Minister Rishworth interview on The Guardian Podcast with Paul Karp


Topics: JobSeeker, Safety Net Bill, Robodebt Royal Commission, Online wagering harm reduction, Gambling advertising, Women’s safety, Historic income apportionment, Safe and Supported Partnership Agreement

PAUL KARP, HOST: Welcome Minister Rishworth.


PAUL KARP: Now the Senate passed the Strengthening the Safety Net Bill on Wednesday. Which income support measures are in that Bill? And how big of an impact will that make on the cost of living crisis?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: What the Bill had was a number of different initiatives designed to strengthen the safety net. There was a $40 increase for most working age payments, including student payments and JobSeeker and that will now come into effect on the 20th of September. What also happens on the 20th of September is a number of these payments are indexed. So, for example, for JobSeeker, that actually means a $56 increase per fortnight. But the Bill also had, for example, a significant increase in rent assistance, particularly focused on the maximum rates of rent assistance, those people already paying the maximum rate there's an increase in that. But also expanded the single parent payment for those on single parenting payment. Obviously, many would know that that single parent payment cuts off and you get put onto JobSeeker when your youngest child turns eight. That's now when your youngest child turns 14. Recognising those extra responsibilities continue as a parent. The final change is actually there is a higher level of JobSeeker for those that are 60 and over recognising the extra barriers to work. Under this Bill, that higher rate has been reduced down to 55. So there's a range of different measures within this Bill to make it a stronger safety net. And we think that these measures together, combined with our other cost of living relief will make a difference to many people.

PAUL KARP: Why did Labor reject the Coalition's proposal to double the income free area for JobSeeker which would allow job seekers to earn up to $300 a fortnight before the payment is reduced? And could that be revisited down the line or do you not want people earning a few hundred a fortnight to be on the payment?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Firstly, I'd say what the Coalition's amendment did was to remove the $40 base increase and replace it with an income free area increase and what that would have meant was that 77 per cent of people on JobSeeker don't actually use the income free area that is already there. And that's because they're on JobSeeker because they can't find work – they're facing a range of different barriers to work. And that might be whether that's foundation skills, language skills, you know, maybe English isn't their first language and so they find barriers there. Maybe it is sickness or maybe it is discrimination. So there's a lot of people, 77 per cent of job seekers that don't actually use the income free threshold. So when the choice was to give more to everyone on the payments, Labor chose that. What the Coalition said is take that away, and only allow people to get the benefit if they earn more. So that proposition was not in addition, it was an either or, and so we disagreed with that. In terms of barriers to work, obviously for people on JobSeeker we want to make sure that ultimately they are able to move off the payment into work and secure well paid work. And so part of our Employment White Paper is to have a look at those settings. But addressing some of those barriers, whether it be foundation skills or discrimination is really what we need to do at the heart of some of our challenges when it comes to supporting people to move off JobSeeker. This was an attempt to play politics, quite frankly, and make it about you only deserve extra support if you can work on JobSeeker rather than recognise being on JobSeeker means often you can't find any work at all.

PAUL KARP: So the amendment would have disadvantaged JobSeeker recipients who are not working at all, but now that the increase is through is the income free area going up something you could come back to?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: To be honest, we're looking right across the board at a range of different areas, getting to the heart of what the barriers are through our Employment White Paper. So, of course social security settings are part of that. But what we want to do from my perspective, is really look at how we support people. That there's a strong safety net when people need it, but they're able to transition off that safety net and into well paid secure jobs and that should be what the aim is and that's certainly my aim and what we're exploring through the Employment White Paper.

PAUL KARP: Now the Senate debate featured calls to increase JobSeeker. Which will now go up $56 a fortnight – $40 of which was the increase in the Budget and $16 is indexation of I think it's 2.2 per cent. But inflation has been a good amount higher than that for some time. What would you say to the view that you know, the increase in JobSeeker appears generous but might have been chewed up by inflation?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: JobSeeker is indexed twice a year and so the last indexation was actually in March. So effectively there's a six monthly indexation applied both in March and September. So there was an indexation of I think it was 3.7 per cent applied in March. And so JobSeeker did increase then. The $40 though is about not just applying the Consumer Price Index, but it was a base rate increase. So it was about increasing the base rate and ensuring that the Consumer Price Index for that six months was applied afterwards. We know it's tough. I'm not going to pretend it's not tough to live on income support. We know it's not easy, but of course this income support is part of a broader system of supports. And I would say the Government hasn't just invested in increasing the base rate of JobSeeker, but there are increases as I said in rent assistance. There's obviously also energy bill relief if you're on a concession card, or getting family payments. There's also, for example, cheaper medicines – the tripling of the bulk billing incentive, and this helps with the cost of living of some of those expensive things like health care costs.

