Transcript: 2SM Sydney, Interview with John Laws

6 September 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Topics: 
Cashless welfare card trial, Drug Testing
E&OE

JOHN LAWS:  
The Coalition has cut unemployment benefits for 1,300 young people who refuse to participate in its internship program. Since April, more than 9,000 young people have been involved in the Government's $750 million employability training program to Prepare-Trial-Hire scheme, it is known as PaTH - p-a-t-h.

It sets up young long-term unemployed people with employability skills before they apply for an internship with the objective of getting a job. Businesses can take on an intern, receive an upfront $1,000 payment, to me it sounds like a pretty good deal on both sides, doesn't it?

The internship is between 15 and 25 hours a week and interns will receive $200 a fortnight from the Government on top of their regular income support, of course. If the welfare recipient has no reasonable excuse for attending, if they just do not want to go they lose 10 per cent of their fortnightly payment for each day that they did not comply. Which sounds perfectly reasonable.

A massive 71 per cent of those who have completed the training have gone on to secure jobs. But despite this, the Opposition is still up in arms, saying the program is making young people work for $4 an hour. That is not right.

They make $200 a fortnight on top of their welfare payments. Welfare payments that contrary to popular belief are not an entitlement. Many people seem to think they are.

I know as a taxpayer, I am more than happy to support people getting back on their feet, it is important, or who cannot physically work - gotta help them.

But not those who think they deserve it for absolutely nothing. And now, as I said, the Coalition has put its foot down after scores of young welfare recipients refused to participate in its internship program.

Thirteen-hundred young people, as I said, have had their benefits cut for not attending the compulsory Employability Skills program.

Joining me on the line is the Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge. Minister, good morning and welcome to the program.

ALAN TUDGE:
Good morning, John.

JOHN LAWS:  
Is this scheme here to stay?

ALAN TUDGE:
It is. We are excited about this scheme and we think it provides great opportunities for young people to get their skills up, do an internship and then hopefully get into fulltime work.

That is what it is about. And that is in their interest, as much as in the community's interest, for young people to be hungry to get a job and to be on the pathway to a great career.

JOHN LAWS:  
If it works that way, excuse me, if it works that way, it is fine. And if it does work that way I presume it will be here to stay. While I think people need to know that there are consequences to lack of action, how will those young people survive if you take away their entitlements?

ALAN TUDGE:
John, at the end of the day there has to be personal responsibility on each individual in terms of what they do. What we are requiring a young person, who is between 15 and 24 years of age, who has been unemployed for more than six months, to undertake some basic training over a six month program.

Then they get the opportunity to go into an internship, where as you mentioned, you get 200 bucks above and beyond your welfare payments, and then you get the opportunity for a full-time job.

If you do not turn up to the basic employability training, well, there has got to be consequences and you will have your payment initially suspended. When you do turn up, it will be back paid.

But if you repeatedly do not turn up, then you will start to have your welfare payments permanently docked. Of course John, there are always reasonable excuse provisions, if there is an accident, if there is a family crisis, whatever, then we take that into account.

But if you do not have reasonable excuses, then you have got to do the right thing because it is good for the individual as well as being good for the community.

JOHN LAWS:  
Okay. If you take that payment away from them, they are simply going to go back on the dole, aren't they?

ALAN TUDGE:
No, this is effectively the unemployment benefit for young people. It is called the Youth Allowance. It is called Newstart when you are a little bit older.

JOHN LAWS:  
Okay. So, what happens to them when you take it away?

ALAN TUDGE:
At the end of the day, it is up to each individual to take personal responsibility. That payment is there to support them. They have some requirements which they need to undertake in order to receive that payment. That requirement is simply to turn up and do this basic training.

JOHN LAWS:  
Okay. And if they choose not to, they are going to be the ones who are going to suffer.

ALAN TUDGE:
But it is a bit like, John, I mean, if people do not turn up to work repeatedly then eventually the boss is going to say, well, I am sorry, I cannot keep paying you if you do not turn up for work. Yes if you are sick, yes if there are other things going on in your life, I will continue to look after you.

