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Wednesday, 19 November 1997
Page: 10819

Mr ANTHONY(6.45 p.m.) —I listened with great interest to the previous speaker, the member for Hunter (Mr Fitzgibbon). I realise that he has injured his foot. Certainly most of us wish him a speedy recovery but I think, in the process of his delivery, he may have suffered some concussion.

Mr Fitzgibbon —No, I am not on pain-killers.

Mr ANTHONY —Unfortunately, most of his speech, whilst worthy in intent, missed the mark in many aspects and I will take the opportunity through my delivery to address some of those. The first point is that the whole reason for this Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Allowance) Bill 1997 which is being debated is to give a real incentive for younger people to further their education and training, which is the greatest thing you can give a young person to ensure that they do not join the ranks of the unem ployed. The previous government were in power for more than a decade—13 years—and saw an enormous rise of youth unemployment. Indeed, I am sure that if they had been in government today a similar youth allowance would have been introduced by them.

Today I propose to give honourable members a description of the bill, its benefits and whom it will cover. Youth allowance is one more initiative down a positive path of reform that this government has embarked on. Youth allowance is an important positive social policy reform and we do not step aside from that. It is an initiative which the government is undertaking, but not in response to the hypocritical, superficial rhetoric regrettably coming from my colleague on the left. Those opposite were expelled from office, not least because youth unemployment increased to a staggering 32.3 per cent. Worse still, youth unemployment in the Richmond-Tweed mid-North Coast region was over 50 per cent prior to the 1996 federal election. There is no question that all members of this House would agree that high levels of unemployment are one of the principal causes of despair, lack of self-esteem and regrettably, in many parts of Australia, a totally unacceptable and tragic level of youth suicide.

The government has consulted widely on this bill. Back in 1996 when we went out to the community, young people, their families and the general community told us that the current arrangements are unfair, inefficient and far too complex. We inherited a system that treats the young in a similar situation very differently according to whether they are students or unemployed. What is a youth allowance? Essentially, it is an income support payment for young Australians which integrates payments irrespective of whether they are for education, training, unemployment or sickness. I note that the opposition does not have a problem with that.

The job market is very difficult for inexperienced people. As the member for Hunter said, unless you have training, your prospects of getting a job are significantly diminished. This is particularly so for young people. The facts are that if you do not complete secondary schooling, if you leave in year 10 and do not go on to year 12—I acknowledge there has been an increase in the number of people going on to year 12, but it is not enough—you have a three times higher probability of being unemployed. They are the facts. One in five Australians coming out of school today is technically illiterate, according to the ABS. A further 30 per cent do not reach the standards a modern society requires.

What chance do these young people have of getting a job? This is yet another problem we have inherited from 13 years under the ALP. It is another problem which is not of our making but which we intend to fix. Full-time and part-time employment for 15- to 24-year-olds has fallen by three per cent since 1982. By comparison, total full-time employment has grown 16 per cent and total full-time and part-time employment—which is the trend in our labour market now—have grown 31 per cent.

The youth allowance is intended to send a clear message to young people that the best pathway to a job is through education or training, and is intended to encourage them to take advantage of increased vocational, education and training opportunities before they look for a job. That is quite sensible. The youth allowance is based on a philosophy of family values where the responsibility for children is the responsibility of parents first and the state second. It has also become self-evident to all except the Labor Party that we need competitive young Australians who are well skilled and confident and who can take us into the next century as our most valuable resource, particularly as we compete with Asia. Wasn't that what the previous Prime Minister meant when he said `looking at the big picture'?

The common youth allowance offers a wide variety of benefits compared with current arrangements. It offers incentive to study rather than to go on the dole. It offers a greater coverage for those young people who need assistance as well as simplification, equity for rural Australia and a consistent parental means test. I propose to address these issues. With respect to more incentive to study: as I have demonstrated before, under the system we inherited, as many on this side would realise, you are better off going on the dole. It is easier to go on that than to go to school or university. It is harder to get Austudy to further your education than it is to go on the disgraceful system we have now, where it is easy to go on social security.

Importantly, the common youth allowance will remove disincentives to study. The Australian Financial Review accurately laid the blame on poorly designed incentives and labour market rigidities as well as a failure in schooling and vocational training. This government has done much to improve this over the past year by focusing on literacy and basic skills.

The youth allowance complements these achievements. It will encourage people to complete or further their education by removing undesirable incentives to leave school early or to choose unemployment over education and training. One particular improvement which I welcome is the increase in rent assistance for students. This will benefit a massive 70,000 students who, on average, will gain over $30 per fortnight—a very positive response.

