COMMITTEES - Social Security Legislation Amendment (Further Strengthening Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2015 - Second Reading


 

Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory) (18:48): I am pleased to add my voice in support of the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Further Strengthening Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2015 today. Before I get into some of the detail of the bill, I would like to go to the more general and important point about the motivations of the government in encouraging people into work, why that is so important, and why it is so corrosive, in my opinion, when we see creeping into parts of our community and our society an anti-work culture—a reluctance to work. This is not the overwhelming experience of Australians who are seeking work, but there are some who do not seem to have that willingness to work, and I think that that is a real concern.

 

 

When I look at measures like this—measures that are about encouraging people into work and encouraging people to fulfil their mutual obligations when they are receiving support from the taxpayer—of course there are fiscal considerations when we seek to encourage people into work, because someone working and contributing is going to create wealth not just in the short term but in the long term for themselves and for our community and, of course, will not be a burden on taxpayers if they are able to look after themselves and their families. The ability to do that is so fundamental to who we are as human beings. It is not possible for everyone, of course, and that is why we need to have such a generous welfare safety net, but that safety net is not designed to be there for people who are capable of looking after themselves but appear to be unwilling to look after themselves. It is not only taxpayers who suffer as a result of that. As I say, I do not look at it primarily as a fiscal issue. Human dignity suffers. We only have to look at the worst examples, where we see massive amounts of welfare dependency in communities and how soul destroying that becomes for individuals and families. So for me, when I look at these challenges, this is about the value of work to human dignity. Those who are capable of doing it, of course, are much better off in a job, working hard, looking for opportunities, bringing in an income and growing that income over time. That should be our focus, and that is the focus of this government. It should be the focus of these measures.

 

We should always look after those who cannot look after themselves. That is not what this is about. This is about some people who unfortunately are not taking responsibility. They are capable of work and for whatever reason they are choosing to reject perfectly good jobs. I will get into some of the detail of that. It is an important project for us as a nation to continue to value work. As I say, it is important fiscally, but that is not the most important consideration. It is important to our communities, it is important to individuals and it is important to families because of the dignity that comes with a job—even, in some cases, jobs that would not be our first choice or our second choice, necessarily. But those jobs are important.

 

This bill builds on the previous work of the coalition in strengthening the rules around job seekers receiving government payments, particularly the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Job Seeker Compliance Framework) Bill 2014, which was passed by the parliament at the end of 2014. These bills are founded on this basic principle of Australia's welfare system—that of mutual obligation. We support a proper, targeted and generous welfare system. When someone loses their job, when someone cannot find work through circumstances outside their control or when people are simply in need for other reasons, we want to look after them. Australians want to look after them, and our system seeks to do that.

 

Of course, that safety net also comes with responsibility. Those who are able to work have a responsibility to be looking for work. They should be accessing the services available to find work, and if a job offer comes they should be taking it. I think this is a completely reasonable expectation. I think those who go out there and work hard, sometimes in very difficult jobs, to look after themselves and their family and who then pay taxes have a very legitimate expectation that others in the community will always seek to do their bit, will seek to look after themselves and will seek to better themselves as best they can. This does mean accepting an appropriate job offer even if—as I say—it might not be their first choice. Many of us have taken jobs that were not our dream jobs. I recall taking jobs in the cleaning industry, in fast food, in retail and in various areas. Some of those are great jobs, some of those are very challenging jobs that are not always where you want to be but they are jobs. They are valuable, they provide a service to other people and they come with a wage and the dignity and skills that go with that.

 

John Howard used to say it often: the best form of welfare is a job. During one of the hearings we had into this, I questioned Lin Hatfield Dodds about this and she said words to the effect of, 'The best form of welfare is good welfare.' No. The best form of welfare is a job. It is much better for an individual—where they can—to be working and to be earning a living rather than to be on welfare. Welfare should be there only for those who need it, not for those who are choosing not to take steps to look after themselves—legitimate and reasonable steps that we expect for people to look after themselves and to look after their families. The community should come with them to assist them, to provide opportunities, to provide training, to provide support and guidance—that is legitimate and we do that. There is money there from the government for all of those sorts of programs, but there are some people who unfortunately do not take those opportunities and who deliberately choose to reject those for various reasons.

 

There are numerous examples out there. Let's go through some of the examples provided by the department. These are the kinds of instances we are talking about: a 19-year-old male refused a job because he wanted to follow his dream and become an actor; a 25-year-old male refused a job because he was going on holiday; a 22-year-old male refused full-time work because he only wanted part-time work so that he could continue flying lessons; a 32-year-old male stated he was too busy to start work; a 26-year-old female refused a cleaning job because she believed it was below her; a 58-year-old male refused part-time Monday to Sunday work because he plays golf on Sundays and stated he would be better off on the dole; a 33-year-old male refused a car washing job because it was too difficult; and a 19-year old male refused work after one day labouring, stating that he was too sore and also wanted to concentrate on getting fit to apply to the Navy.

 

Again, I would stress that this bill is targeted at those who can work—those who are deemed to be job-ready—but who, through their own choices, are not fulfilling their obligations to their fellow Australians to genuinely seek work. That is a legitimate expectation of our community. It is a legitimate expectation of those who do pay their taxes that those who are receiving benefits will do all they can to help themselves before they seek assistance from the taxpayer. We understand that a job will not always come straight away. It does take time, and in some areas in Australia it is more difficult than in others. We know that. That is why it is important that we assist and that we also have policies to grow the economy and to create those jobs. That is what we have seen in recent times. There were over 300,000 jobs created just in the last year. That is something to celebrate. We heard statistics from the Department of Employment survey of employers that 30 per cent of employers found it difficult to fill positions in low-skilled jobs. So in many areas there are positions to be filled and there are people—in some cases, on benefits—choosing not to fill them for various reasons.