PAUL KARP: The Robodebt Royal Commission recommended against a general compensation scheme for victims but said the best thing the Government could do is raise the rate of JobSeeker. Does that provide any fresh or new impetus beyond the existing commitment that was legislated this week?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: We are raising the rate of JobSeeker. That's exactly what we're doing. In terms of the broader Royal Commission. The Royal Commission was actually a really, really important mechanism to examine Robodebt. I mean, that is a really shameful part of our history, partly because of the intention of the former government was to particularly demonise people on welfare. I mean, one of the comments made by the Royal Commission was really about how politicians have an important role to play by not demonising people on welfare. I'm paraphrasing a bit there but so I don't want to put words into the Commissioners mouth. But there certainly was this sort of role that politicians can play and I think when it comes to Robodebt and the recommendations, there are a lot of recommendations and we're of course going to work through those recommendations and they are important. But when it comes to income support, we have made a decision. We have decided when it comes to this Budget in particular, there is a particular focus on those doing it toughest and that's what makes up our cost of living package.

PAUL KARP: The Catherine Holmes report came out in July, which was after the Budget that contained that increase. The Coalition has accused Labor of trying to get advantage out of the Royal Commission and beating up on Scott Morrison over adverse findings. Which he rejects. Wouldn't it enhance the Government's credibility if it was seen to be taking action on a central recommendation in relation to JobSeeker?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: You've got to look at the Robodebt Royal Commission's recommendations across the board. We have been, rightly I think, very critical of the previous government for what they did. When we hear Alan Tudge ‘we're going to hunt you down and we're going to put you in jail’. The fear in the climate they created, but also the disdain for people receiving income support. Not recognising many people are vulnerable on income support. It was the tone, as well as the policy of the previous government that was particularly galling, I think, to many. In terms of the Royal Commission's response, we will work through those methodically. We did hold the Royal Commission to get a good path going forward. And we'll examine all of those recommendations in due course.

PAUL KARP: You still see complaints that although income averaging might be dead – which was the core plank of Robodebt – you still have Services Australia engaged in debt collection. What are the rules about how debts are calculated now and when and how welfare recipients will be pursued?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Obviously recovering debts are part of the system. Sometimes overpayment can occur accidentally, people haven't reported their income correctly. Or people might have deliberately gamed the system. What the Robodebt Royal Commission said is that this sense of fraudulent people is actually a small amount. That was the evidence that was presented to the Royal Commission. So there always needs to be a robust process, integrity in the system. But for example – and this does sit with Minister Shorten – but he has said that they are not using external debt collectors now to go and pursue people that may owe debt. So I think what we've got to do is characterise it in the way it should and that is, if there are debts and they are debts that are owed, that integrity is in the system. But not in a sense where it is all about Budget savings, which is what it was for the Coalition. It was designed to improve the Budget bottom line, and it was done despite advice that it may not be legal. It was done relentlessly and I think the language that characterised around this, including articles where Scott Morrison bragged that he was a tough welfare cop, and the comments that former minister Tudge made, I think really go to not just the actual process, but the tone and the motivation by the previous government.

PAUL KARP: There's a clean-up going on in relation to a separate problem. Income apportionment, which the Commonwealth Ombudsman found was an incorrect interpretation of social security law. What happened there and how is that going to be fixed?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: This was brought to my attention and of course, my first question is ‘please inform me that it's not going on today’ and that's exactly what I was told. This is a really complex problem in which is a situation that has been going on from 2003 to 2021. In which a person reports their income and previously you were meant to report on what day you actually earned that income. So on day one, you needed to say I earned this amount by working three hours and this amount by working four hours. If your fortnight didn't absolutely align with your payment fortnight, your Centrelink payment fortnight, and your employment fortnight and you couldn't report to Centrelink which days you earned that money a method was used to try and work out how to apportion that earnings over that fortnight. The way that was done was found to be illegal and wasn't appropriately done. It is complex because on some weeks you may have been underpaid because of that method. On other weeks you might have been overpaid – because you did actually earn the income. It's just which fortnight was it apportioned to. So look, it is it is a historic issue. It is an issue that needs to be resolved. And so I've been really clear, there is some conflicting legal advice around the resolution and the interpretation of if you can't use this method called apportionment, what method do you use? So there is some legal issues to be confirmed but what I've been really clear on is I want to see the legal questions resolved as soon as possible so there's some certainty around this issue. I hope that made sense it's a very complex issue, and a very complex legal interpretation, but I've tried to do it the best I can.

