ABC Radio National Interview with Federal Social Services Minister, Amanda Rishworth


HAMISH MACDONALD:  Parts of New South Wales have awoken to a swelling flood crisis after further heavy rain swamped already waterlogged rivers. There is temporary relief on the horizon for some, with the Federal Government providing one off $1000 payments for people in 23 flood affected areas across the state. But that will be of little comfort to the tens of thousands of people still cut off from their homes and now facing their fourth clean up in just 18 months.

Lots to talk about this morning with the Federal Social Services Minister, Amanda Rishworth. Good morning to you. Welcome to Breakfast.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Good morning. Great to be with you.

HAMISH MACDONALD: From today, one off payments of $1000 per adult and $400 per child are available for anyone who has suffered significant loss or injury in the floods. Do you think, given how long the recovery takes, that's actually enough to help people in these communities? Well look, this is, of course, our first emergency payment and I have to say that, for our Government, we've acted as swiftly as we possibly can to make sure that people do- can access that payment from 2o'clock today - and I would encourage people affected to do that. But we will, of course, work with communities.

This has been absolutely devastating for so many over and over again. It's why we've activated other support when it comes to clean up, when it comes to sending in Defence personnel as requested by the New South Wales Government. So we will continue to work very, very closely to make sure these communities are supported as what they're coming out is an absolute devastating period of time.

HAMISH MACDONALD: As Social Services Minister though, you'd be familiar with the reality. As was the case on the North Coast, I suspect it's the same with the areas being impacted now. This can tend to disproportionately impact some lower income communities. Do you think a longer term addition of support needs to be considered?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:  Well look, we'll obviously, as I said, work with communities. There have been circumstances where my Department has worked in flood affected and fire affected areas to make sure that food relief is provided So I will continue, along with Murray Watt and the whole Government, really to look at how we can best support these communities. Because as I said, when it came to this one off payment, our Government acted very swiftly. We didn't sit around waiting. We acted very swiftly to make sure that this money could get out the door as quickly as possible.

HAMISH MACDONALD: I want to talk about your portfolio. Labour's election slogan was: No one held back. No one left behind - a promise of kindness to those in need. There are more than a million Australians living on the $46 a day unemployment benefit. Is that going to continue under your Government, or will it increase?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well look, at the moment we are facing very, very difficult circumstances - economic circumstances. I understand for people living on JobKeeper and other Government payments, it's not easy. But we have many priorities facing our budget. But we are looking at ways so how we can help with the cost of living - whether that's the cost of medicines, whether that's the cost of energy. We are looking at this next budget in October about how we can tackle these things.

But we are facing, and I'm not going to gild the lily here, we are facing significant budget pressures with the trillion dollars in debt. So we've got to be responsible in what we spend, at the same time working on how we can drive down those cost of living pressures for families and individuals. 

AMANDA RISHWORTH: But your Government is going to go ahead with the Stage 3 tax cuts in 2024. That amounts to, I think, $25 a day tax cut for those earning over $200,000 a year. Does it strike you as fair to do that whilst also keeping individuals on benefits at $46 a day? Given everything you've just acknowledged? 

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, what we've said when it comes to Jobseeker is, we will consider Jobseeker in relation to the budgetary process every year. So we will consider that through a budget lens. Obviously, there is a lot of pressure on the budget now.

HAMISH MACDONALD: What does that mean?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, just as every, every priority, every spending decision has to be looked at through the budget cycle, that's what we've committed to do, and look at a range of other measures. We've got to be really clear. A lot of people are facing issues when it comes to housing, not just the cost of housing, but actually being able to get a house. So when it comes to housing, we've said we will build more public housing - that is a commitment through our Future Australia program. 
So we've got to look at all the things that we are doing, that includes tackling issues around housing, it includes tackling issues around cost of living, when it comes to energy prices, when it comes to medicines, when it comes to health care - Medicare not being able to afford to see a doctor or have access to see a doctor is really difficult for people living on low incomes. So we've got to look at all of these in the context of each budget process.

