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Monday, 30 March 1998
Page: 1915


Mr ALLAN MORRIS (9:20 PM) —I should touch, firstly, on the comments of the member for Grey (Mr Wakelin). They really do reflect so carefully and so accurately the hypocrisy that we are hearing from this government. Let us think through what he just said. He said that unemployment benefits were an incentive to leave school, that unemployment benefits encourage youth unemployment. Yet he knows, as well as I do, that when we came to government the retention rate was 36 per cent, just over a third. In other words, two-thirds of young people left school at year 10 or before. When we left government, that had been reversed. Where was the incentive? What cant and hypocrisy are we talking about? We doubled the number of people staying at school, and somehow he suggests that we gave them incentives to leave school.

That is the kind of pedagoguery we are getting in this government. That is the kind of hypocrisy, deceit and dishonesty we are seeing. We are seeing it day after day, week after week. They think that, if they keep repeating it, it will make it true. It does not make it true. That is not just false, it is malicious.

There are similar things about the extra money. He did not say how much the government cut previously. How much was saved in Austudy by extending the age of independence to 25, so a young person starting a university course at 24 would be dependent on their parents until they finished perhaps four, five or six years later? How much did they save on that? The 100,000 apprenticeships they are talking about have been rebadged, given a new name; therefore, it makes it a new program. It does not increase the numbers. This is the kind of gross cant that we have become so used to.

What the government is doing is not just dishonest and it is not just a bit of fudging around the edges; it is massive deception on a massive scale. I am quite frankly sick to death of it because what it says is, `Here is one more group we can victimise. Here is one more little group who can be got at and whom we can blame.'

In other words, government members are saying that youth unemployment is all the fault of young people. Government members are saying that these kids would all have jobs if they got off their butts and did something. That is what the previous speaker, the member for Grey (Mr Wakelin), was saying. Government members are saying, `It's the fault of the unemployed young people and, worse than that, it is the Labor government's fault because it gave them some money.' We attempted to give them some self-respect, some sense of dignity. Unemployment is a matter of choice, according to the government members. Tell that to the 900,000 people out there without jobs. Tell them it is a matter of choice, and particularly tell those young people who are the most vulnerable.

I think it is interesting that last week we were debating the aged care and residential care legislation and this week we are debating the youth allowance legislation. Someone once said—and I forget the wise person who said this—that the best way to judge a society is how they treat their young and their old. I tell you what: how this government treat their young and their old is pretty abysmal.

Western society has gone through massive changes in the last two or three decades. The nature of work has changed, the kinds of jobs people do have changed and the nature of families has changed. Across the globe, we are seeing countries and governments grappling with the speed of change, and it has been difficult. We have been forced to refocus our education systems, forced to rethink what we mean by society and forced to understand the alienation that is taking place. We have watched family breakdowns occur at an increasing rate, and that has generated instability. We have seen the relatively recent phenomenon of homelessness, the issues of drug and substance abuse and a whole range of other social changes. This is not just in Australia; this is across the globe. Whether one reads the English press, the German press or the American press, one sees similar phenomena occurring. They are occurring in different manifestations, but the kinds of changes that are taking place are remarkably similar.

We in government took the view that these changes needed to be understood and accommodated so that the sense of impermanence was not made permanent, so that these changes were seen to eventually be absorbed and accommodated by a stable society. In that context, unemployment benefits are still seen by this side of the chamber as a temporary matter. They are not and must not be accepted as a permanent state. Society's objectives must still be to actively and fully engage all of its people who wish to work. That must be the objective. The day we start to accept that unemployment is a permanent situation—particularly for young people—and that there is no support available to correct it is the day that this society starts to devour itself, and that is what this government has just done with this legislation. It is saying to these young people, `It's your own fault. There is no help. You and your parents can look after yourselves. You are not part of our society.' They are being rejected. There is no sense of responsibility for what is occurring. There is no sense of acceptance that society creates the jobs, not the family. The responsibility has been transferred from society back to the individual, and it will be putting individual against individual and family against family. The generation of hate-mongering and scapegoating that is going on now has substantial long-term consequences.

