The bill before us is a 'consequential amendments' bill and, in that sense, the Labor Party position is that we will be supporting the technical provisions in the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006. But I ask this question: consequential to what? The Welfare to Work and other measures legislation came into this place before the end of last year and was very quickly debated. It was legislation that, as Senator Humphries has just described, was going to make an overwhelmingly significant change to the way in which these issues were going to be looked at in this country. I believe that, as Senator Bartlett mentioned, it was guillotined in this place because it was agreed by the government that this had to be imposed on the citizens of Australia with effect from next month. In fact, many of the provisions of the Welfare to Work legislation will be taking effect from 1 July this year for the first round of people who are making claims, but some people on the disability support payment are already in the process of having their ongoing review activities picked up by elements of the Welfare to Work changes.
As a community, we should be able to expect, as Senator Humphries has just outlined, the participation of as many people as possible in our economy. No-one disagrees with that. What I find most offensive in the debates that we have had up until now is that from the government point of view any questions or issues that are raised about how this particular legislation will operate in practice, and any concerns raised by those people who have genuine questions about the impact of the legislation and about how families will continue to operate with reduced income, are dismissed as opposition. The people asking those questions are dismissed as people who do not understand the system. And the Labor Party are dismissed as though we do not share a commitment to encourage Australians to take an active role in the economy, to fulfil their need to work, to effectively communicate more widely in the community and to be part of an Australia that we should all share.
We have been told in this place that the best form of welfare is a job. I dismiss the term 'welfare'; I find that overwhelmingly patronising in many ways-except when it is used specifically in legislation. Of course we want people to have the opportunity to work. Senator Humphries has just outlined extremely effectively the need for the people of our country to have greater participation in the workforce. We agree. But what we do not agree with is the particular methodology of this legislation.
We do not disagree with the consequential amendments. With all legislation, the ability to go back and look at things and impose new processes to make it better is a good one. If all legislation had a series of consequential amendments, we would be effectively working together to make the legislation better, so we welcome consequential amendments-even the very technical ones that we have before us today, which I do not think that many people who are not working in the system would truly understand the operation of. These amendments are all responding to particular issues to make sure that the thing works better.
However, what has not been picked up in these consequential amendments is the key question which we have been debating for several months and, in fact, in a way, for many generations: how do you effectively work with people to ensure that they can all share the largesse of our country? What we on this side of the chamber have from the start objected to in the Welfare to Work legislation is that there is no way that the best way to support people is to cut the amount of money they have to live on. The only element of the way in which this particular process is worked through that we object to specifically is that a key part of the Welfare to Work changes means that people are forced onto a lower living income. We do not object to the fact that there needs to be training, support and acknowledgment to encourage people into the workplace. We do not object to the fact that there need to be closer working arrangements between the Job Network and the Centrelink systems so that people have access to the range of support mechanisms which everyone should have access to if they are seeking work. People who are now sole parents or who are now on the disability support payment should not have some special label on them when they are seeking work that says, 'Danger, danger: needs special help.' We are saying that the type of support in the Job Network should be available to all Australians seeking work under any provisions in our system.
The government has announced that extensive new support networks-we have not seen them working yet-will be put in place to work through the Welfare to Work processes. These special arrangements are in fact doing no more than acknowledging the need for these Australians to have some special support in their efforts to seek work. Of course we support that. We want to be actively involved in developing these programs and in ensuring that they are the most effective possible. We want to ensure that they meet the needs of the people working through the process of changing their way of living and their expectations for their daily routines-and, in the case of sole parents, balancing the particular issues involved in raising kids by themselves.
In the very short inquiry that the Community Affairs Legislation Committee held around this legislation, we received a number of submissions. They were not one-off submissions; they did not come from nowhere.
The people who actually made submissions to this committee work on a daily basis with the welfare system-working with the Centrelink processes or acting as support networks for people who are sole parents or have a form of disability. The submissions were from organisations with enormous amounts of effective and practical corporate knowledge of this area. Their choice to come forward-and no-one is forced to give evidence to a Senate committee, or at least to the Community Affairs Committee-was based on two major elements: firstly, they wanted the voices of the people who are to be affected by the legislation heard in the development of the legislation and, secondly, they wanted to be a part with their knowledge and experience in whatever was happening-I think Senator Humphries used the term 'the engineering of the process'-in regard to the government looking at the needs of people in the process of seeking work.
The department gave evidence to the inquiry and subsequently at a range of Senate estimates processes-and I think that will continue as the legislation is implemented-about their need to consult with the community and with the various agencies. That is a necessary mechanism of our system. But I want to know what the response to the consultation is when the consultation happens.
