Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Social Security Legislation Amendment (Family Participation Measures) Bill 2011; Second Reading
Debate resumed on the motion:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise to speak up on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Family Participation Measures) Bill 2011. The purpose of the bill is to address two areas of concern: teenage families and jobless families. For teenage parents who live in one of the 10 identified areas of disadvantage, there will be a 3½-year trial starting on 1 January 2012, requiring those who receive parenting payments to develop and sign an Employment Pathway Plan. There will be a separate three-year trial commencing on 1 July 2012, requiring certain jobless family members who are receiving parenting payment to develop and sign an Employment Pathway Plan.
The government announced the introduction of these participation pilots for teenage parents in the 2011-12 budget and it is believed that this measure will cost in the order of $47.1 million and will be rolled out across 10 areas of high disadvantage. These areas include: Playford in South Australia; Hume and Shepparton in Victoria; Burnie in Tasmania; Bankstown, Wyong and Shellharbour in New South Wales; Rockhampton and Logan in Queensland; and Kwinana in Western Australia.
As the federal member for Solomon, I am disappointed that the Northern Territory has been overlooked. Yet again, the Northern Territory is not getting the attention it deserves and, quite frankly, I am sick and tired of the government treating the Northern Territory with contempt. Statistics from the Parliamentary Library show birth rates to teenagers in the Northern Territory are consistently higher than the national average. Fertility rates for Territory teenage girls are also among the highest in the country. This concerns me, because teenage pregnancies are usually associated with many social issues, such as higher rates of debt and lower educational levels. Being a parent can make it harder to get a job or find a job. The difficulty of juggling being a parent with school, work and family can also be a strain. Often getting child care can be difficult too because of the expense involved. These factors can often lead to parents feeling inadequate, lonely and not part of a family.
Smoking, drinking and drug use are also big factors and can also break down the relationship between the young mother and her own parents. One Australian study claims that, while 49 per cent of pregnant teenagers were living with their parents before pregnancy, only 30 per cent lived at home during the pregnancy. Stress and the realisation of becoming a young parent also cause problems and sometimes result in unwanted children and broken families. In some cases, too, the grandparents are forced to care for the children, and, with no government assistance in place to support this, how will they be supported?
Currently there are more than 11,000 teenage parents in Australia. According to the ABS, the age-specific fertility rate of women aged 15 to 19 years in the Northern Territory in 2010 was 48.1 per cent. The national average that same year was 15.5 per cent. Indigenous teenagers also have a fertility rate twice that of all teenage women in the Northern Territory. This is of great concern because, without the opportunity to complete their education, these teenagers may become trapped in a cycle of welfare dependency and could disadvantage not only themselves but also their children. Therefore, births to Indigenous teenagers in remote and disadvantaged areas of the Territory are of great concern. According to ABS statistics, for Indigenous women in 2004 the teenage fertility rate of 71 babies per 1,000 women was more than four times the fertility rate of all teenage women—16 babies.
Because we have a much younger population than any other population in Australia, this is an ongoing challenge. Coupled with the life expectancy gap, we need to acknowledge child health and youth services in rural and remote areas of the NT to deal with sexually active teenagers. This bill will require teenage parents to enter into an Employment Pathways Plan with Centrelink once their youngest child turns six months. The aim is to re-engage them with study as early as possible to prevent their long-term disadvantage. Once their youngest child turns six months old, they will be required to attend a Centrelink appointment and will need to enter into a plan to see them resume study and develop a plan for healthy early development and education outcomes for their child.
Education and health are extremely important to me in Solomon. In fact, recently I was fortunate enough to meet members of the Top End girls academy. The girls academy initiative was created with the aim of improving educational, personal and employment outcomes for Indigenous secondary school females. The program provides a strong community with supportive programs so that all members work towards completion of year 12, employment or further education. This is one such initiative that is proving successful for young Territory women.
Ultimately, for this pilot to succeed there needs to be a focus on workforce participation and an enforcement of the obligations of the job seeker. Yet the only penalties that apply are when a job seeker fails to meet with Centrelink without a reasonable excuse. Whilst the legislation does require parents to enter into an Employment Pathway Plan to outline their employment, training and education and health outcomes for their child, there will be no requirement for them to comply with this plan and it will not be compulsory for them to commit to looking for or accepting employment or undertaking further study. Therefore, our amendment will seek to require compliance with the undertakings given in the employment pathway plan. Failure to adhere to these commitments would result in a suspension of payment. As with the teenage pilot, the jobless families trial was a commitment made in the 2011-12 budget.
The jobless families trial program targets parenting payment recipients who have been on income support for more than two years or those who are under 23 years of age, not working or studying and have a youngest child under six years of age. According to 2011 ABS statistics, more than 530,000 Australian children under 15 live with parents who do not work. Again, this can lead to serious disadvantage for the child and may ingrain a sense of welfare dependency. This also puts added pressure on housing affordability and the Northern Territory is already in the midst of a housing shortage.
Too many young families are struggling to find affordable homes and accommodation in my electorate. As a result, they are being forced to leave the Territory and seek more affordable options interstate. This is why the government should make use of the 200-plus vacant RAAF base houses sitting in Eaton rotting away. Instead, the Gillard Labor government ignores the will of the parliament. It should make these houses available to Territorians and it should do it now. Having an extra 200-plus houses available in the market would alleviate some of the pressure on young families in my electorate. Defence people assure me that they would love the opportunity to live in those houses. Unfortunately, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Mr Snowdon, did not do what he previously agreed and that was to offer those houses to Defence families. I understand he is no longer the minister responsible for that, but I am hoping the new minister responsible will honour the will of the parliament and make those houses available.
