Social security, in Australia, refers to a system of social welfare payments provided by Commonwealth Government of Australia. These payments are administered by Centrelink, a branch of the Department of Human Services. In Australia, most benefits are means tested.
Prior to 1900 in Australia, charitable assistance from benevolent societies, sometimes with financial contributions from the authorities, was the primary means of relief for people not able to support themselves. The 1890s economic depression and the rise of the trade unions and the Labor parties during this period led to a movement for welfare reform.
In 1900, the states of New South Wales and Victoria enacted legislation introducing non-contributory pensions for those aged 65 and over. Queensland legislated a similar system in 1907 before the Australian labor Commonwealth government led by Andrew Fisher introduced a national aged pension under the Invalid and Old-Aged Pensions Act 1908. A national invalid diasbility pension was started in 1910, and a national maternity allowance was introduced in 1912.
During the Second World War, Australia under a labor government created a welfare state by enacting national schemes for: child endowment in 1941 (superseding the 1927 New South Wales scheme); a widows’ pension in 1942 (superseding the New South Wales 1926 scheme); a wife’s allowance in 1943; additional allowances for the children of pensioners in 1943; and unemployment, sickness, and special benefits in 1945 (superseding the Queensland 1923 scheme).
Current attitudes toward welfare in Australia can be separated into support for the welfare system and support for welfare recipients. A multivariate analysis using canonical correlation analysis identified five distinct profiles of welfare attitudes and socio-demographic characteristics. The main attitude cluster was one toward support for the welfare system and welfare recipients. Having receiving government welfare in the past strongly predicted a person supporting the welfare system and its beneficiaries. The next most prominent attitude profile was summarized as 'the welfare system is good but the people on it are lazy and dependent'. This attitude profile was found among people receiving welfare payments that were either normative (e.g. the age pension) or where there is little expectation that a person will return to work (e.g. disability support pension). Overall, Australian's hold more negative attitudes toward welfare recipients than they do the welfare system. People with a history of receiving unemployment benefits tend to have more negative welfare attitudes if they live in areas where other community members have more negative attitudes.
Social security payments and other benefits are currently made available under the following acts of parliament:
All Centrelink income support payments are payable fortnightly, usually by direct deposit required into the recipient's bank account. They are also subject to a means test which calculates the recipient (and their partner's) fortnightly income and assets and affects the rate of their payment accordingly. As such, people on lower incomes may be entitled to part-payment of their allowance (subject to other qualification requirements). The assessment of income and assets varies greatly between different social security payments and the effect that income and assets have on each payment differs in that they have different income thresholds (i.e. how much income one can earn before it affects their payment) and different taper rates (the amount the payment drops by per dollar above these thresholds).
An individual may be precluded from claiming any of income support payments listed below for a certain number of weeks following receipt of a lump sum compensation payment, made wholly or partly in respect of lost earnings or lost capacity to earn resulting from personal injury (often received in settlement of a Workers' Compensation claim). The number of weeks for which the preclusion period applies to an individual is proportional the size of the lump sum payment they received. Centrelink has a discretion to reduce the duration of the preclusion period if it is satisfied that there exist special circumstances that make an individual's case out of the ordinary: for example, extreme financial hardship.
The Age Pension was the first payment made by the Commonwealth Government, dating back to 1909. It is available to persons aged 65 years and over. Except for the mandatory superannuation scheme, workers do not contribute to a pension or insurance scheme in Australia, unlike pension schemes in many other countries. Taxpayer-funded pensions are means tested.
Newstart Allowance is an unemployment benefit paid to unemployed people aged 22 to 64. To be eligible, a person must apply for the benefit and be actively seeking work. On 1 July 1991, it replaced the Unemployment Benefit (UB) which had been unchanged since 1945. It was part of a government reform called Newstart - the Active Employment Strategy.
