BILLS (Second Reading): Social Security Legislation Amendment (Remote Engagement Program) Bill 2021

26 October 2021

I rise to speak to the second reading amendment moved by my friend and colleague the honourable member for Barton, a proud First Nations woman, the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives, who is very steeped in her community and very well connected to our First Nations peoples. This amendment asks the House to note the government's role as the architect of the failed CDP. It asks the House to note that the pilots proposed in this bill don't solve many of the fundamental issues that we know exist in this program. They are admitting, upfront, that this bill is not fixing the failures of the CDP.

The government position is that the CDP is the key to transitioning people in remote Australia into the workforce. Yet we know this is nothing more than a Work for the Dole scheme dressed up with a different name. It does nothing to create jobs. It does nothing to develop the economies of the communities that it affects. It does nothing to embed lifelong skills that ensure lifelong employment. It ignores the entrenchment of workers' rights in this country and all the benefits of a decent job that are lost to this program—like superannuation, paid leave, sick leave and decent pay that actually pays for the everyday needs of life. And it fails the test when it comes to self-determination.

This second reading amendment goes to the core of how this government engages with First Nations peoples. They enter communities with programs created without adequate consultation, that have not been co-designed with leaders and locals, and they act surprised when the programs fail, when they lead to perverse outcomes and do more harm than good. These are the issues with the CDP as it stands. Yet the exact same issues will be identified, we're sure, with the pilot schemes proposed by this bill. We make it clear that Labor is not looking to block the bill before us today. We know that it will, for a handful of participants, mean an increase to the paltry payments they get for doing the program, and those increases will be for the life of the pilot. Who could refuse those people that? We need an end to the exploitative system that is the CDP. Also, the increase in payments don't extend to participants of the existing program; it's limited to the participants of the pilot, which we know number around 200 people, and it's only for the next two years.

It's a strange half admission by this government. They admit that the CDP is a failed program, that it doesn't work, that it's deeply flawed, and they admit that we need a new program for jobs and skills development in remote Australia and they admit that under their existing scheme—which as I said, is effectively a work for the dole scheme—participants are not being paid enough. But, rather than take measures that we know could make this scheme right, right now—like raising the payments of the 40,000 people who are currently registered under the CDP—they are going to lock in those low payments for those people not in the pilot for another two years. The people in the program will work under the exact same conditions we know participants are struggling under for two more long years—all in the name of trialling alternatives.

It is a good thing that there will be an attempt to have a jobs and skills program—it's something those of us on this side of the chamber have been calling for for years now—but there is little more in this bill than half measures. The bill describes participants as being engaged in work-like activities. But we know that they won't be offered the protections and conditions of other workers. And the member for Lingiari very clearly laid out the problems there like leave, proper entitlements and superannuation. They are not protected by occupational health and safety laws and we know they won't be given traineeships or apprenticeships and will have absolutely no guarantee of a real job at the end of the two years.

There's no certainty and no security for participants baked into this bill, and the government, extraordinarily, are telling remote Indigenous communities to just trust them—'Oh, trust us on this.' How can they say that, after they have failed them for so many years, after they have failed to properly consult and when they have no real process for co-design for the alternatives to the CDP? They've shown no insight into the human rights implications of these pilots or this bill. We know that serious questions have been raised about the CDP around its implications for human rights. One could ask: where was the consultation with the Human Rights Commission?

The member for Lingiari laid out some of the issues. It doesn't pay the minimum wage; it pays way below. People on this program are far more likely to receive severe penalties, and these are monetary penalties—and we know that the monetary penalties are driving people to despair and to abject poverty. It is demotivating. It sends them backwards. They say they have no money for food for their families. We know that people on these programs are more likely to receive penalties than people on any of the other government work programs. There are reports that people have been forced to steal food for their families. Are we driving people to crime? One participant reported to the ABC, when a program was done on this, that it's 'like being a slave; it drags you down and it makes you feel terrible'. What sort of government makes its own citizens feel like slaves and feel terrible? What sort of program wants to drive people down into the ground? What sort of government wants to do that? With this bill, there is no guarantee of consultation or co-design and there's no guarantee that it doesn't impede human rights.

Why should the government be trusted by anyone to get it right this time? This bill was a test. It was a test for the government. They could have got it right. They could have gone from the very beginning, 'We can see the problems and we know how to fix them and we've got enough time to do it.' But, again, they didn't do it. They just kicked all the problems down the road for another two years. They could have done so much more. Our First Nations people and their communities deserve so much more from their government. The purpose of any jobs and skills program in remote communities must be to empower them, to boost their economies and to create capacity, and such programs must be delivered within a frame that doesn't abrogate human rights.