BILLS;Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014;Second Reading – 02 Sep 2014

Prior to the last election, Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised to create one million jobs within the next five years and two million jobs within the next 10 years. If the Prime Minister was on track at all to meet his promise, by now more than 166,000 jobs would have been created. But what we have instead is the highest unemployment rate in 12 years and labour force figures which show the government well short of this target. It is little surprise to us on this side that the government fails so miserably when it comes to job creation. Having created close to one million jobs, despite the largest global economic downturn since the Great Depression, Labor has the runs on the board when it comes to job creation and when it comes to looking after those who are looking for work. We know what is needed.

You can imagine how frustrated people are when they listen to Senator Seselja misrepresent what the legislation before us today will actually do. They make every effort on that side to sideline those who are vulnerable and may have trouble finding work because there is not enough work available. What is really frustrating is when they stand idly by and watch thousands of jobs go, as they did, from Alcoa, Qantas, Holden, Toyota, SPC, Electrolux and Gove. Even in my home state and that of Senator Brown, who is in the chamber, Tasmania, we are watching jobs go at Mount Lyell and the Henty mines, while those on the other side, especially the Liberal member for Braddon, Mr Brett Whiteley, do nothing for those 350 workers affected.

I have heard Mr Abbot speak about the government being like a fire crew fighting the fire. When it comes to job creation and helping people get jobs, this government is more like the pyromaniac who turns up to the house fire with a deckchair and sits to watch it. There is evidence emerging from economists that many of the cruel cuts in this budget will add fuel to the fire and actually damage the economy and kill jobs. What do the government do when they are confronted with their abject failure on jobs? They try to blame someone else. That is their modus operandi. Of course, they will blame the previous Labor government—they have spent a whole year blaming the previous Labor government for everything that ever happened—despite our job creation record and the decisive action during the GFC. But they will have to really turn their thoughts to how they will deal with people who cannot seek work, and they will have to do it in a way other than what they have suggested so far, which is so punitive and unfair, especially to those who are vulnerable. They cannot avoid the inconvenient truth that they are failing to create jobs, so why not just blame the unemployed and say that the unemployed are not looking and are too lazy and unmotivated to get up and get work. To suggest that anyone would be happy to live on $35 a day, if it meant not having to get off the couch and do any work, is absolutely ludicrous. It is also ludicrous to suggest that all they really need is a good kick in the pants. It was this kind of attitude that was behind the Abbott government’s ridiculous proposal that would have seen Australian businesses, including small businesses, swamped with a million job applications a day.

When Senator Abetz was asked by the ABC’s 7.30 presenter, Emma Alberici, whether there would be enough positions to apply for in a place like my home state of Tasmania, where jobs are sparse—and Senator Urquhart, another Tasmanian senator, who has just joined me in the chamber, will also understand this—Senator Abetz replied:

When jobs are sparse, it means that you’ve got to apply for more jobs to get a job.

That is what they think: ‘There are not many jobs, but you just have to apply for more.’ They do not take into account people’s skills, development, ability to do work, or the fact that people might not be able to get a job for reasons that include, for example, psychological issues. Those on the other side just simply say, ‘If you have not got a job, you are not trying hard enough.’ Never mind whether you are living in an area of high unemployment; never mind that you might not have the financial means to relocate; never mind that moving might mean leaving your family or your support network. Once again, if you are one those vulnerable people who perhaps have a psychological illness, you will need your family around you. Just packing up and moving is not the way to go. Never mind that there are few training opportunities available or that you are struggling to learn because of poor literacy or numeracy. No, if you want a job, then you can apply for a job—any job.

We heard from Senator Abetz in question time today the fact that most jobs are not advertised. I cannot remember the exact quote but I thought that was pretty funny. So you can just want a job and just apply for it. I would suggest a lot of people start applying for Senator Abetz’s job, because I am sure that people could do a lot better than those Liberal senators representing Tasmania. If you do not have a job in this day and age, according to the government it is all your own fault.

We are talking about the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill. I just want to talk about an article published in The Australian a couple of weeks ago. It featured an excellent profile of a young man from Burnie—his name was Josh Smith—and the challenges that he faces. I quote:

His prospects of finding work are grim. He doesn’t have a driver’s licence because he’s never had access to a car, or someone to teach him to drive, and he can’t afford lessons; there are no trains and the bus service is patchy. He left school in Year 8 and while he’s done a couple of courses, he has no real qualifications.

The article revealed that in Burnie job vacancies in entry-level positions such as waiting tables or stacking shelves can each attract up to 200 applications. Josh Smith lives with his ex-partner and they have a three-year-old daughter. The article poses some interesting and quite useful questions. It goes on to say:

So where does someone like Josh Smith move to? Would anyone employ him? And what about his kid? And, if he doesn’t move, what happens if he loses his dole payment for six months?

What does happen, I wonder, if he loses his dole payment for six months? Well, I suppose he will find it pretty hard to feed his child, let alone himself.

These are really important questions. But as far as this government is concerned the difficulties faced by the Josh Smiths of the world are their own fault. That is why if you are under the age of 30 this government wants to cut your income completely—your social safety net—for a period of six months. That is right—completely. Under this cruel proposal, job seekers under 30 would have to live on nothing but fresh air for half a year. Who knows what they would have to do for food, rent and utilities, or to provide for their children, let alone how they would afford simple things like postage stamps, the paper to submit their job applications, or bus fares or petrol to get to job interviews.

