Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (20:15):
I rise to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (2012 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2012. This bill seeks to implement a range of changes to the eligibility for certain income support payments as announced in the 2012-13 budget as well as make other amendments to child support legislation.
Schedule 1 of the bill seeks to extend the current income exemption for the Western Australian government’s country age pension fuel card and the cost-of-living rebate scheme. The current xemption is due to expire on 30 June 2012 and the extension, due to run indefinitely from 1 July 2012, will ensure that people continue to enjoy the full benefit of the Western Australian government assistance without a reduction in their pension payments.
Schedule 2 seeks to narrow the timeframe for people who travel overseas while receiving particular income support and family payments. That is due to come into effect on 1 January 2013. The change will see the length of time that people can spend overseas while still receiving payments decrease from 13 weeks to six weeks. There are exemptions for this for age pension recipients and disability support pension recipients deemed by the department to have a severe or permanent disability and, as a result, no future work capacity. Individuals studying overseas as part of an approved Australian course are also exempt from this change. Likewise, the maximum basic rate of the service pension, disability pension and war widows pension paid by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is not affected by this change.
Other social security payments, including the pension supplement, will be affected and recipients of the family tax benefit part A will continue to be paid for up to three years of temporary absence but the payment will reduce to only the base rate after six weeks absence from Australia.
In schedule 3, the amendments promoted by this bill mean that families with children aged over 18 who are not engaged in full-time education or vocational study are no longer eligible for the family tax benefit part A. Eligibility is extended for those children aged 18 and 19 who are full-time students to the end of the calendar year, after which time their families are no longer eligible. This reduction from the current threshold of 21 years of age will result in 43,000 teenagers losing their entitlement to this payment, with 53,000 families left without this support, which is vital. We know that cost-of-living pressures are bearing down on families and households. With the impending carbon tax, those will only be exacerbated. In fact, I cannot remember a time in my adult years when cost-of-living issues have been such a source of comment from members of the public. I hear them now in their capacity as my constituents. There will be more young people at home with mum and dad. Cost-of-living pressures will continue to rise. It is peculiar that this government, as the Australian public expresses concern about cost-of-living pressures, seems to be doing everything that it can to exacerbate those, whether through the carbon tax or through taking some forms of income support away from households. This government takes a perverse approach.
The bill also proposes some non-government amendments. Inequity in child support income testing for family tax benefit part A will be addressed. Individuals who collect child support privately will have their maintenance income test based on the individual’s child support entitlement rather than restricting the family tax benefit part A to the base child rate when they do not collect the full child support entitlement. This will come into effect from 1 July 2012. As well as this, the bill amends the legislation to permit a percentage of care for child support and family tax benefit purposes to be based on the actual care of the child in certain circumstances of violence or unusual behaviour.
The bill also clarifies eligibility for the clean energy low-income supplement of a group of low-income families who would otherwise not benefit fully from the assistance required due to the impacts of the carbon tax. I guess it is good on one level that the bill clarifies eligibility for that supplement. But we on this side of the chamber think that there is a much better way to proceed, and that is to repeal the carbon tax. If there is no carbon tax then quite clearly as a matter of logic you do not need compensation. The government has spent a lot of time, effort and money promoting their clean energy low-income supplements, household assistance packages and schoolkid bonuses-a lot of money. But it has all been in an effort to try to mask the effects of the carbon tax and to try to distract people from the introduction of the carbon tax. Quite simply, if you do not have a tax you do not need the compensation and you certainly do not need those distractions.
I know the government also thinks there is a benefit in this massive public expenditure on advertising. If there is one lesson we learnt from our time in government -in fact there were probably many lessons we learnt from that time-it is that advertising campaigns on things such as Work Choices and to promote the policies of the government of the day actually do not have the desired effect. It annoys the public that you are spending money that could be better directed elsewhere. It also annoys them because you can really be reminding them of a policy that they do not particularly like. You might be trying to put the best gloss on it but in that endeavour you actually are reminding them of a policy they might not like. I do not think this government has learnt in office what we did when we were in office. They complained an awful lot about our expenditure on advertising and about the efficacy of that spending. They probably should have been quite happy about our spending because I think some of those advertising campaigns helped them more than they helped us. The lesson has been well learnt on our side and I think it also should be learnt on the other side that when you are spending taxpayers’ money on advertising campaigns it should be for informational purposes. It should be to explain a policy. It should not be-
Senator Kim Carr: So you will spend money. That is the point. You will spend money.
Senator FIFIELD: I will take the interjection. Governments of all persuasions will always spend money on advertising, but there is appropriate advertising and inappropriate advertising, and we were promised that the Labor Party, when they assumed office, would be better and would learn the lessons that we have now learnt. But it appears they have not. I digress, but I think it is a point worth making.
This bill also makes some small amendments, including amending the child support legislation, to clarify the authority for the practice of automated decision making using computer programs. I may well ask the minister at the next estimates if he can take us through a little more of what that involves.
Senator Kim Carr: Decision making.
Senator FIFIELD: Decision making; that is right. But there is a gap in my knowledge there that I am sure the minister will be able to fill in the next Senate estimates.
