Transcript: 3AW Drive, Melbourne, Interview with Tom Elliott

25 October 2016

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Topics: 
Cashless Welfare Card, PPL, Strengthening mutual obligations, Newspoll
E&OE

TOM ELLIOTT:
Alright, our next guest gave a speech to the Sydney Institute in Sydney yesterday. It was entitled Welfare Reform: Reducing Dependency and Setting Higher Expectations. The Federal Minister for Human Services is Alan Tudge. Minister Tudge, good afternoon.

ALAN TUDGE:
G'day Tom.

TOM ELLIOTT:
Okay, so if we're going to reform welfare, what have we got to do?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well, there's a few things we've got to do. We've got to first of all create opportunities for people, second we've got to provide stronger supports, if you like, for people to grab those opportunities, and thirdly we've got to have a more robust system of mutual obligations.

So those who frankly either won't step up or just haven't had work be a social norm in their family and so therefore need a bit more encouragement.

TOM ELLIOTT:
Okay, so what sort of mutual obligation? I mean, at the moment you've got Work for the Dole programs, you've got that PaTH program for younger people. I do know that if you're on Newstart, which is what the dole is called, you've got to be actively looking for work or you've got to be engaged in some sort of vocational training.

What extra level of commitment do you want from people?

ALAN TUDGE:
Yeah well, that's right Tom, and on the surface we appear to have a robust system of mutual obligations for people who are looking for work, but in the practical application of those mutual obligations, often they are failing.

And I'll give you one example. People have to iob search, for example, if you're on an unemployment benefit. But nothing kicks in for 12 weeks of job searching, so you can not job search for 12 weeks before there's any consequence.

Then the only consequence which is available is a suspension of your welfare payments, which then gets all backdated as soon as you recommit to job searching once again.

TOM ELLIOTT:
[Interrupts] Oh, so there's no punishment. So if you take three …

ALAN TUDGE:
So effectively, I think that the consequences are quite small. So last year, for example, not a single person lost a single cent for failure to job search when they're on unemployment benefits, and I think that most Australians find that quite extraordinary.

So my overall argument is that we need to be setting expectations higher for people. We've actually got to believe that people have got the capacity to do these things, and ask them to step up to the mark just like we ask them to step up to the mark in all the other areas of public policy.

TOM ELLIOTT:
[Interrupts] Okay, but in a practical sense what this means is if someone is on the dole and doesn't bother looking for a job, you're saying at the moment they don't really get penalised for that, but in future they will get penalised?

ALAN TUDGE:
I'm only just getting on top of the issues at the moment, and we're delving into these problems and uncovering some figures which frankly I find quite staggering. And then over the next few months we want to have a broader public conversation about what is the right level of mutual obligations to put in place to deal with those sorts of things.

I'll give you one other fact, though, which is another staggering figure. If you get a job interview and you're on unemployment benefits, you're supposed to have to go along to that job interview, and of course it's in your interests to do so, but some people do not.

Now, of course life throws up unexpected events. There might have been a death in the family; you might have been sick, and so of course those are reasonable excuses. But putting aside those people who had a reasonable excuse, only four per cent of people who did not attend an activity like a job interview actually had a penalty imposed upon them for failing to do that. So again, it's just an extraordinary figure.

TOM ELLIOTT:
[Talks over] Okay. Well, this is- I mean, this makes a lot of sense. I mean, basically what you're saying is people who pretend to go and look for jobs but either don't look for a job or if they get a job interview simply don't bother to turn up out of laziness, in the future there could be reasonably stiff financial penalties in terms of loss of the dole for those sorts of people?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well, other countries have stiffer penalties and have more immediate penalties, and I guess my concern is that our regime overall in terms of the practical application, the expectations upon people are set too low.

And we know that if you set higher expectations, typically people reach those expectations and likewise if you set low expectations, often people sink down to them. And also in other countries, you have more immediate consequences. These shape behaviour better, rather than having a 12 week delay before something kicks in.

TOM ELLIOTT:
What about cashless welfare? I know for the last six or 12 months you've trialled cashless welfare debit cards in certain reasonably remote parts of Australia. If that's worked - and I believe it has - would you roll that out across all classes or welfare, or indeed at least Newstart Allowance?

ALAN TUDGE:
That's not our intent at the moment. Now, we've got those two trial sites going. They've been going for about six months each, and there's another six months to run.

As you point out, they have been going very well at the moment in terms of reducing some of the… particularly some of the really significant social harm caused by people drinking all their welfare payments or gambling it all away.

Now, we want to do a proper evaluation on this before we make any decisions, but of course, if the results are still positive, we would like to roll it out further afield, potentially to other regions where they've got significant alcohol problems.

TOM ELLIOTT:
[Interrupts] But- okay, but when you say other regions, are we mainly talking about Aboriginal communities here? I mean, let's not beat around the bush.

ALAN TUDGE:
Well, we just haven't made that decision, Tom. So obviously there are some other regions which are particularly alcohol-prone, for example, which often are in more the regional or remote areas.

I've also been across to New Zealand in recent months and looked at what they're doing. Now, they have a similar type of card which they apply to under-18s, and effectively they use that not only to help people if they're on welfare and they're under-18s to manage their finances better, but also as an additional incentive for those people to take a job when one is available.

So I was quite taken by that. We're going to investigate that option as well.

TOM ELLIOTT:
Could I ask you about paid parental leave? There's a big debate going on about the so-called double-dipping. So if an employee of a more generous employer does get paid maternity or paternity leave, should they be allowed to double-dip the publicly funded system?

And earlier on today I spoke to Greens Leader Senator Richard Di Natale, and he says they should. What do you reckon?

ALAN TUDGE:
Yeah, we're putting forward legislation which effectively would provide a guarantee to a mother or a father who's on parental leave to say that you'll get at the very minimum 18 weeks of the minimum wage.

Now, if your employer is already providing effectively for 12 weeks of paid parental leave, then we'll top up for the remaining six weeks. If they're not providing any at all, then you get the full 18 weeks.

But the 18 weeks is the guarantee, and I think that the problem that we had under the existing system is that you could have a person who's maybe earning $140,000; their partner could be earning even more.

They're getting a very generous paid parental leave system from their employer, and yet they'll still get the full 18 weeks minimum pay from the Government on top of that.

TOM ELLIOTT:
[Talks over] Yeah, that's too much.

ALAN TUDGE:
We just don't think that's quite fair, and so we think what we're proposing here with legislation we've just introduced is a fairer regime, and it actually does still provide that guarantee for parents, but it's overall fairer for everybody.

TOM ELLIOTT:
Finally, Malcolm Turnbull the latest Newspoll puts his rating as Prime Minister lower than when Tony Abbott was knifed in the back last year. Do you think Tony Abbott still harbours future leadership ambitions?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well, not according to what he himself as said, and I take him at his word. I think he was on 3AW - it might not have been to you, but in recent times – saying that that wasn't going to happen.

Now, I know everybody always looks at Newspoll, and obviously we'd like the polls to be up rather than down. But we just had a poll of 15 million people just a few months ago, Tom, and in that poll the Australian public voted for the Coalition to be in Government and they voted for a program to be implemented, and we're getting on with the job of implementing that program.

TOM ELLIOTT:
Alan Tudge, thank you for your time.

ALAN TUDGE:
Thanks so much Tom.

TOM ELLIOTT:
Alan Tudge is the Federal Minister for Human Services.

[ENDS]