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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13660


Dr STONE (Murray) (17:55): 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 changes for 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 work and that they were skilled in the area of work 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, because 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.'

Mr Katter: It's very naive, what you're saying. You know it's not going to happen like that.

Dr STONE: 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 also very concerned that the fathers of the children be engaged in these targeted programs. 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 children's 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 a 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 reflects on 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 targeting 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 these young people have literacy and numeracy training and skills support. 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 birth certificates, because many of our teenage parents, particularly our young Indigenous parents, do not have any papers that identify where they were born, as found on 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 for 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.