Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (8:24 PM) -I rise today to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. This bill will see income management extended across the whole of the Northern Territory. I want to be clear at the outset: the coalition support income management. Indeed, the coalition introduced the income management arrangements currently in operation, which have been highly successful and highly effective. The welfare-quarantining system introduced by the coalition as part of the range of measures that formed the Northern Territory Emergency Response immediately restored economic certainty and security to families and formed part of our direct response to violence against women and children, child poverty and child abuse. Our measures delivered substantial benefit.
Whilst this bill seeks to extend income management across the Territory, it limits the circumstances of its application. The bill in its current form does not broaden income management, as the government is saying, but is in fact a watering down of the measures currently in place. Whilst expanding the geographical area, the specific categories of welfare recipients that can be included, even with the opt-in option, will see income management in practice be applied in more limited circumstances than at present. It will limit income management for those aged 15 to 24 in receipt of youth allowance, Newstart allowance, special benefits or parenting payments if they have been in receipt of a payment for more than 13 weeks in the last 26 weeks; for those aged 25 and above but below pension age who have been in receipt of welfare payments as previously mentioned for more than 52 weeks in the last 104 weeks; and for those people assessed by social workers or Northern Territory child protection workers for reasons including a vulnerability to financial crisis, domestic violence or economic abuse.
The bill does provide some exemptions for the identified welfare recipients, namely where they can demonstrate a record of responsible parenting or participation in employment. But the ability for social workers to adequately service the whole of the Northern Territory and for each individual to be assessed on a case-by-case basis raises a number of questions. This is aside from this approach being more costly and less efficient than the universal approach. Neighbours in receipt of the same payments could now find themselves categorised differently. One neighbour could be found at risk and another exempt. This could lead to a number of unintended consequences. Such distinct differences within a community are likely to see an increase in humbugging occurrences.
Vulnerability in many instances will be determined by social workers and child protection workers. While child protection is generally a state and territory matter, the experience of the states and territories suggests that this is an inadequate system, with such workers being overly cautious because of legal ramifications. Moreover, the bill retreats from the clear evidence of widespread vulnerability of women and children.
The coalition deplores the government’s watering down of protections for Indigenous communities. The watering down of current arrangements will jeopardise the economic security of women and children who are currently benefiting from financial stability. Humbugging will return. The impact on the people of those communities will be real.
When the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquired into this bill, many of the witnesses that gave evidence to the Senate committee opposed any form of income management. But there was one issue that they broadly agreed on-that a legal challenge to the entire framework was indeed a real possibility. Suzan Cox QC, Director of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, also thought a legal challenge was possible. She said:
If the RDA is reinstated, a lot of the laws remaining are discriminatory-for example, prohibitions on alcohol and other materials in particular areas. So we have those sorts of issues.
The Law Society of the Northern Territory also suggested a challenge was likely, noting in their submission that:
We are not sure that the measures will in fact comply with the Racial Discrimination Act if they continue, as they are likely to constitute indirect discrimination at the very least if they have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people.
Indeed, I could go on, drawing upon evidence from expert after expert. But the message is the same: this bill may be challenged. If a legal challenge is successful, the legislative arrangements that both sides of this chamber agree are efficient and effective will be undone and could be entirely undermined.
The government have finally woken up to the fact that income management is sensible and prudent and that it is good policy. But this bill is dominated by a style of thinking which is always more prevalent the closer you are to capital city GPOs. On one hand, the government want to water down the current arrangements but, on the other, they want to be able to roll out a national welfare-quarantining system. The bill will provide a future framework for income management to be applied in other parts of Australia. Schemes and programs of this nature should be constantly monitored and evaluated so that, where necessary, improvements can be made and where there are successes we can build upon them. Given the proven effectiveness and success of the income management system we introduced when in government, the coalition recognises the importance of introducing welfare quarantining beyond the Northern Territory.
I will turn for a moment to the government’s disappointing delay in having this legislation debated in seeking to have it pass through the Senate. On 15 March this year the coalition announced that it would support the bill and since then, despite being listed on several occasions, this bill has not been brought on by the government for debate. The government has been sitting on its hands on a very important piece of legislation. But that did not stop the Prime Minister last week. He decided to hold a press conference and to tell the Senate, in effect, to get out of the way. I quote the Prime Minister from his press conference with Jenny Macklin on the 16th:
But from 1 July this year, depending on the deliberations of the Senate, these welfare reforms will commence in the Northern Territory and across the entire community within the Northern Territory.
Therefore the challenge is pretty simple. We’re either going to be fair dinkum about welfare reform in this country, which means the Senate passing this legislation this fortnight so it can come into effect as of the first of July. No delays, no stuffing around, get on with it.
Them’s fighting words-if the Senate were actually the obstacle, but the obstacle to getting this legislation passed was not the coalition, it was not the opposition and it was not the Senate. It was the government, for not listing this legislation in a position where it could be debated. We had a spate of press conferences last week where every problem under the sun, every problem in the universe, was the fault of the Senate, such as the paid parental leave legislation. The only problem is that the Senate was not opposing it. Indeed, the Senate passed it, and the same is true of the welfare quarantining legislation. The Senate has been sitting here ready, willing and able to address it. It is another case of Mr Rudd saying, ‘Don’t look at me-look over there,’ but in fact there was nothing to be seen over there. But we know why the Prime Minister does this: because he does not want the public focusing on his government. I will not go through the many backflips, the many failures or the many bungles, because I think that at this time of night it would be a little too tedious for you, Madam Acting Deputy President, so I will spare you from that.
But the Prime Minister was not on his own. The member for Jagajaga could not help herself, and even today in an opinion piece in the Australian she tries to draw an inference that Labor have in some way fought long and hard for this reform. Ms Macklin has little credibility in this area and, rather than attempting to mislead those who read the opinion piece in the Australian, she should work harder to fix the problems associated with Indigenous housing, which is in her portfolio. But I digress.
The coalition opposed this bill in the House, but it did so because of some real concerns that it held at that time. Since then the coalition has also seen concerns aired in the Senate inquiry. This bill is far from perfect. It gives rise to some cause for concern and may indeed lead to a successful legal challenge, but the coalition will not oppose a bill that will enshrine a framework for a national system of income management. Therefore, as the government has known since 15 March-and indeed as the government had confirmed through the Leader of the Opposition’s chief of staff in the days prior to the PM’s press conference last week-the coalition has decided on balance to support this bill in the Senate.