Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014


Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory): I find the criticisms of those opposing the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill to be quite extraordinary and not based on any sort of fact. What I saw during the inquiry into this bill was a regime that gives every opportunity for those genuinely seeking work to get the support they need and to continue to receive benefits. The only ones we are talking about in this bill are those who simply, after being given umpteen chances, refuse to help themselves. Those are the people we are talking about. We are not talking about people who are genuinely looking for work and genuinely complying with their obligations.

 

We heard from Senator Siewert, Senator Cameron and others. Senator Cameron did not address the bill in his speech. Senator Siewert at least addressed the bill. She had the right bill. Senator Cameron, the shadow minister, was talking about something completely different. I can address some of what Senator Siewert had to say in terms of those who are looking for work, those who are doing their best. The good news is that this bill does not impact on those people. It does not impact on those people in the slightest. I will read a little bit from the evidence we had from the department about who it actually applies to. I will talk the Senate through how many chances someone has to be given under this legislation before a penalty can even potentially be applied. It is important that we get these facts on the table because I think, if most Australians heard how many chances people had, they would easily dismiss some of the criticisms that we have heard from some people in this chamber and other people who appeared before the committee. Just to put people's minds at rest, I will quote from some of the evidence that we had from the department:

The bill will not impact job seekers who cannot get work despite their best efforts. It will not impact those whose failure to meet their participation requirements is beyond their control and of course it will not impact the 98 per cent of job seekers who do not incur these types of failures. Rather, the bill targets those who have received but refused an offer of suitable work without a reasonable excuse or have been found after an in-depth assessment by the Department of Human Services to have been persistently and wilfully non-compliant.

That is what we are talking about. We are not talking about people who are doing their best and we are not talking about people who make the odd mistake in their efforts to try and find a job. We are talking about people who simply refuse work when it is offered to them or who simply refuse time after time to comply with their obligations. It is absolutely critical that we get this on the record, because some of the commentary in some of the speeches has given a completely misleading impression about what we are talking about here. The coalition believes that we should support those who are looking for work and this legislation will continue that support. But it will not do what the former Labor Party did and effectively provide no penalty in the end when people persistently and wilfully do not comply with their obligations. We believe that at some point, after rigorous process, there does need to be some direct incentive.

Taxpayers deserve better than what they were given under the Labor Party. They deserve better than the statistics we have seen. I will touch on some of the statistics. This is not about the 98 per cent;  it  is about the two per cent who persistently and wilfully do the wrong thing. When we lump all of these people together, it undermines those who are genuinely seeking work and who are genuinely using their best endeavours to get a job in difficult circumstances. This bill does not affect them. The approach that the Labor Party are advocating is a slap in the face to those genuine jobseekers who do try to do the right thing. But there are some in our community who simply will not. They are given more and more chances and eventually we have to say, 'Well, there does have to be a penalty.' We saw the statistics and we heard from the department, who said in their evidence:

In 2008-09, the year before the introduction of waivers, 644 penalties were applied for refusing work. In 2012-13, 1,718 penalties were applied for refusing work and 1,227 of these were waived. This means that on 1,227 occasions job seekers who had been offered a job refused that job and returned immediately to income support payment. For this reason, it is intended that job seekers who refuse work should not be able to have their penalty waived and return immediately to payment. We hope that this will provide sufficient incentive for job seekers to accept work when they are offered it.

Let us look at the overall penalties when we are talking about persistent non-compliance. Again quoting from the department:

In 2012-13 there were 28,237 penalties applied for persistent non-compliance; 73 per cent of these were waived and 30 per cent of these waivers were the job seeker's second or subsequent waiver. This indicated that unlimited waivers is undermining the deterrent effect of penalties by allowing a significant number of job seekers to persist in their non-compliant behaviour without consequence.

Senator Bilyk: Do you ever look at vulnerability indicators?

Senator SESELJA: Indeed we do.  I will touch on vulnerability indicators. This goes to how many safeguards there are. It is worth talking people through what it takes for someone to get to a point where they could potentially have a penalty applied for persistent and wilful non-compliance. It does not happen the first time, it does not happen the second time and it does not happen the third time. It happens after a series of occasions and a series of reviews. What has to happen is that a job seeker has to fail to comply with their obligations three times in six months. But it goes much further than that; there is a process all along the way to get to that point. What we know is that we have service providers working with job seekers—we heard from some of those service providers, and I do not doubt that those service providers are compassionate. Many of them are in the not-for-profit sector, but regardless of whether they are from the not-for-profit sector or otherwise they are compassionate and they are doing their best to help job seekers to find work.

We know that for someone to get to the three breaches in six months they have to go through a first process, because there is discretion from that service provider as to whether it then goes to the department. In all likelihood, by the time it gets to the department it has happened a few times, because the service provider is not going to refer them to the department on the first occasion if there is a good excuse. They are going to work compassionately and as best they can. So by the time they are getting to the department's attention, where we are talking about the first strike, this is a person who, in all likelihood, has failed to comply on several occasions. We do not know exactly how many, but there is a discretion there, and we know that many of these service providers are doing their best. I do not think anyone in this chamber thinks the service providers we heard from would capriciously be reporting someone to the department. There has to be a level of non-compliance over a period of time before they come to the department.