While the Northern Territory has relatively low unemployment levels, ABS statistics reveal there are currently around 96,000 jobless couples with children as well as 210,000 single parents out of work across the nation. Indigenous children are most at risk, with more than 40 per cent living in jobless families—nearly three times the rate of other children. Parliamentary Library statistics show that the Northern Territory has the lowest rate of student participation in schooling of all states and territories. These rates are also lower for Indigenous students and students in remote and very remote areas. School attendance is closely linked to socioeconomic status, locality, Indigenous status and literacy and numeracy attainment.
The coalition supports attempts to have parents re-engage with the workforce early; however, this bill does not require parents to adhere to the commitments they make in their employment pathway plan. The coalition has concerns that this bill seeks to remove the provision for the secretary to intervene in exceptional circumstances, and that is why we will move amendmentsto this bill in the Senate.
Ultimately, the intention of these pilots is to increase engagement with education and employment opportunities, preventing future intergenerational unemployment and potential lifelong disadvantage. The coalition welcomes the intent of these pilots to encourage engagement; however, there are still some concerns. Whilst we acknowledge there are parents whose children are under six years of age and, as such, they should not be forced to look for a job, there should still be a recognised compliance regime. If they commit to further studies or to look for employment then they should be required to comply with these undertakings. As already indicated, the coalition supports the bill; however, we will be moving some amendments.
In 1981 a young woman found that she was pregnant at 16. After confirming the pregnancy and breaking the news to her mum, she attended school until the baby was nearly due. Although her mother was supportive and encouraged her to go back to school, the young woman decided it was too hard to commence year 12 with a young infant. Having already completed her year 11 studies, she eventually enrolled in a TAFE course and began a diploma in child care, part time. Now 45, with two children, she has a successful career in the early childhood sector running childcare centres in Melbourne. She also helps pregnant women who are not so lucky, in particular teenage mothers. Her daughter, now 29, is married with two children of her own. This story was told anonymously online by the woman herself to encourage teenage mothers never to give up. It shows why attaining year 12 or its equivalent is so important for teenage parents.
The number of teenage mothers in Australia has dropped significantly over recent decades. The most recent ABS data shows just four per cent of births were to teen mothers. But the outcomes of this small group are still worrying. In the 2006 census only 17 per cent of teenage mothers completed year 12. Over 1,500 females aged 15 to 19 years were not gaining the level of education that is increasingly essential for the demands of a 21st century workforce.
In June of this year the National Centre for Vocational Education Research released a report titled From education to employment: how long does it take? The centre found that young people who do not finish year 12 take significantly longer to move into employment. The prime factor influencing the speed at which a young person obtains work after they leave the education sector was their level of education. The report also found strong gender differences. For men, those with a degree obtained work five times faster than those who did not complete year 12. For women, those with a degree obtained work eight times faster. The unequivocal message from this report is that education is vital. For a young person entering the labour market, higher levels of education lead to better wages and to getting a job faster. In a worrying statistic, about one-quarter of the young people sampled with less than a year 12 education had not obtained any work by the end of the observation period. This is a serious warning for the long-term prospects of younger Australians who do not have year 12 or its equivalent. This prognosis for the career development and income levels of those young people is grim. This bill heeds that warning and puts in place a program for teenage parents to work towards attaining year 12 or its equivalent. From 1 January 2012, teenage parents in 10 disadvantaged locations with a youngest child under six who receive parenting payment and have not completed year 12 or an equivalent qualification will be required to attend Centrelink to develop a participation plan. Under the teenage parents trial, participants will be required to undertake compulsory activities from when their child is one year old. This will give them time to settle into life with a new baby; but, equally important, they will be able to develop a plan towards gaining a good education.
Education is the best antipoverty vaccine we have yet invented. It provides the foundations from which a young person can build a life of their choosing from the career opportunities and skills development that it brings. This government gets it. We understand that education is good social policy, that unemployment is the best predictor of disadvantage and that having the skills for the jobs of the future is essential to staying out of poverty. Although it was based on children and families in the United Kingdom, a recent Four Corners program made this point. It showed the human face, the cost and devastating impact of poverty on children.
One story was of Sam, who is 11 years old and lives in Leicester with his dad and older sister. Sam's dad is unemployed and struggles with finding enough money to buy food or to operate the electricity. Their income is £70 to £80 a week, which is barely enough to buy them the basics. Often the electricity and gas run out, leaving them cold and miserable. Sam has problems with bullying and suffers from low self-esteem. He has to be careful about what he says to other students for fear he will be judged and ridiculed. As Sam said, 'People don't like you if you're poor.'
This bill puts supports in place to cut the cycle of unemployment and poverty through education. I am sure that no-one in this place wants to see any child suffer, like Sam, the indignity of poverty. A great education in Australia can see a child from Cape York go to university, become a leader in her community and eventually become Young Australian of the Year. A great education means that a child from Ilfracombe can become the first female member of the Queensland bar and our first female Governor-General. This national parliament is itself a showcase of the opportunities that education provides to children from all corners of the nation. So many members of this House acknowledged in their first speeches that they would not be here today were it not for a great education.
The Brotherhood of St Laurence tells the story of another Sam. Forty years old, Sam has been working with the local council's road services department for the past 18 months. Now Sam's life is settled, he has safe, stable accommodation and is working towards future employment goals—but it has not always been that way. In 2009 Sam was living in a rooming house where violence was commonplace and the environment unsanitary. Through the Centre for Work and Learning at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, he was chosen to join a pre-employment training program. Sam successfully completed the training and was picked up as a trainee street cleaner with the local council. Having a steady income and taking control of his finances meant that Sam was finally able to renew his drivers licence. After he completed his traineeship he was linked to a recruitment agency used by the local council, and now enjoys a regular job. 'I really want to use my brain,' says Sam, when he is asked about his plans to work with youth and when he talks about becoming a teacher.