It is paid on the basis of a 'mutual agreement' between the customer and Centrelink, where Centrelink will continue to pay fortnightly payments to the customer for so long as the customer attempts to find employment and fulfills the mutual obligation requirements. These mutual agreements are negotiated between Centrelink, the job seeker and their Job Services Australia provider or Disability Employment Services provider, and are recorded into an Employment Pathway Plan or "EPP". Activities to which a job seeker may have to agree, in order to continue receiving the Newstart Allowance, include applying for a specific number of jobs (usually ten) per fortnight and recording these applications in a Centrelink issued diary, undertaking vocational education or training, paid work experience, participation in a labour market program or Work for the Dole project, and other activities, such as voluntary work if considered appropriate by Centrelink. For example, more elderly customers who have been made redundant and are approaching the age pension age, and who may face considerable difficulties re-entering the labour market, are often permitted to fulfil their plan by engaging in voluntary activities alone. A job seeker has to nominate and engage in one activity (for example, either a vocational education activity or Work for the Dole activity) in any one mutual obligation period (lasting six months at a time).
Clients are not expected to engage in the more intensive of these activities as soon as their receipt of the allowance commences. The amount of activity required on behalf of the client in order to continue receiving his/her benefit is usually staggered as follows:
Newstart Allowance rates are adjusted on 20 March and 20 September each year. As of September 2013, the basic Newstart rate for a single unemployed person without children is A$501 per fortnight. However, this basic rate does not include supplement payments which can include Rent Assistance of up to A$121.00 per fortnight, and other supplements, such as Pharmaceutical Allowance, Telephone Allowance, Remote Area Allowance, Training Supplement and the Work For The Dole Supplement; which are paid depending on personal circumstances and activity. Rates differ for married couples, registered relationships or de facto couples (including same sex or opposite sex couples) and persons with children. Despite significant increases in the cost of living, the increases to the Newstart Allowance have not kept pace with inflation. The initial income threshold has only risen from 1987's $60 to $62 in 2000 where it remains today.
On 1 March 2010, the Australian Government introduced changes to Disability Employment Services. Multiple existing programs were streamlined into two clearly distinct programs, making assessment and referral processes less complex.
All eligible job seekers with disability have access to individually tailored services which meet their needs including capacity building, training, work experience and other 'interventions' to help participants obtain and maintain suitable employment. DES providers support and manage a participant's condition in the workplace, along with providing ongoing support in the workplace for as long as it is required.
New compliance rules were introduced on 1 July 2011, dealing with client meetings with a DES provider and payment suspension. Data released in mid-November 2013 showed that the number of welfare recipients had grown by 55%. In 2007 228,621 Newstart Allowance recipients were registered, a total that increased to 646,414 in March 2013.
Patrick McClure has as of January 2014 been appointed by the Abbott Government to a review targeting benefits on people in receipt of Newstart Allowance and the Disability Support Pension reporting in February 2014.
Youth Allowance is an income support payment available to full-time students and Australian Apprentices aged 16–24, and to job seekers and those undertaking a combination of other activities leading to employment aged 16–20.
Youth Allowance recipients are considered to either be dependent on a caregiver(s), or independent. The underlying philosophy of Youth Allowance is that legal guardians are responsible for supporting their children where they have the means if that young person has not lived independently from them.
Dependent recipients are subject to the Parental Income Test and Family Assets Test, unless a parent is in receipt of a specified income support payment themselves. A dependent Youth Allowance recipients may be exempt from the Parental Income Test if their parent is in receipt of an income support payment themselves. A dependent recipient's rate of payment will be reduced as a result of parental income above the parental income free area, although the parental income free area can be increased by sibling concessions.
Dependent Youth Allowance recipients may also be subject to the Family Actual Means Test (FAMT) which applies where the parent is self-employed, involved in a trust or company or several other categories. The rationale behind the FAMT is that the taxable income on which Youth Allowance is normally based may not accurately reflect the true financial means of parents in these categories. It asks for details of the family's spending on living expenses during the relevant tax year and extrapolates an equivalent notional taxable income from this. Sole traders involved in primary production and parents receiving drought assistance such as Exceptional Circumstances Relief Payment are exempt.
All Youth Allowance recipients are subject to the Personal Income Test, which takes into account any income they may earn through part-time or casual work. If an independent Youth Allowance customer has a partner, then their income will be included under the Partner Income Test.
Youth Allowance has lower payment rates for recipients who live with a parent or guardian compared to those who live away from home. Recipients living 'away from home' may also be eligible for Rent Assistance.
Fifteen-year-olds can also receive Youth Allowance if they are defined as independent and are over the school leaving age in the state of residence. The school leaving age is 17 in all states and territories of Australia.