 

Then it gets to the department, and at each level it is reviewed. Sometimes there will be a good excuse, but this is about three occasions where it is deemed there is no reasonable excuse. By the time they get to that third occasion in six months where they are deemed to have not complied with no reasonable excuse, you can safely say that that individual has likely been non- compliant in a significant way on a significant number of occasions. Then we have a further process where these non-compliances are reviewed. We were told there were about 75,000 in the last financial year who got to this point. Then that gets a detailed review, where a number of factors are considered. Even though they have failed to comply several times, we have a situation where a comprehensive review is done to see whether it is a genuinely systemic problem and there is genuinely persistent and wilful non-compliance. Of those 75,000, we heard that only one-third were then potentially having penalties applied to them. Two- thirds, who have failed to comply on many occasions, will never be subject to a penalty. Let us be clear on that—they will never be subject to a penalty. Then we have a situation where those one-third are able to have the penalty waived. In fact, that will continue under this legislation. They will still be able to have that penalty waived. Then we have a situation where the individual has the ability to appeal the decision. If the department has acted in an unreasonable way, they can appeal that and the decision can be overturned.

Any reasonable observer would say that that is a lot of chances. We are not talking about someone who gets right to the end of that process and has a penalty applied—they can still have that waived under the new system. They just cannot have it waived on multiple occasions, which is what has been happening under the current legislation. Surely, any reasonable observer or any reasonable member of the Australian community —be they a job seeker, be they in paid employment, be they low- or middle-income earners—would look at this and say, 'That is a fair go.'

We are doing our bit to support people. We are giving them every chance to continue to have that support. All this bill does in regard to persistent and wilful non-compliance is to say that you go through those umpteen chances, decisions are reviewed that many times, and the two-thirds who have persistently not complied are reviewed and two-thirds of them might have some reasonable excuse. We have applied the vulnerability indicators, which look at a range of things that might be affecting someone. Whether it is someone suffering from homelessness or mental illness or a whole range of other things, those vulnerability indicators are applied. Then there is an appeals process. We are saying that if someone has had that many chances and they get the penalties, they can have them waived once but they cannot have them waived on multiple occasions. We talked about the 25,268 serious failures for repeated non-compliance, and of these the penalty was waived in 73 per cent of cases. And this is an important point—of those waived, nearly one-third were for a job seeker's second or third episode of non- compliance. This is right at the end of that process I have outlined.

The Labor Party, the Greens and others are saying that, in the end, there should be no penalty and that you can just persistently, time and time again, not meet your requirements. Surely, we should demand better. Surely, we should say that, after you have had that many chances and had the penalty waived once, we are not going to waive it again. We are not going to waive it a second and a third and a fourth time, as is occurring in some cases. Surely, that is not good enough. The Labor Party, the Greens and others have tried to put out this story that it is somehow unjust. I do not think the average taxpayer would see it as unjust if, after umpteen chances and after a waiver, we say, 'Enough. You can't have multiple waivers. You can't just keep doing the same thing. We are eventually holding you to a standard that the community expects.' I think that that is a reasonable way to go.

We heard very compelling evidence on the statistics that I mentioned and the process that I mentioned. We talk about the vulnerability indicators. That is a detailed process that is there to make sure that we do not penalise someone who has had a minor failure to comply—that is not who we are talking about. We are not talking about the 98 per cent of job seekers; we are talking about the two per cent of job seekers who refuse to do the right thing. After giving them so many chances, we should hold them to a standard.

The Labor Party used to be the party of workers. They are now the party, in arguing the case that they have argued, of defending dole bludgers. That is what we are talking about.

Senator Bilyk: That is outrageous!

Senator SESELJA: No, it is not, actually. What you do is lump all job seekers together. Ninety eight per cent of them are trying to do the right thing. Two per cent consistently refuse to do the right thing, and that is what you defend.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Marshall): Order! Senators, please come to order!

Senator SESELJA: I see the sensitivity across the aisle about what they are defending when you put it out there as to what they are defending. You go out to your community. Go out to the hardworking people in your community and say, 'I'm not going to just defend them on one, two, three or five occasions; I'm going to defend them on as many occasions when they breach their obligations as they like. There will be no penalties under the Labor Party. They will consistently have those penalties waived.'

What we are saying is that, after you have been through all those processes and had all those chances—you have had your appeals and had your penalty waived once—we are not going to waive it twice or a third time. Surely, that is a reasonable thing. Take a good look at what you are defending. In the speeches by senators from the Labor Party, we did not actually hear you talk about the legislation—and I am not surprised you did not talk about the legislation.

Senator Carol Brown: You've just said exactly what your government thinks about the unemployed.

Senator SESELJA: Your response to this, Senator Brown, indicates your sensitivity on this point. Senator Cameron, your shadow spokesman, did not mention this legislation. He did not mention one aspect of this legislation; he did not mention one clause of this legislation—and there is a reason for that. The reason is that it is very hard to defend your claims when you go to the detail. You can talk in abstract, but, when we put the facts on the table about how detailed the process is and about how many chances people have, surely it is reasonable that we eventually hold them to a standard. That is what the coalition is advocating here—nothing more, nothing less.

 

We will continue to have all of those safeguards so that the vast bulk, the 98 per cent of job seekers who do the right thing, want to get a job and are trying their best, will not be affected by this legislation. But the Labor Party's argument is that there should be no standards. We should not hold anyone to account at any stage. We take a different view and we do not shy away from it. I commend this bill to the Senate.