Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 February 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Income Reporting and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

6:32 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Income Reporting and Other Measures) Bill 2020. Dealing with government agencies and accessing government services should be made as easy as possible. There should be no unnecessary complexity. But unfortunately, time and time again we've seen the opposite occur under this third-term Liberal government. While the government likes to encourage a view of Centrelink recipients as dole bludgers, many receiving an income support payment actually have part-time work and would like to work more but are unable to find suitable employment. For these workers they need to report every fortnight to Centrelink the hours that they work. But because their pay periods and their Centrelink reporting periods do not overlap there can be confusion. They need to calculate what their expected income will be when reporting to Centrelink. Sometimes this can be difficult and confusing, particularly without the use of payslips or if you're working a small number of hours in multiple jobs.

The bill before us today will change the way income is reported to Centrelink so that is reported when a person is paid, not when it is earned, and Labor supports this bill. ACOSS and other stakeholders also support the changes brought about by the bill, which if properly implemented are expected to make dealing with Centrelink easier for people on social security.

While this may seem a minor technical change it will improve the accuracy of income reporting by removing the requirement for people to estimate their total pay based on the number of hours worked. In most instances people will receive their payslip before reporting their income. The shift to reporting income when it's paid will more closely align the receipt of employment income with the timing of Centrelink payments. This will also make it easier for people to manage their budget, as they will know exactly what they are getting and when.

The bill will also enable Centrelink to use single touch payroll information from the Australian Taxation Office to pre-fill income for Centrelink reporting. But let us be clear, the changes in this bill will not automate reporting. Individuals will still be required to check and to certify income that is pre-filled using the Single Touch Payroll System. However, the bill will improve the accuracy of income reporting and will reduce incidents of over and under payment. For many, the new reporting system will be more straightforward. They'll find the prefilling of Single Touch Payroll convenient when it commences. The bill does not make any changes to payment rates, thresholds or eligibility to criteria for payments.

We're putting the government on notice that they need to get the implementation of changes right as, unfortunately, this government has a history of mismanagement. We've seen time and time again an inability for this government to successfully implement policy. Labor is very concerned that the government runs a high risk of botching the implementation of these changes, because they have a track record of bungling any project involving the use of information technology. I'll take just a few minutes to outline some examples of their recent bungles.

We've all seen and been contacted by constituents regarding the government's robo-debt disaster, a project which, despite their protestations, was found to be illegal and described by an retired AAT member as extortion. The government's robo-debt scheme unleashed a faulty algorithm against social security recipients who, even if they had reported their income 100 per cent correctly, were slapped with debts, many running into thousands of dollars. Robo-debt used a crude calculation of annual income obtained from the ATO and then created a discrepancy by comparing it to Centrelink recipient's fortnightly income. In some cases, a decade had passed since the reporting period in question, leaving many, often formal social security recipients, shocked and distressed that they would have to retrieve pay slips from an old employer who may have gone into liquidation or simply not kept records. They were supposed to find these documents in order to prove that they did not owe the money to Centrelink. Figures obtained through the Senate also found almost 2,000 people died after receiving a robo-debt notice. That's completely outrageous. Low income Australians have been targeted by a flawed and illegal robo-debt program.

At estimates, it was revealed that the department took money from 73 estates of people who had died, totalling $225,000. The Liberals have done everything they could to keep robo-debt under the radar, with Centrelink never appealing judgement at AAT to level 2, where the reasons for decisions are made public. They have taken up to 553 days to settle a decision of the tribunal and allegedly intimidated robo-debt victims to stop them appealing their cases.

Australians have had enough of mopping up after the Liberals' mistakes. The government should just admit they are wrong, pay the money back to victims and apologise. On this side, we believe it's important to provide efficient, user-friendly government services and systems. We do not support cuts to the public service and the outsourcing of government work to its agencies customers, which is what it tried to do with robo-debt's unfair reverse practical onus of proof. People were guilty until proven innocent. The government have also spent almost $2 billion on the My Health Record system, an e-health scheme that doctors and patients refuse to use because of legitimate privacy concerns, including breaches. Currently, half of the 23 million records are empty. We all remember the disaster of the 2016 Census where for almost 48 hours Australians were unable to access the Census website due to a series of denial-of-service attacks, incurring a $30 million cost blowout to the Turnbull government. It was the worst run census in Australian history and one of the worst IT debacles Australia has ever seen.

