CHRIS UHLMANN: Over the weekend there appeared to be more conflicting messages coming from the Abbott Government, this time on welfare reform.
The Minister who oversees welfare payments, Kevin Andrews, seemed to leave open the prospect of drug testing people on unemployment benefits but that was soon dismissed by the Prime Minister.
Kevin Andrews is the Minister for Social Services. Welcome to AM.
MINISTER ANDREWS: Thank you, Chris.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And can you tell us, is the Government planning to make people on unemployment benefits take drug tests? They do do it in New Zealand.
MINISTER ANDREWS: The reports on the weekend were basically some premature speculation about what might or not be in the McClure welfare review. The process is that the McClure discussion paper will be released sometime in the next few weeks, after which we’ll allow a period of consultation, particularly with the welfare sector. Then the McClure panel will write a report and that will include recommendations to the Government.
Now, it’s premature of me to be getting into what might or might not be in that report when we haven’t even got the issues paper out…
CHRIS UHLMANN: The Prime Minister ruled out drug testing yesterday; will you rule it out today?
MINISTER ANDREWS: It’s a peripheral issue, Chris…
CHRIS UHLMANN: Are you ruling it out?
MINISTER ANDREWS: Well, I don’t think we’re going to go down that track because…
CHRIS UHLMANN: You don’t think so or you’re certain you won’t?
MINISTER ANDREWS: Oh, look, we’re playing with words now, Chris. We are unlikely to go down that track for this reason: Drug testing and related things in the report on the weekend largely involved state jurisdiction or responsibilities. We are interested in New Zealand, but what we’re interested in New Zealand about is the social investment approach to welfare. For example in New Zealand they’ve been able to show that if a person at the age of 35 is on welfare, there’s probably a 70 to 80 per cent change that that person was already on welfare at the age of their late teens, early 20.
So, obviously, reporters are looking at New Zealand and saying they do this, that and some other thing. What we’re really interested in is this investment approach to welfare and not all these peripheral issues.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Sure, and New Zealand is a single jurisdiction which makes this easier, but would you be prepared to negotiate with the states about drug testing?
MINISTER ANDREWS: It’s not something on my agenda. And, as I said, if I get in to the job of ruling in and out everything that might or might not be in the welfare review, then we’re just getting into premature speculation, which is what the Prime Minister himself said on the weekend.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Sure, but he was prepared to rule it out.
MINISTER ANDREWS: Well, it’s out.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Alright. Youth unemployment in Sydney’s west is as high as 17 per cent, 25 per cent in some of the regions, yet you plan to take people off benefits under 30, making sure that they lose those benefits for six months if they lose their job. Where’s the justice in that?
MINISTER ANDREWS: Well let me clarify what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
The fact that we’ve got youth unemployment in areas like Western Sydney as high as it is suggests to me that there’s something wrong with the existing system – it’s not working. And that’s not the only place in Australia that’s the issue.
But what we’re doing is saying that for people under 30, if you’re not in a job then we want you to be training to get a job. As I said, you look at that New Zealand experience, that if people in their early 20s are on welfare, there’s a big chance that they’re still going to be on welfare at the age of 35. So, what we’re saying is, if you’re not in a job, you should be in training and we’ll give you assistance to be in training.
CHRIS UHLMANN: So you will get benefits if you are learning?
MINISTER ANDREWS: If you’re learning you’ll get benefits; you’ll be eligible in the normal way as you would for Youth Allowance, or for Austudy or ABSTUDY. There’s extended FEE-HELP, which we’re going to a whole range of new courses that wasn’t there. We’re providing assistance in a new way and a greater way to people who take up apprenticeships.
So, this is not about punishing people. This is about saying the best thing that we can do for you, for your family, your community, your future is to actually be in training if you don’t have a job, so you can get a job.
CHRIS UHLMANN: There are around 20 different payments in Australia for welfare and they’re topped up with another 50 different supplements. Are you intending to really streamline that?
MINISTER ANDREWS: Well that’s the aim of this exercise, as you said. If you look a diagram of the welfare system in Australia it makes Barry Jones’s Noodle Nation look clear. These payments have been added on ad-hoc over the years, over the decades. If you touch one, it affects others in ways that are difficult to follow. We’ve got such complexity that even the welfare computer system has trouble keeping up with it all.
So, there’s really an ideal, an aspiration if you like, to try and simplify this system into a way which government can understand it, consumers can understand it and it can be more efficient.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Is it simplification or savings that you’re really after?
MINISTER ANDREWS: No, it’s simplification. You know, if you’ve got payments and then you’ve got allowances, then you’ve got supplements, this becomes very confusing, very difficult to administer, and very costly. So, if we can simplify it, then we could have a much more rational system of welfare.
Now that’s what McClure is looking at. When the issues paper comes out there will be some discussion about that and hopefully we’ll then we can have a period of consultation in which the welfare and other groups can have their say about the process. But even bodies like ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Services) will say we’ve got too complex a system.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Finally, is the Government fighting on too many fronts at the moment?
MINISTER ANDREWS: Look, our aim at the moment is to get the Budget through the Parliament.
CHRIS UHLMANN: That’s a noble aim, will you succeed?
MINISTER ANDREWS: Well, we will put the budget provisions to the house and they obviously will go through there. Then we’ll be calling on the Senate to act in the national interest to look at the problem we’ve got and inherited and that’s the galloping debt and deficit and we’ve got to do something about that and that’s what this budget has got a plan to do.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Kevin Andrews, thank you.
MINISTER ANDREWS: Pleasure, Chris.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And Kevin Andrews is the Minister for Social Services.