PARLIAMENT, CANBERRA: I rise to speak on and support the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2011. The bill in question will enhance the current job seeker compliance framework by providing additional incentives for job seekers to engage with their employment service providers and to participate fully in activities designed to improve their employment prospects. The bill is going to introduce suspension of payment for job seekers following an initial failure to attend an appointment or, in some instances, an activity such as training or Work for the Dole. As soon as a job seeker agrees to attend the appointment, however, their payment will be restored with full back payment.
Under this bill all job seekers will be required to attend a rescheduled appointment regardless of their reasoning for missing the initial one. If the job seeker attends the rescheduled appointment they will not be penalised as such. If a job seeker, however, does not attend the rescheduled appointment, payment will again be suspended but this time if they do not have a reasonable excuse for missing the appointment they will incur a reconnection failure and lose payment for each day from the second missed appointment until they do attend a rescheduled appointment—that is, there will be no back pay for that particular period.
Why is this particular bill necessary? There are reasons both in principle and in philosophy and there are also some very specific reasons why this bill is necessary. Let me first outline some of the broader principles why this bill is necessary. The broader principle is that we should be doing everything that we can to reasonably get people off welfare and into work. We do no service to anybody, whether it is to the broader community or indeed to unemployed people, by allowing people to stay on welfare without any responsibilities being attached to that welfare payment. I do not believe that we are a compassionate society by not attaching responsibilities to welfare. In fact, I do not think it is compassionate at all to not attach responsibilities to welfare. I have seen this in my own electorate of Aston where people who become welfare dependent over time and do not accept jobs that are available for them to pursue become debilitated and you end up having long-term welfare dependence and long-term debilitation.
I have also seen this in Indigenous communities at close quarters. I spent a few years working with Noel Pearson in the Cape York Institute where we were working on some welfare reform measures which indeed have become some of the groundbreaking welfare reform measures that are being rolled out in other places across Australia. The insight which Noel Pearson had was that long-term welfare without reciprocity, without responsibility being added to welfare payments, can indeed lead to debilitation. I think that is a very important point which Pearson has been making very strongly for the last decade. He has spearheaded that effort to get all of us to be thinking differently about welfare—that it should not be a destination in itself but rather rightly be considered a safety net for people in difficult circumstances and that welfare has responsibilities attached to it as well. So that is a very, very important principle which I think we need to stop and pause and think about. That should govern our actions in relation to welfare reform efforts—that is, that there is responsibility attached to welfare payments.
The coalition has been talking about this broad principle for a long time. We introduced in the Howard government the Work for the Dole scheme and we also introduced mutual obligation as a broad principle. These were both very good measures which were put in place. I am pleased that the government is now saying that it also believes in some of those principles. I certainly was concerned, I think it was in 2008, when the employment minister at the time was telling Centrelink officers that they should not be breaching people who had not been delivering upon their job compliance requirements. I think it is important that we have a system in place and that it is adhered to. That is the broader philosophical reason why I think this bill is an important step in the right direction. If we look at the actual specifics, we will also see that action needs to be taken in this particular area. When we look at the data we see that, currently, unemployment is at a low point, about 4.9 per cent. By long-term historical standards we have very low unemployment. At the same time, however, there are 179,000 people in long-term unemployment and there are of course many people who are in short-term unemployment. One of the key economic issues that we have at the same time is indeed a labour shortage, a skills shortage. I hear about it every day in my electorate and we read about it in the newspapers on a daily basis: businesses cannot find workers—sometimes workers at reasonably entry level jobs, low-skill jobs. Of course, there is also great demand for skilled workers. But at the same time that these jobs are going begging only 55 per cent of job seekers are actually attending appointments with employment service providers. So 45 per cent of appointments with job service providers are being missed. In the last 12 months alone, approximately two million job interviews, activities or provider appointments were missed. These are staggering numbers. When only 55 per cent of people are attending their appointments then I think we do need to look more closely at that and strengthen some of the compliance measures. This bill heads in the right direction on that.
The bill itself outlines a broad framework. In some respects, the devil in the detail of this bill will come about by looking at the specifics of what is defined as a “reasonable excuse” for not attending an appointment. Of course, there are many valid, legitimate reasons for not attending an appointment. You could be in an accident yourself and therefore physically unable to get to an appointment. There could be other very legitimate reasons why you cannot make an appointment and they should be specified and documented so that Centrelink officials are aware of those. But we do not want to make the list so broad that it will be overly easy for a job seeker to avoid having to deliver upon their obligations. We need to carefully think about and carefully define what a reasonable excuse is for not attending interviews or job seeker appointments. We will be watching very carefully what the regulations say in relation to that.
We also need to look at what the burden on Centrelink will be. This bill introduces some additional burdens on Centrelink to ensure that the measures can be enacted and enacted in a timely manner. Centrelink obviously needs to be properly resourced to deal with these additional burdens so that the agency can act quickly and send the message quickly to the job seeker so that the job seeker understands that a penalty will be coming. I assume this will also require additional IT investment in Centrelink’s systems for that to occur. That needs to be examined, and I have heard very little about what is going to occur in that area.
There are also some recommendations and other issues which should be addressed concurrently with the introduction of this bill. Some of these came up at the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment inquiry into this bill. I was a part of that inquiry. Some of those recommendations are quite sensible. One is the need for additional research or additional data to be collected on exactly why people are failing to meet their job seeker appointments and their requirements under the compliance regimes. The Brotherhood of St Laurence, which made a submission, suggested that we need a more considered understanding through research of the reasons why the various subgroups and subpopulations of job seekers are not connecting well with their service providers. I think the recommendation that additional research be undertaken is sensible.
I will highlight some of the other recommendations that came out of the House of Representatives inquiry that I think the government should consider closely and, hopefully, enact. Recommendation 2 recommended ‘developing consistent guidance and training materials to accompany the bill’. I think recommendation 4 is worthy of consideration and implementation. The committee recommended that employment service providers be given clear and comprehensive guidance as to how to utilise their discretion to submit a participation report on a missed appointment. In fact, one issue which came out very strongly through the parliamentary inquiry was that employment service providers do have a broad range of discretion and that having additional guidelines would help them make responsible and timely decisions.
Let me conclude by, again, reiterating my support for this bill. I think it is a bill which is heading in the right direction as a further measure of welfare reform. As I said previously, welfare reform is something which the coalition has been talking about for some time, and it enacted some important measures when it was in government. It is also an area in which I have had a personal interest and have worked for a period of time. I support the measures. I hope that they do have an impact in supporting job seekers to find work which they can get satisfaction from doing and in getting them off the welfare payment system.