Welfare Reform Bill Faces Fierce Backlash at Senate Inquiry
31 August 2017 at 5:17 pm
The Turnbull government’s controversial Welfare Reform bill has faced a fierce backlash from health experts and welfare groups, who have expressed concerns about a lack of evidence and planning at a Senate Inquiry held across Sydney and Melbourne this week.
The bill looks to reform the government’s welfare approach, by introducing a number of provisions including:
- Amending seven Acts to create a jobseeker payment to replace seven existing payments as the main payment for people of working age from 20 March 2020; which will result in the cessation of the widow B pension, wife pension, bereavement allowance, sickness allowance, widow allowance and partner allowance;
- Ensuring that job seekers are not able to use drug or alcohol dependency as an excuse for failing to meet their requirements;
- Introducing a new compliance framework for mutual obligation requirements in relation to participation payments;
- Establishing a two year drug testing trial in three regions for 5000 new recipients of newstart allowance and youth allowance; and
- Seeking an exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act.
The drug testing trial for welfare recipients has been especially contentious since it was announced in May’s federal budget.
Eyebrows were raised during the inquiry when the Department of Social Services’ payment policy group manager, Cath Halbert, admitted they did not know what the wait times for treatment services in the trial sites.
“We don’t [know the wait times] and the Department of Health doesn’t, as I understand it, have access to that information directly. We need to get it from the state governments.
“We know what services have been funded, and health has an idea of what was expected from the services they fund, but at a given point of time, we didn’t have information of, on that day, how many people were waiting for that particular service, but we’re gathering that information now.”
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert sat in during the inquiry and told Pro Bono News this was “unacceptable”.
“It is bad enough that the government did not bother to properly consult with drug, alcohol or health experts before announcing plans to drug test income support recipients, now we have heard they don’t even know the wait times for treatment in the three trial sites,” she said.
“We know there is enormous unmet need for drug and alcohol treatment broadly in Australia and that sort of detail should have been essential when considering the trial sites.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the government has not done its due diligence when it comes to consultation, evidence and information gathering on a measure that is going to make life harder for vulnerable people struggling with addiction.”
The inquiry heard responses from a number of experts and lobby groups, who have mainly voiced their opposition to the bill.
Welfare peak body ACOSS and representatives from 40 civil society organisations – including Anglicare, Mission Australia, National Association of Community Legal Centres and National Council for Single Mothers and Their Children – have called on the federal government to strengthen the social safety net to reduce poverty and inequality.
Sector representatives gathered outside the venue where the Welfare Reform Senate Inquiry was being held in Canberra on Tuesday to push their case.
The group has signed a joint statement calling on government to strengthen the social safety net and “stop tearing it apart”.
“As leaders from the community and health sectors, we unite to condemn repeated attacks by the federal government on people living in poverty,” the statement said.
“We condemn this government’s latest attempts to dismantle Australia’s social safety net by cutting income support payments for people already living below the poverty line.
“The social safety net is there to support us if we lose our job, get sick, undertake study, care for children or someone else, have a disability, or need support when we get older. It is an entitlement, not a crime, to receive an income support payment in Australia.
“This government must stop treating people on low incomes as though they are doing something wrong or breaking the law, just because they are receiving a payment.”
Volunteering Australia have also voiced its strong disapproval of the bill, telling the inquiry it was “strongly opposed to the proposed amendment.”
CEO Adrienne Picone said: “The tightening of the activity requirements will do little to improve the job prospects of older Australians, who are an already disadvantaged and discriminated group in the labour market.
“The barriers to employment are multiplied if you are an older jobseeker with a disability, from a CALD background, are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, or have a mental illness.”
She was also concerned of the effect these reforms would have on the volunteering sector.
“We are incredibly concerned that this punitive legislative amendment may move people away from crucial volunteering positions, that will not only have a detrimental impact on the volunteering sector, but the Australian economy,” Picone said.
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) also spoke at the inquiry on Thursday and condemned the government for a lack of consultation on the drug testing trial.
They said they were concerned about the drug trial’s effect on rural communities, especially given the lack of services available.
The RDAA’s submission to the inquiry said: “Other than the opportunity afforded by this Inquiry, RDAA is unaware of any consultation regarding the processes and resources required for the drug testing of jobseekers initiative.
“Lack of consultation with key stakeholders can only serve to continue the tradition of silo-ing and fragmentation of policy and programs that has plagued the Australian health system for many years.
“Increasing the demands placed on medical professionals and drug and alcohol treatment services through the establishment of new drug testing regimes and referral pathways without additional investment would further exacerbate existing inequities. Drug and alcohol treatment programs must be adequately resourced to ensure access.”