Youth Allowance was introduced from July 1998 and replaced Youth Training Allowance and Newstart Allowance for job seekers under 21 and AUSTUDY for students under 25.
In 2009 a number of significant changes to Youth Allowance were announced in the Federal Budget. Some of the proposed changes included introducing new scholarships for university students, and changes to the independence criteria and Parental Income Test. These changes were passed by Parliament on 17 March 2010. The changes will be implemented over a number of years, beginning with the introduction of new scholarships from 1 April 2010.
In the 2011–12 Budget, the Australian Government announced that from 1 July 2012, Youth Allowance (other) will be extended to 21-year-olds (currently 21-year-olds are eligible for Newstart Allowance). Twenty-one-year-olds who are on Newstart Allowance, or who have applied for it, by 1 July 2012 will not be affected by the change.
The Austudy Payment was originally known as the AUSTUDY Scheme, an all-ages study allowance, but since the introduction of Youth Allowance (see above) it has been reserved for the over-25s. To qualify, one must be an Australian resident, over 25, and studying full-time at an approved education institution. However, students who were receiving a Youth Allowance prior to turning 25 and are still pursuing the same course of study continue to receive a Youth Allowance until they finish (or otherwise terminate) their course.
Unlike Youth Allowance, Austudy recipients are considered to be independent and are not subject to the Parental Income Test, Family Assets Test and the Family Actual Means Test. As part of the 2007 Australian federal budget, Austudy Payment recipients are eligible for Rent Assistance from 1 January 2008. Prior to 1 January 2008, Rent Assistance was not payable with Austudy. Like most Centrelink payments, Austudy Payments are subject to a personal and/or partner income and assets test.
ABSTUDY (The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Study Assistance Scheme) is a welfare payment for Indigenous Australians undergoing some form of study. All Indigenous students at secondary or tertiary institutions, as well as those studying by correspondence, and primary students who turned 14 prior to 1 January of their current year of study. To qualify as Indigenous, a student must be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent by Centrelink standards and be a current Australian citizen. ABSTUDY is tailored according to income tests, and the status of partners, guardians, and dependent children.
Whilst this payment is administered through Centrelink, the payment is made under ABSTUDY Policy. The responsibility for ABSTUDY Policy rests with the Minister of Education and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, and is not contained within the Social Security Act 1991.
Provides income support for people who suffer a long-term disability, which in the opinion of an assessor they will not recover from in the next two years, and which will render them unable to work or participate in a training activity enabling them to work. The basic rate for a single person is A$782.20 (as at March 2015); different rates apply to persons under 18 with no children, and to couples, married, de facto or in a same-sex relationship. The payment is income and assets-tested. However, if an applicant is permanently blind, they can receive DSP without income and assets tests, and without needing to prove any inability to work, etc. DSP can take a while to process, so as a temporary measure claimants are placed on another payment (e.g. Newstart with a medical certificate to cover the activity tests) while the payment is being assessed; once granted it is backdated to the claim date at the higher DSP rate.
Patrick McClure has of January 2014 been appointed by the Abbott Government to a review targeting benefits on people in receipt of New Start Allowance and the Disability Support Pension reporting in February 2014.
A Sickness Allowance is paid for those currently suffering an illness, injury, or disability (short-term i.e. less than two years), are employed, and have no access to leave or have used all their leave. It is paid under the Newstart system without an Activity Test.
A Carer Payment is made to those providing full-time care to someone who is ill, injured or has a disability.
A payment for those who are principal carers of dependent children under the age of 6 for partnered customers and children under the age of 8 for single customers. Parenting Payment Partnered is classified as an allowance and Parenting Payment Single is classified as a pension.
A controversial decision by the Labor party in 2006 and 2013, to transfer sole parents to the lower Newstart payment, has placed sole parents well below the poverty line. Welfare groups have reported these parents, 82.3% of which are women (ABS 2011), are turning to prostitution (because of the cash in hand options), have given up their education and are sleeping in their cars. This decision was made as an incentive for parents to seek work, as 57% of primary residential mothers work and 70% of primary residential fathers work (ABS 2011). With one quarter of single parent households headed by a single parent being 896,542 families (17.7% male & 82.3% female, ABS 2011)
Parenting Payment Partnered uses an individual and a partner income test to determine the rate of payment with benefit withdrawal rates of 60 cents in the dollar (as of 1 July 2007) on income over the legislated limits. A partner's gross earnings are assessed as shared, regardless of individual tax already paid. If, for example, the breadwinner is currently paying 30 per cent personal tax, the effective marginal tax rate (EMTR) after benefit withdrawal is 90 percent of earnings above the legislated limit (the EMTR prior to 1 July 2007 is 100% as the benefit withdrawal rate is 70% of the partner's earnings above the legislated income limit).
