Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

BILLS - Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 - Second Reading

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (19:20): We seem to be going through the same process we did earlier today. When I was speaking earlier, I talked about the process that the community affairs committee has had to consider the various iterations of these issues that are in front of us in this new bill. As I was saying, it is really important, and I value the fact, that governments actually listen to the evidence that is brought forward in submissions and public hearings. And it is worthy that governments take up some of the issues that have been brought in through that process. It does not always happen. But in this case, belatedly, this morning-I am not quite sure what time but it was sometime before 9.30-the government did take up one of the core recommendations that people had made during the hearing quite recently, which was to separate into two bills the proposed bill put before the committee.

Consistently, submissions and evidence that came to us talked about the division that the previous bill had caused. It fact, it had divided people who would be subject to loss through this bill through budget savings. I will go through that later, and many senators will talk about the most vulnerable people subject to cuts. It set up a division between people who would be losing entitlement and losing some process through this bill. And it put that in direct contrast with the child-care package, for which the community had been waiting for many years. There was a clear division created, seemingly a conflict, which was expressed by many of our witnesses.

The way the government had presented the omnibus bill, the statements by ministers, and speeches in the other place and in the media all told the community that, unless we were prepared as a parliament and a community to accept the budget cuts-some of which had been around since 2014-the child-care package would not be funded. It was clearly, 'Take it or leave it.' My understanding is that that rhetoric continued certainly until this morning's media. There was no clear understanding that there would be a decision from the government to present two separate bills into this place, but they did. There was a little bit of a problem in that we did not have a copy of the new bills when we came in early this morning. I believe that was expressed earlier by Senator Siewert.

By the way, Senator Siewert has been involved in every single committee hearing in this place on the cuts since 2014. No-one knows this process better than she does and no-one is across the detail of the legislation more than she is, but this morning she was unaware of exactly what the new bills would look like. I do not think that is an effective process. We can disagree on the content and the policy, but what about the process? There are regular negotiations all the time in this place trying to get the magic number to get a bill passed. All of us know the protocol of that. We all know how it works. We often wait for bills to come on. They move up and down the red. We can see what is going to be debated at what time. If something pops up, we think, 'The deal has been done.' That is how this place operates.

I am unaware of a previous process like this morning's. The bill was not only divided. It was not just, 'Here is the bill that the Senate committee looked at only a couple of weeks ago'-and I think we brought down our report only yesterday-'Here is the original bill and what we are going to do now is split it.' All the work had been done and the evidence had been given. They were not just going to split the bill and take out a key element, no. We found out that the savings measures in the bill, which are in the legislation that is in front of us in this debate, are not the same as those we debated only last week in the committee. There have been changes. I am not arguing about the changes, as some of the elements of the bill to which I had the most objection are not in this new bill, so that is a good thing. However, we did not know that when we were preparing our arguments to consider this important piece of legislation.

This is such an important piece of legislation that we are now going to be confined in the parliament to listen to a series of deeply-important speeches that will be passionately made about this issue and, if they are not concluded by midnight tonight, we will come back and be here until midnight tomorrow night and then we will be here on Friday. Senator O'Sullivan spoke loudly across the chamber this morning and in his wisdom suggested that, if we did not get our act together-and I took that as personal; I think it was 'our act together'-we could sit on Saturday and Sunday as well. My understanding is that Saturday and Sunday are not in the current hours resolution, but certainly the intent of the government this morning was that we stay until these two bills, which are the two bills from the previous omnibus bill, are concluded. We are going to continue staying in here until they are concluded.

Firstly, the government considers that these bills are so important that we had to have a special hours resolution to ensure we behave and stay in this place. Secondly, we did not see a full copy of the new legislation until after the hours motion had been put. Thirdly, when we started the debate we were not even clear on what is in the legislation. That is not how you get sensible debate. You may get an outcome-and certainly we understand that a deal has been done. It is pretty clear after this morning's series of divisions what those numbers might be. That is not a reflection of the best arrangement in terms of looking at the issues and how the debate should be handled.

