Radio interview, ABC AM

Interviewer:

Sabra Lane

E&OE

SABRA LANE:  

The Government will introduce a suite of bills into parliament today, reflecting a number of major welfare changes announced in the May budget, including simplifying seven working age payments into a one payment, a drug testing trial for welfare recipients and stronger work participation requirements for those on government handouts. 

Mr Porter welcome to AM.

MINISTER PORTER:

Good to be here.

SABRA LANE:

Do you endorse those comments by Senator Hanson regarding autistic children?

MINISTER PORTER:

Those comments are very wrong. I think that when you’re an important figure in parliament, the Senate, you need to make sure you’re very well informed about things that you speak about. One of the comments there I think was that it’s archaic. That’s absolutely right. They were very unhelpful comments.

SABRA LANE:

The welfare changes you’re introducing to Parliament today are about simplifying payments which are pretty complex. A number of people have said that’s a really good thing, ACOSS have said it’s a good thing. But the Government, is it intent on making it a social stigma to be on welfare.

MINISTER PORTER:

Not at all. Obviously one of the very interesting things Sabra, that I found in this portfolio is that about 23 per cent of everyone on Newstart, the substantial working age payment now, 23 per cent move off within three months. That’s a thing I think we should all be very happy about. What a Government has to do is ensure that 23 per cent is a larger number. We want to see more people moving off Newstart more quickly and get themselves into employment. As you noted, this bill changes seven payments including Newstart into one new category of payment called Jobseeker payment. It rewrites, so that we have consistency and equity in the mutual obligation requirements and very important, it changes the compliance regime which at the moment is working not particularly well.  

SABRA LANE:

There’s been a lot of focus on the drug testing trial which will probably start later this year. A government report found in 2013 that there’s no evidence that drug testing welfare recipients has any positive effects for those individuals or for society. There’s some evidence indicating that practice actually would have a high social and economic cost. Given that, why is the Government persisting?

MINISTER PORTER:

If that’s the report that I think it is, that looked into the American drug testing trials. About 15 states in America that trialed drug testing, this is very, very different from that. Even quite different from the New Zealand trials, but what we’re trying to do, rather than have any sort of substantial penalty where people lose welfare, we’re trying to ensure that people who have a barrier to employment created by drug use, are identified and assisted. So on a first positive test, you would have income management, a commonsense application where you have less cash available to fuel a habit that you might have. On a second positive test, we’d assess with a medical professional that we provide, and devise a treatment plan. Your obligation then is to abide by the treatment plan. What happens at the moment, very unfortunately, is a whole range of people clearly have barriers to employment around drug use. We don’t do much for them. We’re on a sort of set and forget regime. So there’s been a massive increase in people using drug and alcohol issues as an excuse for not turning up to a job interview. We’ve got to make a better system and this is a trial, but it’s an important one. It’s definitely devised around trying to identify people with a barrier to employment and try to help.

SABRA LANE:

The Senate yesterday disallowed the Governments wish to eliminate that excuse of drug dependency as a reason why job seekers miss their mutual obligations. How strong a signal is that that it will resist this drug testing trial?

MINISTER PORTER:

Not overly strong, so I think what the NXT members said is they want a fuller review about that move. But that is part of a suite of measures and one of the very important measures that we are bringing, and that is in our welfare reform bill today, is that for the first time ever, if you are engaging in treatment, every single jobseeker will be able to count their engagement in treatment as counting towards the hours for the required activities that they will have a fortnight. So every jobseeker has a required number of activities in terms of job preparation and for the first time ever we are making sure that people who are engaged in treatment are able to count that towards their activities that represent their preparation for jobs. Now, changing the disability support pension tables is one measure that we’re very keen on seeing through and we’ll try again with that. There are other measures which are to make sure that with respect to what is known as reasonable excuse provisions and what’s known as exemption provisions that if someone exempts themselves by virtue of the fact that they have an issue with drugs or alcohol or has a reasonable excuse around those, those excuses and exemptions will exist but you must also be doing everything that you can to engage in treatment. And again I come back to that point that this bill ensures that if you are engaging in treatment, for the first ever, for all jobseekers, that is going to count towards your activity requirements.

SABRA LANE:

Okay. You’ve released some figures today around non-compliant jobseekers who miss five or more job interviews. It is estimated that there are about 93,000 of them and I think you’ve put a cost on this through that data mining program that $220,000 over their lifetime. I think most people on welfare would actually prefer to have a job – do you disagree with that point?

MINISTER PORTER:

No – I completely agree. What is very interesting about that data, so that during someone’s working life, so before age 65, we know that there is about a 100,000 who persistently and repetitively don’t comply with the very important mutual obligations like turning up for a job interview. What we can see through the data is that the performance and the outcomes for that group are terrible and much worse than they are for the average person who is on Newstart.

I come back to that figure that I raised earlier that generally speaking, 23% of people who are on Newstart, they move off it in 3 months so our task as a government is to try and better devise the system and better devise the rules to ensure that that 23% becomes a larger percentage who move off more quickly. So what we want to see if people moving off the payment more quickly, this is not about stigmatizing or making judgments of people Part of what this bill does actually with respect to that 100,000 people who persistently non-comply is try and identify the barriers to employment much earlier than we do in the system at the moment and make sure that the assistance flows to the people more quickly.

SABRA LANE:

Alright just quickly, the robo-debt recovery program Senate Committee Report handed down its findings last night suggesting that the scheme be suspended until procedural fairness issues its identified are fixed. Will you do that and will you apologise to the people that have been distressed and caught out by this?

MINISTER PORTER:

So there has been two recent reports, you’ve just referred to one which is a parliamentary committee report, there has also been an ombudsman report we certainly prefer the ombudsman’s view which is essentially that this is a fair and rational system to recover taxpayers money where it has been overpaid. I must say that I think that the report you’ve just mentioned is very much a political report. And there is a strong minority but descanting view in that report. But the –

SABRA LANE:

Will you apologise?

MINISTER PORTER:

Well this is not a matter for apology, what the taxpayer I think expects is that when we – in my portfolio we move out the door each year near on 150billion and what we have is a responsibility to the taxpayer to make sure that we are paying people exactly what it is that they are dutifully required to receive and no more, and no less. Now what happens unfortunately under the previous government is there was not requisite effort put in to making sure that people were paid the right amount. And there were a massive amount of overpayments that occur in the system. Now we’re actually tackling that problem so that is not a matter that we would apologise for. There have been a whole range of refinements to the debt recovery system but it is a very important part of what we’re doing because the taxpayer must expect that people are not being overpaid.