The other part of this bill focuses on families at risk of long-term unemployment. The aim of the jobless families trial is to break cycles of unemployment. For parents with children under school age, they will be required to develop a plan for re-entering the workforce once their youngest child starts school. Their Employment Pathway Plan can also include activities focusing on the health, wellbeing and education of their children. Because this government gets it, we are making sure children in families of risk are 'school ready' to make the most of their educational opportunities.
On a definition of poverty as households with less than 50 per cent of the median income, the OECD Family Database finds that 14 per cent of Australian children live in poverty. That is too many. This is why we are taking action with this bill and trialling these programs to support those at risk of long periods of unemployment and its lasting effects.
Recently the Economist magazine reported on the impact of unemployment in Western nations. Noting the scale of joblessness in the West, it pointed out that if all unemployed people lived in one country, it would have a population similar to that of Spain. By comparison, Australia's economy and our low levels of unemployment are the envy of other Western nations. We still have our own areas of stubbornly high unemployment, those pockets of disadvantage and of generational cycles of joblessness. For those Australians caught in those cycles of unemployment and disadvantage, or at risk of falling into those cycles, the human cost is all too real. Joblessness can lead to increases in depression, divorce, substance abuse, family breakdown and life's other troubles.
A 2007 study, 'Unemployment and Psychological Well-being', by Nick Carroll of the ANU, found that the adverse effects of unemployment on life satisfaction was large and significant. Not having a job was a much better predictor of having low life satisfaction than simply having a low income. Past unemployment also had a similar adverse effect, suggesting that unemployment had left long-term scars.
Internationally, there is substantial joblessness around the world, and we know that the longer a young person spends being unemployed, the greater that scarring effect is. In the United States, the average period of joblessness is now up to 40 weeks—an increase from only 17 weeks four years ago. In Italy, a person who is unemployed has, on average, been jobless for more than a year. The more detached people become from the workforce, the more their skills atrophy, the more their self-esteem drops, making it harder to re-enter the labour force, particularly a labour force that is moving on. That leaves countries with lower growth rates, putting strains on public finances and on the social fabric.
It is a grim picture, but it is important to understand the full impact that long-term unemployment has on individuals, communities and nations. That is why education is so important to prepare and equip people for the workforce of tomorrow, to safeguard them against the detrimental effects of unemployment. I know the power of education and the dignity of work have been at the heart of the agenda of the Rudd and Gillard governments. This is one of the reasons that I ran for parliament and it is central to what we on this side of the House believe in. There are still too many Australians who live in circumstances of entrenched disadvantage. Too many Australian children are in families where their parents and grandparents have not known regular employment. They deserve to know the dignity of work, and they can benefit from the habits that arise from growing up in a household where an alarm clock goes off in the morning and someone goes off to a dignified job.
As the Prime Minister said in her address to the Sydney Institute earlier this year:
The party I lead is—politically, spiritually, even literally—the party of work … the party of opportunity not exclusion.
Welfare reform and workforce participation is where progressive policy and Labor values come together.
Not everyone can make it on their own. Sometimes the odds are stacked against people. We on this side of the House are committed to putting the odds back in their favour. This bill harnesses the transformative power of education to provide opportunities for some our most disadvantaged communities. This is what a government should do and this is what this Labor government is doing.
Recently the Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures showing that in June this year there were 96,000 jobless couple families and 210,000 jobless single parent families. Of these single parent families looking for work, 23 per cent had been jobless for more than a year. For those teenage parents and families experiencing long-term unemployment in Playford, Hume, Shepparton, Burnie, Bankstown, Wyong and the other trial regions, this government knows that in this place we have a responsibility to ensure that they are part of Australia's productivity, our economic fabric and our social wellbeing now and into the future. I commend the bill to the House.
In may this year the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer of Australia delivered his fourth budget, and as a part of that budget he announced a $4 billion investment in skills development over the forward estimates. He did that because our government understands that over the next three years there is going to be an escalating demand for skilled workers as our economy continues to grow. At the same time, we realise that we have an obligation as a Labor government to ensure that we do not leave anybody behind as the economy and the demand for skilled workers grow.
At any point in time there are over 11,000 teenage parents on parenting payments in Australia. More than 90 per cent of these do not have a year 12 or equivalent education. In my own electorate I see this all too often. There are suburbs where we have intergenerational unemployment where nobody within the household or family has completed a year 12 or equivalent education. This devastating combination of low education attainment and parenting responsibilities at a young age contributes to long-term unemployment and welfare dependency.
There are no easy answers in responding to this challenge, but one thing we do know is that we do not do any favours to anyone if we do not tell them the truth, and the truth, quite simply, is that there is a direct link between your educational attainment—whether you have finished high school or not—and your chances of being unemployed in your twenties and thirties. That is why this government's approach involves a combination of intensive assistance and stronger reciprocal obligations, taking a local approach to finding solutions to work and education retention.
As a government with Labor values of fairness and equity at our heart, our ministers have set about working on a range of policies to give effect to a strong social inclusion agenda. In a broad range of policy areas across many portfolios measures dealing with mental health, disability services, pension reforms, boosts to superannuation savings, paid parental leave, early childhood education, better access to university courses for low-socioeconomic students, social housing initiatives, the Closing the Gap program, our multicultural program, not to mention the Fair Work Act, our support for the equal pay case and many other measures, the measures in this bill form a part of that overall social inclusion agenda. They are core Labor values.
The bill before the House today implements the teen parents trial measure that was announced in the May budget as part of the Building Australia's Future Workforce package and is yet another important plank in the social inclusion agenda. Teen parents in 10 sites around Australia will be provided with intensive support and assistance to boost their education, job readiness and family wellbeing. I am very pleased, given the observations I have made about some of the areas within my electorate which are very similar to areas within your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker Sidebottom, that the Shellharbour Local Government Area, a part of my electorate, has been selected as one of the 10 trial sites for the teen parent initiative. These 10 sites were chosen because they are currently areas of higher-than-average social disadvantage. Shellharbour has a higher-than-average number of people receiving income support, a higher-than-national-average number of teenage parents and lower-than-national-average levels of educational attainment for these groups.
The measures in this bill will amend the Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 to provide a clear legislative basis to implement the compulsory requirements for parents on parenting payments who are in the trials to attend Centrelink appointments for the purpose of discussing and entering into an employment pathway plan. For teenage parents there will be a 3½-year trial commencing on 1 January next year that will apply to teen parents with a youngest child under six years of age who are receiving a parenting payment, who are 19 years of age or under, who have not completed year 12 or equivalent and who reside in one of the 10 locations that I have already identified. Once the youngest child turns one they will be required to attend Centrelink to discuss and develop a participation plan that focuses on their education completion and early health and education outcomes for their child. They will also need to agree to comply with the plan, which will be supported by a range of extra services in those locations.
The jobless family measures will consist of a three-year trial commencing on 1 July 2012 that will apply to parenting payment recipients with a youngest child under six years of age who have been on income support for two years or more or who are under 23 years of age and are not working and/or studying and who reside in one of the 10 locations that I have already mentioned. Parents will be required to attend interviews and workshops with Centrelink, where they will develop a plan that focuses on job preparation for themselves and, again, early health and education outcomes for their child.
The amendments in this bill broaden participation requirements and compliance sanctions to parenting payment recipients with children under six who are part of the teenage parent or jobless families trials operating in 10 disadvantaged locations. The provisions in this bill will not apply to parenting payment recipients who are not part of these trials.
I am pleased to take this opportunity to note some of the developments in my own electorate in preparation for these trials. Last month I had the pleasure of welcoming the Minister for Human Services, Tanya Plibersek, to my electorate to announce that Barnardos Australia, who currently operate some successful programs on behalf of the department in Warrawong, will receive over half a million dollars in additional funding over three years to expand the highly effective Communities for Children service in the Shellharbour local government area.
I was delighted to join staff from Barnardos Australia, parents and kids at a local play group, in Hegarty Park in Albion Park, which is funded through the Communities for Children program, to share this news and discuss the program with some of the participants. On that day I had many conversations with young teen parents, many of whom are participating in one of the innovative programs run by Barnardos Australia called Talking Realities. In this program young teen mums are trained up to become mentors. They go into schools and talk to young women and men about the realities of being a teenage mum. They also have one-on-one discussions with young women who have fallen pregnant about the things that they can anticipate as their pregnancy develops and in the early years after their child is born. It is an important initiative which is about transferring life knowledge and real skills and providing mentorship and support to these young women, many of whom do not get the same sort of mentorship or support from either their school or their family.
The new funding will focus on services that support teenage parents and jobless families who are part of the teen parents trial in Shellharbour. Barnardos Australia is working with local parents to build their parenting skills and to improve children's health and early learning outcomes. Communities for Children services in other areas have helped to change the lives of parents and children—with marked improvements in children's language skills, with parents getting support to find work and with mothers getting more involved in their local community. There is no doubt that the Shellharbour community will benefit from the boost to family and children's services, as well as this new and novel approach to delivering welfare services. It is quite simply a great initiative.
The expanded program will allow Barnardos to continue the great work that they are already doing supporting families in our community. Barnardos have delivered, through eight community partners, services and programs including food and nutrition, play activities such as circus skills, parenting support services and information DVDs, as well as a community garden.
Over the past six months, these local based initiatives have provided support to over 300 people, including 23 young parents and 600 children and young people, to help builder stronger and healthier relationships while improving parenting practices and increasing children's wellbeing. They add to and help provide additional support to the requirements and reciprocal obligations contained within the legislation before the House.
While our economy is strong, we know that some areas are falling behind the rest of the country. We know that, within these areas, there are specific groups of disadvantage and that teen parents are one of these groups. High unemployment rates, low educational attainment, welfare dependency and families at risk are the characteristics of social disadvantage in our community. If you are born into disadvantage, it is tough to break out of it and to find the support and assistance tailored to your own situation and personal circumstances that will provide the hand up to help you develop and reach your potential. When you meet and talk to these young mums you understand that inside each and every one of them there is potential. We cannot give up on these people. More importantly, we cannot allow our society to give up on their children and continue the cycle of disadvantage.
Australia's remarkable economic strength and the current mining boom have afforded this country and this government the opportunity to deal with some tough issues like these pockets of social disadvantage. Labor's approach, the Labor way, is to ensure that the mining boom provides benefits for all Australians. We do not want to leave anyone behind as we reap the benefits of our good fortune from our wealth of natural resources. That is why it is vitally important that we take the opportunity in our current economic circumstances to find new ways to break the cycle of welfare dependence.
Labor's aim is to ensure that our children are not growing up in families where no parent or grandparent has ever known work, where there is no memory of a working family member within those households. We want to create a culture of work, of life fulfilment and of economic and social participation, with the benefits that flow from this. Australia has an unacceptably high number of jobless families. While Australia has relatively high workforce participation rates and low levels of unemployment, by international standards the number of jobless families is still too high. There are currently over 250,000 families with dependent children in which neither parent is working. Over half of these families have been experiencing ongoing unemployment for three years or more.
Employment is the surest path out of poverty for every member of a family. That is because kids who grow up in jobless families are more likely to be unemployed as adults. The place-based programs which are a part of this legislation take advantage of local expertise and conditions rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all model. The place-based approach uses the wisdom and strengths of local communities and allows us to target government efforts towards intergenerational challenges such as low educational attainment, welfare dependency and unemployment.
I know that within my community, which has suffered many challenges over the last 12 months, there still exists a passion to address the issue of intergenerational unemployment and break the nexus between low educational attainment, people falling pregnant too young and having children, and dropping out of school and not completing their high school certificates. If we are able to break this nexus and re-engage these young people with education and with the workforce, we give these young families the opportunity to enjoy and connect themselves to the great opportunities that this country has to offer to everyone. I commend the legislation to the House. It is great Labor legislation. It is the sort of initiative that people expect Labor governments to undertake when we are in power.
When it comes to this bill the Greens support the aim but not the approach. Accordingly, we oppose this bill and believe that it is unnecessary, ineffective, and further stigmatises young parents. It is clearly the case that nonattendance is a barrier to education and work, but we do not believe that the punitive compliance measures proposed in the bill will be effective in achieving its stated aims. It is not clear if there will be adequate protection for young parents and whether Centerlink staff will receive training on engaging with young parents.
This bill looks like many of the Welfare to Work reforms that were a hallmark of the Howard era where increasingly punitive measures were put in place. Unfortunately, the government appears to be continuing this legacy in part. The Greens opposed these Welfare to Work measures when they were proposed by the Howard government and we oppose them now.
Removing income support is not the way to encourage young parents to work. We must remove the barriers rather than seek to punish. We do not want to make life harder for people on pensions and allowances—many of them are already doing it tough. My electorate has more public housing dwellings than any other electorate in the country, and there are a very high proportion of people who are on pensions and allowances.
Although my electorate is not directly touched by the measures that have been announced in this bill, the picture that my electorate paints and that I have from engaging with the kinds of people who are referred to in this bill is that many of them are doing it tough. Many of them want to improve their situation but they face significant barriers.
It is pretty difficult, if you are a parent or a single parent of a young child, to not only look after them but try and find your way back into the workforce or education and training. What is needed is support, not the threat of a bigger stick. In other measures that have been outlined by the government elsewhere, the Greens believe that the eligibility criteria for the disability support pension, the failure to index thresholds and the failure to index supplements have negative effects.
The measures proposed by the government would, we are concerned, create even greater inequity for those on income support in Australia. There is already inequity in the levels of income support that we provide people, given the difference between pensions and allowances; however, this bill will make the inequality worse by imposing additional requirements on these very young and very vulnerable parents.
The measures proposed are disproportionate, given that only 2.5 percent of parenting payment recipients are teenagers, which equates to approximately 11,000 out of 446,000 recipients nationally. This approach is not the best way to deal with such a small and often disempowered group.
The impact of this approach on teenage parents is of particular concern. These parents are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. This approach will not help them to make their lives better but may jeopardise their welfare and that of their children.
The measures in this bill assume that parents will have secure housing arrangements and enough money for the basic necessities of life if their income is suspended. Realistically, education can only be undertaken once these basic needs are met. The Welfare Rights Network and ACOSS also expressed this view, saying:
An initiative designed to support young parents should not involve any risk of increasing levels of poverty or children being left without access to food, essential health care and shelter.
In the context of an inquiry earlier into another of the government's bills that would have had the effect of suspending or potentially cancelling payments if someone failed to attend a meeting, one of the things that became crystal clear is that neither the department nor any of the people working in the field could tell us why people were missing meetings: whether it was because they did not understand the requirements of the system, poor public transport or family needs. No-one could tell us and, before we start wielding a big stick at some of the most vulnerable parents in our community, we should first be asking: do we know why these people are missing appointments; why there is nonattendance; and what we can do to support them?
There is significant anecdotal evidence and evidence from those who work in the field that many find this system bewildering. Since the privatisation of the Job Network system, who can blame them? It often involves appointments with many different sets of people, and we are talking about people who often have low levels of education. It may well be that people do not attend these things because they do not realise that they have to or other things crop up.
One would think that, before bringing out the big stick, first of all you would try to find out and understand why people are missing appointments and why there is nonattendance and then work out what could be done to assist them. There is no need for the stick until we have tried those other measures.
What should be done instead? We must, as I have been saying, offer support, not sanctions: support in getting an education; support in learning life skills; and support in finding employment. Any measures to achieve these aims must be compatible with the child-rearing responsibilities of the people involved. These people are some of the most disenfranchised in the country. They need encouragement and incentives to assist them to re-engage with the system which will facilitate education and meaningful employment. We must cultivate young people's confidence and skills. Case management and tailored engagement participation plans can help achieve these aims, but only if they are done in a sensitive and supportive way. We need to invest further in good case management, which can be effective in helping to improve social outcomes. The Greens do not believe that spending more money on punitive compliance measures is the answer. We need to help young families by removing barriers to their participation, not erecting more. They need things like better access to child care, better access to public transport and classes that address the day-to-day difficulties these young people are facing.
All of these intersect in my electorate of Melbourne with its high amount of public housing dwellings. There are childcare centres attached to neighbourhood houses that up until this year—with the assistance of Take a Break program funding—have run very successful occasional successful child care for many women of the kind this bill might address. These women are looking for ways to improve their education, perhaps improve their English and ultimately re-enter the workforce. Up until now, a young woman has been able to pop her kid off at the occasional childcare centres at neighbourhood houses for a couple of hours while she does a certificate II in child care or other courses or goes to a Centrelink appointment. Those are exactly the kinds of things that are being envisaged by this bill.
What is happening? Many of these centres are having to shut their doors to occasional child care from the start of next year because the sources of funding have dried up as the federal government and state government in Victoria are engaged in a stand-off. The women will no longer have access to affordable and cheap occasional child care. They will not have somewhere to drop their kids off while they engage in courses. One can see how the cycle of punishment continues if we remove the kinds of supports that are necessary and adopt a punitive approach instead of a supportive approach.
I have always been a big believer in the principle that you do not improve people's situation in life by taking their rights away. Unfortunately, that seems to be an approach that has underpinned legislation from governments on both sides of the House over recent years. We see it again with this legislation. We do not need this legislation. We do need more resources for engaging with families and young parents and we must empower them to take control of their own lives.
I rise to add my support to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Family Participation Measures) Bill 2011. This bill introduces amendments to the Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 with the aim of helping teenage parents and jobless families in particular. It identifies some 10 disadvantaged locations across Australia where trials will be undertaken to see how teenagers or families without work can be assisted and supported into a new experience of jobs and, in the case of the teenagers, year 12 equivalent and ongoing education.
One of the 10 disadvantaged locations chosen is in my electorate of Murray in my Goulburn Valley communities. There we have a number of teenage parents and parents who have been jobless into the second and third—and in one case the fourth—generation. It is very difficult for a family or a young teenage parent to break the cycle of poverty, social isolation and disadvantage when she has a very difficult time raising children and when she may only be 14 or 15 years old. Gaining work in small or larger communities is not a case of what you can do but who you know. A lot of the employment that is available, particularly in regional centres, is advertised by word of mouth, by networks of friends and by family members. If you have been unemployed for generations in your family, you simply do not have those networks where the job in the shop or hospitality or the apprenticeship in the trade is made known to you.
So it is very important that we look at different ways to engage these young parents who have not achieved year 12. They need to be given a fresh start in life and new ways to deal with all of the challenges that they will face, first as parents but then as people who should be supported to become independent in their lives. When I was Minister for Workforce Participation, the coalition introduced a new measure for parenting payments that required those whose youngest child had reached six to look for a job of at least 15 hours per week. We were aware that, in requiring that of these parents, we had to make sure they had access to child care, that they were not going to have to travel too far to get that work and that they were skilled in the area of work that they were attempting to break into. There is a whole lot of special challenges for families where parents may never have worked and have no role models of people who were in employment before.
One of the issues that we confront in the Goulburn Valley is the fact that standard Australian English is not necessarily spoken in all of our families. In our Indigenous families, Aboriginal English is commonly spoken and this language is not readily accepted in some places of employment. We have a lot of non-English-speaking background families as well who came as migrants a generation before or who have come more recently as refugees. Those families, especially the teenage mothers of young children, need special language skills support.
I am very concerned that in the pilot to be undertaken in my electorate we encourage the participants to not see themselves as targeted and stigmatised as failures and therefore as special cases for potential punishment, meaning that if their new requirements are not met their income support payments will be suspended. We want them to understand that this is an opportunity of a lifetime—that they are going to be given, hopefully, additional support to identify where their key life interests are; and, in the case of teenage parents, that they are able to go back to a form of education that fits their family responsibilities, given the age of their children and their own personal circumstances in terms of where they live, whether they are mobile and whether they can get to a TAFE or a community learning centre. We want to make sure that these young teenagers embrace this program and do not think they are being pursued but step forward and say, 'This is an opportunity.'
Well, I have a great deal of experience in this area, and I have to say that there are two ways this program or trial can go. The way I support it going, and hope it will go, is for our young teenage parents to see this as an opportunity.
As I mentioned before, there can be a lot of detrimental outcomes when young teenage mothers follow in their own mothers' footsteps and have two or three children by the time they are in their early 20s but have never completed their formal secondary education. We know that those mothers with young children are more likely to never have secure housing; often, their own children become teenage parents; they often suffer more mental and physical health issues and problems during their life; and they are also more likely to be subject to domestic and other types of violence. This is just not acceptable in a country like Australia.
So I am very supportive of the Centrelink and other non-government organisations personnel who are gearing up for this trial in the Goulburn Valley. We have had a number of meetings, and I have attended as many of those as I could or my staff have attended those meetings. We have questioned our policy developers about the details of these programs. We have asked about the extent to which our young parents will be talked into doing things like financial literacy and management, and how they will be supported in their childcare needs. We have a major problem with the lack of child care in our part of the world and we have no public transport, virtually, in most of our area, so we have to make sure that we are not putting impossible demands in front of these young parents.
We are very concerned that the fathers of the children be engaged in these targeted programs as well. Quite often, the father is overlooked; it is the teenage mother with young children who is the focus of this attention. Clearly, it is the young mother who suffers the most substantial disadvantage in finishing her education and gaining work when she has those parenting responsibilities, often alone. But we need to also understand that there are many young men who are the fathers of these children who are equally disadvantaged, who have had no experience of work and who do often also want to participate as parents. They would like to be able to contribute to their upkeep and even, ultimately, have a long and stable relationship with the mother of their children, based on shared accommodation and a career that they can build, sometimes in small business together.
So there are a lot of potential benefits in this program. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from programs that are already in progress in other parts of the country. It will be very important that those who are part of these trials are not stigmatised or labelled in the community as the absolute failures, or come under threat of having their welfare suspended or quarantined so that they are looked upon as 'the unlucky few'. We would like to think that the people participating will be regarded as the fortunate few who are going to be given a better chance in life.
There are an extraordinary number of teenage parents: some 11,000 are on parenting payments around Australia. Ninety per cent of these parents do not have year 12 education, which is a pretty sad indictment of our education system. It also has implications for our younger people's understanding of contraception, family planning and managing their own lives. But we know that, of those on parenting payments, there are a very significant number who struggle to find long-term employment and whose families have not had employment for generations. So, for both elements of this program—the teenage parents and the parents on parenting payments—we hope that this trial will give us new strategies and that any difficulties along the way will be quickly sorted. In my community, I commend the schools, the TAFEs and the community education centres, and I hope that those who have already stepped forward will go on to have cooperative relationships. There will be a lot of communication and sharing of information.
Obviously, the program is not targeted at Indigenous parents, but we do have a big Indigenous community in my area. We want to make sure that any lessons from the early welfare-quarantining and welfare-managing programs are learned and are translated, in this case, into Victoria and Southern Australia.
I certainly wish the young families well who will be participants in this pilot in the Goulburn Valley, one of the 10 places that will be selected around Australia. I hope this family participation measures bill will be a huge step forward in removing intergenerational disadvantage, which dogs some parts of Australia more than others but has been with us in most communities for the last 200 years. I think it would be a very sad day if we walked away from our young teenage parents, if we said, 'Well, that's just their bad luck and if they've got any gumption they'll somehow pull themselves up.' It is an extraordinarily difficult task that they face in their young lives when they have one or two children, no job, very difficult or poor accommodation and very little transport and when there is often a great deal of stigma attached to their circumstances.
I mentioned at the beginning the business of language support and learning. I think that is a critical part of this program. I am also most concerned that a lot of these young people have literacy and numeracy training and skills. Even though they may have attained year 10 or 11 education, often their literacy and numeracy are not adequate for them to be able to engage in any sort of work that requires the most basic of reading and writing skills and general skills.
Accompanying this program, I hope we do things as basic as helping young people get their drivers licences and making sure that they get citizenship certificates, because many of our teenage parents, particularly our young Indigenous parents, do not have any papers that identify where they were born, such as birth certificates. They are an essential part of Australian codification in terms of gaining bank loans or identification for licence or passport purposes. So supporting them in gaining a birth certificate is an important thing to a lot of these young parents. I want to assure this government that although I am an opposition member I will be doing all I can for the teenagers and those on parenting payments in my community to see that this pilot works. I will be in constant communication with the Centrelink office and those in FaHCSIA who are evolving this policy and I will share with them my observations of the special advantages or difficulties that the program is encountering. Let us hope that this helps usher in a new era for some families who for generations have done it very tough.
I have very great respect for the minister who brought forward the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Family Participation Measures) Bill 2011, but I do not have respect for the people who proposed it to him and I do not have respect for the government for carrying it forward. I am very surprised at my own strength of feeling against this bill.
I have some pet hates. One of them is people who tell other people what to do and who love to have power and control over them. My experience of one of the most dreadful shames of our nation is what I call 'child thieving'. We stood up and had the hypocrisy in this place to apologise for the stolen children. According to the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald they are being stolen in New South Wales at three times the rate that they were stolen in the period of the stolen children. That is rate, not absolute numbers. The absolute numbers are appalling. Similarly, in Queensland, which is reputed to be worse, they have hidden the figures. We cannot find the figures in Queensland of how many children are being stolen.
When I was a state member, I saw numerous cases of people whom I would describe as being sick and drunk with power. If ever I have seen a bill that will deliver power to the middle-class self-opinionated know-all university class this is it! And I do not speak owing anything to anyone. I was president of my faculty at the university, I was president of my college, I was president of the combined colleges council and I served on the students union for three years, so I would hardly suffer an inferiority complex in that area. But having had that confidence and having had the great privilege, I suppose, of an education of that quality, let me relate to you a case that I had.
This mother classically fits this mould. She had a child in her teens, at 16 or 17. She was not a perfect mother—she was far from being a perfect mother—but she was a mother. She loved her child and her child loved her. When she fell into the hands of a social worker in Charters Towers, the social worker decided that she had mental problems and committed her to a mental institution. The terror that is out there for ordinary people. It always amazes me, this place, that I do not hear members of parliament tell these stories—don't you have any human stories that happen to you?
Let me return to the story of this poor woman. She was committed to a mental institution—they have leery names for them these days—and her little child was taken off her. Unfortunately for the social workers, the report was left—and I got hold of it. It said that the child was unhappy in the presence of the officers of the department. She was dragged away from her mother, crying her eyes out and screaming. And her mother was crying her eyes out and screaming whilst the child was dragged out by two police, who absolutely hated doing the job. They were really nice fellows. The social workers said they were doing the right thing. 'It's tough but we have to do this job.' If ever I have seen the thought police in operation it is those people, those social workers; they just love their power—sick and drunk with power.
God is good, because even though this woman had a nut case for a psychiatrist, he went on holidays and a lady psychiatrist was put in charge. She wrote: 'This woman is not now nor ever will be mentally unstable or in need of incarceration in an institution, now or in the future.' It was a scathing indictment of the psychologist, the social workers and the psychiatrist. That being the case, I immediately proceeded to go after the social workers involved in this shocking case.
The child's report said that in the presence of the social workers, the officers of the department, the child spontaneously burst out crying and hid under the bed. She got into the foster parents' bed and clung to the woman who was her foster mother for the time being. They said this was aberrant behaviour. Someone takes you—drags you—kicking and screaming away from your mother, who is bawling her eyes out and being held back by the police, and then you are sensitive towards the social worker. You are telling us in this place that these poor little mothers are going to be placed under the control of these people!
I will go on. The chief psychologist of North Queensland is a very wealthy fellow and a fellow I had very great respect for when he worked in children's services. He is one of the most excellent officers I ever worked with as a member of parliament. I rang him up concerning the woman in charge. I had said to her, 'I want the child returned to the mother,' and she said, 'No, we have to do assessments.' I said: 'There are no assessments. The child was taken because the mother was mentally unstable. It has now been determined, absolutely, that she is not mentally unstable and the social worker who deemed her to be mentally unstable has been sacked. You bundled her off as fast as you could get her out of the place. I know who was sick. It was the social worker who was sick. That is who was sick.' So I rang this psychologist, the most eminent psychologist in North Queensland at that time. I told him that the head of the department, when I started speaking to her on the telephone and said the daughter had to be returned, hyperventilated—she could not tolerate anyone standing up to her—and had to leave the telephone. I told the young bloke who came on the phone that I wanted her back on the telephone. He said, 'I think she's a bit sick.' I will tell you how sick she was. What she did next week was return the child to the father, which was an option that was available to her, just to prove that she had the power: 'The mother does not have the power, I have the power. No member of parliament will tell me what to do. I will return the child to the father!'
What has happened to that mother, we do not know. What has happened to that child, we do not know. But we know very much what the psychologist told me. He said that head of the children's services area, which was operating in this case, 'is clinically sick'. I do not know the term he used, but he used technical terms. He said, 'I'll tell you her symptoms.' He told me her symptoms, and I said, 'You're dead right, she is definitely sick.'
From my experience, particularly in the field of Indigenous affairs, where I was minister for the best part of a decade, I found that when people have absolute power it corrupts them absolutely. We had a case which is very much a matter of public record in Queensland. Pattie O'Shane said there were only two ministers in Queensland history. That was effectively correct. There were two heads of the department and both were there for 44 years. I will not go into the running of the department. Suffice it to say that the struggles between me and the forces in that department are the subject of two books that are on the reading list at the university.
When I was a young man, most people of reasonable intelligence read the book 1984 and learnt about Big Brother. This book is about a society in which we are all controlled. There are very few people's names that have become part of the language. 'Darwinian' is a word that has become part of our language and, along with the spectre of Big Brother in George Orwell's book, 'Orwellian' has also become part of the lexicon of our language. Big Brother said: 'We will look after you. We will see that you are fed and clothed. We will do these things for you.'
I must relate the story of a meeting I had the very great honour of attending. At this meeting Percy Neal, the chair at Yarrabah Shire Council, said to the minister—and I am not here to denigrate people so I will not mention the minister's name: 'Minister, you're familiar with the term "addiction"?' She said yes. He said, 'You would know then that the way you cure an addiction is to first admit it to it.' She said, 'Yes, of course, Percy.' She is a very well spoken woman and a very impressive woman. He said: 'Well, you see, you have an addiction. That addiction is that we blackfellas cannot look after ourselves, that we need you whitefellas to look after us. That is your addiction. You just cannot get it out of your heads that we can look after our own affairs.' And there are a lot of people in this parliament today who cannot get it out of their heads that we had to rescue that little woman, that child—that waif, trash or whatever term you might like to apply to her; you might say she is an unfortunate. Those are the sorts of terms you will use when you talk about this. But really, at the end of the day, you are now controlling that young woman's life. And it might surprise you or jade your middle- or upper-class values—
Those people who have those attitudes shall now control the power to take away a child from a young mother. To you, they may be terrible mothers. To you, you may have to rescue the children. That was what was said in the old days of the stolen children. They said constantly that we had to rescue the children from people and the very unacceptable way in which they were living. But I know one of these young mothers—I went out with the daughter for a tiny little while. She pulled herself up and became a fully qualified and fully trained nurse and the director of nursing in a hospital. She became a leading member in the community and married the local dentist. She was tremendously successful. But you would have placed that mother under some sort of tutelage—and I use that word with aforethought.
One of my good friends was brought up by a teenage mother, and I am sure she would have been under this tutelage. He is one of the finest men I know. His son is a doctor. He has been a great leader. He has been a foreman with the main roads department. He is a great success story. There was another case from my home town. There was a little girl who could not have possibly have had a worse upbringing. But she is a very successful mother and has a very successful family. She loved her mother, even though her mother was not a good mother. Her son played football with my son. I think in six years they did not lose a game by less than 40 points. A brilliant footballer! He is a trained electrician now with a number of kids and a very happy family. So what you might see as a woman who needs to be controlled by a social worker, some of us would see as a little hero.
Sadly, the statistics in this country show that in 10 years, when I, the first of the baby boomers, die, there will be more deaths than births in this country. Why are women not having children in this country? It is because, as my daughters have said to me, if you are a mother and you want to stay at home and look after your kids, you are regarded as a second-class citizen. You really are socially ostracised and isolated. I am proud to say that most of my daughters have become stay-at-home mothers in spite of that and in spite of the fact that they were all on very big incomes. They were very successful people and they had to sacrifice a lot of income to take that decision. In the short time left to me, I cannot help but say that there are very strong racial overtones in this bill. Putting on my blackfella hat rather than my whitefella hat, I say that I resent very, very strongly the implications of this legislation. There will be very great sorrow and pain for the little mothers, who have been great heroes as far as I am concerned but who have committed the simple sin of wanting to have a child and be a mother. For that they will be punished by being put under the control of the social workers, whose tender mercies I have outlined here tonight. They are just some of the many things that are in the files in my office. (Time expired)
It is always refreshing as a member in this House to come in and hear a member speak with the sort of passion that the previous speaker spoke with. You can see that the member for Kennedy cares desperately for the young women in his electorate and that he is committed to ensuring that kids are able to stay with their mums, have a family around them and not be penalised in any way. I do not see racial overtones in the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Family Participation Measures) Bill 2011, and I would never adopt an approach which was all about using a stick and making life hard either for single parents or for people who are long-term unemployed. I do not believe that the best results are achieved by a 'stick' approach; I believe that you need to have an approach whereby you take people with you, and I can stand in this place and support this legislation.
The part of Shortland electorate that falls within the administration of Wyong Shire Council will be affected by this legislation. On first reading the legislation, I had a very similar reaction to those of the previous speaker and the member for Melbourne. But, after I looked at the details and attended some of the information sessions that were provided in my local area, I became quite excited about some of the advantages and benefits that the legislation will offer young people who are single parents and who are disadvantaged by their circumstances.
This legislation will put in place programs that will empower young people and put them in a situation where they can get the education and assistance they need. I understand the previous speaker's concerns, but there will be so many benefits associated with these programs. I commend this legislation to the House.
Question agreed to, Mr Bandt and Mr Katter dissenting.
Bill read a second time.