Tuesday, 17 October 2023
Questions without Notice
Pensions and Benefits
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister Watt. This week is Anti-Poverty Week, a week to raise awareness and take action to eradicate poverty. Right now, there are millions of people on income support living below the poverty line who are forced to complete mutual obligations or risk losing their income. Recently the Guardian reported that a taxpayer-funded course run by WISE Employment, one of Australia's biggest employment service providers, gives jobseekers instructions on how to shower properly and asks them in a questionnaire if the reason they are unemployed is that they are 'overweight' or 'lazy'. Minister, do you think it's acceptable that people surviving on less than $54 a day are forced to fulfil these degrading and pointless activities or risk their payments being suspended?
I'm obviously not aware of the details of that particular example that you've cited, but, as you are aware, Minister Burke has expressed concern about the program which you're referring to that provides funding through those sorts of agencies. I know you're aware there is an inquiry underway into that agency—not being the minister directly, I think it's Workforce Australia—and the work that that agency does. But of course we believe that everyone in Australia should be treated with respect, whether they be someone in work or someone seeking work. I would be concerned about anything that a particular agency may be doing that doesn't treat people with that level of respect.
More broadly, the issue of poverty is again something that the Albanese government is not just concerned about but is taking action to seek to address. We provided, in the most recent budget, an increase in Commonwealth rent assistance, which I think was the first time in an extremely long time that any Australian government had provided increased rent assistance. Senator Gallagher talked about the action that this government has taken to lift wages, which of course doesn't directly apply to those out of work but certainly for low income Australians those increases in wages have provided some relief. In addition, we've provided additional relief for energy prices. We've provided a massive investment in social housing, which of course is predominantly used by those on low incomes. So there are a range of ways in which the Albanese government is taking action to assist those most disadvantaged within our community, and I look forward, and I am sure Minister Burke looks forward, to seeing the recommendations of the inquiry about how we can make changes to Workforce Australia so that it does fulfil the objectives that it was originally designed for.
WISE Employment is among dozens of privatised job agencies contracted by the federal government to run the $500 million Employability Skills Training to allegedly help jobseekers become job ready by providing intensive pre-employment training. Minister, how can the governments justify spending half a billion of taxpayers' dollars on these useless and discriminatory courses yet refuse to raise the rate of JobSeeker to above the poverty line?
To start with, Senator Rice, I would again point out that, in its most recent budget, the Albanese government did increase working-age payments for things like JobSeeker, Austudy and youth allowance by $40 per fortnight. That was something that was necessary, especially to assist people who are out of work and students with cost-of living challenges. And, as I've said, in addition, we've provided increased rent assistance and all of the other things that I was talking about.
As you know, Senator Rice, some of the challenges that we face in terms of Workforce Australia, and the programs and agencies that are funded through it, is that the former government entered into billions of dollars of contracts with these private sector agencies on the eve of the last election, and that is something that can't be undone overnight. But we are undertaking that inquiry, led by the member for Bruce, Julian Hill, and we look forward to recommendations being received so that we can take action.
Over the past year we've heard evidence from unemployed advocates, income support recipients and employment providers that mutual obligations are punitive and counterproductive. In fact, WISE Employment, itself, said in its submission to the Workforce Australia inquiry that removing these measures from the system would improve engagement from jobseekers. Minister, I know you said it can't be done overnight, but, given this mounting evidence that mutual obligations hinder rather than help people on income support, what is the rationale for maintaining this harmful system?
I recall discussing or debating this issue at a previous Senate estimates hearing. The Albanese government does support the concept of mutual obligation. However, we do not support it being undertaken in the punitive manner that the system has built into it after 10 years of coalition government. We do think that it is right that those in receipt of public support, public benefits, that there is some obligation on them to seek employment and to undertake the issues that are needed to seek employment, but we don't think that it should be punitive in the way that the system is currently structured, and that's exactly one of the issues that's being considered by that inquiry being led by the member for Bruce, Julian Hill. So we probably disagree on that matter, but the fundamental point is that we don't think that Australians should be treated in a punitive way. They shouldn't be treated in a degrading way, whether they be in work or out of work.