The kinds of issues that were being raised in the Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry were to do with concerns about the methodology of a punishment model, which is the only way you can describe a change of entitlement which reduces people's living money: how they survive, how they feed their kids, how they pay their rent-how they actually do all those things that every person in Australia does. If you are reliant on a Centrelink payment, you know to the last dollar exactly what your fortnightly budget is-and this came out in evidence heard by the committee-because you have to work through the numerous demands that you have on your time and your budget. It was clearly put to the legislation committee that single parents actually work on a fortnightly basis to see exactly how they can dish out the money for their families. And it is the same for people with disabilities. Within this process, of course, any incentive or support to get a higher wage and to be reintegrated into a workforce was seen as a positive element. There is no doubt about that. In reviewing the committee report today and looking at the submissions received, I found that there was not one person who came before the committee who rejected the value of a job. Not one piece of evidence said that it would be better not to work. It is a dismissive response from the government to say that any questions of objection indicate that there is no support for the issue of giving people the opportunity to have a job and a career. Getting a job in itself may be a result, but it is certainly not an incentive for people to develop, train and earn and have access to career progression. It has always been a balance. Just getting a job in itself may provide a step away from welfare dependency, but we should be encouraging people to enjoy the genuine values of a workplace and have the opportunity to enhance their income, training and skills so the job has genuine value beyond just the wage. We need to widen our concept beyond just getting employment. We need to look at the value of employment so that we are not restating a whole range of cheap casual jobs and letting people be used in the job market in a dismissive and not particularly well valued way. That particular issue came out in the inquiry. Whilst people had no opposition to a chance of employment, they certainly did not think that the Centrelink and Job Network system that pushed them into jobs that provided no fulfilment and actually did not fit their other life needs, particularly child-care needs, was in itself the most effective way to work with the community and ensure that people who were identified by this legislation had the enhanced opportunities that we all seek.
However, the report said that there has been significant consultation with welfare and community groups on the impact of the changes. That is true. There has been consultation. The St Vincent de Paul Society, a group that consistently gives evidence at these inquiries with credentials that are beyond question, I believe, in working with people across our community who need immediate support, said: 'I think'-and they refer in particular to people with disabilities and sole parents, who are the focus of this legislation-'we will just find life harder than it was before. I do not think there is any doubt about that. They will come to us more seeking help and we will do our best to help them-we and the others who are there.' Where is the government in that equation? What we find so often in these debates is that the expectation of compassion and open communication and the expectation of what Senator Humphries defined as 'goodwill' are not always fulfilled in the system. The very people who are the focus of the Welfare to Work changes-and I am not convinced that that is going to be the automatic outcome of the legislation-are those who often have had the most negative experiences of the system as it currently exists. We are imposing further change on that group. Despite all the rhetoric about encouragement and support and giving people a chance to remove themselves from the welfare trap-rhetoric which we have all heard so often-the core element and the immediate impact of the Welfare to Work changes for people who are sole parents who have children of a certain age and for people currently on the disability support pension or those who will be claiming that pension after 1 July will be a cut in their fortnightly allowance.
That is a tough step to encourage continuation of goodwill because goodwill is not always enhanced by having less money to go through your daily expectations of living. What we seek as people who want to be part of the future development of our changing system is genuine communication, genuine consultation and the acceptance that there needs to be continued evaluation of these processes. In our legislative committee reform recommendations we said that this needs to be constantly reviewed and discussed, but it also needs to involve the people who are living the expectations of the legislation, the people who are currently using the system and the people who are providing the support for the people St Vincent de Paul identified.
A statement made consistently during the previous Senate inquiry on poverty in this country was that there are so many welfare agencies in this country who are picking up the immediate needs not just economically-although economically is so important-but also in terms of personal support, emergency housing, emergency support for family breakdown; all those areas where the people who are focused on in this legislation often need extra support that is provided by a range of community organisations. These organisations have the immediate knowledge and can best work with the government to enhance the program of encouraging people from a dependent model to some option to earn and be further involved in their community. We seek the evidence that shows that punishment gets the best result. We reject that it is the best way to encourage people from welfare to a work model. There cannot be goodwill if you lead with punishment. There needs to be an understanding that there will be support, encouragement and a fall-back if things do not work out. We have found that leading closer to the date of 1 July there has been fear amongst areas of the community about their ability to succeed within this model. It also makes it a little more difficult to get goodwill clicking in if there is fear and worry about what is going to happen because of the punitive nature of the model. When Senator Humphries talked about what would be an alternate process, the best way would seem to be to have a cooperative process. Effective encouragement and effective training would be provided without necessarily punishing people at the first step, by removing immediate funding, and they would be given some security about the issues they will be facing and about what the results of the further changes will be.
In terms of where we go next, I expect there will be a series of further consequential amendments as we find out how the legislation kicks in and we see how the different layers work with each other in terms of payments, support networks and so on. It seems confronting that the marginal tax rates, which were mentioned a lot in our committee work, at this stage still seem to actively work against those people who are seeking to get back into the work force. It would seem to be an automatic challenge to those who are working in the development of further policy to enhance the encouragement financially. So not only do you lose your money as your immediate payment element but any attempt to move into the workforce is further punished by the marginal tax system so that you are working seemingly because you have to. The system is forcing you in but you are not receiving the monetary benefit that you should receive. That cuts across the enhancement of the process.
The people in this place have a genuine responsibility to the Australian community. There is an expectation that there will be change. There is an expectation also that the economic largesse that we are experiencing in many areas in this country could be shared effectively by all Australians. The way that the Welfare to Work changes have been implemented has already alienated groups of people who should be able to expect support the most from their government. If we are genuinely going to encourage people from welfare into work as opposed to one form of welfare into another, there must continue to be consequential changes to the legislation in front of us. As it stands, I do not think the work elements will be attractive or supportive for the people who are being targeted by the legislation. I do not think that we, as a government, have effectively done our job.
14 June, 2006