Other disasters include the 2019 myGov outage, where technical difficulties brought down the online government service portal for an entire day when people tried to access ATO accounts and lodge their income tax returns. We've also seen the deliberate attempts to run down Centrelink services to the point where pensioners are waiting months to get the pension and people are waiting on the phone for hours to get service. The minister, Mr Stuart Robert, was determined to close down the Kingston Centrelink, near my office, before a campaign run with the support of the member for Franklin, Julie Collins, and myself was successful in keeping the office open.

Despite the success of that campaign, there remain ongoing concerns about the quality of services at the office because it is being co-located with Medicare and Service Tasmania. It is not about the quality of the staff; it's the quality of the people able to overhear people's conversations. I've been in there on numerous occasions and heard people's private banking details that they have had to talk about. Other offices across the country have closed or suffered a reduction in the amount of help that can be provided. This happened at Huonville in the Huon Valley, not too far from my office as well. Waiting times on phone calls to Centrelink offices have exploded, with many people waiting hours or simply giving up.

Given this track record of mismanagement the last thing we want to see is social security recipients having their payments cut off or being saddled with unfair debts because the government has failed to manage this change properly. I really hope that the government can be trusted to correctly implement this change and that, when people have questions about the change, they are not left waiting on the phone for hours. It's absolutely critical that the government has the right systems and resources in place to make this work, because, if it doesn't, many Australians on the lowest incomes could suffer as a result.

Stakeholders at the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee's inquiry into this bill were particularly concerned about the government's ability to roll out these changes successfully. The Australian Unemployed Workers Union told the inquiry:

While we support the idea of making income support reporting simpler, the recent experience with robodebt offers salient warnings about the harms that arise when the algorithms that inform income imputations do not reflect the reality of variable income many underemployed workers experience. The robodebt experience shows how the design and digitisation initiatives too often occurs in a vacuum, with insufficient testing of the concepts on human subjects and with a disregard for the suffering that arises when these initiatives fail to work as intended.

The National Social Security Rights Network raised the following concerns about the transition from the current reporting arrangement to the new arrangements proposed in the bill:

We're particularly concerned about the transition periods, where we understand that people will actually need to do some manual calculations to make sure that the period that the data relates to is correct. That particular period is, I think, going to be fraught, and there are going to need to be additional resources from Services Australia to support people through that period.

Then Anglicare Australia shared concerns about the government's ability to effectively manage change to systems and pointed out the importance of investing in the systems on which so many Australians rely in order to make them simpler and better to use. They said:

Centrelink has not demonstrated its organisational ability to enact automated systems. There is a lot going on at Centrelink at the moment, and it would be really good to see demonstrated consolidation of the current lessons to assist in the future changes. These changes must be seen as an investment into a better system for Australians. They will not work for the people using Centrelink if they're viewed as a cost-cutting exercise. An investment outlook will involve careful design and testing, but it will, ultimately, deliver better outcomes for everyone.

Australians need access to functional government services, not for taxpayers' money to be wasted mopping up mistake after mistake because the Liberals can't be trusted with digital service delivery. In addition to the recommendations in the committee report, Labor senators on the committee recommended that the government take all reasonable steps during the period of transition to the new income reporting system to detect, confirm and correct overreporting of income. This is essential to ensure payments are correct and reflects the government's moral duty of care to use the available information and systems to make sure that social security recipients receive accurate payments.

Labor senators also recommended that the one-year review of implementation of the changes proposed in the bill be conducted independently and that consultation with experts and social security recipients be part of the review process. We need to ensure that the review of these changes is done correctly. We don't want to see another whitewash, like the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet sports rort report was.