The same principle is here, that there are mutual obligations attached to the welfare payments. And that broad mutual obligation is that you must be looking for work and doing everything that you can to try to find a job, to take the interviews, to do the proper job search, in this case to do that training, to do the preparation course, as well.

JOHN LAWS:  
Okay. You are still going to find a group of people, I am sorry to say, but you are still going to find a group of people who simply do not want to go to work and believe that they are entitled to be paid by you and me and the other taxpayers.

ALAN TUDGE:
That is why we have these mutual obligation rules in place, John. These are reasonable rules that I think the taxpayer fully understands and would expect us to put in place.

I think the taxpayer is happy to support people who are down in their luck, who are without work for a particular point in time but I think they expect the unemployed person to do everything that they can to get back into work as quickly as possible.

Our rules require that. And in fact, we are strengthening those rules so that there are more immediate consequences for repeated failure to do the right thing. I do not think that is unreasonable, and I think that the taxpayers generally, who pay for the welfare system, would support that principle.

JOHN LAWS:  
Okay. In other words you have got to follow case-by-case. It is going to take a hell of a lot of administration, isn't it?

ALAN TUDGE:
John, this is already in place now in terms of the system. It is managed in part by the job service providers and in part by my Department, Centrelink.

We have the systems in place, where you have to job search, you have to document the fact that you have been job searching, you have to take the interviews which are offered to you and of course, you must accept a reasonable job which is offered to you.

If you do not, then of course there are going to be consequences on your welfare payment, because the payment is there to support you to get back into the work force. Not as a destination in and of itself.

JOHN LAWS:  
We hear of so many cases, well I certainly do and I am sure you do as well, of people who simply fake it.

They say they have gone to apply for a job, they open the phonebook, find a business, write that down, say they went there to get a job who polices it? Who checks on it? Nobody?

ALAN TUDGE:
What is called the job service providers do that work. They are required to undertake that compliance checking on behalf of the Government and they are under contract to do that.

Sometimes John, it is very difficult to properly assess whether people are doing this in a fair dinkum manner or whether just going through the motions.

We certainly know though, John, that the vast majority of people who for whatever reason are on unemployment benefits for some time are hungry to get work and do get work quite quickly again.

But there is probably, we estimate, about 100,000 people who are repeatedly missing their appointments, repeatedly failing to do the job search and they are the ones which we are focussing on.

Some of whom actually may have serious issues in their life and we want to understand that. But there are others, we think, that are just taking the taxpayer for a ride and that is where we want to crack down and have more serious penalties.

JOHN LAWS:  
I am sure the taxpayer will be happy to hear that, too.

Just moving on to this cashless welfare card business. It just seems sensible to ensure the money goes to the necessary things like shelter and food first. Why wasn't that done earlier? It is pretty obvious.

ALAN TUDGE:
I think that it is a good policy. I have been overseeing this now for three years in terms of the design of the card and the design of the trials and the implementation of them.

John, we just had our formal final evaluation come out last Friday and it showed that it is having an impact. It is having an impact and seeing less money spent on booze and on drugs and on gambling and more money spent on food and the basics.

That is exactly what these trials are about and now we are rolling them out into further locations. We are taking this steadily because we want to get it right. We are mainly focussing on regional locations at the moment and that is where we have got serious drug and alcohol issues. But we will be looking at what we can do in the future, as well.

JOHN LAWS:  
As you say, drug use is down, gambling apparently is quite dramatically down. Why are people up in arms about it?

ALAN TUDGE:
You will have to ask them that question, John. I mean, the Greens, for example, they have got an ideological objections to it full stop. I mean, this card could introduce world peace and they would still be against it just for ideological reasons.

The Labor Party, to date, have supported it. I hope they continue to support it but time will tell. There are certainly many members of the Labor Party who are not. And I think for them they see, at least some people, see welfare payments as a human right that you should be able to spend on whatever you like.

We do not take that view. We take the view that this is taxpayers' money that is there to provide sustenance to people and to be spent on the basics, on your food, on your accommodation, on your transport and is not there to be provided for drugs and alcohol and gambling. And I think most taxpayers would support our view.