Income support recipients who are classed as non-homeowners and pay more than a required amount of board or rent for accommodation are eligible for Rent Assistance payments. This payment is paid as part of the income support payment. Verification of the rent details is required, either a lease or by completing a Rent Certificate every six months. The amount of rent assistance a recipient is eligible for depends on the amount of rent one is paying. The basic rate for a single person with no children and not sharing accommodation is as follows. As at 28 January 2010, Rent Assistance begins to be paid when a renter's fortnightly rent is in excess of A$99.40. For every dollar in excess of this amount, Rent Assistance pays A$0.75, up to a maximum of A$111.80 per fortnight. The maximum amount payable is lower for those sharing accommodation, in which case it is A$74.53. Different rates apply to couples, couples separated by illness, couples temporarily separated and singles and couples with dependent children.
A payment of A$6.00 per fortnight for those receiving Centrelink payments, to help cover the cost of prescription medicines. The amount covers the cost of one prescription per fortnight for a concession card holder eligible for the concessional rate of medicines (A$5.90 per script from 1 January 2013) which are covered under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which covers most prescription medicines available.
A payment issued quarterly to eligible customers receiving pension payments, to help cover the cost of telephone bills. Eligible customers must have a telephone service subscribed in their name to be eligible for Telephone Allowance. There are two rates payable: a basic rate of A$23.40 and a higher rate of A$35.20.
"The Pensioner Education Supplement (PES) helps [recipients] with the costs of full-time or part-time study." It is an additional payment for those on a pension. It only applies to approved courses of study. Bachelor's degrees and many TAFE courses are approved courses of study, but generally postgraduate study is not. One is still eligible for PES for study even if you have completed previous studies.
Family Tax Benefit is a per-child payment made through the Department of Human Services to the people with at least 35 per cent of care for a child. Family Tax Benefit is income-tested on a family's adjusted taxable income in the given financial year. Income support recipients are exempt from the income test and are entitled to the maximum rate of payment.
Payments can be paid in fortnightly instalments or as a lump sum payment at the end of the year. For Family Tax Benefit paid in instalments, the income test is based on an estimate of adjusted taxable income that is reconciled after the recipient has lodged their tax return. The reconciliation process compares the estimated income with their actual income.
Family Tax benefit Part B is paid based on the lower of the recipient and their partner's income, or, for a single parent at the maximum rate.
Maternity Immunisation Allowance is paid to parents whose children who have received all immunisations specified by the national immunisation schedule by the time they are 2 years old. Alternatively, if the parents object to immunisation on any grounds and inform Centrelink of this, they may also receive this allowance. The allowance ceased on 1 July 2012.
Child Care Benefit assists Australian parents with the cost of approved and registered child care. It is a means tested payment and is based on the recipient's taxable income; low income families receive the highest rate of Child Care Benefit.
The Australian Government spent approximately $2.1 billion on Child Care Benefit to assist families with the cost of child care in the financial year ending 30 June 2011.
In May 2012, the Australian Government abolished the Education Tax Refund (ETR) that allowed families to claim a refund for education expenses through the Australian Tax Office (ATO). The Schoolkids Bonus replaced the ETR from 1 January 2013. The Schoolkids Bonus aimed to assist families and students with the costs of education for children in primary and secondary school. The School Kids Bonus is paid in 2 equal instalments each year in January and July.
The Paid Parental Leave Scheme provides financial support to eligible working parents of newborn or recently adopted children. Under the scheme, the government funds employers to provide Parental Leave Pay or Dad and Partner Pay to their eligible employees.
Parental Leave Pay is paid to the child's primary carer and eligible parents for up to 18 weeks of pay based on the rate of National Minimum Wage. Dad and Partner Pay is for eligible working dads or partners (including adopting parents and same-sex couples) for up to two weeks of pay based on the rate of National Minimum Wage.
