Welfare reforms would cause harm and give too much power over remote communities to an unelected bureaucrat

The Federal Government’s Welfare Reform Bill contains stigmatising and needlessly punishing measures, whilst giving too much power over the lives of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to an unelected bureaucrat, the Human Rights Law Centre told a Senate inquiry today.

The Bill includes measures such as mandatory drug testing and income management trials, stricter rules around drug and alcohol dependence and a harsher non-compliance and penalty framework.

Adrianne Walters, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, told the Committee that the measures treat drug and alcohol dependence as a lifestyle choice rather than the serious medical condition that it is.

“The Government has not pointed to any evidence that these measures will help people recover from drug or alcohol addiction or get them into work. Rather, they will aggravate economic disadvantage, and perpetuate wrongful stereotypes about people who turn to Australia’s social safety net in times of need,” said Ms Walters.

People in remote communities covered by the Federal Government’s unfair and discriminatory work-for-the-dole program, the ‘Community Development Program’, would be affected by some measures in the Bill and exempt from others.

“Some measures in the Bill would make life much harder for people in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities struggling everyday under the Federal Government’s oppressive work-for-the-dole program,” said Ms Walters.

People in remote communities are already being denied basic rights and fair pay for work as a result of the Government’s program, which can require people to work up to 500 or 760 hours more over a year than people in non-remote areas. Around 83 per cent of people subjected to the program are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

“The Government has targeted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remote communities with this program. It exposes people to more financial penalties and requires people to work far more hours without any extra pay and for pay well below the national minimum wage. This is a racially discriminatory government program that is displacing waged work, seeing families go hungry and young people disengage,” said Ms Walters.

The Bill would exempt people covered by the remote program from two of the measures, however, this would come at the cost of giving the Secretary of a Department excessively broad powers to change how important social security laws apply to people in remote communities with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny.

“Extraordinarily broad law-making power would move from the Parliament to an unelected bureaucrat. This sets a dangerous precedent, as a power that could be used in the future to lessen basic entitlements and protections for people in remote communities, with little Parliamentary scrutiny,” said Ms Walters.

“Any changes to basic social security entitlements and protections should be subject to the proper law making process by Federal Parliament. Rather than trying to push through harsh new laws that pose a risk of harm for vulnerable Australians, the Government should take the time to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to repair the harm caused by its remote work-for-the-dole program,” said Ms Walters.

A copy of HRLC’s opening statement can be read here.

A copy of the HRLC’s submission to the inquiry can be read here.

For further information contact:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre:  0419 100 519