HAMISH MACDONALD: So it sounds like you are cognisant of all of the challenges facing someone on those payments. I'm not really clear on whether you think it is fair to keep people on $46 a day whilst giving those on over $200,000 a year at $25 a day tax cut. Do you think that's fair?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, the tax you're talking about is in 2024. So we're not talking about that tax cut being at all related to the immediate pressures that families are facing right now. So, my point is-

HAMISH MACDONALD: [Interrupts] Sure. But you're still committed to doing it. I just want to understand whether you think that's fair, as the new Social Services Minister?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, we're talking about something in 2024. There's a number of budget cycles to go through before that and I will be working with all the other ministers and the rest of our Government to look at what we can do to support our most vulnerable.

And I'm not going to do what previous Social Service Ministers in other governments have done, and deride people living on Government payments. I do know it's tough. It's about how we can provide a whole of Government response to help people in these difficult circumstances. And as I said, through each budget, we go through looking at what our priorities are and I will certainly be working with other people in Government and our other ministers to deal with that.

HAMISH MACDONALD: You're calling for Australian employers who are struggling with serious staff shortages to hire job applicants with a disability. What should that look like?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, there's never been a better time for employers to think outside the box when it comes to finding people. We hear from employers all the time. One of the reports that has been done into disability employment is that community attitudes are actually one of the biggest barriers facing people with a disability getting employment. So that's not having changes to the workplace, but it is the attitude that people have. So I want employers to have a serious think about how they can potentially employ someone with a disability. Because if they don't, they're actually missing out on a wealth of knowledge. But importantly, in a time of skills crisis, they don't get the employees they actually need.

So I mean, I think that a lot of employers are really open to this. I spoke to a session of the BCA recently where I know they are really wanting to practically work with employers about how they might accommodate those living with a disability and make sure that the adaptions in place. But one of the things we actually need to change is not actually changing the workplace but actually changing our attitudes - and that's my message.

HAMISH MACDONALD: [Interrupts] I just want to push you on this slightly. I mean, this all sounds great in principle. How are you actually going to get employers to be more proactive in this space? As you've acknowledged, there's a shortage, but the Treasurer is talking about lifting the migration cap. How are you actually going to structurally ensure that this is part of the solution?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, this is one of the topics that we are having as part of discussion at our jobs summit. But I'm also intending to hold a roundtable with employer groups, those living with a disability, and Disability Employment Services to start that conversation - What are the barriers that employers perceive there are to employing people with a disability? - and actually start to break down some of those barriers, those perception barriers. So look, I'm hoping, in the lead up to the job summit, to have a roundtable specifically getting employers, unions, and also those living with a disability around the table to start talking about this so it can feed into the job summit.

HAMISH MACDONALD: [Talks over] Minister- With respect, Minister, I mean, there's got to be more than roundtables and changes of perception, doesn't there?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:   Well look, we're working very hard with employers about what they can do. But the truth is, there are a lot of people that successfully gain employment, that nothing needed to change - it was an attitude change. So, we need a commitment from business that they are interested in doing this, that they're committed to putting some attention and focus on this. And the BCA has already actually started this work, to start that conversation with employers.

HAMISH MACDONALD:   Let's talk about the cashless debit card. You've already visited Ceduna, the Kimberley as well, looking at abolishing the cashless debit card. Cape York, I understand, is up next. What happens when you remove this from the system? Whatever the problems are with the system as it exists, what happens when you remove it? 

AMANDA RISHWORTH:  Yeah. Look, what we need to do is- My focus now is on carefully transitioning those people on the cashless debit card to ensure that they are able to understand the process - that their income support will now go into their bank account, that if they would like arrangements with Services Australia to have their rent deducted from that before they actually can access the rest of their money, that's an option that's available.
So really what it is, is working through individuals who have been subject to the compulsory cashless debit card on how they transition. And I'm working on what that process would look like. I've been talking with First Nations communities about what that process would look like. And also offer an option for voluntary income management. 
Certainly heard from some communities that some individuals will want voluntary income management, but it's certainly the case that many do not want it foisted upon them immediately. So the process really is how we transition those on the cashless debit card to understand the changes that are happening, and make sure that the process to revert back to being able to access their money through a normal bank account is actually done.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Amanda Rishworth, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you very much.


HAMISH MACDONALD: That's the new Federal Social Services Minister, Amanda Rishworth.