Speech by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Families, Housing, Community Services Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment Bill

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

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Mr SHORTEN (Maribyrnong- ) (11.56 am)

I rise to speak on the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2008. In the present world situation, with millions of people going to the wall financially, it has become a lot more fashionable, even on the conservative side of politics, to speak about mercy: what Shakespeare called that twice blessed gift to the unfortunate, those on whom the shafts of fate have unfairly fallen in a time-like now-of strife. This bill amends, broadens and makes more merciful legislation first passed a generation ago in another era of strife, 1975. It was passed after actions by Bill Hayden, a great Australian, a great Labor leader and a great Governor-General, when he was then the Minister for Social Security. It set up the SSAT, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, whose purpose was to help the unfortunate, people with disabilities, the elderly, single parents and their suffering children, to help them keep a roof over their heads, adequate food on the table and blankets on the beds when the basic things could be threatened by bureaucratic errors and injustice in the Department of Social Security, which was then in charge of their lives.

The responsibilities of the SSAT have grown since then. It now reviews, questions and sometimes overturns decisions made under social security law, family assistance law and, since 2007, child support law. But its aim, then as now, is to rescue those who have fallen down between the cracks of our society, however briefly and however unjustly. It helps those who are suffering from want, poverty, panic or homelessness because of a lack of legal advice, misinformation or errors in proper bureaucratic process. It helps those who have lost what may be the only lifeline for themselves and their families. It is there to give those in need a system which gives not just the theoretical right but the practical power to challenge incorrect or unjust decisions made regarding eligibility for allowances, their rate, their duration or their perceived doubling up. The SSAT strives to be fair, just, economical, informal and quick. It does not rely upon lawyers. It does not charge for an application to review a benefit and provides reasonable travel and accommodation expenses and interpreting services to help people make their case. In 2007-08 there were over 13,000 applications lodged with the SSAT, with the number of Centrelink related applications increasing by 35 per cent to 11,596. The main reason for the increase was Centrelink rulings on the Newstart allowance and alleged participation failures where Centrelink ruled that a receiver of the allowance had not done enough to meet their responsibility to find work.

Of the 11,000 cases, 27 per cent or over 3,000 cases saw the complaint upheld and Centrelink’s original decision overturned. This shows that Centrelink are a professional, humane organisation that gets it right most of the time, but it also highlights that no system is perfect and there is a need for an independent mechanism of review that is accessible to all Australians. Of course, the case details and the results are confidential, given that they deal with the personal circumstances of people. I would like to provide an example, in summing up, of how the SSAT can work to bring about a just and fair result for someone who is doing it tough. A single parent receiving the parenting payment for looking after a son with severe autism was penalised by Centrelink, who ruled that because she was still legally married, although not living with her husband, she should never have been given the single parent pension in the first place. This left her with a sizeable debt to pay at a time when money was needed for her child with autism-a debt to be paid with money that she did not have and could not earn while she was still looking after herself and her son. The review found that Centrelink had acted incorrectly and had not found sufficient evidence to prove that the couple had remained in a relationship, that Centrelink in this case had jumped the gun. The SSAT found that the money supplied by her former husband was for the care of the child only, that there was not evidence of an ongoing relationship between them, that they were no longer living together and that Centrelink in this case had erred.

This common-sense decision delivered a fair result and saved a family and a working mother tens of thousands of dollars. Another valuable aspect of the SSAT provides feedback to Centrelink and the Child Support Agency as to how they can improve their performance in their dealings with clients. In this role, it has helped us develop a pension system that is more responsive and humane towards the vulnerable people that it aims to assist. The SSAT has been performing a valuable service on behalf of vulnerable Australians for 34 years and this bill will help it continue that work. In summary, several acts within the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and related portfolios are amended by this miscellaneous measures bill. The amendments are minor and technical only. The minor amendments in the bill are to the social security law and the family assistance law. These amendments are to improve the operation and effectiveness of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, including allowing oral evidence and oral decisions in certain circumstances. Oral decisions will be available where the decision of Centrelink is being affirmed. All parties retain the right to request written decisions within 28 days. Oral evidence is likely to be used in complex cases where further explanation may clear up complicated or technical matters and so help the SSAT reach the correct and preferable decision. It should also help avoid costly and inefficient adjournments.

The bill also extends the term of appointments for members of the tribunal from three to five years, in line with government policy announced by the Special Minister of State in February last year. Lastly, the bill makes technical amendments to several acts, mainly to the social security law. The technical amendments are to repeal redundant provisions, to repeal references to redundant payments or repeal provisions, to correct cross-references, to correct past amendments that failed for technical drafting reasons and to address similar matters. In conclusion, these amendments further show the Rudd government’s unbending commitment-whatever the budget’s bottom line, whatever the outcome of the present meltdown-to a just and fair Australia where those least blessed by genetic fortune or marital fortune or the fair winds of our times, the circumstantial roulette of a life on earth which brings plenty and prosperity to some of us and privation to others. These people can at least have a clear, uncomplicated voice, putting their case for mercy and offering sheltering arms against the harsh winds, which blow in a time of strife, like all of us are facing now. I commend the legislation to the House.