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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13654

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (17:31): 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.