A controversial Bill that would have left the poorest unemployed Australians without welfare for eight weeks has been voted down by the Senate, throwing its future into doubt.
In a victory for welfare advocates, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill 2014 today failed to pass the Parliament’s upper house, defeated by 35 votes to 29.
The legislation, championed by the Coalition, would have punished job seekers who refused “suitable” work or missed three participation requirements over a six-month period.
While sanctions for welfare recipients who refuse work already exist, the new laws would have removed ‘waivers’ introduced by Labor in 2009, which allow people to have payments reinstated if they take steps to rectify their errors, for example by attending counselling and job placement meetings they had previously missed.
The legislation also sight to destroy a ‘financial hardship’ waiver, meaning those with less than $2,500 of liquid assets would also have welfare payments suspended for the eight-week period.
It is estimated the changes would save the Federal Government $20 million by 2018.
But welfare groups had warned that if legislated, the Bill would cause substantial hardship among the vulnerable, increase homelessness, and destroy the current incentive for those whose payments have been cancelled to reengage with job seeking services.
“The majority of recipients of unemployment payments have few savings, little access to credit, and many receive little or no support from family,” a submission from peak social services group ACOSS said.
“It is unwarranted to punish people once they have complied,” La Trobe academic Kemran Mestan told the Senate Committee.
“Worse than ineffectual, the policy is likely to be counter-productive.”
The Coalition has defended the Bill on the basis it would only impact those who actively refuse work or are judged to be non-compliant. Liberal Senator Zed Seselja, who chaired a senate committee that heard damning evidence the changes would be counter-productive, yesterday defended them in the Senate.
“The Bill will not impact job seekers who cannot get work despite their best efforts,” Seselja said.
“It will not impact those whose failure to meet their participation requirements is beyond their control and of course it will not impact the 98 per cent of job seekers who do not incur these types of failures.
“Rather, the Bill targets those who have received but refused an offer of suitable work without a reasonable excuse, or have been found after an in-depth assessment by the Department of Human Services to have been persistently and wilfully non-compliant.”
In June, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert described the legislation as part of the Coalition’s “radical agenda” to undermine Australia’s social welfare system.
"This Bill continues the Government's myth that those people receiving income support are undeserving and unwilling to engage in finding employment. That's just not the case,” Siewert said.
"The Government seems intent on placing so much pressure on people to accept any job, whatever the conditions or relevance to the job seeker. In these circumstances, people will simply move back and forth between Newstart and unsuitable, insecure work.
“This will achieve nothing in addressing the barriers jobseekers face to secure employment.”
A spokesperson for Assistant Employment Minister Luke Hartsuyker said no decision had been made as to whether the Coalition would re-introduce the Bill.
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