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Wednesday, 19 November 1997
Page: 10719

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON(10.26 a.m.) —I rise to support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Werriwa (Mr Latham). In doing so, I indicate that the intent of the Australian Labor Party clearly is to support moves to simplify income support arrangements, including for young people. We are very much opposed to the short-sighted decision of this government to withdraw income support from needy people and needy communities.

We certainly do not support unfair action against some of the most needy people in the Australian community. This is not just about questions of income support; we also regard this as a fairly fundamental debate about equality of opportunity in life and government responsibility.

The Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Dr Kemp) has said several times in this place that the removal of benefits to 16- and 17-year-olds sends a clear message to them. If anything, it is a continuation of a message from this government that the victims are to blame, rather than there being a willingness by this government to accept some responsibility to intervene and to create a sense of equality of opportunity in life.

The intent of the government, in their terminology, is to send a message that the best way to get a job is to stay at school. This statement implies that 16- and 17-year-olds who leave school early do so as a deliberate, considered and rational choice to gain short-term dollars. How reality is far from the view of this government.

That approach flies in the face of the reality, demonstrated by research, that these people leave school early for other reasons. They leave, for example, because of emotional or family difficulties, for reasons of school disadvantage, or because they are not suited to the school environment. The reasons they leave school early are the very reasons they need extra support.

It should not be a decision by government to actually withdraw support, but perhaps more importantly there should be a requirement by government to consider how they can give more support to these disadvantaged people—members of disadvantaged families and members of disadvantaged communities.

That additional support ought to include income support rather than the extra pressure that this government is now placing on individuals in the Australian community who need a helping hand. They do not need handouts but a helping hand to give them encouragement to stay at school and fulfil their capacity. In doing so, it will create better opportunities not just for them and their families but also for the nation at large.

Removal of benefits will not address the causes of the problem at hand. That is what we ought to be debating today—the causes of the problem at hand and how we as a national parliament can seek to overcome some of those causes, rather than blaming the victims of those causes of disadvantage. I suggest that many people forced off unemployment payments are likely to turn to crime and other sources of income rather than go back into the classroom.

That is what the Australian community ought to be concerned about today: what is potentially the end result of the withdrawal of this assistance, as suggested by the bill before the House today? It is no good blaming the victims of the disappearance of entry level jobs for the fact that these jobs no longer exist, and that is the root cause of some of the problems that currently confront young people in the Australian community today. Twenty or 30 years ago, there were entry level jobs to take up in a variety of occupations in both the public and the private sector and those young people were potentially and, as history shows, exceptionally good workers. They fulfilled the requirements of their employer and also fulfilled the expectations of the Australian community—workers that were willing to put in often not for a higher return when it came to access to decent wages and conditions of employment but people who were satisfied with the employment opportunity that they were given and satisfied with the wages and conditions and the additional assistance given to low income people in the Australian community by successive governments.

The real issue today is not how we withdraw benefits from those people but how we go about creating additional employment opportunities, especially entry level jobs, for those people in the future. It is a fact, whether people like it or not, that not every young person currently has the capacity for or is suited to staying on at school for years 11 and 12. Some of us might like to think that would be an ideal situation for the Australian community to achieve, but the facts are that it will never be achieved. It is pie in the sky for a variety of reasons and, irrespective of our ideals or objectives in life, we have to face up to the fact that, in a community so complex as the Australian community, the responsibility of government is to create a variety of opportunities to suit the needs and aspirations of a variety of people in that community.

I therefore refer to the fact that many young people need, for example, counselling support from qualified psychologists. Properly equipped programs need to be available in and through the school to address these people's family and emotional difficulties and to encourage them to remain at school. Young people need proper work oriented careers education when they are at school, not the withdrawal of benefits; they need expanded work experience opportunities while they are at school. In that context, the type of young person that I am actually talking about is, unfortunately, not the type of person that actually gets those part-time or casual employment opportunities at their McDonald's—the type of fast-food activities that the current minister for employment is consumed with.

