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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 8952

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (11:21): It will come as no surprise to the chamber or to Australia that the Greens oppose the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Family Participation Measures) Bill 2011. This is a continuation of the punitive approach that started with the Welfare to Work regime of the Howard government era that Senator Bernardi was just championing. Unfortun­ately, there is no evidence to show that the punitive approach works. Again, the government is choosing to suspend payments and take a punitive approach, in this instance, to jobless families. We particularly have concerns about the issues around teenage mothers. Instead of supporting these most vulnerable people in our community, the government is again seeking to take a punitive approach. We believe it is unnecessary and ineffective and that it stigmatises young parents who face a number of significant challenges. While we do agree that teenage parents need a lot of assistance and we are aware they have poor educational achievements, threatening them with a punitive approach, to our mind, does not work. We believe it could have grave ramifications for young parents and their children.

We should be aiming to encourage young people and jobless families to overcome the barriers that prevent their participation in employment and education. The barriers that prevent people from participating in employment and education are very significant. The government's own Social Inclusion Board has produced a number of papers that address this very issue. The government is addressing some of the key areas, but it is giving with one hand and taking with the other: 'Do this or else.' As I said, we do support the aim of encouraging young and long-term unemployed parents into education and work. Unfortunately, it is the compliance mechanisms that we have significant problems with.

We are deeply concerned that these measures will further marginalise young and long-term unemployed parents. As was articulated in the second reading speech, this is part of a process of 10 trials around the country. There are a series of measures, some of which include the further rollout of income management, which is being trialled in five sites. Other measures will be undertaken in other sites. The income management measures will be applied in Logan and Rockhampton in Queensland, Playford, Bankstown, Wyong, Shellharbour, Greater Shepparton, Hume, Burnie in Tasmania and Kwinana in my home state of Western Australia.

Despite all the rhetoric from this government and the previous government about Welfare to Work and the punitive approach, the government has provided little evidence that this punitive approach actually works. Yes, there is concern about barriers to education and work, but the government offers no research explanation as to why this particular approach will work. There are reasons why people miss appointments; they can be many and varied. People must overcome very significant barriers to completing their education and barriers to accessing workplaces, as has been articulated in the government's own documents.

This bill continues the pattern of punitive measures that the government insists on pursuing without any introspection. We see the same with the legislation that the government is going to be introducing to continue to roll out the Northern Territory emergency response. Don't let a little bit of evidence get in the way of rolling out a really good punitive scheme! We have consistently opposed the Welfare to Work measures. We do not believe this is the appropriate approach. As I said, the research indicates that in fact it is not the appropriate approach. We need to look at the barriers to education. Yes, we want to encourage young parents into the workforce and we need to address these barriers and not simply dock their income support when they fail to comply. If you are trying to work with people and encourage them to overcome barriers, simply taking a punitive approach and threatening them does not generate the trust that is needed to work in partnership with them.

Across this and many other budget measures, some of which are still to come and some of which we have already debated in this place, the government plans to make life harder for people on pensions and allowances. We believe measures such as the changes to the eligibility criteria for the disability support pension which we have debated in the place, as well as the failure to index thresholds and the failure to index supplements, all have cumulative effects on families. I have consistently asked in this chamber and also in estimates whether the government has done any work to assess the cumulative impacts of these measures on families and sole parents. To date this has not been adequately addressed. The approach the government is taking is simply continuing and extending measures that the previous government started. We continue to see the erosion of allowances for those on income support. It becomes worth less and less. The inequity between allowances and pensions gets worse. Those on Newstart are living on $132 less than those on the age pension, for example. This measure will make this issue even worse for those most vulnerable in our community, teenage parents.

A lot of these measures to get tough on people on income support—income management, for example—seem to us to have been imported from the US, where they denigrate and demonise people on income support. We now seem to be taking the same approach in Australia. Transplanting these measures from one country to another does not necessarily work, particularly as we have very different issues in Australia. As was pointed out in the second reading speech for this legislation, there are around 11,000 teenage mothers in this country—about 2.5 per cent of those who receive the parenting payment. This is a small percentage. While the Greens think teenage pregnancy is good for neither the parents nor the children—we do not advocate it—we believe that what we need to be doing is working out how we can help mothers in this situation. As has been articulated, most of these parents do not have a year 12 education, and of course we all know about the link between education and better job prospects but also life outcomes for both the parents and the children. But what impact does threatening to take away their income support and carrying it out have on the mother and the child?

