COMMITTEES;Social Security Legislation Amendment (Further Strengthening Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2015;Second Reading – 03 Feb 2016

Having spoken on various job seeker compliance bills put forward by this government, I am noticing a very clear and consistent theme in the way they approach this issue. We have a government that tries to move beyond practical and fair compliance measures, and beyond the principles of mutual obligation, to a job seeker compliance regime that is harsh and punitive.

Once again, it falls to Labor in the Senate to try to rein in this government’s extreme approach to job seeker compliance and to ensure a more sensible regime is adopted. This is the government that tried to implement a six month non-payment period for young job seekers. That is six months that they expected people to be able to survive with no income and no support. Thank heavens we scuttled that one. Six months in which job seekers would struggle to feed, clothe and shelter themselves before they even began to think about how they would meet their participation requirements. I am still at a loss to understand what possible purpose these non-payment periods could serve except as a punishment for being unemployed. If anything, rather than helping and encouraging job seekers to secure employment, withdrawing financial support would take away their means of seeking employment—printing resumes, making phone calls, travelling to job interviews and buying clothes to be able to look presentable.

I remind those opposite that there was evidence provided to a Senate inquiry that many young job seekers subject to the non-payment period would have no choice but to turn to crime to support themselves. Having failed in their quest to make job seekers starve for six months, the government attempted to make them starve for one month—slightly less cruel maybe than their original proposal but still completely and fundamentally unfair.

It was also this government that tried to introduce the ridiculous policy of requiring job seekers to apply for 40 jobs a month. They pursued this despite evidence that it would place a huge administrative burden on business. This ludicrous idea was defended with comments like those immortal words: ‘When jobs are sparse, it means that you’ve got to apply for more jobs to get a job.’ It was a statement that illustrated perfectly how out of touch this government is when it comes to the challenges faced by job seekers in Australia.

I will say it again—I have said it many times speaking on similar bills to this—this government’s attitude to job seekers is motivated by one thing: shifting the blame. In opposition the Liberals boldly claimed they would fix the economy when in fact under Labor the economy had experienced strong growth while most other advanced economies were shrinking. Instead, they have doubled the deficit. That is right; they have doubled the deficit. Unemployment is up and continuing to climb while wage and GDP growth have fallen to record lows. It is a symptom of this government’s failure to put forward a comprehensive plan that will grow the economy and create jobs. What is the government’s answer for their failure on the economy? What is their answer for their failure to create jobs? To try and shift the blame to job seekers and punish them for being unemployed.

I think the government would get better outcomes for job seekers, businesses and job service providers if they acted to help rather than trying to punish job seekers. And job seekers are going to find it harder to meet their obligations with the government closing Centrelink offices like the one near my office in Kingston in Tasmania. Job seekers would also find it easier to meet their obligations if the 22 million phone calls to Centrelink that went unanswered last financial year under the Liberal government were actually answered. Instead of looking to try to ‘incentivise’ job seekers through punishment, they should look at their own approach to service.

And let us remember: each time that the government have had to back down on their unfair and punitive attacks on job seekers, they did so not because they suddenly found a heart, not because they discovered a conscience and certainly not because they had some road-to-Damascus conversion and realised the error of their ways. No, they did so because they could not get their harsh, punitive measures through the Senate, because Labor forced them to adopt a just and reasonable approach.

Each time the Abbott-Turnbull government puts forward these harsh, punitive measures, regardless of what is ultimately accepted by the Senate, we should remember what the government sought to introduce in the first place. I certainly hope that, when it comes to election time, people out there do remember the cruel measures that would be in place right now had the government got its way. And let us imagine what cruel measures will be in place should the government get its way sometime in the future. The only reason why job seekers are not condemned to poverty, as I said, for six months of every year—or even one month—is that Labor, with sufficient crossbench support, opposed the government’s cruel changes.

In considering all the job seeker legislation this government has put forward, Labor has taken the consistent approach of accepting fair and sensible measures which would lead to greater engagement by job seekers and better employment outcomes. Where possible, we have sought to introduce checks and balances to ensure that job seekers’ rights are not compromised. Other measures which are so harsh and punitive that they cannot be improved we have, rightly, rejected outright.

