Parliamentary speeches

Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 - Second Reading

December 02, 2019

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, to join my Labor colleagues in opposing this bill and supporting the amendment moved by the member for Barton. I was very pleased to be here for my friend the member for Dunkley's contribution and to hear the passion with which she spoke about the people who are going to be adversely affected by this bill and by so many decisions and failures to take decisions by this government. It's her attitude and the attitude of my colleagues that should be brought to bear when we think about our social services legislation. She really nailed this bill, in a nutshell, at the end. The use of the word 'integrity'—often used by this government, much talked of by members of this government but oh so very rarely upheld—we saw in question time, yet again, today.

Let's think about the ensuring integrity bill, which, happily, failed to pass the other place last week. It's union-busting legislation under a different name, the disastrous robodebt debacle. We on this side of the House remember that that was introduced, again, in the name of so-called integrity. And today we have the payment integrity bill, which is code—and not very convincing code—for more cuts to pensioners and Australians who are looking for work.

At the same time, the Morrison government has failed, conspicuously, to ensure integrity on its frontbench, with the minister for emissions reduction embroiled in a police investigation. We still await, much later than we were promised, steps towards a national integrity commission. Those of us who have been in this place last week and today for question time see why a national integrity commission is so urgently needed and why members of this government are in no rush to move on with this critical aspect of restoring real integrity and trust to politics and decision-making in Australia.

This bill was of course first introduced in 2017. As my colleagues have noted, it was bad legislation two years ago and it continues to be bad legislation today. The bill incorporates a number of cuts that were originally contained in the 2017 budget, and these really go into three categories. The first is increasing residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 to 15 years. I want to touch on this now, because, in doing so, this bill introduces a very significant change to the principles of our social security system, as the Bills Digest notes. By setting a lower residency requirement for those with residence in Australia during their working life and those without long periods of income support receipt compared to those who do not fit these criteria, the measure adds, for the first time, an explicit link between working and paying income tax and qualification for a pension payment. This is the sort of change that should follow considerable public debate, not be introduced in this manner. Of course, this change of principle has a very, very significant practical effect and, I would say, a very significant discriminatory practical effect, which I will touch on further. But this question of the change in principle is an important one and it deserves to be properly attended to by members of this government. Perhaps in doing so they could also have regard to the very, very thin statement of compatibility with human rights, which really fails to touch upon this issue in an adequate way.

The second limb of the bill is to stop the payment of the age pension supplement after the recipient has spent six weeks overseas, and the last one is to extend the liquid assets waiting period that applies to Newstart, youth allowance and other allowances. This bill will rip over $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners, including older Australians who just want to visit family overseas or who need to spend an extended time overseas caring for relatives or grandchildren. In our multicultural society, particularly in my electorate—and, I'm sure, in the electorate of the member for Greenway—this is an essential part of life. It is not a luxury, as government members seem to believe it should be. Of course, on this side of the House we know that portability of the pension is, has been and should continue to be a cornerstone of the Australian social security system. Migrant pensioners who've worked hard in Australia, who've built a life and raised a family here, should be able to get the pension. Making people wait longer to get the pension will only force some older Australians to go without, struggle or live in poverty.

These cuts are an area of great concern to me, as the shadow minister for multicultural affairs. I've been approached by a wide range of stakeholders who've expressed their serious concerns with these proposed cuts to migrant pensioners as well as many other constituents. The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia said that the changes in this bill are discriminatory, as I touched on before in reference to the statement of compatibility with human rights. They said:

... the extension of the residency requirements for qualification for DSP and age pension and the removal of the pension supplement after six weeks of travel overseas disproportionately impact culturally and linguistically diverse communities and are therefore discriminatory in nature.

FECCA went on to say:

Every dollar counts when you're living on the age pension so it is punitive and cruel to take away that additional amount just because someone, for very good reasons, is having to spend an extended period of time overseas.

Indeed, I know many older migrants in my electorate of Scullin who save up for years to go on one last big trip back to Italy or Greece or Turkey to visit family and loved ones. These are Australians who've worked hard and deserve this support when they reach the pension age. The St Vincent de Paul Society said:

By increasing waiting periods and reducing access to support payments, the proposed measures would further erode an already fragile social safety net, contributing to inequality and disproportionately impacting on people on low incomes. Such proposals are morally, socially and economically indefensible.

Labor understands this. We also understand that these pensioners have worked hard all their lives and fundamentally deserve dignity in their retirement. The last thing they need is to be treated like a burden by this Prime Minister, by his Treasurer and by the Minister for Government Services, with the completely inadequate rationale in his second reading speech, which seems to have no regard whatsoever for the human beings who will be impacted by this legislation if we do not stop it in this place. Let's not forget the extraordinary and contemptuous contribution from the member for Goldstein, one of only two government members who participated in this debate—someone who, again, seems to have no regard for the human beings that are the subject of this bill before the House.