While Labor supports the changes in this bill, unfortunately what this bill doesn't do is clean up the Morrison government's robodebt debacle. Many Australians have incomes which change from fortnight to fortnight due to insecure or intermittent work, often in the gig economy or balanced with study and other commitments, and rarely do they have the same number of hours each fortnight. This bill has the potential to make it easier for them to accurately report their income to Centrelink and reduce the potential for making mistakes in the reporting process. However, it's these workers who are most likely to be affected if the government bungles this important reform. I call on the Senate to support the bill and on the government to, for once, actually implement a policy change correctly.

6:45 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Morrison government has always believed that a welfare system should be accurate, fair and simple. The legislation that will deliver on this rock-solid commitment will make it easier for welfare recipients to report income and improve the accuracy of our payment system. Recipients can now report their earnings in real time, and the taxpayers who fund this support can be confident that every cent can be accounted for. The single touch payment will be fast and fair. In streamlining the process of reporting employment income to Centrelink, recipients will report their income when it is paid by their employer, not when it is earned. From 1 July, this will make it easier to report income correctly and better support people receiving the right amount of income support each time it's paid. There will be no more or less than the amount for which they're eligible, and this will reduce the likelihood of overpayments.

More than 1.2 million welfare recipients each year who also earn an income will be able to report their earnings simply as it appears on their pay slip. The days of complicated reporting will finally be over, with no need for recipients to undertake a calculation to report their or their partner's earnings based on the number and value of shifts they've worked. As it stands, reported earned amounts can require recipients to undertake multiple calculations. From July 2020, the Australian Taxation Office will begin providing employment income details to Services Australia to assist payment recipients to report accurately. Where single touch payment data is used, recipients will still be responsible for correctly reporting their income and will retain the ability to review, edit or add additional employment income before finalising their report to Centrelink. This will support payment recipients to accurately report their employment income, ensuring that they get paid the right amount from Centrelink. Employer provided payroll information will be used to make it easier for welfare recipients to accurately report income. It is not a retrospective compliance measure. The subsequent improvements in payment accuracy are expected to deliver savings to government of $2.1 billion over four years.

The Morrison government is seriously committed to ensuring that all Australians in need of financial support are able to receive the precise amount of their entitlement without any impact on eligibility criteria. This new process of modernising Australia's social security system by allowing technology to prevent overpayments before they happen does not diminish the individual's responsibility for reporting correctly. This is nothing less than what the Australian taxpayer demands. The Morrison government feels a deep sense of responsibility to deliver on fulfilling the expectation of Australians to make every cent of their tax payments count. This new process will meet that expectation without eroding the support we pledge to those who need it. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Income Reporting and Other Measures) Bill will make great inroads into ensuring Australia's welfare system remains sustainable well into the future.

6:54 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Income Reporting and Other Measures) Bill will change the way income is reported to Centrelink so that it's reported when a person is paid, not when it's earned. That should be a straightforward development. Perhaps it's my lack of knowledge about the relationship between the administrative and the legislative way these things are managed that it seems remarkable that something so straightforward, in a system that is so complicated and difficult for so many Australians, requires legislation rather than just regulation, but there we are.

Eighty per cent of the people who report income to Centrelink receive working-age payments, like Newstart and youth allowance. However, an increasing number of age pensioners are also reporting employment income. The bill will improve the accuracy of reporting by taking away a lot of the guess work. Currently, social security recipients are in the unusual position of having to anticipate their weekly income without a pay slip—not something that Australians in other circumstances are required to do. This shift will allow recipients to better align their employment income with their benefits and allow them to more effectively manage their budget. It will allow Centrelink to use the Single Touch Payroll System information from the Australian Taxation Office to prefill income for Centrelink reporting. For many people, this will be more straightforward and vastly more convenient than the current system. It will reduce the occurrences of under-reporting and over-reporting of income, which have been the basis of the government's scandalous, heartless and failed robodebt scheme.

I note that the Australian Council of Social Service and other stakeholders in this field support this bill on the basis that it will make the lives of social security recipients more straightforward. However, they—and we on the Labor side, here—remain sceptical about the implementation of the process. Australians who receive social security benefits, whether it's Newstart, youth allowance or the age pension, deserve a transparent and efficient system. Unlike the minister and some of the other characters over there, Newstart is not a punishment for people. It should be designed to sustain people with a reasonable standard of living and make it easier for them to seek work, not harder. That the government has fallen so short on all measures in their administration of social security is shameful.