For example, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014 passed the Senate with Labor’s support, but only on the condition that the government agreed to our amendments. That bill legislated the no-show no-pay principle, but Labor’s amendments protected the rights of job seekers to review decisions in which payments were suspended. We also insisted on protecting the rights of job seekers to justify, with a reasonable excuse, breaches of their obligations and ensured that no job seeker would have their payments stopped without first being notified. I would like to remind anyone listening to or reading this speech that these basic rights were protected because of Labor’s insistence, whereas the government had sought to deny job seekers these rights.

We do not share the government’s enthusiasm for heavy-handedness when it comes to job seeker compliance. When it comes to the concept of ‘mutual obligation’, this government appears to understand ‘obligation’ while unfortunately being deaf to the other word in that phrase: ‘mutual’. You see, mutual obligation is a two-way street. We do expect job seekers to do what they reasonably can to give themselves the best prospect of being engaged in meaningful employment, but at the same time there is an obligation on the government to provide a safety net and the necessary support to be able to secure a job.

So Labor will take the same approach to this bill, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Further Strengthening Job Seeker Compliance) Bill, as we have to previous bills. That is, we will support measures that lead to better employment outcomes while still ensuring adequate support for job seekers. But let me make this very clear: Labor cannot and will not support this bill if our amendments are not agreed to. Specifically, Labor supports those amendments that more closely align the dates of penalties and suspensions with the actual date of noncompliance. We also support the renaming of penalties for consistency, provided that there are no changes to penalties or other unintended consequences.

I will now outline in detail the measures that Labor will not support. Firstly, this bill seeks to allow a job seeker’s participation payment to be immediately suspended if that job seeker fails to agree to a job plan at the first appointment. The suspension would continue until they entered into a plan, with no back payment for the period of the suspension. We simply cannot and will not support this provision, because we believe that job seekers should have the opportunity to negotiate a fair and reasonable job plan. Currently, a job seeker does not receive a financial penalty unless they fail to agree to a job plan on the second appointment. This allows job seekers the opportunity to take their job plan home and review it before agreeing to sign it. The provision in this bill means that job seekers could be pressured to sign a plan that they do not understand or do not agree to.

In her speech on the second reading speech of this bill, my colleague over in the other place Julie Collins, the shadow minister for employment services, cited two examples of job seekers who were wrongly directed by their providers to undertake Work for the Dole. One of the job seekers was aged 55, and the guidelines clearly provide that job seekers aged 50 to 59 cannot be required to do mandatory Work for the Dole. The other was the sole carer of two children, one with disability. She was told by her provider that she would lose her payment if she did not agree to undertake Work for the Dole, even though she was exempt from this obligation. In both these cases, these job seekers were able to seek further advice and confirm that the original advice from their providers was wrong. If they had had to sign on their first appointment, they would have been denied that ability.

This bill has been through a Senate inquiry, and I would like to read a quote from a caseworker that was cited in the submission from the National Welfare Rights Network. The caseworker said:

Too frequently we see people who have been told to sign a Job Plan without understanding what is in it or what they are required to do. We have also had people ask to have something changed or added who have been told that the Job Plan can’t be changed. Frequently the Job Plans are not individualised and tailored to assist a person to gain employment but rather a standard plan “one size fits all”.

The examples I just cited and the submission from the National Welfare Rights Network demonstrate why it is important for job seekers to have the right to initially refuse to sign a job plan without any financial penalty. While Labor accepts that the bill will retain the 48 hours ‘think time’ before any payment suspensions or financial penalties are submitted, we do not believe that 48 hours think time is sufficient to allow a job seeker to reflect and seek assistance to determine the appropriateness of their job plan to their personal needs.

Labor also has concerns about the provision of this bill that allows the secretary of the department to determine that a job seeker has acted ‘in an inappropriate manner’. While the government asserts that some job seekers are treating service providers with contempt by not behaving appropriately at appointments, we have yet to see evidence of such behaviour. The term ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is not defined in the legislation, so the secretary will be given a great deal of discretion to determine what constitutes appropriate behaviour.

Labor are especially concerned at the potential for a subjective judgement of inappropriate behaviour that could put vulnerable job seekers at risk. What if there are factors not being taken into account such as mental illness or things happening in a job seeker’s personal life that are causing them to be distressed or upset? What if the job seeker is justifiably uncooperative because their service provider is giving them bad advice or acting outside the guidelines? Similar concerns were raised about this provision by the National Welfare Rights Network, and we will be opposing this provision.