This government has massively increased funding towards apprenticeships, traineeships and TAFE places. It has increased funding for schools by $14 billion over the next four years. This will cater for some of those who stay at school. But in the area of apprenticeships and traineeships there will be 100,000 places. Under the previous government, numbers of apprenticeships and traineeships were at their lowest level since World War II as people were funnelled into, in most cases, unworkable labour market programs which distorted the market and did not give those people some elementary training.

On the New South Wales coast, traineeships in the last year have taken off, particularly in the areas of tourism, new forms of agriculture and retail. We have seen expanded places now in TAFE colleges at Kingscliff and Wollongbar, and an upgrade is now happening at Murwillumbah.

We inherited from the previous government great structural problems within the labour market. We need to redress this problem. We still have an unskilled, uneducated work force. When you look at the gospel of Beazley, it is interesting to see that in many ways those opposite are still wishing to encourage this by a throwback to the early policies of the eighties and, with some of their other policies, the fifties. The electorate is far more sophisticated now, as certainly are young Australians.

We are addressing labour market problems by trying to foster a climate for training and education—and we are being quite deliberate about it—which will attract young people. One of the other areas has been the changes we have made to industrial relations and our industrial reforms. It is a shame that there was not unanimous support, certainly by the opposition, regarding the cry over unfair dismissal reforms, particularly to small business. We particularly wanted to ensure that small businesses with under 15 employees could put a person on knowing that, if things did not work out, each of them had an adequate exit route within the first 12 months. This would have been of enormous benefit to young people because employers would have given them the chance to have a start. In most cases that is what they are looking for—a start in the employment market. Regrettably that was denied by the Labor Party.

The common youth allowance will apply to 560,000 young people who are currently on income support. Of these, 416,000 are students aged between 16 and 25. The other 144,000 are unemployed people aged between 16 and 21. Precisely the point that we are trying to focus on is giving them greater education and greater skills to get them into the work force.

This is not, as the dilettantes opposite vainly try to portray it, a savings measure. In fact, this government will be spending more—$25 million more, or $50 per receipt, on program costs alone. However, as with any major reform, not everyone will be better off. Of course, there will be some winners and losers, but there will be three times more winners. That is a key point in this youth allowance policy. Of the 560,000 young people who will transfer into the new system, 378,000 will receive the same money as they currently are receiving. A staggering 137,000 additional young Australians across the country will receive an increased amount, compared to 45,000 who will receive less.

Another benefit of the common youth allowance is that it will replace the exceptionally unwieldy arrangements that this government inherited. The introduction of this new payment thus fulfils our election promise. As opposed to what the member for Hunter has said, we have fulfilled an enormous range of our election promises which go to simplifying income support payments. It is exactly what we have done with Centrelink.

The youth allowance will be replacing the five differential payments—namely, Austudy for students aged 16 to 24, the youth training, newstart and sickness allowances for 16- to 20-year-olds, and the `more than minimum' family payment for secondary students aged 16 to 18 who are currently not getting Austudy. Contrary to the hysteria generated by the Labor Party and other minority parties, the youth allowance does not affect Abstudy, the assistance for isolated children's scheme, the pensioner education supplement, the disability support pension, the sole parent pension, the parenting allowance and the veterans' children education scheme, and on it goes.

What it is doing is bringing 13 schemes into five. At the same time, the reform recognises that there is a growing number of young people who do not follow the traditional pathway from full-time study to full-time employment. Under the new system, young people whose personal circumstances change slightly will no longer have their payments cancelled and be forced to reclaim another—a positive measure. Australians, irrespective of their political persuasion, are sick and tired of red tape. This government is trying to cut through it, and it will achieve that with the youth allowance.

More importantly, this bill gives equity particularly to rural Australia. The government recognises that educating and finding jobs for children—my children are very young and will be looking for employment in years to come—is very difficult. Rural families will benefit from the youth allowance because, as I have said before, rent assistance will be available for the first time to young people who live away from home and who are in an educational course.

This is especially important to the electorate of Richmond, where over 10 per cent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 24. Most of them, if they are continuing higher education, will need to travel out of the electorate. I do not have the luxury of a university in my electorate, although we have some very good ones nearby—Southern Cross University at Lismore and Griffith University on the Gold Coast, and we have access to other universities both in Brisbane and, further afield, in Sydney. So rent assistance will be a major benefit to these people. Contrary to what the member for Hunter said, enrolments at Southern Cross University, even with the increase in HECS fees, have actually increased.

I now turn to the issue of who qualifies for the new allowance. To qualify for the youth allowance, young people aged 18 and over will need to undertake full-time study, training or job search. For those under 18, the payments will be linked to their participation in full-time education or training. But there will be some buffer zones and exemptions—for those people who are homeless, ill or unable to access appropriate education or training. There is a safety net for those people who are not able to obtain it or have disadvantaged situations at home.