Labor will support the bill but we remain deeply concerned with the system. The government has run down Centrelink services across the country to the point where Australians are waiting months for their entitlements. There is a cumulative effect of this neglect that those on the other side probably find difficult to understand. The average waiting time for people trying to call Centrelink has now expanded to 15 minutes and 35 seconds, but many people have reported being in the queue for many hours. There's no more compelling example of this than robodebt. The government's now jettisoned its practice of sending people debt recovery notices based solely upon the Department of Social Security's income average of ATO tax data. It's a faulty algorithm that heartlessly punished vulnerable people even when they reported income correctly. For all their rhetoric of promoting work over welfare, it was people who had intermittent or insecure work that were punished the most heavily. Comparing an average annual figure to fortnightly income for these people is absurd. To do so retrospectively is even more bizarre. In some cases, a decade had passed since they'd last reported their income.

A useful comparison is this week the government pushed legislation through this place, then passed an amnesty for unpaid superannuation for employers to report 26 years of unpaid superannuation without penalty—no penalty at all. They have tax data now to detect unpaid superannuation going back decades. It's the same data, albeit deliberately miscalculated, that inspired the robodebt scheme. They will never go after a shonky employer who hasn't paid their workers' superannuation. They will never implement a system that ruthlessly accounts for stolen wages. You lot are all too happy to unleash a Kafkaesque nightmare on poor and vulnerable Australians who can't find a job because your economic model has failed.

Exactly what the government knew and when is now a matter for the courts. We know because of emails made public this month from the department's legal counsel warning the scheme was illegal. We know the Federal Court last year ruled that there was no legal basis in the Social Security Act to use income averaging as a sole proof to raise a debt. And we know the government is retreating from the scheme and has frozen any debts related to it.

It was an absolute tragedy, perpetrated by the government. Some people died after receiving robodebt notifications, many of them at the margins of our society. And when somebody died, having had a debt struck up under the robodebt system, did that stop the government? No. They took money from 73 estates of people who had died, totalling $225,000. For all the time that the government was carrying on about the robodebt scheme and defending it, they were punishing these people with an illegal scheme that took money from dead poor people. All the marketing, all the affectation, all the phoniness left these people behind. In particular, what should not be forgotten when Australians consider the robodebt scheme and the way this government is dealing with people on social security is a consideration of what happens to people in country areas who lose their jobs and in particular those seats represented by the senators here and the members in the other house from what passes for the National Party in today's politics.

The Nationals represent some of the poorest electorates in the country. According to the ANU study, they include the seat of Mallee, where 16.9 per cent of households live below the poverty line; the seat of Page, where 16.4 per cent of households live below the poverty line; Hinkler, where 16.2 per cent of households live below the poverty line; Wide Bay, 15.9 per cent of households; Cowper, 15.5 per cent; Maranoa, 15.3. per cent; Lyne, 15.2 per cent; and the seat of New England, 15.2 per cent of people below the poverty line. These are communities where being poor is tough, and it's isolating. Depending on where you live, unemployment and underemployment are often high. Access to education and training is much more limited. Even access to basic health care for some Australians living in country towns on social security is much more difficult, much worse than it is in a big city. They are places where it is a long way away from Centrelink, hard to get decent internet access and in some cases difficult to get phone reception. When a system becomes cruel and bureaucratic, it's regional people who suffer the most.

There is evidence that poverty in regional and rural Australia is getting worse. A recent study by ME Bank showed that household financial comfort in regional Australia is sliding, with a 14 per cent decline in financial comfort in regional Queensland and similar declines in regional New South Wales and Victoria. The gap between regional households and metropolitan households has grown substantially. It's part of a larger story—a story of the cities growing richer and the regions being left behind, factories that have closed and services that have been shut. And the growth of the finance sector and the services sector never made it to some parts of the country. Rural labouring jobs and blue-collar professions that once delivered dignity to working class Australians in rural towns never came back. When a factory closes in a regional centre, a third of workers retire, a third of workers find another job—usually a job that is impermanent and much worse—and a third of workers never work again. The jobs went, but the people stayed there.

