Three months ago, I spoke on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014. Tonight, speaking on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Compliance Framework) Bill 2014, it feels a bit like Groundhog Day, because they are both essentially about the same thing—the Abbott government’s desire to punish job seekers for being unemployed.
The government love punishing job seekers, because they need a scapegoat. They need someone else to blame for their failure to make significant progress towards their goal of creating one million jobs within five years. They have gone very quiet on that of late. We have not heard much about that of late from the other side. That is another broken promise, I presume. Finding someone else to blame is all they have left. That is because they cannot hide the problem—not that that has stopped them from trying.
We know from a report in March this year in The Australian—which those on the other side, when they were in opposition, loved so often to quote from and to get their questions from—that advisers to the Minister for Employment, Senator Abetz, asked Treasury department officials to adjust jobs forecasts and add another 160,000 jobs to their projections. In a scene that could have come straight out of a script from Yes Minister, Senator Abetz spent $16,000 of taxpayers’ money investigating his own office’s attempts to interfere with Treasury jobs data. Funnily enough, though, the investigation found nothing and Senator Abetz refused to make the $16,000 report public.
So, without being able to hide the fact that they are falling short of their commitment to create one million jobs in five years, the government are seeking to blame job seekers for being jobless. The government just cannot accept that their own industry policies are failing to save Australian jobs—jobs in places such as Simplot, Electrolux, Caterpillar, Qantas, BP, Rio Tinto, Kellogg’s, BHP, Arrow Energy, Forge, Alcoa, Asciano, Sensis and Caltex. They just refuse to accept that their cruel and unfair budget, which takes an axe to household incomes, is also very damaging to consumer confidence. We all know that consumer sentiment is very pessimistic, as I evidenced last week in a speech. They just cannot accept that it is their fault. The government will blame anyone but themselves for the failure to protect and create Australian jobs. So, according to the government’s twisted logic, it must be the fault of the Australian job seekers. And the government will seek to punish job seekers for being unemployed, even though there are not the jobs there for them.
This was the reasoning behind the ridiculous proposal to make job seekers apply for 40 jobs a month—a proposal which was thankfully dumped, not because it would not assist one job seeker to get a job but because it would see businesses swamped with millions of job applications, and those on the other side had a backlash from employers about it. When Senator Abetz was asked on ABC’s 7.30 program what job seekers would do in places where jobs are sparse, he replied:
When jobs are sparse, it means that you’ve got to apply for more jobs to get a job.
Well, if the jobs are not there, you cannot actually get the jobs. But this just typifies the arrogance of the government, who seem to think that, when a person is unemployed and cannot get a job, it is all the fault of that person. The philosophy contained in this bill—and the stronger penalties bill, which I spoke on in this place previously—is that unemployed people are perfectly capable of getting jobs as long as you give them a hard enough kick up the backside; in other words, kick them while they are down.
Only a cruel and heartless government such as this one could come up with a policy as brutal as denying income support to job seekers under the age of 30 for six months of every year. This policy is not just brutal; it is also incredibly stupid. How is a job seeker expected to visit potential employers, post job applications and travel to appointments when they do not even have the money to feed, clothe or house themselves? How do they engage in their participation obligations when they do not have any money to travel? This embarrassing, heartless policy is going to place immense pressure on our emergency relief services and welfare agencies, let alone the friends and families of the unemployed young people who find themselves destitute for six months of every year.
It is enlightening to note that the financial impact statement for this bill outlines estimated savings of $161 million, which indicates that the government anticipates a large number of additional breaches without having to pay those job seekers back. Before I go on to the provisions of the bill, let me make it clear that Labor accepts without question that when a person receives a payment such as Newstart or youth allowance they have a responsibility to actively seek work and to demonstrate that they are serious about seeking work. We accept that in certain circumstances there should be penalties for job seekers who deliberately evade their obligations, but those are in the minority.
Labor introduced policies and reforms aimed at encouraging job seekers to attend appointments with their employment service providers because we know that this gives them a better chance of getting a job, but we do not support a regime that penalises job seekers for circumstances beyond their control or continues to penalise those who have demonstrated a willingness to re-engage with their participation obligations. Labor will always oppose measures that are unnecessarily punitive and put vulnerable job seekers at risk.