JOHN LAWS:  
Okay but why? I still do not understand why the Greens, that you say it is for ideological reasons, what are their ideals for God's sake? I cannot tell from one week to the next.

ALAN TUDGE:
You cannot ask me this question, John. I just think that they are illogical, irrational and…

JOHN LAWS:  
Irrelevant.

ALAN TUDGE:
…and irrelevant. And they are not compassionate towards those people who suffer as a result of too much alcohol and too much drugs.

At the end of the day, we do this because we want to make these communities better, and there are some communities where alcohol is the poison that runs through them, particularly in some of the remote communities.

All that alcohol is purchased by the welfare dollar. I cannot see how the Greens can stand up and say that it continues to be a good thing to put an abundance of cash into a community knowing that it is going to be spent on alcohol and cause so much damage.

JOHN LAWS:  
I cannot see it either but we get used to the fact that the Greens are quite capable of doing some quite extraordinary and even stupid things.

ALAN TUDGE:
Nothing surprises me about the Greens anymore, John.

JOHN LAWS:  
Nothing surprises me either. Do you think if it is extended across Australia, this scheme, that we won't need to drug testing for the dole scheme?

ALAN TUDGE:
We do not have plans to extend it across Australia. Our plan for this cashless welfare card is to apply it region by region when we have support of the community leadership to do so and where there are demonstrable problems in those communities.

The drug testing scheme is different. We have announced three trial locations now, the drug testing scheme. One of which is in Western New South Wales, Western Sydney, as you know, in Canterbury-Bankstown.

JOHN LAWS:  
Yeah.

ALAN TUDGE:
What that will do, John, is that with people that are on unemployment benefits, they may be subject to a random test.

If they test positive the first time for drugs, then they will be required to go on to a form of cashless welfare to restrict the amount of cash they have available for drugs.

Then if they test positive the second time, they will be required to undertake a treatment program as a condition of their ongoing receipt of welfare payments.

And we hope that in this way, we are identifying those people who have got problems, we are getting them the treatment they need and that way they have got a better chance of getting back into the workforce as well.

JOHN LAWS:  
But they have got to have the desire to do it as well. I do not know how you inject desire into human beings that are fundamentally lazy.

ALAN TUDGE:
In some respects the underlying philosophy, if you like, is similar to what is used with the drug courts. And as you would know, John, in the drug courts, often the judges will say instead of having a custodial sentence, you will be required to undertake a drug treatment program.

All the evidence suggests that does have an impact. Here, in essence, we are using the lever of welfare payments to say that, listen, you will continue to get your welfare payment but we want you to undertake this drug treatment program, which will be tailored for you by a medical professional and is designed to help you get off drugs and hopefully back into the workforce.

We are very hopeful that this will work. We have carefully designed it and we want to trial it. At the end of the day, John, it is a trial which we will evaluate. If it works we may roll it out further; if it doesn't work, of course you adjust.

JOHN LAWS:  
You are threatening to take away benefits from those who do not want to comply with these particular measures and I understand that, but aren't you a bit concerned that crime rates will then rise if you take the benefits away?

ALAN TUDGE:
There is no evidence of crime going up from the cashless welfare card trials where 80 per cent of people's welfare payments are placed onto a card.

In fact, the independent evaluation showed that there is at least qualitative evidence that violence and assaults were down. That is the first point.

The second point is that it is a trial, it is a relatively small trial, and we want to evaluate how it goes. Our overall ambition is to get people off drugs and back into work, but let's access it holistically and take it from there.

JOHN LAWS:  
We can only hope it works for everybody's sake. It would be good for the country if it worked.

ALAN TUDGE:
I think that is the case, John. We have got an absolute crisis in some locations, particularly in regards to Ice use, and many of your listeners would understand that.

JOHN LAWS:  
Yeah.

ALAN TUDGE:
And the unfortunate reality is that the use of Ice is about two and a half times higher amongst unemployed people than it is amongst working people.

And so, we are targeting those people. We want to test to see if this works. We think it will and if it does, well we may look to expand it further.

JOHN LAWS:  
Good luck.

ALAN TUDGE:
Thanks so much, John.

JOHN LAWS:  
Okay. Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge. And I really mean it when I say good luck.