The largest group of Newstart recipients in Australia is people aged between 55 and 65. Many of them are regional workers who expected to have a good job—until the day that they didn't. How many of them got caught in a wave of economic change as the labour market changed under their feet? How many of them are languishing in regional towns, quietly trying to get by as it gets harder and harder to make ends meet? And the government's robodebt system made it immeasurably harder for those people. What's worse, for many of those people it took away their dignity as well. How many of them had been stuck waiting for the call centre, for Centrelink, for hours on end?

How many of them were sent illegal robo-debt notifications? How many of them struggled and skipped meals to pay to the government money that they didn't owe?

And where was the so-called party of the bush? Where was the party that promised to protect them? They would have known. For years, every MPs office has been flooded with constituents trying to navigate this baffling and cruel system. The National Party didn't do anything about it. They didn't even try. I'd be delighted, really, to find out that The Nationals did try, but there is no evidence to support that proposition. It doesn't matter either way, I suppose. The National Party hasn't stood up for working-class people in country towns. They're really good on the podcasts, really good on the political cosplay in the hi-vis vests and really good on wearing the funny hats and doing the routine. But when it actually matters, delivering for country people and delivering for working-class people in country towns, these people are nowhere to be seen. Even worse, they are enablers of cruel and heartless government policy that strips jobs away from these places.

And when people lose their jobs, what does the National Party do? Well, it's become pretty clear in the last couple of weeks. Last week, in the context of another policy debate, one of the characters who is one of the movers and shakers in the National Party, Senator Canavan, spoke on renewables in the energy sector—a form of energy that he doesn't like and that he's opposed to—and what was the worst thing that he could find to say about renewables in the energy sector? When he thought of the cruellest insult that he could mount, what did he say? He said that renewables were the 'dole bludgers' of the energy sector. I thought it was the cruellest, meanest thing that he could say. He thought it would get him a big cheer on Twitter. It says a lot about who the modern National Party is, who they represent and what they really mean when they talk about social security.

It was an odd claim to make, in that he was trying to suggest that the renewable sector is propped up only by government money. It immediately preceded a campaign that he's launched with his friend the member for New England for billions of dollars in government subsidies for a coal-fired power station that will never be built—that, if it were built, would be hopelessly inefficient, would drag the country backwards in technological terms and would make power more expensive for ordinary Australians. It's an odd thing to say. But the worst thing about what he said is that when he was trying to summon up the worst kind of insult, what he said was 'dole bludgers', and what he really meant was the tens of thousands of people in Wide Bay, Hinkler and Maranoa, where 15 to 17 per cent of households live below the poverty line, in communities where work has disappeared, in no small part due to the failure over the course of the last seven years of what passes for a government on the other side of this chamber and in the House. The worst kind of insult he thought he could level at the poor old renewable sector—I don't know what they ever did to Senator Canavan—was that they were 'dole bludgers'. He should be ashamed of it. It says a lot about the politics of the government.

It's the same philosophy that drives the government's approach. When the current minister, Senator Ruston, was challenged about lifting Newstart, she said that increases in funding for Newstart would go to drug dealers and publicans. The contempt that the people on that side of the chamber have for ordinary Australians who can't find decent work, who can't make ends meet, is absolutely palpable. It's driven their approach to this policy. We have to do much better. We should do much better, but we should pass this bill.

7:04 pm

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Income Reporting and Other Measures) Bill 2020. We've heard a lot tonight about why this is a sound policy for the government to be pursuing. It appears our colleagues on the other side, despite having a running commentary that they wanted to provide to the chamber this evening, will be supporting this bill as well, and I'm certainly very glad to see that. But I wanted to come at this bill from a slightly different approach this evening. It might be a little nerdy of me, but I'm just going to go with it and we'll see where we go.

