Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.

BILLS; Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019; Second Reading

December 04, 2019

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (17:00): I also rise to speak against the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 but speak in support of the amendment that was moved. I know a lot has been said about integrity. I would imagine Crosby Textor consulting services probably had some focus groups working overtime to work out how you get bills passed in this place with a minimum amount of fuss. It does seem there is overuse of the word 'integrity' in various bills being introduced here. It does seem passing strange to include in the social services legislation amendment 'payment integrity'. I'm not sure about those opposite—but maybe it is true because so few participate in this debate—but if they look around their electorates they will find that they have many, many people who are going to be captured by this so-called Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019.

The Labor Party opposed this bill when it was originally introduced in 2017. We opposed it as it was a bad bill then, and it is a bad bill now. We will stay opposed to this legislation as is being introduced, because what it is seeking to do is make it more difficult for some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

We will always move to hold this government to account. We will not let the government get away with the savage cuts—unfair cuts—to Australian pensioners, families and the unemployed. These people need people to stand up for them. They need champions. They don't need what this government is doing now, which is effectively going to rip $185 million away from some of the most vulnerable members of our community. History shows that time and again the Liberals', and this government's, notion of fairness is absolutely misplaced. As the former CEO of the Catholic Social Services, Father Frank Brennan, known to most of us in this chamber, put it:

Our tax and transfer system is critical to ensuring a fairer Australia … Placing the burden of budget repair on those who can least afford it, while providing tax cuts to the wealthy and businesses, is wrong morally and economically.

I think he's right. It is absolutely shifting the burden. No-one is going to say that a surplus is not a good thing, and no-one is going to say we should not move towards budget repair, but making the burden to be borne by those least able is not a fair way to start and certainly takes this government and its members a long way away from their pre-election rhetoric.

Accordingly, there are significant problems that I see with the bill. It certainly adds to a growing rate of poverty in this country. It's estimated that 2½ million people, or 13.9 per cent of Australians, are currently living below the poverty line, as accepted by an international measure. I also note the report produced by the Australian Council of Social Service titled Poverty in Australia, which clearly points out those living on this arrangement and those living on Newstart are being punished by this government for, in the main, reasons that are of no fault of their own.

Australians are entitled to know they are being let down by this government. It is a government that had much to say before the election about welfare, particularly looking after pensioners, but has done little since then other than introduce the social security integrity bill, which, as I said, is going to be responsible for taking about $185 million away from the most vulnerable people in our community.

Schedule 1 of the bill introduces a tighter residential requirement for eligibility to receive the age pension or disability support pension. Currently, people who are not born in Australia must have an aggregate of 10 years of permanent residency before becoming eligible for the age pension or the DSP, including a continuous period of at least five years. This bill proposes to increase the residential requirement to a period of 15 years. Applicants could continue on a 10-year residency requirement if they satisfy the self-sufficiency test introduced in the bill, which includes that they have not been in receipt of an activity-tested income support payment for more than five years of a continuous 10-year period. It's basically saying that they weren't on a disability support payment, they weren't on Newstart, they weren't retrenched—all those things come into it. It is such a broad-brush approach to take to some of the most vulnerable people in the community. As I said, these are people who, through no fault of their own, may find themselves unemployed. They might suffer a disability that prevents them working. They might be retrenched—which, regrettably, is a common occurrence for people aged 50 and above in my community and, no doubt, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough, in your own community. In particular, people in blue-collar jobs who leave employment at 50 or above are not finding further employment, so they've been relegated to Newstart. The simple fact is that the bill we're talking about today impacts the application of these payments.

It affects my community more, because, as most people in this chamber know, I represent one of the most multicultural communities in the country and one which is also heavily made up of direct refugees. Many of them come to this country with all sorts of issues that need to be worked through, and they're very hardworking when they can get a job. But what we are finding more and more now is that, with barriers to employment, particularly language capability, they are being laid off, and it is very difficult for these refugees and first-generation migrants to do anything other than apply for welfare.

