Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

BILLS: Social Services Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment and Other Measures) Bill 2015 - Second Reading

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (13:32): We often say in this place that we wish the government would listen to what the people are saying. This legislation shows that they listened, a bit, but they obviously did not hear what was being said. The bill before us has come back with a number of issues that were raised in this place 12 months ago around youth unemployment, the age of access to benefits and also the general process of young people who would be expected to have a higher rate of compliance before they would have access to any social security support or help.

The bill before us continues the Abbott government's attack on young people with the introduction of measures that will leave job seekers under 25 with nothing to live on for one month. Actually, it is more than that, because another part of the legislation ensures that there is a general one-week waiting period. So we are not talking about a four-week waiting period; we are talking about a five-week waiting period before anyone under 25 who has no income and no employment turns to their government for support while they are seeking work. There will be nothing under this legislation.

The bill also says that the government is pressing ahead with the changes they have tried before, which is to restrict the amount of payment for young job seekers between the ages of 22 and 24 to the lower payment of youth allowance. That is a cut of at least $48 a week, which is almost $2,500 a year. The reason a person is on that lower payment is that they are under 25. That is what the legislation is going to do. The government is introducing a general, across-the-board, one-week ordinary waiting period for payments-for no reason other than that they can. That seems to be the explanation: they can and so they will introduce a standard one-week waiting period.

The other element of the bill is the removal of the low-income supplement, which Labor are supporting. The other components of this bill Labor are opposing. We will be moving an amendment later that will attempt to split the bill around the element of the low-income supplement-which received very little comment in the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry and also not a lot of feedback. We are saying that that is a saving. It is a saving to a payment that has not been used. It was linked originally to the introduction of the carbon tax so there is no longer a need for it. In terms of the process, we will support the low-income supplement component of the bill should it be removed from the other elements.

What we have is a reintroduction of a number of issues around why young people should have a tougher entry into access to social services support than anybody else. One of the clear issues that came out last year when there were attempts to make these changes-and again this year-was: what is the evidence that this will work? It will work on one level, because there are significant savings to the government. No-one denies that there will be savings to the government from this piece of legislation. If that was the intent of the legislation, at least it would be straightforward. But it is not. The government has gone to great lengths to say what the intent of the legislation is, and that is to stop young people getting an entitlement.

In terms of the process, we have from the minister and also from the department one of my favourite quotes from the parliamentary committee that looked in detail at this legislation-and I believe there is nobody in the chamber except for Senator Siewert and I who were at that committee to hear what people were saying about the legislation. It is, 'The decisions were decisions of government to apply the four-week waiting period.' That was after what I believed was extensive consultation on the previous year's budget measure, which was a six-month waiting period. Following that consultation, the government has decided to apply a four-week waiting period. So the background to the four-week waiting period is that it was a government decision.

We know that the government was listening to people because this is the one element of the bill that has changed from last year to this year. As you would remember, Acting Deputy President Lines, the element of the bill that was rejected by the Senate last year was a six-month waiting period-not just once but in a rolling way-for young people under 25 who did not have unemployment. The government actually listened and heard that the community did not support that piece of legislation; more so, the Senate, which represents the community, rejected that piece of legislation. On that point, I should congratulate the department and the government because they did hear that message.

However, what they did not hear was that there was a need for people to understand the rationale, the evidence, as to whether this type of punitive approach, particularly and exclusively to young people, has any resultant benefit. Does it give them any greater support or any strength? Most importantly, does this punitive approach encourage and support young people into employment? What we have consistently heard is that the intent of the process is to ensure that young people are not left in unemployment. So we asked the numerous people who appeared before our committee and the numerous community organisations that work on a daily basis with young people who are seeking work, who are studying, who are buffeted by the effects of their families and homelessness. The committee asked, 'Please, tell us the evidence that actually justifies this piece of legislation?' There was none. Not one skerrick of research was provided that could be put before the Senate, put before the community and put before the young people who are going to be impacted by this change that could explain that this will actually engage them in employment and support them. The only justification I have heard is from the minister who is quoted as saying, 'You don't want to see young people going directly from school to the Centrelink office, or the Human Services office-whatever the right definition is now; we know which office it is. That is the only reason.

The basis on which we asked the department was 'What support would the young people get?'-the young people who were going to be seeking employment, which was the intent of the government. It is twofold. Under this legislation, they will not receive any payment. But they will be expected to fulfil a range of job engagement processes, none of which we have any problem with. We want young people to be engaged in the system so that they can see the support, interact and build up their skills. They will be required to take action to seek work, to turn up for training, to be involved and to make themselves available for different opportunities, which is fair. At the same time, they will be removed from receiving any kind of supportive payment that could be used for things that we take for granted-housing, food and transport. Transport is very important if you are looking for a job and if you have to get to an interview, get to training or get to the department that is going to provide information about employment. No, somehow that money is not going to appear.

We were told that there would be an expectation that there would be some family support. We have young people without work who have left school or study, or lost a job, and the expectation is that until they reach the age of 25 they will be reliant on their families to support them for a full month. I do not think that that is a fair expectation for them or their families. If they are genuinely seeking employment, if they are genuinely making themselves available for employment, they should be able to rely on the social welfare system to provide them with the appropriate supportive payment. This bill exclusively takes out young people from all the people who are looking for a job.

