Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

MONDAY, 11 SEPTEMBER 2017

 In the Senate inquiry into this bill, Sharon Pellas from Volunteering Australia, reported:

I have actually found that in the volunteering role I have had a lot more value in terms of the input that I give into where I've been volunteering in both services. I've actually had an opportunity to also increase my skill set and learn to use different IT systems that I wasn't aware of before. I've also been able to share my knowledge in terms of good customer service skills and looking at customer service models. I've also been able to foster self-esteem in people under Job Network and also with people who are working for the dole. I've been able to be involved in bringing a community together.

She says:

I'm still looking for work. I'm doing that myself anyway. So I think I keep a much more positive approach than what I would have if I wasn't volunteering.

That's Sharon Pellas, a witness giving evidence on behalf of Volunteering Australia. Jemma Toohey, the Chief Executive Officer of Albury Wodonga Volunteer Resource Bureau, quoted a volunteer for her organisation:

In 2013 at the age of 59 I commenced volunteering for 15 hours weekly at the Albury Wodonga Volunteer Resource Bureau. Volunteering gave me a sense of pride, in knowing that some of the skills I had acquired from my previous occupations could be useful to this organisation. Volunteering has also given me many personal benefits, such as teaching me some new skills, meeting new people and a sense of wellbeing by giving back to the community. In 2016 I was fortunate to be offered some casual paid working hours which are still ongoing. It is only due to my volunteering that this opportunity arose and I am extremely grateful. Kind regards, Judy Gallagher.

Ms Gallagher's experience is similar to that of many volunteers around Australia aged 50 to 59 who are able to meet participation requirements through volunteering. We know that in Australia we have a challenge in maintaining the strength of community spirit.

What the Americans call the Bowling Alone problem and we call the Disconnected problem has meant that Australians now are less likely to donate money, to volunteer their time, to join organisations like Scouts, Guides, Rotary or Lions, to attend a religious service or to be part of a trade union. Social capital is on the wane in Australia, so we need government policies to be looking creatively at how we can encourage volunteering, not discourage it.

After the last election, Bill Shorten, reflecting Labor's strong commitment to the charity and not-for-profit sector, announced that for the first time there would be a frontbencher with responsibility for charities and not-for-profits, and I am honoured to have that portfolio as part of my responsibilities. Labor takes charities and not-for-profits seriously. Labor stands with charities and not-for-profits in measures that will encourage volunteering.

Among the organisations that have expressed concern about the volunteering measures in this bill are Uniting Communities, ACOSS, Jobs Australia, the National Social Security Rights Network, the Chinese Australian Services Society Limited, the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association, the Australian Association of Social Workers, the National Employment Services Association and People with Disability Australia. In their submission to the Senate review of the bill, Volunteering Australia wrote:

For many older Australians, losing employment at this age can be quite difficult, with finding gainful options for employment incredibly difficult. Volunteering can be an effective way to engage in society, acting as a pathway back to employment, and a way to keep people healthy and active.

Volunteering Australia also noted a survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission in 2015, the National Prevalence Survey of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, which found that the highest incidence of age discrimination involved those aged between 55 and 64. The submission quoted from a manager of volunteers in the Barwon region, who referred to closures at Ford and Alcoa 'forcing many folk into early redundancies and unemployment' and went on to say:

I meet many hundreds of potential volunteers each year and a significant number of these individuals are 55 to 59 years of age and above. Invariably, the experience recounted to me is of a demoralising period of job hunting, applying for roles that they are never offered, let alone interviewed for, within a job market so competitive that they rarely if ever receive an acknowledgment for the considerable effort made in each application.

The Volunteering Australia submission also quotes from a volunteer-involving organisation in South Australia:

You may appreciate that we are in the business of ‘second chances’, so we accept those who have criminal records wanting to make a go of it and contribute back to society through volunteering. In the case of our Volunteer Manager who works 80 hours a fortnight, we will be forced to shut our Furniture Warehouse if an exemption is not put in place. We accept volunteers according to their skill set … to find full time work and be in this age range with a criminal record makes things near impossible for them.

I commend Volunteering Australia's Adrienne Picone and Lavanya Kala for compiling that important submission.

LEEP says of this measure:

… LEEP interacts with hundreds of individuals seeking to volunteer their time and skills. A large proportion of these individuals perceive volunteering as a meaningful avenue to paid employment, with 1:4 volunteers enquiring about volunteering through Leep in 2016-2017 being unemployed.

The submission points out that volunteering brings a range of benefits to jobseekers: the opportunity to gain local knowledge and experience, a supportive environment to build skills, a point of reference for future potential employers, an opportunity to engage socially and enhance wellbeing, and a platform to gain confidence. The LEEP submission, from Laura Goddard, the deputy CEO, concludes:

Volunteering is the backbone of a robust, safe and engaged community. The benefits that it brings volunteers, organisations and the broader community deserve to be highly regarded and appreciated at all levels of government.

