House of Representatives Speech- Social Security Legislation Amendment (Disaster Recovery Allowance) Bill 2013

This bill introduces a new disaster recovery income support payment, the disaster recovery allowance.

In recent years we have seen a trend of increasingly severe floods, cyclones, bushfires and storms. The recent summer has been no exception. Clearly the time for questioning the veracity of climate change is over.

These disasters have taken a physical, emotional and financial toll on all Australians. Most tragically, lives have been lost. We know that disasters in Australia are inevitable. We know that disasters in Australia are getting more prevalent. We know that disasters in Australia cost lives and livelihoods and we need to be prepared for this.

This bill introduces a new disaster recovery income support payment, the disaster recovery allowance.

In recent years we have seen a trend of increasingly severe floods, cyclones, bushfires and storms. The recent summer has been no exception. Clearly the time for questioning the veracity of climate change is over.

These disasters have taken a physical, emotional and financial toll on all Australians. Most tragically, lives have been lost. We know that disasters in Australia are inevitable. We know that disasters in Australia are getting more prevalent. We know that disasters in Australia cost lives and livelihoods and we need to be prepared for this.

Ensuring that individuals across Australia are supported in the aftermath of these disasters is critical to the recovery of communities. The Australian government stands ready to support disaster ravaged communities, providing the support they need to get back on their feet. The government already provides a range of assistance, both by working with the states through the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements, and directly with the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment and a number of ex gratia disaster payments.

The Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment, or AGDRP, provides short term, one-off financial assistance to eligible Australians. It offers a helping hand and has assisted thousands of Australians in recent years. The AGDRP has a legislative basis in the Social Security Act 1991, which allows the government to activate the AGDRP in response to a major disaster occurring in or outside Australia.

This government is serious about supporting jobs following a disaster, about keeping people employed in the local area, protecting skilled labour and the longer term recovery of the community. Australian workers, businesses and farmers are resilient. But in times of great difficulty they may require that extra help to get them back on their feet and back to work.

The disaster recovery allowance will standardise the highly successful assistance that is currently being provided as the ex gratia Disaster Income Recovery Subsidy. The ex gratia subsidy provides fortnightly payments equivalent to the maximum rate of Newstart Allowance or Youth Allowance, depending on a person’s circumstances. The subsidy supports those who, through no fault of their own, temporarily lose income as a direct result of a disaster. While the ex gratia payment has worked well this past summer to meet this need, cementing the disaster recovery allowance in legislation will provide a permanent and administratively efficient method for providing this assistance to communities. We have seen the value of such a legislated disaster recovery payment with the AGDRP. The disaster recovery allowance will provide temporary income support for up to 13 weeks. The allowance will be paid at a rate equivalent to Newstart or youth allowance.

The government will have the option of making the disaster recovery allowance available for events of national significance where assistance in the form of income support is required. In making this decision we will consider the extent to which the nature or extent of the event is unusual, and the extent of disruption to the workforce.

This will fill a gap in the post-disaster assistance currently provided at both Commonwealth and state levels, which is mainly focused on relief and recovery and not income support.

This government recognises that each event is unique and the needs of each community will be different. That is why the disaster recovery allowance will focus on either the areas that are affected, or the industries that are affected, or both. This means that it can apply broadly across a region, or just to an affected industry, depending on the impact of the event.

To qualify for the disaster recovery allowance, a person will have to be able to demonstrate that, because of the disaster, they have lost income on which they were dependent.

In most cases this will be a straightforward self-declaration by a person, ensuring the disaster recovery allowance is administered quickly and effectively in the wake of a major disaster.

While we are committed to supporting disaster-affected workers getting back on their feet, we do not want to create a disincentive for people to go back to work. For this reason the disaster recovery allowance will be subject to reductions. This will ensure that recipients are encouraged to return to work when possible, restoring that normality to their lives.

The disaster recovery allowance will be payable for 13 weeks. For those who have not been able to find work at the end of this period, the Department of Human Services will help them transition to the Newstart or youth allowance and they will have access to all of the existing Commonwealth programs that help people get back to work.

We recognise that sometimes the full impact of a disaster is not felt straightaway, particularly economic impacts. For this reason, and to allow adequate time for applications, the claim period for the disaster recovery allowance will stay open for six months after the disaster.

The disaster recovery allowance will be taxed and subject to beneficiary tax offsets, consistent with other social security payments.

Introduction of the disaster recovery allowance reflects the Australian government’s commitment to supporting communities affected by disasters. The disaster recovery allowance is about more than individuals; it is about getting communities back on their feet. We are seeing again with the recent disasters in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania that Australians want to help each other out after a disaster, and they want to lend a hand. The disaster recovery allowance makes sure that those people whose income has been hit by the disaster do not need to worry about getting food on the table, that they can focus on what Australians want to be doing in that situation, which is helping their friends, their neighbours, their community in getting back on their feet and putting their lives back together.

Disasters will happen in this country. With the changing climate, conditions will become more extreme and disasters will happen more frequently. With each year this is becoming clearer. It is a reality we cannot ignore and we must be as prepared as possible for future events. That is why this government is committed to improving the assistance we provide and the way in which it is delivered. With each year we, as a nation, and as a government, are getting better at preparing for, mitigating and responding to disasters. This bill is a further step in that process. It provides the Commonwealth with the ability to respond to disasters and to support the communities that are affected. These tools give us a greater sophistication in disaster recovery. They give us the certainty that the money is getting where it is needed.

I commend the bill to the House.