Before I found myself in this place, I used to work at Deloitte, an accounting firm. At Deloitte, we talked a lot about data driven government and the role that data has to play in government decision-making and the provision of government services. And know this: if we talk about it in these terms, it's probably not something that is particularly interesting for everyday Australians. They might say, 'Data driven government—what does that mean?' But, certainly in my previous career at a consulting firm, the idea of data and the role that it can play in informing government decisions and helping government go about its work better was something that we found really exciting. I did a lot of work in the public sector back in Tasmania working in our risk advisory practice in the Hobart office around this and many other issues. Data and the role that data has to play in government is something that we talked about a lot with our clients.

The policy we are discussing here this evening in the bill that's before the Senate is something that touches on how exciting these changes are for government and how data can be utilised by government to make the provision and delivery of government services so much easier and so much more straightforward for everyday Australians. In that way—like I said, it's a little bit nerdy—it really does align with the good principles of commonsense government that this government, the Morrison coalition government, stands for—reducing the administrative burden on government and business. We know that this government is all about doing that, all about reducing red tape and, most importantly, all about ensuring that we have accountability for the expenditure of taxpayers' money. I will be talking in my contribution this evening about how the measures that are proposed in this legislation—the simplifying income reporting and other measures bill—will facilitate that. This is a very exciting change. It's obviously something that we couldn't have done 20 or 30 years ago, and it's really interesting to see how the development of technology has enabled government to change the way that it delivers services for, I think, the better and to create better outcomes for Australians.

The Morrison government is committed to an accurate, fair and simple welfare system. Fundamentally, what we are doing with this legislation before the chamber this evening is taking the guesswork out of social security. We're trying to remove the margin for error. That's what, I believe, data-driven government services are all about. As part of this commitment, the government has introduced this legislation which will make it simpler for welfare recipients who report their income to do so and will improve the accuracy of our payment system.

This bill will improve the process of reporting employment income to Centrelink. From 1 July 2020, social security recipients will report their employment income to Centrelink when it is paid by their employer instead of when it is earned. I will identify, in just a moment, why the latter of those options—declaring when income is earned—is slightly more complex. Assessing employment income when paid will make it easier to report income correctly. This will better support people receiving the right amount of income support each time it's paid—no more and no less than what they are eligible for—which reduces the likelihood of overpayments. I fundamentally see this as a win-win from the perspective of those people on welfare who will utilise the system in this way. It minimises the risk that, at the end of a financial year, they will find out that their Centrelink payment has been overpaid and that they then have to pay that back. It also ensures that from the government's perspective and, I guess, the social contract we have with taxpayers to spend their money responsibly, taxpayers can be assured that the government is doing everything within its power to make sure that payments for government services like Centrelink are as accurate as possible. It will also pave the way for the future prefilling of employment income using Single Touch Payroll information, which will support easier reporting arrangements for recipients. Again, this is data-driven government service delivery. It's very exciting. I said I was going to be a bit nerdy, and later I will touch on the benefits of Single Touch Payroll and why I think that this has been such an exciting development for government services.

Under the changes, more than 1.2 million welfare recipients each year who also earn an income will able to report their earnings simply as it appears on their pay slip. That's up to 550,000 people in any given fortnight. From 1 July 2020 the bill will improve and simplify how employment income is reported and assessed. Currently —I said I was going to speak about this earlier—recipients must undertake a calculation to report their or their partner's earnings, depending on the situation, based on the number and value of shifts they have worked, not what they've actually been paid. Reporting earned amounts can require recipients to undertake multiple calculations. I think it goes without saying that that often includes a fair bit of guesswork. Over the course of 2017 there were over 15 million corrections to recently reported earnings, where people discovered when they had been paid that they had incorrectly reported their earned income for the previous fortnight.

When you think about it practically, that could arise in so many different situations. First of all, different employers have different pay dates that don't always align with the Centrelink reporting period. Further, people might work longer shifts than they originally predicted. They might pick up a penalty rate that they didn't originally think that they were going to. It really does result in an awful lot of careful calculations. That is time-consuming on behalf of the person declaring the earned income, and there may be a lot of guesswork and a lot of anticipation of hours worked that may not necessarily end up being accurate. As a result of that, these 15 million corrections just over the course of 2017 have occurred.