The government is increasing the level of debt the nation has. Their efforts in the last budget were to try to achieve what I call a technical surplus. There was a bit of fudging and moving things around between financial years to at least enable the Treasurer on budget night to, not deliver, but to forecast a technical surplus. A lot of the changes in the legislation before us were designed to help facilitate that technical surplus-pulling a bit of money back here and a bit back there. The objective was to be seen to be forecasting a surplus. It is an illusory surplus.
We know from each of this government’s budgets that what they forecast on budget night cannot be relied upon. I well recall Mr Swan’s very first budget, where he proudly pronounced that the budget was forecasting a surplus-I think he said it was the biggest in a decade as a percentage of GDP. He said it was in excess of his 1.5 per cent of GDP target for a budget surplus. As we know, that surplus was not to be. Of course, as always, it was for reasons completely beyond the control of the government.
They are a very unlucky government, as you have probably come to appreciate, Mr Acting Deputy President. They are in this chaotic universe where they are always the victim of circumstance; it is always issues beyond their control. They always try their best but, darn it, something always gets in the way, and it is never their fault. We saw that in Mr Swan’s first budget. The global financial crisis was cited as the problem then. Those who take the time to look back over the budget papers will appreciate that the reason the budget was in deficit that year, and has been in deficit for the three financial years since, is not because of revenue write-downs from the global financial crisis but because of policy decisions by the government. By policy decisions, I mean spending decisions.
The government has not done a bad job at conveying the impression that the budget deficits are due to revenue write-downs. You know how it goes: consumer confidence falls, business confidence falls, tax receipts fall and therefore the budget, beyond our control, goes into deficit. That is not true. It is not why the budget is in deficit. The budget is in deficit because of the spending decisions and policy decisions of the government. Look back at each financial year and that is the case. The revenue write-downs are not enough, in and of themselves, to see the budget in deficit. It is spending decisions.
That is why in the budget that Mr Swan presented not long ago-and this amendment bill seeks to give effect to some of those measures-he was so desperate to finally, ultimately, be in a position where he could forecast a budget surplus. I would place a bet with you, Mr Acting Deputy President Edwards-although you are probably not a betting man; not in this place but maybe you are outside-that the forecast budget surplus will not come to be. The last budget, as with Mr Swan’s previous four budgets, is a work of fiction. As I pointed out before, Mr Swan has been very helpful. In taking the treasury bench, he changed the colour of the budget papers to differentiate them from the Costello budget papers. The Costello budget papers were all in classic white. Mr Swan changed the colour of his budget papers to blue, which is very convenient because I have all the budgets for the last 15 or so years on a shelf. It makes it very easy to point out the surplus budgets from the deficit budgets-they are basically colour coded. That is something helpful that Mr Swan has done.
I return to one of the elements of this legislation-changes to the disability support pension-to make the point that I think we have expected the disability support pension to do a number of different things. We have expected it to be an income support for people whose disability means that they will never work, people who have an extremely profound disability. We have also expected the disability support pension to serve as an income support for those people who have been injured or have a condition from which they can recover, so we have expected it to be a transitional payment. We have also expected the DSP to be more than income support. We have expected Australians who have profound disabilities to use some of that money to buy aids and equipment, to purchase supports which they need compared to other Australians.
The DSP was never designed to be more than income support. That is one of the reasons why it is so critical that a national disability insurance scheme comes into being. People who follow Australians with a disability know that there are waiting lists for supported accommodation and waiting lists for aids and equipment, as Senator McLucas knows very well. I think there has been a misapprehension that the disability support pension is designed to enable people to purchase some of those things. It was never designed to do that; it was designed to be an income support.
The Commonwealth has had traditional responsibility for income support for disabilities. It is the states and the territories who have had the prime responsibility for providing those other supports-for providing respite, aids and equipment and supported accommodation. Over time, the states and territories have funded about half of what needs to be funded. Hence we have the waiting lists and the rationing. I make the point, as we are talking about legislation which seeks to make some changes to the disability support pension, that I think there has been a misapprehension as to what the role of the DSP is meant to be. It is meant to be purely income support and that is why we so greatly need a national disability insurance scheme-so that we do not expect the DSP to continue to do more than it was designed to do.
As I am talking about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it is appropriate to acknowledge this is one of the areas where there is cross-party support. Whenever I look at a piece of legislation in the social security area, it always reminds me what the core business of government should be-providing assistance to those citizens who find themselves faced with additional challenges for reasons beyond their control. We may often disagree across this chamber about what is an appropriate role for government, but one thing I know we all agree upon is that the core business of government is providing support for people who face additional challenges for reasons beyond their control. It is Australians with disability who most clearly fit that definition. A point well made by the Productivity Commission in their report on a national disability insurance scheme was that, if you are designing what it is that government does from scratch, one of the first things you would start with would be proper support for people with disability.
The opposition will not be opposing this bill. It has some useful technical amendments but we also acknowledge that it is reducing payments to some people for the purpose of achieving a technical surplus. As I indicated before, we on this side think that there is a better way. I conclude my remarks there as I know there are a number of colleagues who have contributions to make and we are operating in a time limited environment as the guillotine will kick in in the not too distant future.