The reality is that the kids who are going to lose benefits as a result of this bill are the kids that are doing it tough: the kids from disadvantaged homes, the kids from disadvantaged schools, the kids from disadvantaged suburbs, the kids from disadvantaged regions, the people who do not expect the casual and the part-time employment opportunities that are not normally available to them. It is therefore the responsibility of government to actually create better opportunities for those young people, and that is what the debate today is about. Those young people actually need expanded work experience opportunities while they are at school. They need, for example, expanded school to work transition programs which create pathways for them to enter the work force. They need the expansion of existing programs to occur along the lines of the jobs pathway guarantee program, which was introduced by the Labor Party in government in 1995.

Mr Billson —Ha, ha!

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —What it is really about—and I note that some on the other side laugh at that suggestion—is a real reciprocal obligation, not the Howard government's one-sided, narrow-minded, mean-fisted concept of blame the victim, which is so much part and parcel of the approach of government in this House to the needs of disadvantaged people in Australia.

The jobs pathway program was piloted in schools located in the regions of highest youth unemployment and was earmarked for expansion prior to the last election. What do we get from this government? We get Green Corps. Talk about assisting young disadvantaged people! It is interesting to note that the majority of people who have had access to Green Corps to date have come from the better communities. The majority have either had employment or have just finished studies. The real disadvantaged are offered by this government work for the dole without a real reciprocal obligation and without a two-way approach: the government offering resources in return for individuals fronting up to their responsibilities.

The Howard government has revamped this program as the jobs pathway program and has expanded it slightly. At least it is to be commended for that. However, the funding increase in the other school to work funding initiatives undertaken by the Howard government has been completely negated by other actions of the Howard government such as, for example, chopping 117,000 places in labour market programs for young people and the decline in case management for young unemployed under the new, chaotic employment services market.

Early school leaving, I suggest, is intimately connected with homelessness amongst young people. Therefore the level of resources for the job placement, employment and training program—which aims to help young people overcome problems preventing them from maintaining stable accommodation and entering into full-time education, training and employment—must be considered as part of this debate. What was formerly called the young homeless allowance, and other relevant social security payments, must also be considered. General community back-up measures to tackle the underlying problems of youth homelessness and family breakdown should also be part of the debate.

The approach of giving out McDonald's hamburger training certificates to secondary students who work part time is not the solution. Labor clearly supports properly designated vocational links to schools. We support the part-time work currently done by many secondary students counting towards appropriate qualifications, but we must be clear that there are several clearly distinct groups among the young unemployed. I go, for example, to the early school leavers looking for full-time jobs who are most at risk of not making a successful transition to economic independence. I also refer to the young people still at school doing part-time jobs who have much better prospects. These difficult issues have got to be raised in a debate such as this. You cannot sweep them under the carpet and pretend that they do not exist.

The problem for the more at-risk groups is that apprenticeships, contrary to what the minister would have you believe, are rapidly falling in number under the Howard government. They declined by more than 2,000 in the last year for which figures are available. This figure is consistently drawn out in Senate estimates. That drop of 2,000 in apprenticeships comes at a time of emerging skill shortages in a variety of sectors—not just the manufacturing sector but also the services sector across Australia. So much for this government's commitment and ability to create additional apprenticeship opportunities in Australia.

On that note, I would also refer to a recent survey which shows, unfortunately, that, because of the poor state of the economy and lack of government incentives, only one in five companies now plans to increase its apprenticeship numbers. The new minister has cut funds for apprenticeships and wasted money on promoting himself. That was even revealed in Senate estimates last week. There was money available to put glossy photos of the minister in promotional material handed out by the department while the actual amount of money for vocational education and training was cut in the last 20 months in successive Howard government budgets.

That is what it is about: the promotion of the minister. Funds were cut for vocational education and training while the minister wasted hard-earned taxpayers' money on putting glossy photos of himself in government and departmental information kits. So much for this minister's priorities.

At the same time, skill shortages need to be filled and young unemployed Australians desperately want to be properly trained to fill them. In the first two Howard budgets $270 million has been cut from vocational education and training. The rate of growth in traineeships has also dramatically slowed. Labor will boost investment in apprenticeships and traineeships to give quality skills training to those who leave school early and to enhance their future job prospects. We will also commit ourselves to reversing the neglect into which the TAFE institutes are currently falling. We will promote TAFE as just as good an option as university for young people.

