Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

BILLS: Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 includes a range of issues, most of them to do with savings. There are so many issues involved in this bill that I will not be able to speak on all of them in the time that I have. I will begin on the issue of gambling because, as Senator Di Natale has said, it is a particularly sensitive area.

The bill before us takes away the legislation and the processes that our government put in place around the sensitive issue of gambling. The current government has put in place a proposal based on the fact that-on this this incredibly vexed area, where there is so little agreement-the government believes that the best thing to do is to ensure that all the stakeholders and the people who are concerned about this issue have the opportunity to look at the best way forward. The government is determined not to support what we put in place but they have made a commitment. They see that there has to be action, and they are moving forward. We on this side of the chamber will support the government on this.

We are putting forward a number of amendments, particularly around what we consider needs to occur, but we have decided-because of the sensitivities, the pain and the frustrations-not to continue with the measures that were in place and which had not received full commitment across all of the various interests in this area. We saw that in the committee hearings that were held. I know, Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, that you attended some of those committee hearings. We know the range of views, but the minister has put on record his intent to make sure that the people who are engaged-the various stakeholders-will be brought together so that we can come up with reforms that the government will support. Indeed, we want to be involved in that. We want to be part of what is proposed, and we will see whether the proposals put forward meet the needs of the various people who have told us so clearly that this area is important to them.

It is important-and we have had a number of debates in this place-to put on the record that the concerns that Senator Di Natale raised-and I know other senators will raise them-are shared by the Labor opposition. We have listened; we have heard. It is not a debate or a fight over who is more concerned about gambling in our community. It would be, I think, unfortunate for our work into the future if it degenerated into that. It is not some kind of struggle of strength around who has more commitment than anyone else; this is about genuine efforts to move forward to ensure that we have processes in our country that will effectively respond to the identified needs.

The government has put on record that it believes that this issue mainly concerns the states. There is truth in that. We know that the immediate legislation looking at the volume of machines, the processes and the various ways that taxation works are state-level issues. So we have committed to work with government into the future to make this succeed-and to come back to this place regularly to question, to be involved and to see what happens next. That is important. We have had a number of discussions recently in this place about whether critical questioning is supportive of government measures. I put on record again that the role of all of us in this place is to critically question. And it is to make sure that we can come up with the solutions that are best, that we review them and that we keep that constantly on the agenda. That is the government's proposal in that area and, with the amendments we are bringing forward later in the committee stage, this principle of moving forward with regenerated discussion with stakeholders will be supported by the opposition.

Another area I want to look at is the issue around the extension of the Cape York income management trial. We know that the government necessarily, because of the timing of bringing this legislation forward, will move practical amendments about introduction dates and those kinds of things, but both parties have been involved in the Cape York income management trial-through the specialised work that has been done in the cape with that local community, looking at what is best to ensure that people in that area have an effective and well-supported economic future. The Cape York income management trial has been in place over a number of years. It has been reviewed. Our Senate committee has met with them on at least two occasions to get updates about how the trial is working. We believe that maintaining this measure with the full engagement of the local community is practical and effective.

One reason this trial has been successful is that people across that community have chosen to be involved, and there has been regular interaction with that community to explain the basis for and the outcomes of the trial, and to work with individuals impacted by decisions around their own income management, providing immediate and personal support for them, with the major outcome never to be punitive. The income management trial in Cape York was never meant to be a punitive process where people were treated harshly because of their situation with social welfare; rather, it was designed to be a community response: so that people who were having difficulty with income management-their own issues or family issues-would have support mechanisms locally that would help them to plan their futures and look effectively at their income management, with the intent of looking towards employment and education outcomes.

It is important that we commend the work of the Family Responsibilities Commission because those local people working in the community have made it succeed. Too often, this kind of assistance is seen as being exported from outside and imposed. From the very start of the Cape York process, the intent and engagement was focused on local people; of course, working with people with expert knowledge from outside, but working together and taking into account people's individual situations in that extraordinarily beautiful part of the world.

We have seen progress with the reforms-but the world has not changed. Anyone who gets into this area will know that you will not work miracles overnight. When you look at the data, there have been improvements-but people who are critical can say, 'There have not been enough.' The most important thing is that the local people in Cape York feel that this is benefiting them and that they can work with it. Our challenge is to look at what has worked, see the impact on individuals and move it forward. The lessons that have been learnt in that area need to be shared across other areas of the country.

So we welcome the extension of this plan. We need to examine why it has worked there. You cannot just automatically-and this is a note of caution for anyone in the policy area or the political sphere-take what is happening in one place and force it onto another community. I think people know that but, too often, for ease and immediacy of impact, we say, 'Whacko, it's working there, so we'll just make it work everywhere else.' I certainly do not believe that, and neither does anyone on this side of the chamber. What we are saying is that the positives from this trial-which have been documented-are there. So, when other communities are looking at what may work in their area, we should learn from those positives, and engage communities in talking to communities.

It is one thing to have parliamentarians talking to parliamentarians or even to have people in the Public Service-those in the extraordinarily supportive public sector, who have worked so hard to make this operate-talking to other people in the Public Service; that is of course valuable. But what will make any of these trials about effective income management and community development work will be people in the local communities talking with each other and saying, 'This is what we did, this is what worked and this is what we are hoping for our future.' So I would like to take that up.