PAUL KARP: Yeah Robodebt income averaging is a year's income split over 26 fortnight's and this one is if you can't work out which fortnight is in which one? Where do they apportion it to? It’s a tough one to wrap your head around.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: It’s a very technical one because this wasn't about automatically calculating debts and trying to find debts. It was when you reported your income, if you couldn't say which day you earned it on – and keeping in mind this backdates to 2003 where sometimes there weren't the sophisticated payslips that show what days you earned money on – it was a method to try and work out which fortnight you'd attach the money to. So it is quite a complex, a different issue, but one that is not happening now and has not happened since mid-2021. So I do want to really reassure people it is just not happening now. But there are some legal questions around that and I’ve made it clear they need to be resolved as quickly as possible.

PAUL KARP: I want to ask about gambling reforms. Before we get onto the proposed ad ban what are the other policies that you're enacting for harm minimisation in terms of the harms of problem gambling?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Problem gambling and harm minimisation is just really critical. This is particularly for online wagering. Most people would see the online wagering ads on TV. What I've done as Minister coming into Government was actually hold the first ministerial meeting of ministers responsible with state and territories and the Commonwealth (since 2017). So there is a shared responsibility. And I held that meeting and we got on as a group to finish the Consumer Framework. There were four outstanding measures left in what was called the National Consumer Protection Framework. These were ten actions that were agreed to with states and territories to actually address problem online wagering. A couple of those have been to bring in the new evidence-based taglines. So everyone may have remembered ‘Gamble Responsibly’ – believe it or not the evidence shows that doesn't really deter people from gambling. So there are a number of taglines that were researched, things like ‘You Win Some You Lose More’, that now feature in ads. They are rotated on a regular basis to keep them fresh, and in longer ads there is a call for action about where you can get help. So that was a really important change that I was able to make. Also we're now almost ready for BetStop, which is a self-exclusion register which will be coming online very shortly. And rather than have to register that you don't want to gamble on a whole range of platforms you can go to just one spot and register so that you are unable to bet. Before that it took 72 hours for this pre-verification to kick in. So if you signed up with a betting company, you could bet for 72-hours before BetStop was perhaps enforced or other verifications on your identity were made. But we've just brought that forward and saying that companies have to pre-verify, make sure the person is a real person and actually not on the national exclusion register before anyone can place a bet. So that's been an important decision as well. More training for people and also activity statements. So individuals get monthly activity statements now showing how much they may have won or lost so that people can keep track of what's happening. So those are some of the things that we've done. But outside that Consumer Framework, we've also announced with Minister Rowland, that we're banning the use of credit cards for online gambling. Because of course when you go to the pokies, or other land based gambling, for example, you can't use your credit card to bet on those sorts of things. We don't think it's right that you should be going into credit for gambling. So we're working through that and we hope to have that implemented sometime this year. There's a range of measures we've already taken, but obviously the Committee's recommendations – which I must say 31 recommendations on a range of different areas – gives us some food for thought about where we might go next.

PAUL KARP: So on that proposed ad ban, the Parliamentary Committee chaired by Labor MP Peta Murphy recommended a comprehensive ban phased in over three years. You and Communications Minister Michelle Rowland haven't endorsed the ban. She's called it an evidence-base for action. You're saying food for thought. What's holding you back from saying that that's where you'd like to end up?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: We've got to work through the processes of all the implications of all the recommendations. And we've got to work with the states and territories across the board. We’ve got the advertising recommendation, but 27 of the recommendations of that report actually involve or impact states and territories so we've got to work through that. We're taking a responsible approach to this, we want to make a difference in this area. Our guiding principle is about harm minimisation. So we'll be working through all the implications of that and work to make sure that we deliver a comprehensive response. I think this is a report that's been considered very thoroughly, but we've also got to make sure it works and we'll be working with our state and territory colleagues and stakeholders right across the spectrum, to look at how we respond in the best way possible with the guiding principle of minimising harm.

PAUL KARP: I noticed you said harm minimisation, not harm reduction. Is an ad ban desirable to minimise harm, if it can be done in a way that won't threaten the financial viability of broadcasters?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: There's plenty of evidence around a whole range of issues around what actually minimises harm and what prevents harm. And so we're looking right across the board at that. There’s a range of things like our activity statements, for example, is making sure people are aware of how much they're actually losing. Sometimes people can get caught up and don't actually know how much they were losing. So that measure was about harm minimisation. Our taglines on our ads, our call to action – where to get help as part of that harm minimisation. So right across the board there's a lot of actions we can take. Obviously, advertising is one of the recommendations from this Committee and we're working through that to look at what we can do. But my state and territory colleagues have demonstrated they're willing to work in a really cooperative manner when it comes to this and by the end of September we will have implemented the Consumer Framework and so the question of what else can we do is absolutely on the table.