With this change, people are going to be able to refer to their pay slip. When they have undertaken the work, they can just utilise the information on their pay slip to declare that information to Centrelink. In a moment I will touch on the role of Single Touch Payroll and what new development that means. Changing the way employment income is reported simplifies requirements for social security recipients and will ensure that they are paid the correct rate. They are declaring only the information relevant to what they have been paid, not to what they anticipated being paid. Fundamentally, we are taking the guesswork out of this process. That's really important, both in terms of the people who are declaring any income that they might have earned. Also, as I was saying earlier, the role that government has to play in making sure that taxpayers' money is responsibly expended and ensuring that there isn't guesswork when we are trying to spend taxpayers' money is really important.

While this measure that we're discussing here tonight changes the way employment income is assessed, it also aligns with Single Touch Payroll data, which is based on what an employee has made to make reporting even simpler. Single Touch Payroll has been really transformative in the way that government services are delivered, and also in the superannuation space. Single Touch Payroll, for those listening at home—and I'm sure countless are—works by sending taxation and superannuation information from a business's payroll or accounting software to the ATO as the payroll is run. So, on a fortnightly, monthly, quarterly or whatever basis an employer is running the payroll, that information is provided to the ATO, effectively in real time. Employers are just required to run the payroll, give the employees their pay slip as normal and obviously pay their employees. The pay cycle doesn't need to change, but the information on the salaries and wages that have been paid to the employees, any pay-as-you-go tax withheld plus any super paid—all of that data—then goes to the ATO.

We've spoken in this chamber before, particularly in the superannuation space, around the role that this plays in ensuring that the information that the ATO gets is accurate. Anyone in this chamber, in this country, that has moved from filling out a paper tax return back in the day—I am just old enough that I still remember how to do that—to now using an online platform to lodge a tax return will know how much easier it is when the ATO has this information, so that when you're filing your tax return each year you just log into the system and sign off on it. I think it is important to reflect for a moment on the sign-off point. Obviously, with the legislation we're discussing here tonight, we're not giving any welfare recipient the ability to just accept, carte blanche, that the information must be correct. Welfare recipients are still required to log onto the system and look at the information and make sure that it aligns with their pay slips. I think that's a really important part of the process. There has to be an element of accountability in any of these service offerings, and enabling social security recipients to log into the system and check that is really important. We know that sometimes we can get it wrong, so it's good to be able to check.

In conclusion, this government believes strongly in the dignity of work, and the legislation that we're debating here tonight will provide even more support to people who are transitioning from social security into work by ensuring that they aren't financially disadvantaged by getting a job. In closing, I really want to reflect on that point. The importance of helping people who are on welfare transition into work is really important. If we make it easier for them to work and if we make it easier for them to declare income, like through the measures that we're discussing here tonight, then I'm confident that we will see more people transition from welfare into work. At the end of the day, that's what this government is all about.

7:17 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm grateful to be able to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Income Reporting and Other Measures) Bill and about our social security system. This bill does fix issues arising with the reporting of income for Centrelink programs so that a person reports their income when it is paid, not when it is earned. This is a commonsense approach—more closely aligning the payment of wages with the timing of Centrelink payments. It will make the reporting of income more straightforward for most, and it's useful that people will be able to use prefilling Single Touch Payroll data from the ATO. This will, if implemented correctly, make interacting with Centrelink easier for those on social security payments while also making it easier to manage their budgets. But with this government's record, that is a big 'if'. It is all about the implementation of this bill, and this government's record on implementation is hardly something that generates confidence.

We're concerned—and, I believe, rightly so—that the government runs a very high risk of mucking up the implementation of these changes because this is the same government that has run down Centrelink services so that pensioners are waiting months to get their pension payments, this is the same government that has run down Centrelink services so much that people spend hours and hours on hold when they pick up the phone to talk to a real human being, this is the same government that has been secretly shutting down Centrelink shopfronts around the nation, and this is the same government that brought us the absolutely catastrophic disaster that is robodebt. So, given its track record of mismanaging the implementation of projects like these, its record of attacking social security, and its record of showing a complete lack of compassion, I am more than a little concerned about the government's ability to role out these changes effectively.

Debate interrupted.