Federal Government’s changes to welfare laws will give too much power over remote communities to an unelected bureaucrat

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

The Bill includes measures such as mandatory drug testing and income management trials and a harsher non-compliance and penalty framework.

Adrianne Walters, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that mandatory drug testing and subjecting people who fail drug tests to income management would punish and demonise people dealing with complex issues without addressing the underlying causes.

“The Government has not pointed to any evidence that drug testing people on social security has positive impacts on individuals or the community. It will mean people have no choice but to submit to a drug test or lose their income support, denying equal access to social security,” said Ms Walters.

People in remote communities covered by the Community Development Program, the Federal Government’s unfair and discriminatory work-for-the-dole program, would be exempt from some measures in the Bill. However, this would come at the cost of giving the Secretary of a Department excessively broad powers to change social security laws with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny.

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

“These powers could be used, not only against people in remote communities, but other groups of people the Government thinks should be treated differently,” said Ms Walters.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are already being denied basic rights and fair pay for work as a result of the Government’s work-for-the-dole program, which can require people to work up to 500 or 760 hours more over a year than people in non-remote areas. People under the program are also around 20 times more likely to be financially penalised. 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.

 “After imposing a harmful and discriminatory program on remote communities, the Government is now trying to circumvent the Parliament and to make it easier for Government to do what it wants. The Government has promised a review, but it is still failing to meaningfully engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are struggling every day to cope under onerous conditions”, said Ms Walters.

A copy of the HRLC’s submission to the Welfare Reform Bill inquiry can be found here.

A copy of the HRLC’s submission to the Community Development Programme inquiry can be found here.