We are particularly concerned about the impact of this heavy-handed approach on young women—some of the most vulnerable people in our community—who are dealing with very significant issues in their lives, not to mention the fact that they are mothers at such a young age. As well as that, they will have to deal with a punitive approach by Centrelink, the very organisation that they are now supposed to go to to access case management and to access support to participate in education—and the organisation that will threaten them if they do not turn up. Again, this is not the way to help young parents and teenagers to re-access education and re-engage with the system.

While it is true that once young parents comply they will get back pay, how are they going to afford their day-to-day living expenses? How will they survive? How will they feed their children and pay their utility bills? This policy assumes that parents have support networks, secure tenancy and enough money for basics. Of course they do not have those things. There is a high potential for them to not have support networks—they may be alienated from their parents. They certainly will not be in a position to have a secure tenancy and it is unlikely that they will have enough money for basics. Realistically, on top of all that, education is going to be at the very bottom of the list. As Welfare Rights Network and ACOSS write:

An initiative designed to support young parents should not involve any risk of increasing the levels of poverty or children being left without access to food, essential health care and shelter.

That is exactly what will happen if you take this to the final point of the legislation: children will not be guaranteed access to food, essential health care or shelter.

What should an initiative look like that actually supports young and long-term unemployed parents? As we have already articulated, this group have the least education and are disenfranchised. They need encouragement, support and incentives to assist them to re-engage with the system and to assist them to access education and meaningful employment that suits their needs and improves their standard of living. We must offer as much support as possible—support in getting an education, learning life skills and helping them find employment that they can mix with their child-rearing responsibilities.

Yes, coordinated case management is essential and individualised, tailored engagement participation plans can make a real difference, but it must be done in a way that cultivates a young person's confidence and skills. If you take the punitive approach, that will create a very different relationship for that young person with the system that is supposedly trying to help them. We know that case management has proven effective in helping to improve social outcomes. We need to invest further in this rather than spending money on enforcing compliance processes. We need to help young families address obstacles and barriers to their participation, such as lack of child care and poor access to public transport. While there is some support offered for child care, we believe it is not enough. We also know that in most of the trial locations where this process is being rolled out public transport is poor.

We believe the support incentives are not enough. We do not believe that this is the appropriate way to tackle this issue. We do not believe we need this legislation. We believe we need to be addressing these problems by putting more resources into engaging with families and empowering them to take control of their own lives rather than pursuing a punitive approach.

At this stage, should this legislation go through, it is unclear whether there is sufficient protection for young parents and consideration of their special needs. For example, when a teen appeals the suspension of their payment, will they receive an automatic payment pending review? They should. Will Centrelink staff receive specialised training in engaging with young parents? Will Centrelink address the specific issues that so strongly alienate young parents from the system and address the barriers to their participation in the system? Will they be able to understand the requests for special consideration or appeals, even if a young person does not use the correct terminology? In these instances, you are dealing with a group of people who have the least experience in dealing with the social security system.

We are also concerned about the risk of domestic violence and the impact that this can have. We already know that there is a very poor application rate for exemptions due to domestic violence. I think it is around three per cent. We are concerned that in the broader community there is a lack of engagement with and understanding of how to apply for an exemption due to domestic violence. For this particular group of young people, knowledge of that particular exemption is guaranteed to be even poorer.

What will happen to participants if they move outside the trial sites? Will they continue to be subject to the requirements of the trial where there is no guarantee they will be able to access the various supports that this program purports to put in place? What will happen to those people? One of the trial sites for the income management process is Kwinana in Western Australia. We know that in that area the government could not get enough participants and had to expand it virtually across the whole of metropolitan Perth. Will we see teen mums moving away from the trial sites and further away from any family support that they may have? If the case management proves to be adequate and we see them moving away from that, will they still be subject to this? I am looking forward to these questions being addressed by the minister in the summing up.