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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13649


Mrs GRIGGS (Solomon) (17:07): 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.