We may be able to support this bill with significant amendments, but not in its current form. Let me explain what this bill seeks to do and why I believe these measures are so unnecessarily harsh. Under the current arrangements the Department of Human Services can suspend the payment for certain participation failures, such as the failure to attend an appointment. The payment can be reinstated when the job seeker notifies the department of their intention to comply with the requirement and the job seeker can receive back pay for the period of their noncompliance. The bill seeks to treat non-attendance failures in the same way as other failures. This means an excuse for nonattendance will not be considered reasonable unless the job seeker gives prior notice or the department is satisfied that it would not be reasonable to expect them to give prior notice.
Through this bill the government is seeking to maintain the payment suspension until the job seeker has actually met the attendance requirement rather than just notified the department that they will do so. In other words, if a job seeker missed an appointment with their employment provider but was not considered to have a reasonable excuse, they would have to attend a reconnection appointment before they could have their payment reinstated. The bill also provides that a job seeker who does not have a reasonable excuse for missing an appointment, or does not give notice of a reasonable excuse, will not be back paid for the period of their noncompliance.
The explanatory memorandum to this bill states:
In practice job seekers would generally have the opportunity to attend a reconnection appointment with their employment provider within a short period of time and thereby have their payment reinstated quickly. Typically this would occur within one to two days of them contacting their provider …
This may typically occur within one or two days, but that would not always be the case. This measure raises a number of questions, like how would the decision to apply a penalty be communicated to the job seeker? If you are unemployed and you do not have access to a computer, do you have to wait for it to come by snail mail? These things have to be taken into account. How will the government make sure job seekers are notified in a timely manner so they have an opportunity to reconnect?
My colleague Ms Julie Collins, the shadow minister for employment, said over in the other place that she is aware anecdotally of job seekers who were unaware a breach had been applied until they tried to access their bank account on payday. And what if a job seeker is unable to attend a reconnection appointment? Also in the other place the member for Shortland, Jill Hall, said that she had assisted job seekers who were breached because of a car crash or because a family member had been rushed to hospital. These people had their payments reinstated—I acknowledge that—but what if a job seeker did not have a reasonable excuse for the breach and, because of circumstances beyond their control, was unable to reconnect?
Another provision of this bill applies to mature age job seekers. Currently job seekers aged 55 or over are taken to have satisfied an activity test if they are engaged in at least 30 hours per fortnight of approved voluntary work or paid work. However, the department can decide not to exempt them from an activity test due to the employment opportunities available to that person. The bill would allow the government to remove these concessions for a class of people through a disallowable instrument. The previous speaker, Senator McLucas, commented on this same topic. She said how astounding she thought it was, and I have to say that I agree with her. At the moment the government is proposing to do this for job seekers aged 55 to 59. Labor is concerned that older Australians would find meeting these activity tests more difficult given the reports of the age based discrimination faced by older workers, let alone, once again, the lack of job opportunities. I cannot wait to see those million jobs in five years!
Labor is firmly opposed to attempts by this government to transfer to employment service providers responsibility for decisions about whether job seekers have a reasonable excuse. Stakeholders have been very concerned at this prospect since it was raised and included in the exposure draft of the purchasing arrangements for employment services. The bill seeks to extend the secretary’s powers of delegation, and we on this side are concerned that the government could use this provision to delegate its responsibilities to employment service providers. The problem with this is not just that it creates more work for employment service providers but such a move would shift responsibility to employment service providers for something which is clearly a function of government. The Department of Human Services already have the expertise to make these decisions; employment service providers do not, nor are they equipped to deal with the fallout of negative decisions against job seekers. They are overwhelmingly opposed to this measure, which would lead to their staff being subjected to abuse and would damage their relationship with job seekers. Simply as an occupational health and safety issue that has to be of concern. It would also make it more difficult for providers to support and assist job seekers to find a job.
The worst aspect of this bill is seeking to remove the right of review of a decision to suspend payments. This provision runs entirely contrary to the principle of natural justice. Being able to request a review of a decision of the Department of Human Services is a fundamental right of any income support recipient, including job seekers, and it should remain so. As I mentioned in my contribution to the stronger penalties bill, these more punitive arrangements against job seekers who have been breached will have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable job seekers.