This government is trying to introduce these changes under the cover of mutual obligation. But what this government seeks to do goes way beyond mutual obligation and into the realms of punishment—punishing job seekers for their failure to get a job. It is easier for the Abbott government to punish a vulnerable group in society, one that simply does not have the means to fight back, than it is for them to create the jobs that they have promised. This bill is just one in a suite of proposals to deliver this cruel punishment.

Before I get to the provisions of the bill I will briefly explain the current situation. Under the current provisions of the Social Security (Administrative) Act, job seekers in receipt of a participation payment may incur an eight-week non-payment penalty for serious failures. The main participation payment is Newstart, but the term also encompasses youth allowance, parenting payment and special benefit. Serious failures can include things like refusing suitable work or persistent noncompliance with their participation obligations, such as turning up to meetings with their job service provider.

A penalty is not applied when the job seeker has a reasonable excuse. Reasonable excuses can include such circumstances as the death of a family member, imprisonment, family violence, mental illness, disability or caring responsibilities. Now, quite reasonably, the act also has some waiver provisions through which the public can, for certain reasons, stop short an eight-week non-payment penalty. These include, for example: that a job seeker may start to comply with their participation obligations during the non-payment period; that a job seeker may end up in serious financial hardship if the non-payment period was applied; or that the job seeker may not have had the capacity to comply with a serious failure requirement. What the government is seeking to do with this bill is to make a couple changes under the guise of strengthening this framework. The bill provides that job seekers who incur an eight-week no-payment penalty for refusing suitable work will no longer have the penalty waived.

My Tasmanian colleague, the member for Franklin and shadow minister for employment service, Julie Collins, has been briefed by the Department of Human Services on provisions of this bill and has come to the inescapable conclusion that it is unnecessarily harsh. In her second reading speech, Senator Collins emphasised the point that these changes would discourage re-engagement. Discouraging re-engagement seems to be completely at odds with the aims of getting jobs seekers into work. If the participation obligations are aimed at encouraging job seekers to actively look for work, then why not offer some incentive to reengage? Instead, this bill consigns those job seekers to the too-hard basket.

These changes mean that job seekers who refuse suitable work will serve the eight-week non-payment penalty regardless, unless they have a reasonable excuse. So there is no waiver—no consideration for whether the job seeker is re-engaging with their participation obligations, no consideration of their capacity to comply with the requirement, and no consideration of whether they would experience financial hardship if the penalty is applied.

The other changes in this bill provide that job seekers who persistently fail to comply with participation obligations will only be able to have the penalty waived once during each period of continuous receipt of the participation payment. There were questions asked in Senate estimates to determine exactly what the effect of this provision would mean. The department revealed that even when Newstart recipients were undergoing a six-month period of no income, as is proposed in the government’s cruel budget changes for job seekers under the age of 30, they will be regarded as still being a Newstart recipient, but one who is in receipt of a nil payment. So not only could they be penalised while not receiving any income, but the one waiver restriction could continue to apply for years, depending on how long the job seeker remains unemployed. If they incur the eight-week penalty during their six months of not receiving any income, then the penalty simply extends the period of non-payment.

The changes to social security for young people under the age of 30 are one of the cruellest measures contained in the budget, but if you combine the six-month non-payment period with the provisions of this bill we could potentially see some long-term job seekers going without a payment for up to 11 months. That gives them only one month before they head into the next six-month period of non-payment. In other words, they would have one month of income support during an 18-month period. So I ask those opposite: is that not just the absolute height of cruelty? These harsh changes will have the greatest impact on some of the most vulnerable job seekers in Australia.

Senator Seselja was quite happily sprouting statistics when it was his turn to speak. Let me give a few statistics. Last year Centrelink applied 5,263 eight-week non-payment penalties to job seekers with Centrelink vulnerability indicators on their files—that is right; they had vulnerability indicators on their files. This included 1,483 with psychiatric problems or mental illness, 1,149 with homelessness flags on their files, 131 just released from prison, 107 who had experienced a recent traumatic relationship breakdown, and 102 job seekers with a cognitive or neurological impairment.

I heard Senator Abetz recently, in a debate on a disallowance motion, refer to all the reasonable-excuse provisions that apply, such as suffering a mental illness, having family responsibilities and so on. But let me just point out that vulnerability indicators were on the files of those people to whom the penalty was applied. In other words, their mental illness, homelessness, relationship breakdown et cetera was not considered a factor in the serious failure for which they received their penalty. Let me just point that out for those opposite: their vulnerability indicator issues, such as mental illness, homelessness, relationship breakdown et cetera, were not considered factors in the serious failures for which they received their penalties.

We can see from these figures that, despite the reasonable excuse provisions, the penalties were still disproportionately applied to the most vulnerable job seekers. No matter what those on the other side of the chamber say, or try to spin, that is how it was. As at 31 March this year, there were just over 118,000 job seekers with vulnerability indicators on their files. If this bill passes the parliament these job seekers will be at greater risk than others of having their payment suspended.

Indigenous job seekers have traditionally also been over-represented among those penalised. Over the 2012-13 period, there were 6,895 eight-week penalties applied to Indigenous job seekers, compared with 29,563 for non-Indigenous job seekers. So Indigenous job seekers represented almost one-fifth of those receiving an eight-week penalty. The restrictions of waivers would disproportionately impact some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Are these the people—people with mental illness, people experiencing homelessness—that Australia should reach out a hand and support? Are these the people that Joe Hockey described— (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.