Senator Brown went through a range of specific measures which we will look at later. We have taken up and will be supporting a number of the government's proposals, which were proposals in our budget. Some of them are tough, and that particularly occurs when you are looking at changes around entitlements and at what works best. Things like extending the rules for Australian working life residency are tough. This brings us in line with other pension schemes across the world. Again, a word of caution: our pension scheme works significantly differently from those in Europe, and people who make simplistic comparisons in their arguments will get themselves into trouble. Nonetheless, under the changes to the working life residency requirements, the expectation is that people will spend a longer period of time in our country before getting the full benefit of our pension scheme when they cease working. The pensions bonus scheme will finally be closed down, and I think people are well aware that that is an administrative change, as that scheme has been overtaken by another scheme.

There is discussion about the legislation that extends deeming rules to account-based income streams. Again, this is a change for people. It certainly leads to significant savings in the budget. You can see that when you are looking at the calculation concerning which of these areas harvests the most savings to government. I believe it is important that we have consistency in our welfare system. The McClure review has commenced, and I say to the Assistant Minister for Social Services, who is in the chamber, that we are really keen to see the terms of reference for that review.

We are looking at our general welfare system. This is not a one-off process; we have had many reviews in the past. A consistent element of community concern has been the complexity of our system. I think that is a really genuine point. Changing the deeming process brings the assets and income test-which is the basis for people being able to claim a payment-into line with other forms of welfare entitlements. While there is pain in that, I think there is logic to the process.

I will touch briefly on some of the provisions that we are not supporting or that we are putting up significant amendments to. Acting Deputy President Furner, as you were a member of the committee, you would remember the issues around the paid parental leave scheme and the process of businesses taking ownership of supporting their workers through a period of paid parental leave so that it is not seen as a welfare or a tax issue but as a workplace issue. We have had significant discussion about that over a period of time. Again, I say to the minister that we are still waiting for the paid parental leave review, which we are hoping will bring out all the issues.

In our most recent Senate inquiry we received evidence from departmental officers that being the paymaster-as some in industry had called it-for the paid parental leave scheme had not been raised as a major issue in the preliminary areas of the review. Certainly there were questions about how the scheme would work. As part of the review, there has been an interactive process between the department and various business groups and individuals about what the issues were and how they could be addressed.

Particularly after listening to people from very small businesses, who may not have access to the types of HR systems that larger businesses have, our position is that it would be reasonable for businesses with fewer than 20 employees to choose either to opt-in, so they could choose to provide payments through their own payment systems, or to have payments go through Centrelink. We strongly believe, as we maintained during the development of our own paid parental leave scheme, that one of the clear aspects of paid parental leave is that it is a workplace entitlement-workers actually become eligible to receive paid parental leave. Senator Collins, who is sitting to my right in the chamber, was also involved in discussions on this scheme.

The important thing is to ensure that both workers and employers know that workers have the right to claim paid parental leave. On that basis, when a worker receives paid parental leave payments they are still intrinsically engaged in the workplace as an employee. That link, which we were so clear in our wish to maintain, means that for the period of time that the worker is out of the workplace they should remain intrinsically linked with their employer in things like information-sharing and discussion-just having it known that they are still employed by the employer. We believe that being responsible for making paid parental leave payments, in the same way as you would make wage payments, enforces that link. So our amendment stipulates that employers who have fewer than 20 staff will be able to defer to Centrelink to provide those payments; however, we strongly believe that bigger business should take administrative responsibility for the entitlement for paid parental leave, as they have the HR systems in place and are already responsible for other forms of workplace entitlement.

We are not supporting a number of the processes. We are not supporting placing an interest charge on certain welfare debts, although the previous government had brought forward that proposal, as indeed it had brought forward a proposal for student start-up loans to replace the scholarship process. Each of those are savings measures.

When we made the decision to take up those saving processes, we were very clear that they would be part of how we would build the Better Schools program. As the Better Schools program is not happening in the way that we had developed it, and as it is not looking at the way that we were bringing together funds from other areas to help fund it, we are not supporting those two processes. The interest rate area was always problematical; I think that should certainly be part of any review of the welfare system. As we are blessed now with Mr McClure and his team looking at this, perhaps more involvement in these areas could be taken into account.

People actually accrue debt through the welfare system. I remember, to my shame, raising a number of debts when I worked in the then department. The way it operates is that you look at someone's entitlement, see whether they maintain their entitlement, and if they have not been receiving the right payment then the process is put in place to have that money repaid. That is what we will continue to do in this area. We are not supporting that particular amendment. Another area is the start-up scholarships. We strongly supported the scholarship process as opposed to the loans in that area, and that is on the same basis. In terms of the childcare rebate, this is a particularly important issue; again, on the basis that the savings in this area were particularly developed to respond to what we as government were doing to inject significant funding into the childcare area to provide enhanced wages for these workers-who are working incredibly well and with great professionalism to support our children in child care. The whole process was to ensure that they would have a salary more reflective of the work that they were doing. As the government has chosen not to take that forward-and part of the reason for the backing of the government's changes here was to help fund that-we are not supporting that element either.

In terms of where we go from here, there are a number of other issues that I have not mentioned because of the time remaining. In terms of the discussion around this process, there are many things on which we can agree. We understand that savings need to be taken, and that we are building to ensure that people get the most effective processes no matter which part of the welfare scheme they operate in. We feel very strongly about paid parental leave, as we do about the issue of gambling. In terms of our commitment to further engagement in the gambling process, I must end my particular contribution by saying: we do not move away from the need to take action in the area of gambling. However, we are not actually moving forward with the proposal that we had when we were in government. We are keen, as I said earlier, to be involved in any further action towards an appropriate response in this area.