PAUL KARP: Free TV Australia has called for caps on the frequency and number of gambling ads and called for compensation in the form of reduced spectrum fees. What else are they asking for in the consultations and is that an acceptable compromise position, or did you think that the Government response is going to go further than that?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: I can't pre-empt that. Obviously, particularly Minister Rowland and the Government is consulting with a whole range of stakeholders around how we might implement the Committee’s report. What recommendations, may well be ones that we take forward, so right across the board we will continue to consult and come up with a considered and comprehensive position on this issue.

PAUL KARP: What about inducements. I know that I know that Anthony Albanese and Michelle Rowland both express personal views on the number of ads but I haven't heard anyone say whether they think it's right that you know gambling companies can offer you free bets and sweeteners like that, are those problematic?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Certainly the committee pointed not just to ads, but to things like inducements to a whole range of the ability for Governments to collect data to really understand the problem. So there were a lot of different issues canvassed and as you rightly put, actually, only one of the 31 recommendations were actually about advertising. So there are a lot of areas that we do need to look at and a lot of these do touch the states and territories. So I am very keen to work with the states and territories around what do we need to address? What are the priorities? We did that coming to Government by working to implement the last four measures of the Consumer Framework, but added to that with the credit card ban. So we will continue to work through those issues across the board.

PAUL KARP: On the 28th of July, you and state and territory ministers on the Women's Safety Ministerial Council committed to finalise Action Plans under the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children. What is the timetable here and what actions to end violence within one generation will be taken?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: We did absolutely acknowledge at that meeting that we are still seeing unacceptably high levels of violence against particularly women and children when it comes to family and domestic violence. And really, we've been working together to put together our two Action Plans, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Action Plan and also our mainstream Action Plan if I can call it that. So this is an issue of national importance. We are finalising those Action Plans as we speak. But I must say we haven't waited for the Action Plans to allocate investment to this critically important issue. Between the October Budget and the May Budget we've put an extra $2.3 billion into family and domestic violence and that is a significant allocation from the Commonwealth. Obviously, these Action Plans make sure that the states and territories and the Commonwealth are all investing funding, you know driving change. And so that's what these Action Plans are about is the cooperation. But we haven't sat on our hands when it comes to addressing this issue. Money is flowing now to the states and territories. When it comes to our commitment to put more frontline workers on the ground, money is flowing to the states around keeping their services going because the National Partnership did end and the previous government did not provision extra money after the first of July. So our May Budget made sure there was funding provision in it. So there has been a lot of work already done in this area. But the Action Plans do provide a sense of focus and a sense of evidence on where we need to go and how are we going to get there.

PAUL KARP: What can you tell us about the progress implementing the Safe and Supported framework and how is greater input from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians going to improve outcomes when it comes to children in out-of-home care?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: This is pretty revolutionary. It shouldn't be revolutionary, but for the first time at our Community Services Ministers’ meeting – which has all the state and territory ministers along with the Commonwealth – we agreed for equal shared decision making when it comes to out-of-home care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. And what that meant is we signed off on operating guidelines that in terms of future decisions going forward, they will be made with equal numbers of government ministers, along with equal numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in this area of child protection. The group will be co-chaired by myself as the Minister for the Commonwealth and by an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leader. This really keeps going the spirit in which we developed the Action Plan on Safe and Supported, which is the Child Protection Action Plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And this really goes to the Closing The Gap Priority Reform Area number one – this is about shared decision making. This is about having a seat at the table for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people and for us working this out together. And when we were going through that process, one thing really occurred to me, and it is connected to this debate about The Voice, and that is that I haven't found this as a Minister difficult. I've found this incredibly helpful. I would like to commend SNAICC who have worked very hard on an evidence of what is called the Aboriginal Child Placement Principles. That's about how we make sure that these principles are adhered to. That's been really helpful work that will help us achieve the target to reduce the number of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. So I can see this shared decision making is really, really powerful and important. And it is what is going to mean the difference between shifting the dial on out-of-home care. So it was pretty significant. You know, there isn't many occasions where a Ministerial Council has agreed to share that decision making responsibility directly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders with expertise. And this is the first time I'm aware that it's been done, but it really is on the path to reconciliation.

PAUL KARP: That's all we have time for. Thanks so much for joining us Minister Rishworth.