Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has spoken of his wish to simplify the welfare payments system which he says is like a ‘‘bird’s nest’’. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
The government has promised not to gag the welfare sector as it has outlined plans to shrink the number of payments and supplements from 75 to as few as four.
Addressing the national conference of the Australian Council of Social Service in Brisbane Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews said the interim report of the McClure welfare review would be released shortly after Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned to the country. After that there would be a time for discussion and submissions before a final report was presented to the government in September or October this year.
It would recommend shrinking the present ''bird's nest'' of different and overlapping payments to as few as four.
Asked to guarantee that he wouldn't impose gag clauses on welfare organisations in receipt of government funds as did the earlier Howard government, Mr Andrews said he would not.
"We supported the [Rudd government's] legislation to remove the gag clauses, and we have no intention of changing it," he said.
"The institutions of civil society are important and we support them."
His guarantee is at odds with a statement made by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison when withdrawing funding from the Refugee Council of Australia. Mr Morrison said it was "not the government's view that taxpayer funding should be there to support what is effectively an advocacy group".
Mr Andrews said the government should not "seduce community groups into becoming its mouthpiece". It should not see voluntary groups as "simply an extension of itself", he said.
Wherever possible the government would be putting community groups on five-year funding agreements to make sure they were not beholden to the government of the day.
Most community organisations in receipt of government funds have had their contracts renewed for just six months until December 31 to make way for the new system.
Mr Andrews said he had asked the welfare review headed by former Mission Australia chief Patrick McClure to examine whether it was possible to redesign the welfare system so it was established "on some understood, reasonable principles but constructed in a simple way".
"Could we have four, five, six payments rather than the dozens that we've got at the present time?" he asked.
While not revealing the content of his interim report Mr McClure said it would be built on four pillars, the first of which would be a simpler and sustainable income support system. It would have fewer primary payments and supplements, a fair rate structure and integrate the tax and welfare systems to deliver rewards for work.
The second pillar was "strengthening individual and family capability", and some of the ideas would come from New Zealand where services are tailored to different types of people based on the previous likelihood of that type of person being able to help themselves. Those deemed least likely to be able to get back into work of their own accord would receive targeted early interventions.
The third and fourth pillars were engaging with employers and building community capacity.
Mr Andrews defended the budget decision to impose a mandatory six-month waiting period on young people wanting to assess unemployment benefits saying the easiest way for them to get an earlier benefit was to enrol in a training program.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert raised concerns about the plans to streamline the number of welfare payments.
''Given the government's attack on the income support system in the budget I don't trust the government's motives,'' she said.
When Parliament resumes next week, she will move for a Senate inquiry into the budget and "its impact on growing inequality in Australia''.