Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (09:36):
I rise to speak on the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Election Commitments and Other Measures) Bill 2011. This bill is a compilation of amendments across several areas. It seeks to give effect to a number of the government’s election commitments. It includes amendments to the Social Security Act 1991, the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986, the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999, the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999 and the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997. These amendments cover changes to the work bonus, family tax benefit part A, youth allowance, the baby bonus, the matched savings scheme and payments to Thalidomide Australia Fixed Trust beneficiaries.
This packet of measures is interesting because it appears that the government does see some election commitments as more equal than others. Another election commitment, which is well known to us all, was the Prime Minister saying, ‘There will be no carbon tax under any government I lead.’ For some reason the election commitments that we are talking about today are more worthy of honouring than that solemn pledge that the Prime Minister gave during the last election campaign. I think it is a good thing for governments to honour their election commitments, so it is good that the government is seeking to implement these, but it does put into stark relief that massive unprecedented election commitment not to introduce a carbon tax.
The bill that is before us seeks to extend the existing work bonus to enable people of age pension age
or qualifying age who take up paid work, including occasional or variable work, to get more of their pension when they are working. The coalition raised in the past the issue of pensioners who worked in seasonal employment as Santas at Christmas time or as school exam supervisors and who had their pensions cut due to the receipt of short-term income. One case in Canberra has become quite well known. A man worked for a few weeks as a department store Santa Claus, having his photo taken with children, but, because of the increase in his income over that short time, he was then penalised in his pension. It is now readily conceded on all sides of the chamber that legislation should be encouraging people to work, not the opposite. The coalition have welcomed the changes to the work bonus. They are changes that we called for and changes that we proposed.
The bill also contains measures affecting family tax benefit part A. These amendments were taken from the recommendations of the Henry review. The Henry review put the case that family payments should be the main form of assistance for children aged up to 18 years or until the completion of secondary school in the year a person turns 18. These changes will raise payment rates for each eligible child aged 16 to 19 years so that they are the same as for those aged 13 to 15 years. This means that when a child turns 16 the family will not experience a drop in assistance. At present
most low- and middle-income families experience significant reductions in government assistance once their child turns 16.
These amendments will have an effect on rent assistance as the increased rates for older children will make them eligible to be considered for rent assistance. At present rent assistance cannot be claimed for children aged 16 or over. The increased FTB part A payment for 16- to 19-year-olds in school or training will be $781 per year higher than the rate of youth allowance paid for 16- and 17-year-olds. The bill will position FTB part A as the main form of help offered to young people undertaking secondary or vocational education.
The matched savings scheme was introduced by Labor in 2009. It matches, dollar for dollar, savings up to $500 for people on compulsory income management. At present the MSS starts automatically for anyone on compulsory income management who starts a money management program. The changes proposed here will shift the onus onto the individual to claim for the MSS. Labor’s matched savings scheme does have some early indications that it will not achieve the desired effect.
The Australian reported on 16 March this year:
Only one person has received the full $500 available under the Gillard government’s $53 million matched savings scheme for welfare recipients launched last July.
The article goes on to say:
Between July 1 and December 31, 102 people entered the scheme, and of these 53 completed the money management course, 36 were still doing it and 12 had dropped out. To date only one person has successfully completed both requirements and received a full matched savings payment.
It was only one at that time. I understand there have been a few more since then. But as the President of the National Welfare Rights Network, Maree O’Halloran, was quoted as saying:
The Matched Savings Account appears to be yet another one of the government’s income management-linked policies that, it seems, is untried, untested and unpopular.
This bill also represents a lost opportunity to do some justice towards rural and regional students with respect to the youth allowance issue. This legislation amends the Social Security Act 1991 to preclude students aged 16 to 17 who are in full-time secondary or vocational education from receiving youth allowance unless they are considered independent, are living away from home or were receiving youth allowance immediately before beginning their course to ensure that youth allowance recipients are not adversely affected if one of their siblings remains in or transfers to the FTB system as a
result of the changes to the FAA.
When this bill was before the House, Labor had the opportunity to admit that their position on
Youth Allowance was wrong and support the urgent introduction of legislation to reinstate the former
workplace participation criteria for independent youth allowance to apply to students whose family home is located in inner regional areas. Labor changed the criteria for youth allowance last year, requiring inner regional students to work 30 hours a week for 18 months over two years. Not only are jobs offering these hours difficult to find in rural communities but some students are having to defer tertiary studies for up to two years. Trying to balance these hours with study is very difficult. The coalition are fighting to reinstate the former, fairer criteria for inner regional students, but to date our efforts have not been successful.
The coalition will not be opposing this bill. However, I would like to note again that, whenever Labor claim to be honouring election commitments, as they are here today, it will always be overshadowed by that great broken promise not to introduce a carbon tax.