to support unemployed workers. I referred this matter to a Senate inquiry and I'm very pleased that the Senate supported the referral—particularly the Labor Party, who also expressed very strong support for the inquiry. I referred this matter because this issue has been raised with me so many times. There are so many times I have heard from people—both in direct conversations and with people emailing me about their concerns—the problems they've had with the jobactive system.

The evidence to the committee highlights the failures of the program. It is basically not fit for purpose and it has some fundamental flaws at its heart. For a start, this government takes an ideological approach to unemployment by basically framing it as a personal failure by the individuals. The government uses the income support system to effectively punish people who, unfortunately, can't find work. This approach doesn't address the systemic issues of employment: the lack of employment itself; underemployment; issues such as poverty and intergenerational trauma; and, as I said, job market conditions. With little oversight the government has outsourced what we consider are its responsibilities to private contractors, many of whom are making millions of dollars to implement what is effectively a punitive approach that ultimately punishes people who are trying to survive on income support.

The inquiry showed that jobactive is a blunt instrument, one that takes a one-size-fits-all approach to people who each might have specific issues they need to address. There may be training they need to access. They may be living in poverty. In fact, lots are because they are trying to survive on the very low rate of Newstart, and it is causing people harm. That can be demonstrated. If you go to chapter 2 of the report, it is the evidence from people themselves—not everybody's evidence, because the report would be huge—but we've picked out some key examples of how the program isn't working for people.

The system is based on mutual obligation and a harsh compliance framework, and that is definitely hurting people. We know from research both here and overseas that mutual obligations are consistently ineffective in helping people into work. Recent studies from the UK, which were reported on at the ACOSS conference late last year, found that welfare conditionality increased poverty and destitution and exacerbated poor health. In fact that reflects the evidence that we heard during the inquiry, where people talked about the impact of the system on their mental health. For those that already had poor mental health, it made it worse. People talked about feeling isolated, humiliated and depressed. They talked about loss of dignity. The evidence confirmed this.

We also heard how people had been cut off from income support payments because of the many barriers they faced. Sometimes they could not make an appointment because they literally could not afford the transport to get to their job service provider

We also heard how the system is hurting newly arrived humanitarian refugees and migrants, who are in fact missing their absolutely essential English language lessons, because they're not being adequately counted as activities, to attend jobactive appointments. These are perverse outcomes. Mutual obligations are leaving people feeling little hope for the future. When somebody has been out there looking for work and is now being penalised with demerit points under the new targeted compliance framework, it is demoralising. People talked about humiliation.

We also heard how, because of the changes that have been made through the welfare reform process, the reasonable excuse for people suffering from drug or alcohol addiction has been taken away and they're forced into activities, which is having a real impact on their treatment. We got very strong evidence in Western Australia about the impact it is having. Because of changes to the system, counsellors have to spend up to 30 per cent of their time, when they should be helping people with their treatment, dealing with jobactive providers.

The targeted compliance framework is hurting people. It is flawed and it needs to be abolished. Newstart needs to be increased, we need to rethink the issues around mutual obligation, and jobactive needs to fundamentally be reformed.

Senate adjourned at 21:01