Transcript: ABC AM – Radio National, Interview with Michael Brissenden

24 October 2016

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Strengthening mutual obligations, Voting reform in NSW Liberal Party

The Federal Government is planning to make it harder for people to receive unemployment benefits as part of a tougher approach to welfare payments.

In a speech tonight the Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge, will outline plans to tighten the rules for job seekers and increase penalties for those who refuse to accept work.

The Minister argues the current system is too weak because it allows people receiving welfare payments to refuse work if they have a reasonable excuse.

I'm joined now by the Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge.

Alan Tudge, good morning.

Good morning, Michael.

So we will get to your speech in a second, but first just like to deal with this New South Wales Liberals meeting on the weekend.

You're of course from the Victorian branch which has gone through changes to give members a greater say in pre-selections.

Should NSW follow your state's lead?

Oh well ultimately it's up to the NSW division what they do. But what I understand, is they did unanimously agree, over the weekend, to a reform path.

Now, from a Victorian perspective though, we've had plebiscites for seven years now and no-one's suggesting that we made a mistake and that we should reverse to the old system.

I think what we have found at least from the Victorian perspective is that it has empowered the membership by giving them a real say over who they want to be their candidates.

And I think it also has led to some high quality people being pre-selected over the last few years.

What about the way this has all played out? It's being seen as something of a fight between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull for authority within the NSW branch.

Now, Mr Turnbull put up a proposal which was supported by Mike Baird yet Tony Abbott persisted with his own motion. Should he have done that?

From what I understand the final motion had unanimous endorsement. But I'm not a member of the NSW division.

I do understand that this was a grassroots issues, that there's strong feeling in the membership that they want some reform and indeed that they have agreed to go down that path to do so, there's going to be a convention next year where they'll unpack these issues.

And I'm just going to leave it to the NSW division to get on with it.

Okay, more generally though, you would have seen the comments from Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, a fellow Victorian, basically saying that former Prime Ministers have to look to the welfare of the Liberal Party.

And that really came after what we saw last week in Parliament and then followed this debate on the weekend. Do you think it's time Tony Abbott stopped making these public interventions?

I'm not going to tell Tony Abbott what to do. He's a former Prime Minister and if you're a former Prime Minister you've got a bit of leeway in terms of being able to make some comments.

Now all of us, be you a former Prime Minister, a backbencher, a frontbencher, we're all working hard for the nation and the interests of our party. We want to stay in government. Tony Abbott's made that point very clearly and...

I guess that's the problem though, isn't it, because it's being seen as if he is destabilising the Government.

Well, I don't think that's the case. All of us have an interest in just getting on with the job and focusing on the things which matter to the Australian people. Now, in the last few weeks we've actually delivered some really important things to the Australian people.

We've protected the CFA volunteers, for example, in Victoria; we've put through important savings bills; we've got important measures in the Parliament right now dealing with union corruption, because if we deal with that we'll be able to get more infrastructure built because it'll be cheaper to build.

These are the types of things that I think do matter to the Australian people and that all of us are absolutely focused on.

Sure, sure, but do you think it's okay for him to keep talking away, keep making public statements the way he has been?

Any Member of Parliament is able to make public statements, Michael. I mean that's the nature of being a parliamentarian and you'd criticise us if we weren't making public statements.

[Laughs] Yes, but not every Member of Parliament is a former Prime Minister.

He is a member of the parliament, he is a backbencher now, and he is a former Prime Minister. I'm not going to be giving him advice as to what he should or should not say.

All I say is for all my colleagues is that we have to all act in the interests of our values, our party and ultimately do good things for the nation, and that's what we're all focused on.

Okay. On your plans for welfare, this is a distinctly more punitive approach, isn't it? Will unemployed people be forced to accept any job on offer or risk losing their welfare payments?

Now, Michael, I'll be outlining tonight a speech which provides some further, deeper thinking in relation to welfare obligation.

Now, the core problem which we're trying to address with all of our welfare reform measures is long-term welfare dependency because ultimately we know that if a person is on welfare for any length of time it can become debilitating upon them, they can lose their motivation and their capacity.

We know today that one in eight kids, for example, is growing up in a jobless household. And nearly 40 per cent of those kids will themselves end up on welfare by the age of 20.

So we've got a real interest in ensuring that every lever of policy is geared towards getting people off welfare and into work if there is a job available. One of those things we've got to do of course is create the opportunities. That's step one.

The second step is creating the support structure to help people to get those jobs. But third and equally important step which I'm going to be talking about tonight is ensuring that there's a robust system of mutual obligation to encourage people to look for work, to do the interviews, and to take a job when it is available because it's not in their interests if they don't do those things.

Okay, you say the current system allows an unemployed person to refuse a job if they have a reasonable excuse, but what do you consider reasonable?

Well I don't say that. At the moment what I say is that in the practical application of our mutual obligation, often a person can miss an interview or miss an activity even if they have a reasonable excuse, and their chances of suffering any penalty are very, very low.

Now, to me that embodies low expectations upon those individuals because if we've already deemed the individual to be capable of working - we've found out there isn't a reasonable excuse, there hasn't been an illness at home, they're not sick themselves or something else going on - and they still miss that interview, then they're effectively missing up an opportunity to get themselves onto a better pathway.

And we should be insisting upon them stepping up and taking that opportunity because if we do insist on that we're actually saying to them, you know what - you've got the capability to do this. We know you have and we expect you to do that.

And we're not doing them a service by actually providing further excuses for them if, after all of the reasonable excuses list they've gone through, they don't have one, we're not assisting them by providing further excuses for them.

Obviously many of these people have been unemployed for a long time. They are in a vulnerable economic and, vulnerable financial situation. If you suspend payments or reduce them, doesn't this run the risk of harming their ability to continue to search for work?

My view, Michael, is we've got to set high expectations upon people. We've got to say to people. If you've already been assessed as being capable of working and you've already been assessed as not having a reasonable excuse, then you should be taking up those opportunities.

And if we set that expectation then inevitably people step up to those expectations. And I'm concerned at the moment that our expectations upon capable job seekers is actually remarkably low.

And we know from other policy areas though, Michael, if you do set those high expectations, be that in schooling, be that in getting your kids vaccinated then people do step up to those expectations.

But the reverse also occurs. If we set low expectations on people, sometimes people meet only those low expectations. And I think our expectations upon job seekers at the moment is often miserably low and we should be setting a higher standard for them.

Alright, Alan Tudge, we'll leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us.

Thanks so much Michael.

Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge.