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protecting disadvantaged South Australians.

Beyond the covering the basics, SACOSS has highlighted a range of proposals which need to be adopted and implemented to protect and support vulnerable and disadvantaged South Australians.

There are a range of key areas in which governments can act to make a big difference for people who are struggling, vulnerable or disadvantaged, or whom the system is currently failing.

There are social protections, which range from our continued call to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years and to do more to reduce the incarceration of Aboriginal people, to a review of the impact of the recently introduced ‘fee for service’ model on access to the Communication Partner Service in court hearings and police interviews. 

For some financial assistance for people who sorely need it, we’ve identified charges that could reasonably be waived for those who are on Centrelink payments such as the Victims of Crime Levy on expiation notices. We also want to remove the additional $20.90 charge for choosing to pay a fine in instalments.   

There are also some other practical steps the government can take to assist people in financial hardship. The government should mandate a “knock before you disconnect” program for energy retailers to ensure that customers are personally engaged if they are faced with being cut off. A review of eligibility criteria for the Emergency Electricity Payment Scheme (EEPS) is also in order.

It is becoming clear that climate change is increasing the likelihood of catastrophic fires and floods. People experiencing poverty and disadvantage are especially at risk from the adverse effects of natural disasters, so attention to this area is particularly important. In an environment where insurance premiums are increasingly out of the reach of many, we urgently need strategies that help people on low incomes afford basic insurance to help alleviate the consequences.   

And lastly, SACOSS has a number of suggestions for sector support to assist the non-government health and community services sector in our work.

Social protections

Policies to protect and support particular vulnerable and disadvantaged groups:

6.1.1  Commit to passing legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years of age, without exception.

The right to a childhood is a basic one. Criminalising any child, and especially children who are under the age of 14, should have no place in our society. Yet, under the South Australian Young Offenders Act 1993, children as young as ten can be detained. This has long-term harmful and accumulative effects that can compound past trauma and detrimentally impact the rest of children’s lives. It also places them at risk of becoming chronic, long-term offenders. We know that Aboriginal young people are disproportionately affected by the youth justice system, and are 21 times as likely to be under supervision as non-Aboriginal young people. We call on the State Government to adhere to international conventions and the principle of the best interests of the child; change the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14; and ensure that alternatives to detention are made available, in the form of therapeutic services, and diversionary programs that invest in child-centred and community-focused solutions.

6.1.2  Provide more detail and regular public reporting about meeting Closing the Gap commitments to reduce the incarceration of young and adult Aboriginal people by 30% and 15% by 2031.

A key theme of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was that imprisonment should be a sanction of last resort, yet Aboriginal people remain hugely over-represented in the prison population. The National Agreement on Closing the Gap has targets for reducing the incarceration rate of young and adult Aboriginal people by 30% and 15% respectively, by 2031. While there is a South Australian implementation plan for the agreement, the government needs to provide more detail, timelines and identified resource allocations to meet the Closing the Gap commitments.

6.1.3  Provide the option of extended care from 18 to at least 21 years for all young people leaving care, including those in residential care.

When a young person in residential care turns 18 years of age, the departmental authority and support payments currently cease. However, the vulnerability of young people in out-of-home care does not end at the age of 18 when formal care is discontinued. The importance of extended care has been recognised by the South Australian government, as reflected in the Stability in Family-Based Care program, enabling family-based carers to access fortnightly carer payments to support the young person until they turn 21. However, similar arrangements are not available to young people leaving residential care once they turn 18. Aligned with the Home Stretch Campaign, SACOSS is calling for the SA Government to provide the option of extended care from 18 to at least 21 years for all young people leaving care, including residential care, in line with Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017.

6.1.4  Review the impact of the introduction of the “fee for service” model on access to (and use of) the Communication Partner Service in police interviews and court hearings.

The Communication Partner Service assists people with complex communication needs to provide an accurate and coherent account of their experiences in police interviews and court proceedings. In March 2020 a new service model was introduced, with the professionals providing the service being engaged on a fee-for-service basis. Some disability advocates have raised concerns with SACOSS that the new model provides barriers to accessing the service. Given it is a new model, it is also good practice to review the changes after two years. SACOSS is calling for a review of the service model changes to ensure there has been no loss of access and that the service is providing the support needed.

Financial assistance

Policies to protect and support people with particular financial hardships:

6.2.1  Remove the $20.90 charge imposed on payment plans for state government fines.

If someone can’t pay an SA state government fine when it is due, they are able to apply to go on to a payment plan. However, the Fines Unit imposes a charge of $20.90 on the application for a payment plan. This is an impost on people who were unable to pay a fine and a potential barrier to paying the fine, thus risking further enforcement action. It is also a poverty premium, as people with higher incomes are more likely to be able to pay fines when they are due, and would cause outrage if adopted by energy or telecommunications companies.

6.2.2  Remove the Victims of Crime Levy on expiation notices for those in receipt of Centrelink payments or an SA government concession.

SACOSS has long called for income-based fines because, unlike the current system of flat-rate fines, they provide an equal disincentive to wrong-doing and do not impose a poverty premium and hardship for those on low incomes, for whom fines are often a massive proportion of income. While this remains our preferred approach, we recognise the practical difficulties of identifying income (particularly for a state government when the Commonwealth controls income tax). However, the proposal to remove the Victims of Crime levy on expiation notices for people receiving Centrelink payments (or with an SA government concession) overcomes these barriers, and would be a step toward a fairer fines system. The fine could be issued with the levy, but with a notice to apply for a waiver for those on income support or concessions. It is only proposed that this be applied to expiation notices, not to the levy attached to more serious offences.

6.2.3  Review eligibility criteria for the Emergency Electricity Payment Scheme (EEPS), with a view to raising the debt cap and ensuring those on hardship programs are not prevented from eligibility or referral.

The EEPS provides assistance to households in a financial crisis who are unable to pay their electricity debt. Currently, the assistance is a $400 payment, once every three years – on application from a financial counsellor. However, to be eligible, customers must be the account holder, must not have an energy debt greater than $2,000, and must be disconnected or at risk of disconnection. This can exclude customers of embedded networks (e.g. in caravan parks or apartment blocks), most customers with long-term energy debt,
and customers on payment plans or hardship programs. These barriers need to be removed. The Victorian Utility Relief Grants Scheme provides a good benchmark, with much broader eligibility criteria and greater support: $650 for each utility (water, electricity, gas) every two
years, or $1300 every two years if the customer only has one form of energy.

6.2.4  Require all retailers to participate in predisconnection for non-payment site visit programs for all customers, irrespective of meter type.

Disconnection of a household’s energy supply for nonpayment is nearly always the outcome of a customer not being able to meet their energy costs, and should be viewed as a last resort – occurring (if at all) only after retailers have offered payment plans, hardship programs and followed all other regulatory requirements. The number and type of disconnections in SA points to a failure on behalf of retailers to help customers manage their debt, and maintain a connection to their energy supply. SACOSS seeks that, ultimately, there be no disconnections for non-payment, but in the interim is calling for the SA government to mandate a “knock before you disconnect” program to ensure there is active personal engagement with all customers faced with potential disconnection, including customers with smart meters. The two ‘knock before you disconnect’ pilot programs from SA Power Networks and Essential Energy prove that personal contact prior to disconnection links customers with supports, and avoids disconnection and reconnection fees, as well as the significant distress caused by living without an energy supply.

6.2.5  Legislate to void any requirement for mandatory gas connections in new residential developments.

There is now clear evidence that for new houses, allelectric households are cheaper to run in the medium term-long term. The Grattan Institute suggests that running a new Adelaide house on all-electric would save up to $2,183 over 10 years (with electric cooking and hot water), and up to $5,556 over 10 years (with electric cooking, hot water and space heating). But developers of new residential estates are often including terms in sales
contracts mandating gas connection. This deprives new owners of choice and locks in more expensive energy provision for those households.

Climate change and disaster resilience

Policies to protect and support people most at risk from climate change and natural disasters:

6.3.1  Implement a percentage-based concession scheme for home, contents, and vehicle insurance for people on low incomes, and resource non-government organisations to facilitate access to the concessions for communities that would benefit.

Affordability of home, contents, and vehicle insurance premiums is a major barrier to insurance take-up for people on low incomes. We know that natural disasters are increasing due to climate change – and that people on low incomes are more likely to live in areas with higher risk of natural disasters because the housing tends to be cheaper. They are also less likely to have the power or resources to engage in mitigation. Meanwhile, financial strain on households has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and insurance premiums have been rising (in Adelaide, they have doubled since 2000). There is a real risk of a large number of people falling into poverty, or having their poverty entrenched, in future natural disaster seasons. SACOSS is calling on the SA government to implement a percentage-based concession scheme for home, contents, and vehicle insurance for people on low incomes, modelled on the existing cost of living concessions. If concessions are introduced, the government should resource partner non-government organisations to facilitate access to the concessions for communities that would benefit from the support, as Victoria has done with the Power Saving Bonus.

6.3.2  Establish and fund a disaster resilience and risk reduction fund to be managed by the People at Risk in Emergencies Action Group.

Climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of bushfires and extreme weather events, but the impacts are not felt by all people equally. People experiencing poverty, poor health, frailty and disability bear the greatest burden and are most at risk. SACOSS is proposing an investment of $5m over 4 years to identify and address risks for people who may be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and to improve the environmental sustainability of the health and social service sector that supports them. This fund would be managed by the People at Risk in Emergencies Action Group and administered through a member organisation.

6.3.3  Amend the Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Act 2007 to include a representative of the non-government health and community services sector on the Premier’s Climate Change Council, with the appointment to be made after consultation with SACOSS.

The Premier’s Climate Change Council provides independent advice to the Minister about matters associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change. While business, local government and environmental sectors are represented on the Council, there is currently no voice on the Council for the interests of South Australians living with poverty and disadvantage, who will be most impacted by climate change and natural disasters, nor a voice for our sector, which supports them. As significant stakeholders in our state’s response to climate change and building disaster resilience, the non-government health and community services sector should be represented on the Council. As the peak body for our sector, SACOSS should be consulted about the appointment of a person from our sector, as is the case where other peak bodies are consulted about appointees from the local government and environment sectors.

Sector support

Policies to support the non-government health and community services sector in our work:

6.4.1  Legislate and provide seed-funding for a portable long service leave scheme for all SCHADS workers in SA.

The not-for-profit health and community services sector employs over 35,000 people in South Australia, but many are employed as casuals or on fixed-term contracts. This reflects the government funding models with fixed-term contracts, but the result is that employees change jobs regularly and lose entitlements. Their time of “continuous service” starts over with each new job, and some never get the respite of long service leave despite years of service to the South Australian community. Victoria, Queensland and the ACT have now introduced portable long service leave schemes where entitlements accumulate with continuous employment across the sector (even if you change employers). There are different models to examine, but most are largely self-funding over time. We need a commitment in principle to implementing a portable long service leave scheme for workers employed under the SCHADS (Social, Community, Home Care and Disability Services) Award, and then a study and a collaborative process to work out the details of the system to be legislated.

6.4.2  Fix the definition of electoral matters and political expenditure in the Electoral Act, and/or exempt ACNC-regulated charities from SA election expenditure disclosure

Transparency in election campaign funding and expenditure is an important part of the democratic process, but the current SA electoral law is unclear about what activities the disclosure laws applies to, and it conflates activities aimed at influencing the electoral process with policy advocacy around issues. The result is that many charities and peak bodies who want to raise concerns about issues impacting on vulnerable and disadvantaged South Australians may be forced into time-consuming, invasive and often irrelevant reporting. Charities are already transparently regulated at the national level by the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission and can’t have a purpose to gain or prevent people’s election, so the application of the Electoral Act here is burdensome and unnecessary. SACOSS worked with the Conservation Council of SA to propose solutions when an electoral amendment bill was being developed in 2021, but that bill has now lapsed. Accordingly, we call for the next parliament to amend the Electoral Act to properly define electoral matters and political expenditure (separate from policy advocacy) and exempt charities policy advocacy from the disclosure provisions.

6.4.3  Implement a broad-based, collaborative review of the Associations Incorporation Act

The Associations Incorporation Act is the legal instrument which enables incorporation of many charities and community organisations under South Australian law and it sets the rules for what is possible and not possible for associations. The Act had not been reviewed from 1997 until 2021, when a wholly inadequate review was undertaken within the Attorney-General’s department. The result was an amendment bill which was fundamentally flawed, although rescued somewhat by subsequent consultation. However, that bill has now lapsed and there remains a need for a broad-based collaborative review to strengthen and modernize the scope and operation of the Act, and to address problems identified with existing provisions.

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