The following concession cards are issued by Centrelink:
Persons imprisoned or admitted to a psychiatric institution are generally not eligible to receive benefits for the duration of imprisonment or admission. (However, it may be payable if a psychiatric stay is classed as rehabilitation.) The benefits resume upon release or discharge. However, upon release or discharge from imprisonment or psychiatric hospitalisation of more than two weeks, the claimant is entitled to an additional payment equal to seven days of their regular payment, to help with adjustment.
Every decision made under social security law is to be in writing and given sufficient notice, usually in a letter. Applications for review of such decisions may be lodged at any time, but depending on the decision remedial action may only be taken if the review is received within 13 weeks of receiving notice, for decisions made under the Social Security act, or 52 weeks for decisions made under Family assistance law. At the bottom of each letter informing customers of a Centrelink decision, a "your rights" box informs individuals of potential avenues for review.
Legislation ultimately governs the decision making process, and Centrelink policy guidelines provide the lens through which legislation is interpreted by Centrelink Customer Service Advisers (CSAs). However, notwithstanding legislation and policy, there are still many areas in which significant discretion is afforded to the decision maker, which may be subject to internal and external review.
Centrelink possesses a prescribed two-tiered system of internal review. The initial stage is the ODM Review, where the matter is brought back to the CSA for reconsideration. This is a wholly intra-office process and functions as an initial check on the decision, and the appeal progresses further from the ODM only if necessary. Many reviews are due to legislative changes, administrative errors, provision of new customer documentation, or customer disagreement with the decision. There is also the opportunity for the customer to make a formal written complaint. However, many individuals may not wish to have the same CSA make another decision, which may even lead to confusion as to whether internal review has actually taken place.
Once the ODM review has been completed it should contain the relevant legislative provisions, any new information considered, and a determination stating whether the original decision has been set aside, affirmed or varied.
If the individual is not satisfied, an Authorised Review Officer (ARO), an officer delegated review powers from the Secretary for the purposes of social security law, may affirm, vary, or set aside the original decision. Although an employee of the Centrelink, an ARO is not to defend ODM decisions as it is a strong principle that the ARO is independent of the situation and has no previous involvement in the case. Nevertheless, AROs also look at legislation with the same policy guidelines as CSAs.
A customer dissatisfied with an internal review of a decision may apply to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT)  to review a decision affirmed, varied or set aside by internal review, subject to some exceptions. The SSAT generally has the same powers as the Secretary, and may affirm, vary, set aside and substitute a decision or return the matter to Centrelink with recommendations. SSAT hearings are generally informal, confidential and not bound by the Laws of Evidence.
Experience has indicated that at the SSAT more weighting goes towards the legislation as opposed to policy guidelines. Welfare advocacy groups such as the Welfare Rights Centre are often involved in providing legal help to individuals affected by Centrelink decisions.
As of 1 July 2015, the SSAT is no longer is a separate tribunal. Alongside the Migration Review Tribunal and the Refugee Review Tribunal, the SSAT has instead merged with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). Decisions deemed reviewable by the ARO are now heard in the Social Services and Child Support Division of the AAT. The primary functions of the SSAT as the first tier of the review process have been converted and are now known as the 'AAT first review'. Therefore, the traditional two-tier review process has morphed in light of the amalgamation but it has nevertheless been preserved within the AAT.
A decision must have been reviewed by the SSAT before it can be heard at the AAT. However, the Secretary or a delegated person on behalf of the Secretary may appeal a decision from the SSAT. Only 17% of decisions are overturned at the AAT. Further appeals (on questions of law only) are available to the Federal Court and High Court.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman does not conduct a merits review (as would the ARO, SSAT or AAT), but considers the administrative decision making process employed by Centrelink to reach the decision or carry out the action complained of.
Where the Ombudsman concludes that there has been a deficiency in Centrelink's action (for examples) the Ombudsman may make recommendations to Centrelink for remedial action. This may result in Centrelink changing their decision, or providing a better explanation of their decision.
Investigations by the Ombudsman are usually result from a complaint about a decision or action of Centrelink, and in the process of an investigation the Ombudsman is entitled to view Centrelink records and ask questions of Centrelink staff. While the Ombudsman does not have coercive powers to make Centrelink change a decision or act in a certain way, recommendations made by the Ombudsman are rarely rejected.