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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13658

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (17:44): 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.