The submission from Anglicare Australia points out:

Volunteers aged 55-64 are the single biggest cohort of volunteers nationally. Forcing people to desist from volunteering and seek jobs that simply aren't there will have a negative impact on their self-worth, and hurt many valuable and treasured community organisations that rely on volunteers to operate.

We are today in an Australia in which the federal government is continuing to wage war on Australia's charities. From 2011, when the charities commission was established, until just last year, the coalition has been committed to abolishing this one-stop-shop regulator for the charitable sector. Despite having had five ministers responsible for the charities commission over the four years in which it's been in office, the coalition has decided not to renew the contract for Susan Pascoe, the head of the charities commission. She's been there through the tenure of five ministers. She's provided stability to the charities commission through a time of 25 per cent staff turnover every year and considerable uncertainty, and she has received professional awards for her work there. The failure to renew Susan Pascoe's contract ought to be a black mark against Minister Sukkar's name, a minister who has failed to engage with the charities commission.

The charity sector also feel they have to fight other retrograde measures from this government, such as the war on advocacy. Charities support the right to advocate. They believe that it is important not just as a social service arm but also for environmental, legal and social services charities to be able to talk about big-picture issues and use their on-the-ground experience to inform policy development. Yet we have a government that is attacking charities' right to advocate. We see, through this bill, a further attack on charities by reducing the opportunity of voluntary organisations to satisfy the participation requirement for 55- to 59-year-olds. This will reduce the number of volunteers available to community organisations. Charities shouldn't be fighting the government. Since the Liberals came to office in 2013, the charity sector has had to write two open letters to prime ministers, one in 2013 to Prime Minister Abbott, pleading with him to change his position on scrapping the charities commission, and another—signed by a range of charities, including St John Ambulance, Philanthropy Australia and Volunteering Australia—just this June, calling on the government to take a more constructive attitude to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

Labor supports charities. We want to work with charities not just to fight against the retrograde attacks from the coalition but to try and improve the regulatory rules around fundraising, to avoid the scandals of the kind that we've seen in Britain following Olive Cooke's suicide and to deal with a patchwork of fundraising laws set up in the pre-internet era. We want to work with charities through our Reconnected forums, of which Labor has now held eight around Australia with a range of my shadow ministerial and parliamentary colleagues. Labor wants to work with charities to garner great ideas to build community life. We're not attacking charities; we're in the business of helping the work of the charity and not-for-profit sector.

In the few minutes remaining, I want to make a couple of remarks about the aspect of this bill which goes to drug testing. I want to begin with the very real story of one of my constituents, who contacted me. She's on the pension, and her 33-year-old daughter, she told me, has been addicted to drugs, mostly methamphetamines, for most of her adult life. Occasionally, the woman told me, her daughter turns to prostitution in order to buy drugs. My constituent said to me, 'If you take away her welfare payment for failing a drug test—because she's been addicted to drugs for the last 15 years—all she'll have to pay for food is my pension.' That's not going to make Australia better off. It's a policy that could increase homelessness and could well increase crime. It's a policy that will make Australia less safe.

In New Zealand, as Shadow Minister Macklin has pointed out, only 22 of the 8,001 participants who were drug tested in 2015 returned positive results, at a cost of some $1 million. That detection rate—22 out of 8,001—was significantly lower than the drug use rate reported in the general population. As Shadow Minister Macklin has pointed out, the organisations that have expressed serious concern about the government's drug-testing trials include the Australian Medical Association; the Royal Australasian College of Physicians; the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine; the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists; St Vincent's Health Australia; the Rural Doctors Association of Australia; Harm Reduction Australia; the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation; the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre; the Penington Institute; the Kirby Institute, at the University of New South Wales; the Victorian Alcohol & Drug Association; the Australian Council of Social Service; UnitingCare Australia; Homelessness Australia; the St Vincent de Paul Society; the Wayside Chapel; Anglicare; Catholic Social Services Australia; the National Social Security Rights Network; Odyssey House; Jobs Australia; Community Mental Health Australia; the Public Health Association of Australia; and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

As Shadow Minister Macklin points out, the extent to which this government has managed to unite the experts in this sector against it is extraordinary. We've had an open letter from 109 addiction specialists, 330 doctors and 208 registered nurses calling on the Prime Minister to stop the drug-testing trial. The Australian Medical Association has described the measure as 'mean and stigmatising'. The Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs said:

At a time when we desperately need money for frontline services, it's being spent in a way all the available evidence tells us won't work …

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians said:

Existing evidence shows drug testing welfare recipients is not an effective way of identifying those who use drugs and it will not bring about behaviour change. It is an expensive, unreliable and potentially harmful testing regime to find this group of people.

The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation said:

Had the Turnbull government consulted experts before unveiling this plan, they would have been advised to drop these measures pronto. Drug testing trials for people on income support have been trialled and abandoned in a few countries. In addition to causing significant harm to affected people and the wider community, they came at an enormous cost to the taxpayer.

Isn't the government supposed to be reining in wasteful spending?

Labor will not support these retrograde measures which hurt volunteers, increase homelessness and may increase crime in Australia. We will listen to the evidence and the experts.


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