 

I want to go through the elements of the bill. There are a number of elements to further strengthen the system so that people can get into work. The first measure is a technical one that aligns compliance arrangements for failures to attend appointments with specialist providers or refusing to enter a job plan with the new rules for provider appointments. In 2013-14: 18,099 failures were reported and 6,890 failures were applied for failing to attend a specialist provider appointment; 1,973 failures were reported and 980 failures were applied for failing to enter an EPP; and 19,140 failures were reported and 14,333 were applied for not attending a CCA appointment.

 

Secondly, this measure provides for cancellation of payments when there is a second refusal to enter a job plan. The additional step of cancelling payment for a second consecutive refusal to enter a job plan is warranted because it is a basic qualification requirement that a job seeker must enter a job plan when required. The job plan sets out all of the job seeker's mutual obligation requirements, and refusal to enter one indicates that the job seeker is not willing to meet their requirements.

 

Again, I would ask senators: isn't it reasonable to expect that a job seeker receiving a payment from the government enters into a job plan? That seems to be a basic part of mutual obligation. But I go back to my first point: this is about this person helping themselves. This is about this person being encouraged to help themselves so that they can have a better life and so that they do have a better chance of getting a job—of getting a job and making their way through the world, looking after themselves and looking after their loved ones. That is an integral part of the lives of most Australians. Those who are capable of working go out there, find a job and face all the challenges and difficulties that go with that, but get the fulfilment of being able to achieve things—of being able to learn new skills and to learn how to lead people; to learn to deal with people and customers and to learn new skills. These are critical to most peoples' lives and are a way that people get ahead. They are a way that people improve their lot in life and become great contributors to our nation.

 

And so when there are policies that look the other way or excuse the behaviour of people who simply refuse to take basic steps to try to seek work then it is undermining human dignity. We as a nation and we as a government are entitled on behalf of taxpayers to say that we will have some basic standards. We will have some basic requirements of people; we will require certain things. These are not onerous requirements. Entering into a job plan is not an onerous requirement; it is just a basic building block if you are fair dinkum about getting into the workforce. I think that taxpayers have every right to expect that people will do that. When we have low standards and expectations, not only does that end up costing taxpayers it also ends up failing those people who should be getting out there and helping themselves.

 

The bill also allows for payment suspension and possible penalty for job seekers who show up to appointments but who behave inappropriately. We have seen examples of this. I think that Senator Xenophon talked about the definition not having to be included in the disallowable legislative instrument. But my expectation would be that it will. I note that there are existing penalties for misconduct in some of these situations and that the definition of 'misconduct' is not contained in the legislative instrument. The government's view is that 'misconduct' is a more clearly-defined concept. Generally, it includes serious things, like being uncooperative, violent, offensive or disruptive, harassing other participants or behaving in a dangerous manner. Determining inappropriate behaviour and activities is potentially more subjective and therefore requires a clear and agreed definition.

 

This bill also allows for more immediate penalties for job seekers who fail to attend activities they have been designated to. It has long been the case that in addition to job-seeking requirements welfare recipients who are capable of work are required to attend certain activities, such as training or Work for the Dole. Work for the Dole is a key part of the government's agenda to improve employment services and to improve job seekers' employment prospects. To ensure that this is successful we need to make sure that job seekers are attending their activities through effective penalties applied in a timely manner when they are not doing so.

 

In 2013-14, 99,167 no-show no-pay failures were applied to 51,824 job seekers, primarily for failing to attend activities. This component of the bill would not introduce any new penalties. Job seekers who fail to participate in an activity without a reasonable excuse will still lose one day's pay for each day they fail. The bill will just mean that the penalty can be deducted straight away. Under the current arrangements it can take up to five weeks from the day a job seeker fails to attend an activity until the penalty is actually deducted from their income support. It can be longer if the job seeker is difficult to contact. Again, these are fairly basic requirements.

 

I was quite interested when I quizzed the department on these issues to hear about the number of opportunities that people get before penalties are applied. These are not people who just fail to do the right thing once; in most cases these are people who are simply showing an ongoing reluctance to cooperate and to take basic steps in terms of their mutual obligations or to take basic steps to genuinely seek work and to accept jobs that are on offer. This is not onerous.

 

Similarly to what I have just described, this bill allows for more immediate consequences for inadequate job searches. Getting job seekers into jobs is the key purpose of employment services, but despite this there are significant weaknesses in compliance arrangements for job seekers who have not made real efforts to look for work. The numbers clearly show that there are issues with ensuring compliance in this area. In 2013-14, 4,342 job-search-related failures were applied, though none resulted in the application of a financial penalty. Under the current system it takes months to apply a financial penalty. It is interesting. You have a situation where 4,342 job-search-related failures were applied, though none resulted in the application of a financial penalty.

 

Again I say: what is the message that we are sending to those job seekers who are simply refusing to take the basic steps to seek a job? What has unfortunately applied in many cases is that there are no real consequences for that. The government, which pays the bills and which hands out significant money in welfare, when people do not take seriously their mutual obligations, has in some cases no consequence for that. I again ask senators to apply the test to workers they know in their neighbourhoods and communities—people working hard, earning $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 a year. How would they feel if you said to them: 'You're paying your taxes. There are some people who are refusing to meet basic requirements and there is no sanction for that.' I think we know what the answer to that would be.

 

I think we know that most Australians absolutely are generous and will be generous to people who need a helping hand but they have little tolerance for people who are quite capable and have every opportunity but are choosing not to take those opportunities or basic steps to look after themselves. Australian taxpayers deserve that. I think this bill is a part of the equation of having expectations, enforcing them and giving as many Australians the dignity of a job as is humanly possible.