According to the original principle of mutual obligation,
recipients of unemployment payments have obligations to search for work, take
advantage of opportunities to improve their employability, and to work in
return for income support. Recipients who fail to
meet their obligations can have their payments suspended or cancelled.
Two new budget measures extend this principle to include
obligations under state and territory laws—to deal with outstanding arrest
warrants and to pay court-ordered fines. Including these as obligations for
income support recipients is consistent with the Government’s view that
dysfunctional behaviour and a failure to abide by reasonable social norms have
become important causes of welfare dependence and entrenched poverty.
These measures are subject to the passage of legislation.
They will also require extensive cooperation from state and territory
governments. It is not evident whether the Australian Government has consulted
with the states and territories before announcing this measure. The Queensland
State Attorney-General is reportedly critical of the lack of consultation on
the issue of data collection.
Under the ‘Encouraging lawful behaviour of income support
recipients’ measures, the Australian Government will work with states and
territories to ensure people on income support pay fines and clear outstanding
These measures depend on the cooperation of state and
territory governments. According to the Department of Social Services (DSS),
the Government has yet to determine their feasibility. Each state and territory
government will need to work out how to identify income support recipients
targeted by the policy and how to provide this information to the Commonwealth.
According to a DSS fact sheet: ‘From 1 March 2019, people
receiving welfare payments with outstanding arrest warrants for indictable
criminal offences will have their payment suspended or reduced by half if they
have dependent children.’
Recipients who clear their warrants within four weeks will
have their payments reinstated from the date the warrant was cleared.
Recipients who fail to clear their warrants within four weeks will have their
People who make a new claim or transfer between payments from
1 March 2019 will be required to provide information about any outstanding
arrest warrants and agree to police checks. If they have an outstanding warrant
and fail to clear it within seven days, their claim will be rejected.
According to the DSS fact sheet the measure applies to
people on ‘welfare payments’ but not to those receiving Farm Household
Allowance or Department of Veterans’ Affairs payments. It is not clear which
payments count as ‘welfare payments’.
What counts as an indictable offence varies between
jurisdictions. They are generally serious criminal offences that are tried
before a judge and jury (although some jurisdictions allow trial by judge alone).
A court-imposed fine is a monetary penalty imposed as the
result of criminal proceedings. Under this measure, ‘welfare’ recipients with
outstanding court-imposed fines will be encouraged to make repayment
arrangements using Centrepay, a service offered by the Government whereby deductions
can be made from Centrelink payments to cover regular bills and other expenses.
Centrelink will contact recipients with outstanding fines
and encourage them to enter a repayment arrangement with the relevant state or
territory government. If they fail to arrange repayment then Centrelink will
make compulsory deductions to pay the fines.
This measure does not apply to debts to the Commonwealth
such as Centrelink overpayments and tax debts.
Similar requirements have been imposed in New Zealand, the
United States (US) and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The US Social Security Administration experienced some
difficulty obtaining and processing state government data.
It faced a number of lawsuits and responded by changing the way it administers
the program. Congress is currently considering new legislation.
Implementation has been more straightforward in New Zealand.
Most recipients have their warrant cleared without a benefit suspension or
reduction. Unlike the US and
Australia, New Zealand has only one level of government.
Court-imposed fines and vulnerable
The National Social Security Rights Network and the
Australian Council of Social Service argue that the court-imposed fines measure
could push some vulnerable income support recipients into homelessness.
These groups appear to be concerned, not just with this budget measure, but
with the appropriateness of fines being applied to vulnerable people.
Some groups are particularly vulnerable to accumulating
unpaid fines. Agencies that deal with people with intellectual disabilities and
mental illness argue that these groups often struggle with the system and that
fines may not be an appropriate tool for reducing offending.
Indigenous people are also disproportionately affected by fines.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) and
the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples have expressed concern about
This suggests that if governments are going to work together
to deal with the problem of offending by income support recipients, they could
look at the problem more broadly and consider a wider range of options.
D Kemp (Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth
young people to take responsibility for their future, media release, 28
Department of Human Services (DHS), ‘Mutual
obligation requirements’, DHS website.
See A Tudge (Minister for Human Services), ‘Strengthening
Australia’s social security safety net,’ speech to the Committee for Economic
Development of Australia (CEDA), Sydney, 26 May 2017 and A Tudge, ’No
child will live in poverty’—30 years later, a new direction: speech to the
Centre For Independent Studies, Sydney, 20 July 2017.
Lawful Behaviour of Income Support Recipients [May 2018].
N Bita, ‘Cop
it sweet for dole’, Courier Mail, 10 May 2018, p. 1.
Department of Social Services (DSS), Encouraging
lawful behaviour of income support recipients, fact sheet, DSS,
Canberra, May 2018.
Ibid, p. 2.
LexisNexis, Encyclopaedic Australian Legal Dictionary
Department of Social Services (DSS), op cit.
Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ), ‘Arrest
warrants’, WINZ website; United States (US), Office of the Inspector
General (OIG), , ‘Fugitive
Enforcement Program’, OIG website. Government of British Columbia (Canada),
Government of British Columbia website.
US General Accounting Office (GAO), Social Security
Administration: Fugitive Felon Program could benefit from better use of
technology, US GAO, Washington, 2002.
United States, Republican Policy Committee (RPC), ‘HR
2792, the Control Unlawful Fugitive Felons Act of 2017’, RPC website.
New Zealand, Privacy Commissioner, ‘Justice/MSD
Warrants to Arrest Programme’, Privacy Commissioner website.
C Knaus, ‘Coalition's
“brutal” plan to dock welfare for fines savaged by advocates’, The
Guardian, 9 May 2018.
NSW SentencingCouncil, The
effectiveness of fines as a sentencing option: court-imposed fines and penalty
notices: interim report, 2006, p. 29. Include full title in link
M Spiers Williams and R Gilbert, ‘Reducing
the unintended impacts of fines’, Current Initiatives Paper 2,
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), Federal
Budget measures will create more legal need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people but no solutions, media release 9 May 2018. National
Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, First
peoples sacrificed in the name of budget surplus, media release, 9 May
All online articles accessed May 2018.
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