It's not just about the contribution that the first generation make to this country. We often talk about some of the community events we attend, and if you look around you see all sorts of people with different faces and from different backgrounds—as indeed your own, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough—and whose forebears have come here from the four corners of the globe to make this their home for two reasons, fundamentally: a better life for themselves and a better life for their families. It's also about what their offspring go on to achieve in this country.

Immigration is one of the things that have made our country great. To think that we are going to penalise those at the sharp end of this, those of the first generation, those who are struggling to support families—and, if they enter into welfare arrangements, if they go on the dole or on Newstart or, regrettably, disability support, that can trigger a mechanism that prevents them from being able to access welfare payments, as this bill proposes. This legislation, to me, is fundamentally un-Australian. This is just so fundamentally against what we stand for, what we should all stand for, and that is the betterment of our respective communities.

I note the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council in Australia points out that Australians with migrant backgrounds generally retire with the lowest superannuation because they're predominantly in low-paid employment during their working lives. They could have been talking about people in my electorate of Fowler who came as refugees to this country—women who have worked in sweatshops, people working in labouring jobs. That is precisely a description of people who will not have great savings in superannuation. And, as no doubt the government is aware, many people from those backgrounds are working in the black economy, where they aren't being paid anything in superannuation. The government has been very lax to date about going out and capturing those employers who are flagrantly breaking the law in respect of their superannuation commitments and, in effect, ensuring that people retire without adequate superannuation cover. That is an impact on many of the migrants in our community. Migrants also face a significant barrier to employment because of the nonrecognition of their overseas qualifications and—what is becoming more and more apparent—very discriminatory hiring practices these days. Retiring with lower superannuation means that those Australians of migrant backgrounds are more likely to require income support in older age, compromising their independence and forcing them to rely on family members for support.

We also oppose basing eligibility for income support on previous receipt of a payment. As the Australian Council of Social Service states:

Unemployment is a structural issue, not an individual issue. This proposal will disadvantage people who live in areas of high unemployment or who have been retrenched. It will also penalise people who have undertaken study.

Again, many aspects of that quote could be speaking for people that I represent in my community.

Schedule 2 of the bill removes the pension supplement paid to recipients of the age pension or DSP if they've been out of Australia for six weeks or longer or immediately upon their permanent departure. Mr Deputy Speaker, I don't know about your electorate, but mine is very much a migrant community, and I have members of my migrant community regularly visiting overseas, particularly to see sick relatives or, more likely, to attend funerals of friends and family. In many instances, for various cultural reasons, that will take six weeks or more. To reduce the rate of the pension on that basis is certainly going to impact on people who are still doing it relatively tough in our community. The Refugee Council of Australia raised a significant concern about the amendments in schedule 2 of the bill, as they say they unfairly affect new migrants, particularly refugees, who are often obliged to travel overseas for reasons such as family reunion or to fulfil caring responsibilities for elderly family members who may be sick or dying—which, as I say, is something that I have been regularly informed of in my office.

Schedule 3 of the bill will extend the maximum liquid assets waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks for claimants with liquid assets of more than $18,000 for singles or $36,000 for couples with dependants. In my electorate the predominant industry used to be light manufacturing, although it's been hard to find any existence of it over the last five years. Most of the people in that industry have been retrenched. Hopefully they received a redundancy payment in their retrenchment. Knowing that they will be struggling to find another job in that predicament, I hope that they're being prudent in how they manage their payments in that regard. But to require them now to spend down their redundancy payment before they're going to be eligible for assistance is once again putting the onus for budget repair—which is what underpins all this—on those who can least afford it.

We should be happy if people are taking a forthright view to helping to manage their own financial affairs, not trying to penalise them for maintaining a level of savings that can accommodate repairs to a vehicle or house, or other things that may require their immediate assistance, rather than simply going back to some financial agency to borrow money on probably an exorbitant interest rate, because the government, by the way, hasn't done much about short-term lenders at this stage. We need to actually take some responsibility with this legislation. We need to ensure that it's not those who can least afford it who are forced to pay for it. (Time expired)