By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
A host of new laws passed by the federal government will come into effect this month.
There are changes to social security entitlements, privacy laws, immigration, MP expenses and of course same-sex marriage will become a reality.
Here are just a few of them.
Cashless welfare card
The controversial cashless social security card will be expanded to the Goldfields region in Western Australia, and the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region in Queensland, as part of wider plans for a national rollout.
The scheme involves 80 per cent of a recipient’s benefits being quarantined – so it cannot be withdrawn as cash. The card can be used to pay for essential goods and services such as rent, food, clothing and utilities but not for items such as alcohol, gift cards and gambling credits.
The card was initially targeted towards predominantly Indigenous communities in the Kimberley region and South Australia, and, despite heavy criticism by both users and social workers, the government has called it a ‘great success’.
Frontline workers have described horrendous accounts of young recipients being drawn into prostitution and crime to support their habits. This anecdotal evidence is supported by statistics which suggest spikes in robberies, break and enter and property offences in regions that have introduced the card. The scheme has also led to a new black market, with recipients selling the cards for below their value to get their hands on cash.
Despite all of this, Mr Turnbull vows to push ahead with the nationalisation of the card.
New laws will mean those on single parent payments will be required to have their relationship status verified, or else risk having their entitlements suspended or cancelled.
The government says this will reduce Centrelink fraud. It has earmarked funding for more call centre workers and a pilot programme aimed at reducing waiting times.
Things are about to get tougher for Newstart recipients, as the government introduces penalties for those who fail to turn up for appointments.
Mandatory drug testing of new Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients kicked in on 1 January – a program welfare workers believe targets the most vulnerable in our society and will simply lead to higher levels of unemployment, and associated problems.
Drug users receiving benefits
Other laws will mean that habitual drug and alcohol users will be made ineligible for disability pensions for medical conditions “caused solely by their own substance abuse”.
Again, the move has been criticised on the basis that it will lead to more people in Australia becoming destitute.
There were several embarrassing and headline-making ‘misuses’ of entitlements in 2017, including Bronwyn Bishop’s tax-payer funded helicopter ride from Melbourne to Geelong (which would have taken a couple of hours by car) and former Health Minister Sussan Ley’s purchase of a Gold Coast apartment while on a government-funded trip to Queensland to open a breast cancer clinic.
In response, the prime minister has promised greater scrutiny and transparency across MP spending and entitlements this year.
Many are sceptical about the ‘move’, pointing out that such promises have been made for years, yet in the first 6 months of 2017, politicians racked up almost $50 million in tax-payer funded expenses.
As of March this year, 457 visa holders won’t be able to apply for permanent residency under the Direct and Employer Nominated Transition Streams if their occupation is not on the selected occupation lists.
There are also plans to abolish the current 457 Visa program and replace it with a scheme that will only allow visa stays of up to two and four years.
There is also a bill currently before the senate that proposes to make partner visa sponsorship stricter.
Your personal data and privacy
New laws will make it mandatory for all Australian entities to comply the Privacy Act 1988, not just government and other limited bodies.
If a privacy breach occurs from February onward, organisations will be required to take all reasonable steps to ensure an assessment is completed within 30 days, reported to the appropriate body, and that individuals are notified.
The government says the laws will beef up our rights to the personal information that organisations hold, such as our right to review and check personal information. It will also be easier for government agencies to access that information. There will be hefty fines for non-compliance by businesses – up to 4% of turnover.
And of course, after a costly and divisive survey, and pursuant to a bill rushed through parliament before Christmas, same sex couples will be able to have their unions legalised from 9 January.
Commentators are expecting a rush to the altar, now that the Howard Government’s prohibition on same-sex marriages through its amendment of the Marriage Act in 2004 has been lifted.