The committee talked to the department about the different groups that this would apply to. When the previous bill came before the chamber last year, we talked about a range of young people with special needs. The department listened to some of the information put forward there and a number of exclusions will pick-up some of the issues from before. We respect the fact that the government has looked at exclusion processes. But after those exclusions are removed, we still have a large number of young people-and the figures are difficult to obtain-who will be without employment, and without any financial support to find some way to get a job.

We asked a lot about how many jobs there were and we got varying responses to that. I did ask the department about the job creation activities that the Department of Employment was involved in for young people. Most people who gave evidence to the committee acknowledged some of the things that happened in the last budget which looked at creative ways to engage young people with the system. There is a focus on young people and there are a number of specified programs around young people with mental health issues. That was a particular concern of a number of submitters to the inquiry. However, the job supportive programs are for a very small number of people. I applaud the fact that the government has introduced them, but the specialist job support for young people with mental health illnesses will go to 200 people around the country. We know from the evidence before the committee that that will not meet the needs of the special health that is required.

We asked a number of times, 'Why is it that taking any kind of support away from a young person gives them any greater ability to seek employment?' The answer was, 'It was a government decision.' That was the answer as to why this particular program was coming back to the Senate and why the under-25 age rate was coming back to the Senate. We are not quite sure why people under 25 should get a lower payment, except that they can. There was no evidence about why the age group between 22 and 25 would now receive a lower payment under this legislation. There was no justification for that one at all.

The other one was the standard waiting time of one week for a range of payments. What was discovered in the discussion we had with the department at our inquiry was that there was a new threshold to prove that you needed an emergency payment, so that you were able to be excluded from the one-week waiting period. That is on top of all the thresholds that are now in the system. Anyone seeking an emergency payment though the social security system would know that it is not an easy thing to do. You have to prove your financial process. You have to prove what earnings you have had in the last month. You have to prove a whole range of things to indicate that you need support. Under the new process there is a new test, which is to prove that you are in personal hardship. We do not know what form that test will take, because that is going to be in a regulation which of course we have not seen yet. But we know that there is going to be a new jump that people have to overcome if they are not going to serve the one-week waiting period.

Again, the department went through a range of exclusions for special circumstances-which have always existed. There have always been exclusions, but they have considered that in terms of the impost on people who would be claiming. That is part of the whole process. But we say that these pieces of policy do not serve their purpose. The purpose they were engaged to serve was to have people be able to get employment. They do not serve that purpose. It is only because the government can do it and because it actually harvests significant savings. We believe that it is unfair and harsh.

A number of the people who came to our committee talked about their fears about what could happen. From the Brotherhood of St Laurence:

[A] period of four weeks without income support continues to have potential for harsh unintended consequences that will be borne hardest by those young jobseekers who do not have financial support of their families.

ACOSS, who gave detailed evidence and continues to work in the community around the issues of poverty and hardship, said:

The only outcome that will be the result of this kind of proposal is to place more young people into financial hardship.

The National Welfare Rights Network, which has specific knowledge of the impact of social security legislation-I have worked with them over many years and they are truly expert about the way the system operates-said:

the most disadvantaged members of our society should not be the catch-all for efficiencies and cost savings.

The government heard what the Senate said last year about the attempts to bring in a special income assessment for young people. The Senate said it was not fair and we did not like it. The government heard what the Senate said about the then proposed rolling six-month waiting period, which thankfully has disappeared from whatever dream that came from. The government knows that people reject this tactic for making savings. The community does not want to have people punished with a facade in terms of saying that this will make them stronger and make them seek employment better. That is the kind of curtain that has been held over the justification for the process. But the community does not accept that this is the best way to engage with people who have significant need. There are programs in place that can give people confidence and support and engage them in the system. We all support that. Every witness who came to the inquiry supported efforts from the government to make sure that people become job ready and job confident-not one element of rejection for any of those programs. What the rejection focused on was the way the system is being used to punish people and to withdraw them from financial security, because you need to have financial security and you need to have respect.

I began by saying that we as a community expected that the government would listen. The legislation indicates that they can listen, they can make changes, but the end result is that they do not want to. They do not want to change. They have a philosophy that these young people can be punished to make them stronger. That is just not the way it works. It does not work. It actually forces people out of the system. That is one of the sadnesses that we have. One of the outstanding issues that we have in our community is the number of people who need help from the government, their government, and who do not seek it because they self-select out of the system because they are afraid, they are frightened, they have had bad experiences and they lack confidence. This is not the way to engage people into the system.

We respect the intent of the government to ensure that people have options to seek employment. That is a shared expectation of everyone in this chamber. However, Labor rejects the legislation in front of us. We reject the ordinary waiting periods of one week and the extra burden to prove financial hardship. We reject the age requirements for various Commonwealth payments for people under 25. We reject absolutely the four-week waiting period if you happen to be under 25. We ask the government to listen again to the people who are prepared to work with you; listen to the people who have at heart the best interests of the young people within their area and have proven that by working with them for generations; listen to the people who want to be involved in making sure there are work opportunities. Listen to them when they say that this process is wrong and it will not work, and listen to them when they say they want to be involved. As I have said, we are prepared to accept the low-income supplement being removed in this legislation. Should the government accept the amendment, moving forward we will be supporting that element. But we do not support the rest of this legislation.