I get back to the bill in front of us. In the savings bill, the part that looks at social services, are a series of cuts that we have considered many times. In fact, when we had the omnibus bill hearing a couple of weeks ago I could not remember how many times we had considered some of these proposals. But every time we have considered them the evidence before us has been that the community reject them. In terms of the priority that has been decided by the government about where they will place their key savings measures, what has come before us consistently, via a range of community and specialist evidence, is a rejection that this is the priority for the savings. We have identified and heard that the cuts to family tax benefit parts A and B, the income-free areas for working age and student payments, and the ordinary waiting periods-issues with which we have become very familiar because they have come before us in a number of pieces of legislation-will focus on the most vulnerable people in our community.

The current family tax benefit regime has been around for many years. In my previous work in the Department of Social Security and in my work since I have been elected to this place there has been cross-party support for family tax payments. They are social welfare payments. Both the major parties and the crossbenchers, in terms of the Greens and other people, have seen the motivation and background for the family tax payments. Whilst it is very important that they are effectively targeted-and there have been debates in this place over many years about how we most effectively and most efficiently target these payments-the core element is that we look at the people who rely most on these payments to ensure that their families are safe, are well looked after and have a reasonable expectation of a quality of life that will ensure that children in particular are well cared for. That is the background of family tax payments.

What we have seen in the last few rounds of cuts that have come through this place under budget measures has been a targeted attack on the quality and the quantity of family tax payments. What is before us again in this bill tonight is a further reduction in the family tax payment process. If only people could take the time to look at the evidence that has come before the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee from people who work in this field as part of their job, as part of their life choices, and who identify exactly what the impact will be from the cuts that are in this bill, they would understand that it will have serious ongoing impacts on the quality of life for some of the most vulnerable families in our community. When people vote on this bill they must remember that. If their choice is that this legislation would best suit the way that we should make savings then they should be aware that people in this place will probably never be reliant on these payments-the family tax payment or the waiting period or the income-free areas for working age and student payments. I do not want to presume that, but it will be probable that no-one in this place will be reliant on these payments. So, when you all take a vote on this piece of legislation, remember that the evidence has been about the impact it will have on families, on parents, on students and on people who rely very heavily on the augmentation of a low wage or, in fact, in the case of waiting periods and the income-free areas for working age and student payments-no wage. These are the people who are reliant on this process.

These savings measures have been consistently rejected by the Labor Party. I will put on record, as you well know, Madam Deputy President, that a number of the propositions brought to us by the government for savings in the social welfare area have been supported by Labor. We have not taken those decisions lightly. We have considered whether the impact of the saving is balanced by the need for budget repair. We have accepted whole chunks of savings over the last four years. In fact, from that awful 2014 budget onwards there have been a number of debates where we have voted with the government on savings. So, for anyone from the government to say that we never support budget savings, that we have no understanding of economic realities, it is just not true. All you have to do is look at the record. What we are saying is that the savings in this bill are not effective. They will harm and, in the end, they will not be the best way that we can support families in Australia.

We have split the omnibus savings bill. In terms of the way the legislation will proceed, I think it is a good result to have split it into separate bills. But there is a feeling of division, a feeling of judgement, in the community that some families are being set up as being less worthy than others and that, if we are going to have effective child care, other parts of the community have to have things withdrawn. That remains. Whether the bill was split or not, that judgement remains. The people who came and spoke to us in community affairs feel as though their rights have been weighed up as being less worthy than others. I do not believe that that was the intent of the government. I believe that the government was aware of the need to have effective child care in our community-but at what cost? And will families continue to be divided? Will people continue to email us feeling as though their rights have not been supported, particularly stay-at-home parents, who feel as though they are not being valued in this process. They talk to us about how their needs should be addressed. This bill does not support them. The splitting of the omnibus bill may actually get a deal through and the separate bills will be passed-and that is what happens in this place. We understand it. But the impact and the harm to any sense of cohesion, to any sense of trust in the system, will remain. We will continue to have further debates and, as they continue, we will continue to have people come before us and talk about whether they genuinely believe that their parliamentarians understand their circumstances, and what may seem to be a relatively small part of the community will hurt. (Time expired)