For a positive approach to government job creation, Labor will also help make up for this government's removal of the career path which so many young people sought to pursue in the Australian Public Service. A positive approach to get all young people into education, training or work will be pursued, consistent with the active programs of assistance to unemployed Australians previously implemented under Working Nation and based on the real principle of reciprocal obligation, which is entirely different to the watered down, one-sided approach of mutual obligation which the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) is so much identified with.

In the debate on this Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Allowance) Bill it is important that we put the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who now leave school early into the proper context. In March 1983 the Labor government inherited from the then Treasurer, who is now the Prime Minister, 158,000 young unemployed people. That is 158,000 teenagers looking for full-time work, the highest number ever in the history of this great nation.

Interestingly, when Labor left office in March last year, that figure had been cut to 91,400, due largely to a massive rise in secondary school retention rates. Only four in 10 young people stayed on at school to year 12 at the time the Prime Minister was Treasurer in 1983. By the end of the 13 years of Labor in March of last year more than seven in 10 did so.

This was partly because of the massive expansion of higher education places under Labor. It was also partly because of the promotion of technical and further education as a viable alternative for those who do not want to go to university. It is a fact of life that not everyone wants to go to university. There is a place in the Australian community for TAFE on an equal footing with university education.

It was also partly a response to the disappearance of jobs for young people, especially those entry level jobs. The rise in school retention rates to unprecedented levels reflected a recognition by these students that they needed to complete their schooling to improve their chances of getting a job. That is what it was all about—the structure of work has changed in Australia. Education and training is the key to the best employment opportunity in the future.

Those who still leave school early in these times of reduced job opportunities for the young are the most at risk of becoming young unemployed people. They are young people for whom socio-economic, family or personal circumstances have overridden what, in an ideal world, would, rationally, be in their self-interest—to stay at school.

One more positive, innovative way to help meet the needs of this group is for an expansion of the mentor scheme. These emerging programs enable older Australians to pass on the benefits of their accumulated wisdom and experience to young people. I commit myself as the minister to expanding and consolidating such an approach to assisting young people.

This bill also proposes to means test the unemployment payments of 18- to 21-year-olds. The intention is to reduce unemployment payments for 18- to 20-year-olds who live at home, from the moment their parents' combined income rises above—wait for it—the very low level of $23,400. You are hardly going to make a fortune as a family on $23,400 a year, and yet you are now expected to accept that your children are not independent. The bill also proposes to cut the 18- to 20-year-olds off payment altogether if they live at home with parents whose income amounts to the modest figure of $41,000.

This means-testing measure will hit many low and middle income families very hard. It disregards the fact that in working class families kids are expected and need to contribute to the household income. It contradicts the legal age of independence for young people being 18. You can vote and fight for the country but you cannot be classed as independent of your parents at the age of 18 by the Howard government. That is, in fact, the real age at which many young people become economically independent. Like so much of Dr Kemp's handiwork, this bill is more about diddling and fixing the youth unemployment figures than it is about helping out with youth unemployment.

Cabinet received a submission from the department outlining the positive measures it needed to take to tackle the problems of early school leavers and youth unemployment. They were the same kind of positive measures I put forward today. This government chose to ignore those positive proposals, independently developed and assessed by the department, and instead tried to push more young people into poverty and despair. That is what this is really about: poverty and despair for young people and their families and difficulties at schools and in disadvantaged suburbs.

I support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Werriwa. The path the government has chosen so far as we are concerned is wrong. We urge an alternative path. We accept there is a problem, but the alternative path is one based on real reciprocal obligation—a real partnership between the community and the government; a real partnership between the community and the young unemployed; a real partnership between the government, the community, the young unemployed and their families—not finger pointing and blaming the victim as this bill seeks to do, but a government actually willing to assist by intervening, going to those homes, schools and suburbs and saying, `We accept there are real problems. Withdrawing benefits is not the solution. It is about the role of government in providing decent school opportunities.' (Time expired)