Jobseeker and Social Services - 30/03/2022

30 March 2022


I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Streamlined Participation Requirements and Other Measures) Bill 2021 and the amendments that we have moved. Labor fully understands the value and the positive impact of our social security system. It is fundamentally important to us alleviating poverty and having an egalitarian society that we support people who are unable to work.

Right now we have over a million Australians who are out of work or looking for more work. It is not the time to be making it harder for them. Any Australian who has found themselves out of work and has to rely on our system, and on Services Australia and Centrelink's administration of that, needs to know that this is a system that will actually support them to be able to live with dignity and to be able to find a job. In fact, our social security system should be a source of national pride like universal health care and public education. It has been fundamental to making Australia a relatively egalitarian society. It is something that we should take pride in and ensure that the policy settings around it enable it to be an effective system.

At the moment, so much of our social security system is inadequate and so much of the way that it is administered is problematic. But we called upon that system to catch so many Australians when we were hit by mass job losses when the pandemic hit in early 2020. And we saw the power of that system, as we were able to reduce the level of poverty in Australia when the government significantly increased the JobSeeker payment temporarily. We saw people lining up around the streets in scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression, needing to access that support and those payments, and needing to access them in person, in particular. We saw long lines of people stretching out the doors of Centrelink shopfronts around the country, as workers were left jobless. The Centrelink in Braddon—which no longer exists—in my electorate of Canberra was no exception. There were long lines outside it as people went there to seek help, having lost their jobs.

As I mentioned, research done by the Australian National University confirmed that, when those payments were increased with the coronavirus supplement, hundreds of thousands of Australians were lifted out of poverty. That is the sort of thing we should be looking at doing. But, when the payment was first reduced and then cancelled completely, those same Australians were pushed back into poverty.

Another really important aspect of that support was that it enabled people to be at home and stop the spread of COVID. So we also relied on that system as a health measure—to support people to be able to live safely and to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

That brings me to this bill, which relates to the 2021-22 budget measure the new employment services model, which comprises spending of $700 million over five years and savings of over $1.1 billion over four years from 2021-22. The bill introduces changes to mutual obligation arrangements which would achieve $191.6 million in savings over four years by delaying when jobseekers receive payments. This is the sort of policy that we're looking at under this government—making a saving by just delaying when people can receive payments. You really would like to see your parliament doing much better than this. It introduces changes to participation requirements as part of the new employment services model announced in the budget, which had significant implications for jobseekers. These changes need to be considered so no Australians are left behind.

As has been mentioned, we are concerned that the government is rushing this bill through parliament, hence we have moved these amendments. That is why we referred the bill to a Senate inquiry in the first place, which reported in June last year.

We have heard nothing from the employment minister that offers confidence to anyone looking for a job, particularly the long-term unemployed, that this government is on their side. In fact, in the course of the Senate inquiry, the National Employment Services Association submitted 'there has likely been a considerable reduction in investment' for disadvantaged jobseekers. There are almost 1.5 million jobseekers, thousands of workers and hundreds of providers and businesses who are part of the employment services sector, and these changes are too important not to get right.

Labor is concerned that schedule 8 of the bill would mean that about 144,000 new jobseekers could lose between $300 and $450 in payments a year because of changes to when they would start receiving payments. It's a very sneaky way to save money—targeting the most vulnerable, targeting people that Australian society should be supporting, when they have lost their jobs.

This cut in payments is linked to when a jobseeker is able to enter into an employment plan. Under schedule 8, new jobseekers who use online services would be disadvantaged compared to those who choose face-to-face services, which means they could wait up to 10 days before they receive their first payment. This is a very strange potential outcome of this bill, in that what Services Australia and Centrelink are aiming to do is encourage people online, but this actually creates a disincentive for people to go online. As mentioned, we are concerned, because, while technology is important and we should be utilising it as much as we can, we need to use it in the best possible way, in ways that don't actually increase hardship for people who have lost their jobs.

The problem is, how can jobseekers choose face-to-face services when this government has been steadily axing Centrelink shopfronts around the country? I know this because it happened in my electorate of Canberra just recently. Last year the only Centrelink shopfront in my electorate, in central Canberra, was shut at short notice. This was in the middle of a pandemic, when, as I mentioned earlier, we had seen hundreds of people lining up in the street in Braddon when the pandemic hit, wanting to access that service. A replacement service will not be opened in my electorate. Services Australia claimed that the office was shut because of a 40 per cent drop in customer demand since 2016 as a result of demographic changes in the area, and this came out only through questioning by Senator Gallagher in Senate estimates. Despite this decrease, the Braddon shopfront was still used by 27,000 people every year.

The secretive nature of the closure was also very concerning. I found out about this planned closure only after chancing upon a Facebook ad for the office space and confirmed that it was in fact the Centrelink office space that was being advertised. Despite huge community support for the service remaining open, with next to no community consultation from the government, they went ahead and axed the shopfront anyway. The thousands of customers who have been told to instead use online portals or visit shopfronts in Gungahlin, Belconnen and Woden had barely any notice and no consultation on that change.

Not everyone can use online services. Not everyone has a computer or a smartphone. And many of Centrelink's own requirements need you to come in, and this is a perfect example of that—where people will actually be worse off if they use the online option rather than coming in, but their options to come in are extremely limited. The closure forced people to travel to Belconnen, Woden or Gungahlin to access face-to-face services, and my constituents who are struggling to survive on the disgraceful $43-a-day Jobseeker payment will have to spend a significant portion of that very low income on transport to get there.

The illogical aspect of this bill is that, despite closing shopfronts and pushing customers online, if jobseekers are forced to use online services they could be, on average, at least 8.4 days of pay worse off than jobseekers who use face-to-face services. At a time when the government is closing shopfronts to cut costs, this bill will act as a disincentive for jobseekers to utilise online employment services and appears to be at odds with the objectives of the new employment services model.

Labor recognises that the current employment services system is in need of reform. We are not opposed to changes designed to improve the system to make the best use of available technology for the benefit of jobseekers. That is why Labor will support the bill only if schedule 8 is removed and amendments are made as negotiated with the Australian Council of Social Service. These amendments include protections for jobseekers who are principal carer parents or have a partial capacity to work and a digital code of ethics to protect people from automated decisions and to protect privacy. I note that while the government have advised that they are prepared to remove schedule 8 from the bill they have not reversed this policy. This has again proved that Labor is the only party that can deliver fairer employment services.