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migrant welfare Chris Bowen Labor
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen

On Wednesday both Labor and the Liberals voted in favour of a bill which will make new migrants wait longer to access social security. Under the proposed legislation, which has been moved to a third reading, migrants must wait up to four years before accessing various benefits such as Newstart.

Though the bill drew fierce condemnation from Labor MPs, the opposition reluctantly agreed to vote in favour after extracting some concessions (other payments such as parental leave pay and family tax benefits will be accessible after one or two years). 

Greens MPs have slammed Labor’s support for their bill as an indictment of their weak progressive credentials — all the more notable in a week where the government’s majority is particularly threadbare. So, why did they do it?

The bill explained

First proposed late last year, the government’s bill was initially justified as a means of producing $1.3 billion worth of savings. But even if passed in its amended form, the bill could cause considerable stress to vulnerable migrants. Earlier this year, Senate estimates heard that the proposal could affect 110,000 children.

The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs received numerous submissions from migrant organisations condemning the bill. The Multicultural Youth Affairs Network stressed that the bill “would make migrant young people more susceptible to financial hardship”, and the Migrant Council Australia said “the proposal is likely to have a disproportionate impact on women as they are most often the victims in situations of power imbalance and dependency”.

Labor MPs expressed similar concerns. Backbencher Mike Freelander, whose South West Sydney electorate of Macarthur is one of the most migrant-heavy in the country, said the “the government should be ashamed of itself for trying to introduce the legislation in its original form”.

“I’m very concerned about families who have young children with disabilities, and how they are going to cope with these draconian waiting periods,” he said.

If passed, Australia’s regime would become stricter than comparable countries. The UK currently imposes a wait-time of three months for EU nationals and two years for other migrants hoping to access Jobseeker’s Allowance. New Zealand also requires two years of residence before migrants access various welfare benefits.

According to Labor MPs, the amendments will soften the impact of the bill. NSW MP Linda Burney stressed that 49,000 families and 107,000 children would now be shielded from the new waiting periods for family tax benefits under Labor’s amendments.

The amendments drew praise from the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia chairperson Mary Patetsos, who stressed that they would “help protect the most vulnerable new arrivals and their families from the new four-year waiting period for benefits”.

But why the concession?

With the government’s majority hanging by a thread, the final parliamentary sitting week of the year could have been an opportunity for Labor to flex its progressive muscle and put a serious dent in the Coalition’s legislative agenda.

Greens MP Adam Bandt argued that the ALP instead “cooked up” a “dirty deal” with the Liberals to rush through the bill with little consultation:

This bill will create an underclass of migrants in this society and will result in second-class citizens who will now have to wait longer to get the kind of support that most people — other people in this country — are entitled to.

Meanwhile, Greens Senator Nick McKim attacked Labor for “boasting of their progressiveness” while voting for the bill. McKim also pointed out of the party’s refusal to commit to Independent MP Kerryn Phelps’ proposal to get children of Nauru.

However, despite repeatedly stressing they did not support increasing waiting periods at all, Labor MPs argued that pushing through an amended version was the only responsible course of action. Even though control of the chamber slipped further out of the government’s grasp this week, Labor would have likely fallen short of the 76 votes needed to oppose the bill, even with help from an expanded crossbench.

“We have been pragmatic, because the alternative was to leave the entirety of this proposal in the hands of the Senate crossbench, and of course, the One Nation Party,” Labor MP Ross Hart said.

But this morning, SBS reported that the Senate would likely have blocked the bill in its original form.

Labor’s approach is understandable given the volatility of the Senate crossbench. Still, their cautious pragmatism has ultimately led them to vote for a bill they virulently oppose, and garner the praise of Pauline Hanson:

I’m so proud of the Labor Party that you’re actually now going to support this because you can see some common sense. Don’t take notice of the Greens or anyone else in this place calling you racist.

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