Finally, the government is making its second attempt to change the provisions around penalties for refusing suitable work, and Labor will be opposing these changes. Currently, job seekers receiving a participation payment will incur an eight-week non-payment penalty for failing to accept suitable work. This penalty may be waived if the job seeker chooses to re-engage and complete other activity requirements or if they were to experience financial hardship if the non-payment period was not ended. We see no compelling reason to change the current arrangements.

Penalties for refusal to accept suitable work are quite rare. Out of 800,000 job seekers, only 699 received a penalty for refusing suitable work in the last financial year. Furthermore, the majority of job seekers penalised for refusing suitable work—about 73 per cent in the last financial year—had their penalty waived, meaning they re-engaged in the process of finding suitable work. Surely, this is what the government wants—to encourage job seekers to re-engage.

As Jobs Australia pointed out in their submission to the inquiry:

If the argument is that too many penalties have been inappropriately waived, then that is something that may best be dealt with by reviewing the training and guidance offered to the decision-makers rather than simply removing the waiver altogether.

This proposal is typical of the sort of approach this government takes to penalising job seekers. It seems to be less about encouraging engagement and more about dishing out punishment.

As I mentioned earlier, there are measures in this bill that Labor will support, but we will only support the passage of this bill if our amendments are accepted. We support the provision that a job seeker’s payment be suspended if they fail to undertake adequate job search efforts, and it is appropriate that a job seeker receives full back-pay once adequate job search efforts are resumed. We support provisions that provide a more immediate link between non-compliance by job seekers and the penalty for non-compliance, applied through an appropriate and fair process. And we also support the renaming of penalties in regard to consistency.

I reiterate what I said at the beginning of this speech that Labor supports fair and sensible measures which encourage mutual obligation for job seekers and lead to better employment outcomes. But what we do not support are heavy-handed, punitive measures—measures which trample on the rights of job seekers, deny them fair process, drive them into poverty and hardship and cause them to disengage from participation. Like many such bills the government has introduced to this place, this bill has elements of both.

Labor will seek to amend the bill to ensure that only those measures which are fair and effective pass the parliament. If our amendments are not accepted, then we will not be voting in favour of this bill. I must conclude, however, by pointing out that the best way to get unemployed Australians into work is to create more jobs, a task this government has comprehensively failed. Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that for the first time in over 20 years more than 800,000 Australians are unemployed. Over 100,000 Australians have joined the jobs queue since this government came to power. By contrast, when Labor was in government, we created one million jobs while dealing with the greatest global economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The problem with this Abbott-Turnbull government are that they have no plan for jobs and no plans for the Australian economy. They failed to save jobs in our automotive industry; in fact, they practically dared the auto industry to leave our shores. They failed to stand up for Australia’s submarine workers by sending work on our submarine fleet offshore. They failed our renewable energy industry by attacking the renewable energy target and causing investment to fall by 90 per cent. They failed Australia’s digital competitiveness by switching to a second-rate broadband technology, at the same time causing the construction of Australia’s National Broadband Network to grind to a halt. And they failed Australia’s trainees and apprentices by cutting $1 billion from traineeships and apprenticeships.

The government takes a heavy-handed approach to job seeker compliance because Australian job seekers are being used as a scapegoat for this government’s economic failures. That is this government’s strategy: blame the unemployed, blame penalty rates, blame the trade unions, blame everybody else—blame anyone you have to if it helps divert attention from the fact that you have absolutely no strategy for growing the economy and creating employment in Australia.

We on this side of the chamber know that this government’s failure to create jobs is their own fault, not the fault of Australia’s job seekers, the overwhelming majority of whom are trying as hard as they can to gain meaningful employment. We will seek to excise harsh and punitive measures from this bill, while supporting the passage of the more sensible elements. At the same time, we will continue to remind job seekers, some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Australia, how they would be treated if this government had its way.

In closing, for anyone considering voting for this government at the next election, I remind people that this is the government which proposed subjecting young Australian job seekers to six months of abject poverty. And remember that they only abandoned this plan not because they realised it was too cruel to even contemplate but because they could not get their cruel plan through the Senate—thank heavens. Given their continued failure to create jobs and their continued quest to punish job seekers for this failure, imagine what depths of cruelty they will plunge to if they win the next election.