In the last financial year, Centrelink applied 13,296 smaller daily no show, no pay penalties to job seekers with known vulnerability indicators. This included 4,019 with psychiatric problems or mental illness, 2,443 with a homelessness flag on their file, 393 released from prison, 286 who had experienced a recent traumatic relationship breakdown and 276 job seekers with a cognitive or neurological impairment. The no show, no pay penalties to job seekers with known vulnerabilities indicators included all of that and that is just atrocious.
Indigenous job seekers have traditionally been overrepresented among those penalised and in the same year, 11,915 smaller no show, no pay penalties were imposed on Indigenous job seekers, compared to 34,409 non-Indigenous job seekers. In other words, Indigenous jobseekers received a quarter of the no show, no pay penalties.
Labor will not support measures which are harsh and punitive and are going to further disadvantage vulnerable people. The rhetoric of this government when it comes to job seekers implies that they are lazy and unmotivated. The truth is unemployed people want a job. They want the comfort and dignity that comes with earning a decent living. Nobody wants to spend their life living on $35 a day. Not one unemployed person I know wants to spend their life living on $35 a day. The overwhelming majority of job seekers are doing the right thing or are at least trying to. And what happens? They get kicked because there are no jobs available for them to fill or they do not have the skills. Every Saturday, I look at the jobs in the Tasmanian newspapers and I do not know where Tasmanians are going to get a job. It has been mentioned that they could move away but I fail to see how moving away from family, community and a support base could help in any way, shape or form. As I said, the overwhelming majority of job seekers are trying to do the right thing.
For those who are not, for those who are deliberately, flagrantly avoiding their obligations, the Department of Human Services has the tools available to encourage them to comply. But this government is not talking about encouraging people to comply. They are talking about the stick and the carrot and taking the big stick to them. I find that completely unbelievable. What sort of Australia do we want to be? Do we want people to be penalised when there is not enough work out there and people are penalised, especially if they are under 30, by having no income for six months? There is a presumption on the other side and I can understand why—probably all of them would not have come from families where maybe there was not support available. To a large proportion of people in Australia there are no jobs available where they live and there is no family support available either. It is just going to make it so hard for people. I shudder to think how people will approach this sort of thing psychologically. I think we will damage many people and we should not be doing it. I for one do not support it.
This government’s plans have the potential not just to punish those who are deliberately flouting the system but also to punish the vulnerable job seekers who are having a go as well. That is completely inappropriate. Some job seekers do make mistakes. Job seekers go through difficult circumstances. It is a very tough market out there.
There are 800,000 job seekers in Australia and fewer than 150,000 vacancies—that is, one in 4.5. It is not as though job seekers are not trying, but this government does not have plans to help them, nor do they have a plan to create jobs. They want to close down trade training centres, a great place for young people to learn some skills so that they are ready for the entry-level job market. This government does not encourage young people to get skills. I tend to think is it a bit like, ‘We know where we want to be in society and we do not think anybody else should be able to get there.’ All this government has a plan for is punishing job seekers, punishing those who cannot find work.
The punitive approaches contained in this bill and in the stronger penalties bill are typical of the arrogant attitude of the government that, if you do not have a job, you are just not trying hard enough and so we will just kick you up the backside to make sure you find that job. Miraculously it is going to pop out of thin air for you if we kick you up the backside. Instead of focusing on punishing job seekers, this government should come up with an industry policy to create or save jobs, like they promised to do before the election.
Senator Urquhart: A lovely idea.
Senator BILYK: It would be a lovely idea, Senator Urquhart. As I said earlier, they have gone very quiet on the jobs front of late. We have not heard very much from that side so I am looking forward to hearing what they are going to do. Why do they not come up with a policy that lends support to manufacturing, instead of scaring it away? Why do they not come up with support to stop jobs being sent overseas, such as the jobs in Qantas? Why do they not focus on creating services that help and support job seekers rather than punish them? Why do they not invest in higher education and, instead of a deregulation agenda which puts a university degree out of the reach of the average Australian, listen to the people? I was at an inquiry earlier this evening and unable to be at the vote but I was very pleased that the education reforms were voted down.
Unemployed Australians are this government’s excuse—their alibi—for their failure to create jobs. They cannot recognise their own failures, so they blame the victims of the failures instead. Australian job seekers deserve a government— (Time expired)