My question is to the Minister for Human Services, Senator Ian Campbell. Is the minister aware of the dramatic increase in the number of Aboriginal Australians on income support payments who have been given an eight-week non-payment penalty, or breached, by Centrelink? Is the minister aware that, in the first three months of the new compliance system, 140 Aboriginal people were breached? This is nearly double the figure of the previous three months, or an increase of 133 per cent. Is the minister concerned that, of 170 breaches in his home state of WA, 50 were Aboriginal people-nearly a third of all breaches? Is the minister aware of these alarming figures? What does the minister intend to do to address this pressing problem?
Senator IAN CAMPBELL - I thank Senator Siewert for the question. Can I say that my strong belief is that one of the great outcomes of the strong economic growth that the Howard-Costello team has delivered for Australia will in fact be a substantial improvement in the outlook for Australians who struggle to be part of the workforce.
Indigenous Australians are particularly at risk there. Many Indigenous Australians are particularly challenged. The Welfare to Work policy of the Australian government will ensure that as many Australians as possible who are challenged by a whole range of circumstances-quite often not of their own making-do get access to employment. The process of putting Australians in those circumstances through job capacity assessments, ensuring that they seek employment and ensuring that - as part of the mutual obligation with the
government and society which provide support-they have a serious commitment to seeking work, is a very good policy that is being applied in, I think, a most successful way. In fact, if you look at the number of people who are moving from welfare to work, the statistics speak for themselves. This very morning I visited a Centrelink office and I spoke to some of the social workers at the front line who are-
Opposition senator interjecting -
Senator IAN CAMPBELL - I do it quite often, actually - looking at the implications for people who are seriously challenged. I addressed issues of what is occurring with Indigenous job seekers and breaching. The government will ensure that the policy is applied to people who breach those mutual obligation principles. We are very serious about ensuring that, where the rules apply, people know that the government is serious about it-and we do not make exceptions. We do ensure, however, that there are reviews of cases. We do know that, in the case of Indigenous job seekers, the application of it is very important.
Mr President, please be under no illusion:
we will apply the Welfare to Work principles diligently. We will do so right across the Australian community. We will ensure, however, that mitigating factors are taken into account, not only for Indigenous Australians but for other Australians who are faced with special circumstances and circumstances beyond their control.
Senator SIEWERT - Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I will repeat the first part of my question: is the minister aware of the significant increase of breachings of Aboriginal Australians as a result of the Welfare to Work changes? I will add to that: is the minister familiar with the Centrelink Indigenous penalty strategy and does the minister consider that the strategy is proving effective? Is the minister aware of the situations in which Aboriginal people are being breached against the expressed recommendations of Indigenous service officers under this strategy?
Senator IAN CAMPBELL - I am very well aware of the strategy and I am very well aware of the fact that at Centrelink offices right around Australia, in metropolitan areas and in remote Australia, we look at it very carefully and work with our customers. We work very closely with people who are engaged in Welfare to Work. We have Indigenous customer services advisers, who work very closely with Indigenous people.
In fact, in the week before last I was down in Redfern working with one of the Indigenous service advisers talking about how they engage with the Indigenous community.
The best thing we can do for Australia is ensure that the fantastic economic achievements of the Howard-Costello government not only go to those who live in affluent circumstances in the metropolitan area but also go to those least advantaged in the community, many of them Indigenous.
I am very convinced that Centrelink understand the circumstances of Indigenous Australians and will work very closely with them to ensure they share in the economic benefits that this government has sought to deliver.