I want to also speak briefly about the enhanced residency requirement for pensioners. The Department of Social Services has indicated that approximately 2,300 people each year would be required to wait longer before becoming eligible for the age pension or the disability support pension as a result of increasing the required period of residence from 10 to 15 years. Again we see here, put very simply, the Morrison government trying to find budget savings at the expense of older migrants. It will be older migrants in Australia who face difficulties as a result of extending the residency requirements. This isn't fair, and for this reason Labor will not support it.

Unfortunately the record of the Liberal and National parties when it comes to protecting pensioners leaves plenty to be desired. These parties in government have tried to cut the pension and increase the pension age to 70 in every budget, including in those three budgets when the now Prime Minister had the job of being Australia's Treasurer. It's a particular obsession of his, it would appear. We recall that in the infamous 2014 'lifters and leaners' budget the Liberals declared war on Australia's social safety net. They tried to cut the pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners were forced to live on $80 a week less within a decade. This unfair cut would have ripped $23 billion from the pockets of pensioners in Australia. In the 2014 budget they cut a billion dollars from pensioner concessions, supports designed—and very necessary—to help pensioners with the cost of living. Also in the 2014 budget they axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees in receipt of the Commonwealth seniors health card. Also in the budget—there's more!—the Liberals tried to reset the deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part pensioners made even worse off.

It didn't end in 2014. In 2015 we saw the deal with the Greens to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the assets test. In the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of this plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks, showing no understanding of the realities of life for so many older Australians with family overseas. Again in in the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to over 1.5 million Australians through scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show that this would have left over 563,000 Australians currently receiving a pension or allowance worse off. Over 10 years in excess of 1.5 million pensioners, as I said, would have been worse off through this.

On top of this they spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. It took five consecutive rate cuts before they even adjusted the deeming rate—then only after a concerted campaign through those seniors groups who work hard to represent older Australians, including older Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, joined by the Labor Party, and we were proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. You know what? The Prime Minister was sitting around the cabinet table when these decisions to take the axe to pensioners were made. He can't run away from any of these cuts. He can't run away from his record over the last six years. He owns all of these cuts, and Labor will continue to hold him to account for them and for their impact on the lives of too many Australians.

This bill, as the member for Dunkley was touching on earlier, will also cut Newstart by extending the liquid assets waiting period. This bill, in so doing, will force Australians who are trying desperately to re-enter a tough labour market to eat into their savings before they can access income support. It will force into poverty, before they can access support, middle-aged men—men in their 50s and 60s who have worked hard all their lives, paid the taxes and done the right thing—who have recently been made redundant. What good does this do? What good does all the aspirational language we hear from government members do? Currently people claiming Newstart, sickness allowance, youth allowance and Austudy must wait up to 13 weeks to access the payments if they have liquid assets, savings or perhaps a redundancy: over $5,500 for a single with no dependants, or $11,000 for someone with a partner or dependants. The government now wants to extend the maximum liquid assets waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks for people with liquid assets of more than $18,000 for singles or $36,000 for couples and people with dependants. But they've advanced no rationale for increasing this for people who have lost a job or been made redundant.

While many will find a job within the 13-week period, it's important that those who do not are not forced to run down their savings to the point where they become vulnerable to losing their home or unable to meet unexpected expenses. In other words, a waiting period that is too long or a threshold that's too high will be counterproductive to any reasonable approach to the public policy priority here of helping people get back on their feet. In fact, this will make life harder for these people and their families.

Income support means support for retraining. It means being able to keep the car on the road so you can look for work and keep paying the rent or the mortgage. The Parenthood have condemned this bill, saying that extending the liquid assets test period is a measure which is:

... designed to put vulnerable people in an even more desperate position than they already find themselves. Making people wait six months for income support is dangerous and risks leaving people with absolutely nothing.

The National Social Security Rights Network went on to say:

The social security system is not fit for purpose if it erodes people's ability to deal with one-off and extraordinary expenses. Measures like this, which undermine people's savings, can have the effect of pushing people into improvident lending practices and a range of other negative situations, which are of concern to the community, government and parliament.

So it is quite clear that this bill is unfair and would push vulnerable Australians into poverty.

What the government should be doing is seeking to grow the economy and to lift people out of poverty. Instead, they are disgracefully taking money out of the pockets of pensioners and workers made redundant out of no fault of their own. Under the Morrison government we know that Australia is not as it should be and that Australia's economy is not where it should be. We have the slowest growth in a decade, stagnant wages, productivity in decline, record household debt, high underemployment and significant structural unemployment as well as declining living standards. After all of this, the government has no plan for the economy. All the government seems intent on doing is making unfair cuts, impacting on some of the most vulnerable Australians and impacting also in a discriminatory way on migrants. There's no plan to increase Newstart, no plan to tackle poverty and no plan to boost economic growth or productivity. All we have in this Prime Minister is an ad man without a plan.