Consistent parental means testing will remove one of the major anomalies between existing support programs for young people. It will encourage parental support and also ensure that young people in similar circumstances have similar entitlements. The parental means test component of this bill measures the parents' capacity to take financial responsibility for the living expenses of their dependant children. The test will consist of a parental income test, a parental assets test and an actual means test. The parental means test reinforces the government's message that families which are unable to support younger members will be treated fairly, which is very different to the type of culture that was encouraged by the previous government.

The key concept in means testing is fairness and the bill recognises that many young people will be exempt from the parental means test, as I have demonstrated before, as will those young people who are married, have children or are disadvantaged. It comes into place on 1 July 1998. It has already received considerable praise outside this chamber. I quote:

The end of youth dole will be welcomed by parents who have battled to persuade their children against choosing the false independence it seemed to offer—

the independence perhaps of going on social security.

Mr Lee —Who said that?

Mr ANTHONY —That was the Sydney Morning Herald —not a paper well known to be supporting the government—in its editorial entitled `Without dole, responsibility'. Another good article, in the Australian Financial Review —also not a great advocate of the government—was even more effusive in welcoming the changes:

The Federal Government's decision to ditch the dole for under-18s and tighten access to benefits for 18 to 21-year-olds should be vigorously applauded. So should its move to replace a range of youth benefits . . . with a single payment, and its efforts to push the young jobless to improve their skills rather than remain idle. . . The changes . . . are weighted towards solid Australian values and hard work . . .

Exactly what the battlers of your constituency advocate. The Australian Financial Review went on to say that the `changes help engender a culture of self-improvement rather than the welfare-dependence and dole culture which has crept into the Australian life' and ethos. Even an article in the Daily News , which is my local paper in Tweed Heads, said under the banner `Dole overhaul long overdue':

. . . the scheme appears to be built around a desire to see our young people either in a training program, furthering their education, or at home with their families who love and support them. Surely, this is a preferable scenario to the dole.

Of course the government is embarking on other measures to assist with this tragedy that we have of high youth unemployment: the JPET program, better known as the Job Placement Employment and Training program, the work for the dole scheme and the hugely popular Green Corps, which have all been warmly welcomed by the people on the North Coast.

I might add that the JPET program in Richmond, where over $250,000 of Commonwealth funding went into a program which is aimed at helping disadvantaged young people with accommodation, employment, education and training, was actually introduced by the previous government. The JPET program in Byron and Ballina, run by the Byron youth services, does a fantastic job. It is delivering help for under-20-year-olds to tackle the problem of getting full accommodation, training and employment and the problem of self-esteem. It is also trying to reduce the heinous proliferation we have now of drugs—a situation not unique to Byron or other parts of Richmond but right across Australia. It is a very worthwhile program.

Likewise, we have a number of work for the dole projects in the Richmond electorate ranging from Cabarita, west to Murwillumbah and south to Ballina. The New South Wales North Coast has been given great support in these projects by Centrelink—another major initiative—through getting volunteers for that work for the dole scheme. These organisations are Tweed Shire Council, Ballina Skills Development Centre, Tweed Training and Enterprise Co. and Environmental Training and Employment. All are doing very worthy projects: getting young people and giving them some self-esteem and getting them some training under that mutual obligation.

The Green Corps has been another hugely successful project. I have had the benefit of going along to see, witness and explore what they are doing, particularly at Fingal Head, Hastings Point, Kingscliff—that is one Green Corps project—Broken Head near Byron Bay, and Wollongbar with its restoration of the Big Scrub remnants. The Green Corps project has given incredible self-esteem to those young people who do not necessarily have to be unemployed.

The other organisations in my electorate I would like to thank for giving their support to youth services are the Tweed Valley Family and Youth Support Service; the Tweed Heads Police and Citizens Youth Club; the youth groups in Tweed Heads, Tweed Coast and Murwillumbah; St Joseph's Youth Hostel; Byron Youth Centre; Ballina Youth Centre; and Recovery 2000 run by a very remarkable lady called Shel Hillman. I would also like to thank all the local volunteer organisations in Richmond for the tireless work they do in aiding the young people of the Northern Rivers—organisations such as the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul and the church groups.

The future of the young people of Australia should not be a political battlefield. I urge all members to support this bill, which is geared to encourage young people to better themselves through further education and training so that we can reduce that huge level of youth unemployment. It did not happen overnight; it took many years to accumulate under the stewardship of the previous government. (Time expired)