Speech by Senator the Hon Amanda Vanstone

Launch of the Independent Social Security Handbook

Location: Australia Council building, 372 Elizabeth Street, Sydney

Thank you Michael (Raper, Director of the NSW Welfare Rights Centre and President of ACOSS). I’m pleased to be here in Sydney this morning to launch the latest edition of the Independent Social Security Handbook.

As the fourth edition, the Handbook is once again very comprehensive.

Apart from providing up-to-date information about social security, the Handbook reflects the wide level of expertise in the community – expertise that exists outside my ministerial portfolio of Family and Community Services.

Congratulations to Michael Raper and your team of writers and researchers on their excellent work. I understand staff from my Department and Centrelink made contributions, as well.

When it comes to helping with a whole range of problems, the Handbook has become a must for community workers who deal with day-to-day social security issues.

I see the jobs that many of you do as valuable complimentary services to those delivered by Centrelink, in the sense that you give an extra layer of support to individuals and families.

While the Government and the community sector won’t always agree on every policy and program, we do have the same goal – that is, to ensure Australians in need receive their entitlements and are protected by our social security system.

We can and do work together so people we both serve get a fair go from the Government.

Centrelink doesn’t always get it right. I believe Welfare Rights is happy to let them know that. This is a good thing for both organisations.

I know that Sue Vardon, who heads up Centrelink, and her staff appreciate the feedback and advice they get from regular meetings with Welfare Rights. The Government values this input and I can assure you we hear your voice loud and clear!

I would like to take a few moments to say something about our Welfare Reform proposals. The government is determined to make major, positive changes in our approach to social security.

There are too many individuals and families who are wholly supported by welfare with few or no opportunities for independence and self reliance. There are over 2.6 million Australians of working age on welfare payments.

I am sure that no-one in this audience, or in the wider Australian community, believes that this situation is beneficial to the individuals concerned, or to the nation. The government is concerned that not enough is being done to assist people to achieve the independence they deserve, nor is enough being done to overcome the obstacles that so many face in the job market.

Our plans for welfare reform will help many more Australians to participate in the social and economic life of the country in line with their aspirations and individual capacity.

Of course, we recognise that some people without jobs are already ‘participating’ by looking after young children or caring for the sick and disabled. We will continue to support this and help these people if they wish to return to paid work later in their lives.

Basically, there are five kinds of change we need to make:

  • we need to improve the way we deliver services to people by recognising that each person has individual skills and needs;
  • we need to simplify the rules for income support so that people can understand them and so that they encourage people to participate whenever they are able to;
  • we need to get the incentives right by making sure that for people on welfare they get better rewards from work;
  • we need to recognise that governments, business and the community all have obligations to help people on income support to improve their lives; and
  • we need to recognise that governments cannot do everything and that communities need help to develop their own resources at the local level to provide opportunities for disadvantaged people.

Centrelink will be a key player in these reforms. It is well placed to implement them through work that is already going on such as the new service delivery model and moves to create a simpler system, and I will come to this in a moment. But we can be certain that Centrelink will need to make some significant changes.

We won’t be introducing changes overnight. In fact it will take many years. And we will continue to consult with independent experts and peak bodies about developing and implementing our welfare reform measures.

Indeed, as part of our ‘social coalition’ approach to welfare reform, we established a special community and business consultative forum that includes Professor Julian Disney, Wilma Gallett from the Salvation Army, and Elaine Henry from The Smith Family. They have already made a major contribution to welfare reform and we hope they will continue to do so in the future.

Turning now to Centrelink specifically and to some of the activities that have been going on in the lead up to welfare reform.

Centrelink uses the information they get from Welfare Rights and other advocacy groups, as well as feedback from customers, to improve their performance.

Overall, I believe Centrelink is operating effectively. For example, customer surveys show that satisfaction with Centrelink offices and call centres continues to increase.

Centrelink keeps on looking for better ways to provide services to families and communities, and it is working on a number of new service delivery initiatives.

This includes a new service delivery model that focuses on individuals – each of whom has special needs and circumstances. I think this is what everyone would expect – to be treated as an individual.

Centrelink is doing its utmost to implement this sort of service delivery model.

Getting rid of counters, queues and numbering systems were important first steps.

People are no longer expected to know about the array of payments and services.

The new model is about people going to Centrelink at certain transitions in their lives – during ‘life events’ like having a baby, or looking for jobs or retiring – and getting a full rundown on what’s available.

For Centrelink, this new model is a big shift in practice. It means Centrelink is there to tell you what your entitlements are, rather than the other way around.

In the past, people have said they don’t like telling their story over and over again to different Centrelink staff.

In response to this, Centrelink introduced one-to-one service in 1999. This is now up and running.

Centrelink’s new life events’ model and their one-to-one services are still evolving. But I believe they fit well with the Welfare Rights’ philosophy about rights, entitlements, responsibilities and obligations.

This brings me to what the future holds for the social security system.

Early on as Minister, I said I wanted to reduce unnecessary red tape and bureaucratic processes that can make it difficult for you, your clients and Centrelink staff.

By its very nature, of course, social security is complex. But I asked officials what could be done to simplify the system, and still maintain its integrity and protect the public purse.

A Rules Simplification Task Force was set up in February. Made up of departmental and Centrelink staff, the Task Force will initially focus on simplifying the rules for the Age Pension and Newstart Allowance.

The Task Force reports to me in August. In the mean time, there will be consultations with peak community bodies and with Centrelink customers, themselves.

We want to find out how people like you, outside Canberra, think things can be improved. After all, it’s people at the coalface who usually come up with the most practical solutions.

It now gives me great pleasure to launch the 4th edition of the Independent Social Security Handbook.

Congratulations, again, to everyone involved.