Second Reading Speech
Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (12.40 pm)—The Greens do not support the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Connecting People with Jobs) Bill 2010 and I will articulate why. During the election the government announced the Connecting People with Jobs trial, which will allow long-term unemployed people—those who have been out of work for 12 months or more—to be eligible for reimbursement of up to $3,000 if they relocate to a metropolitan area for work or up to $6,000 if they relocate to a regional area for work, plus an additional $3,000 if they have dependent children. The trial, as we know, will provide a wage subsidy of $2,500 to employers as an incentive to employ these particular job seekers. The trial will be for two years and is aimed to assist 2,000 people.
I note that the funding for this trial is not new money but money already allocated to the Employment Pathway Fund. This bill allows for job seekers in certain circumstances to have their social security stopped for 12 weeks. The current legislation already provides for an eight-week non-payment period where a job seeker becomes unemployed as a result of a voluntary act or due to misconduct. This bill seeks to extend that period to 12 weeks where the job seeker has been paid relocation assistance. The Greens’ concern and opposition to the eight-week non-payment period is well documented and we have articulated in this place on numerous occasions the impact that that eight-week non-payment period has had on people.
The Greens are supportive of measures to provide incentives for long-term unemployed people to find work, including through assistance with relocation costs. That is not what we have an issue with. We do not understand why we have to have the severe additional penalty contained in this bill. It is needless, in our opinion The Greens do not support the current eight-week non-payment period and we do not, therefore, support its extension to 12 weeks. We believe that the impact that the eight-week non-payment period has had on people has been extremely severe. It has in fact led to people dropping out of the social security system altogether, which has meant that there have actually been rolling eight-week non-payment periods. This occurred more often before the government amendments bringing in a much better Employment Pathway Plan, a much better compliance process, a better examination of other options et cetera. Having said that, we are still concerned about the impact that the eight-week non-payment period has had with, as I said, people dropping out of the system and rolling eight-week non-payment periods, and about the impact on certain groups of people and people in certain locations. We are concerned about the impact this much more extensive process could have.
Regardless of circumstances, three months is a long time for people to go without any financial support. We are concerned about the punitive compliance measures proposed to keep people in jobs, particularly when the incentives in this measure are aimed at those who have been out of work for 12 months or more. People who have been out of work for 12 months or more have significant employment barriers, and we are concerned that a significant employment barrier may be a reason why somebody may leave a job once they have started it. Some of those barriers, which may not have been addressed while those people were on income support, may not be acknowledged and may be a contributing factor to their unemployment.
I would also note in passing that we have some concerns that the funding for counselling through the JSA process will stop and that that counselling service will then stop, so that people will not even be able to access that type of service. In fact, we are concerned that the 12-week non-payment period may actually put people off accessing this incentive in the first place.
Voluntarily leaving a job can occur for a variety of reasons—including because of bullying, lack of support or personal circumstances—that we do not believe justify such a severe penalty. This is so particularly when you also take into account that people may be relocating a significant way from their current residence into regional areas and may not get the support they need to stay in a job—particularly, as I said, when we are aiming these incentives at those who have been out of work for a significant period of time. I am concerned that the support services that may be needed to keep people in employment, particularly in regional and more remote areas, may not be available.
We do support attempts by the government to assist people to relocate for work. As I have said, that is because we think that we need to be offering these sorts of incentives to encourage and support people back into the workforce. But just giving financial support is not necessarily addressing what are, for some people, very significant barriers to employment. While we support the attempts by government to assist people to relocate for work, we simply cannot support the provisions of this bill and what we think is the needless increase in the non-payment period.
An eight-week non-payment period, when you have no other source of income, is already a significant deterrent, in our opinion. Indeed, as I have said in this place many times, we believe that eight weeks is too se-vere—let alone going to 12 weeks. If we have to have a non-payment period, we believe the current, eight-week, period is enough of a deterrent. As I have already said, we have concerns about even the current period.
This bill is, in fact, not about connecting people with jobs; it is about punishing people who are in need of support. We believe we should be focusing our efforts on actually addressing the question: what are the barriers to long-term employment? We believe we should be putting a lot more into ensuring that the people who are in this program are supported to stay in work and into addressing some of the issues that may influence their ability to stay in jobs that they relocate for.
So we do not support this bill. We think it is unnecessarily harsh. We do not support the eight-week non-payment period, as I have said. Just in case people out there have not got that message: we do not like it. We believe is a significant barrier in itself and, therefore, unnecessary. We also believe, as I said, that it is counterproductive and does not consider adequately enough the reasons for which people may leave work. As I said, it may in fact act as a disincentive if people realise that they may then have a 12-week non-payment period. I realise that the two major parties agree on this bill, but we do not support it. We do support the incentives process in this approach, but we do not support the severe penalty that is introduced in this bill.