In the same way, the government are saying to old people and their families, `If you need a nursing home, bad luck. You've got to pay for it.' Only a small number, less than half the number who need access to nursing home care, will get it. For the rest of them, it is up to their families. The government are saying that it is not their responsibility. In the same way they are telling that to old people, they are saying to young people, `If you can't get work, that's your own problem.' For a very small number—those in a very low income household, which is classified as below $23,500 for 16- and 17-year-olds in full-time education and training—there will be help. The idea somehow that that is, therefore, a reasonable income is preposterous, and we know it.

The numbers show that 12,000 young people left school at age 16 and 17. The idea somehow is that they left school because there was some incentive and that they are unemployed because they want to be. The idea that school or full-time education is the right place to be for every 16- and 17-year-old has never been put forward by any government in the past. Never. In fact, we were being criticised in government for encouraging people who perhaps should have been leaving school to stay at school. Full-time education and training means either being at school or being in full-time TAFE. So if this government were in any way genuine, they would be associating this program with the other side of the program—which is providing places for those 12,000 16- and 17-year-olds who are in a low income household. For them, there will be no funding at all unless they are in full-time education or training.

But do we see any programs at all to actually accommodate them? Do we see extra money for schools? In many cases, these young people are problematic. You can take the incidence, for example, of the early onset of schizophrenia, and let me quote some figures. The average age for the diagnosis of mental illnesses is below 20. The mean age for the diagnosis of many mental illnesses is 16. The percentage of young people having mental health problems is not high. It is not sufficient to warrant them being treated as a medical problem, but it is certainly enough to cause difficulties in a school context.

The idea that somehow every young person under 16 or 17 should stay in full-time training or at school has never been put forward. In fact, the government itself does not even say that. It does not even pretend that; it just ignores it. What it does say is that, unless they are in full-time education and training, there will be no programs at all and, for the programs that are there, the funds will start to cut out when the income reaches $23,500.

We are going to see a massive problem for parents with 16- and 17-year-olds who are unable to access education and training because of their personal circumstances, whether it be a learning disability, a behavioural problem, a mental problem or the fact that they have been the victim of a family breakdown, which traumatises so many of our young people in so many cases. Whatever the reason, the fact is that there will be no program at all, full stop. For those who can access education, there are no places anyhow because the government has no funding out there to make sure that these people are picked up. So it cuts out the support and locks the door on access.

Then the government starts to tell us what a wonderful new innovation this is, how good this is and how this is going to help. This legislation is designed to create non-persons. Those families in this situation with children who are 16 and 17 years of age are going to face great problems at a time of great family stress. Anybody who has had children go through that age knows how difficult it can be for so many young people, both male and female.

We look at the figures on youth suicide and to a person in this place we all express our horror and shock. We say, `What's happening to our young people? What's causing it?' I chaired a parliamentary inquiry into youth homelessness and I have a fair idea of what causes it. This will not help. This kind of rejection and alienation will not help. Saying to a 16-year-old, `You are on your own. If your parents won't feed you, tough luck. If your parents can't afford you, that's your own problem and theirs,' is great for their self-esteem and for making them feel confident and optimistic!

These problems are caused by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. They are being induced by a hapless and heartless government. From now on, every time I hear one member of the government talking about youth suicide, I will be saying, `Hypocrite, hypocrite, hypocrite and poppycock!' How dare they come in here and start talking about the problems of youth when they are the cause. They will be causing, increasingly, problems in our families now.

Of course, the other group affected by this legislation and these changes is the 18- to 20-year-olds. Again, they have a similar problem, but in some ways it is of a worse nature because, by the age of 18, 19 or 20, most younger Australians have a fair sense of independence. They have a fair idea of who they are, what they want to be and, in many cases, they are still living at home. The average age of children leaving home is increasing; it is now almost 18. But the majority of them will not want to live at home. They will want to express their independence in some form. If they are not in full-time training and education and under Austudy, they will be looking for work. And they would love a job.

There are very few Australians who do not want to have a decent living standard, a decent car, a decent set of clothes and to eat decent food. I always find difficult the idea that people somehow choose to live in poverty. I do not know many people who want to live badly. I do not meet many people who say, `I live in poverty by choice. It's a great idea and I think it's wonderful; I recommend it to all my friends.' I do not meet many people like that. I do meet some people who say, `I have spent the last year looking for a job. I make the most of what I've got. I don't have much choice about it, but I make the most of it and put a bright face on things.' But I do not recall meeting anybody who chose to live in poverty. Yet the implication here is that people make that kind of choice.

Families with offspring of 18, 19 or 20 years of age who are earning more than $23,500 will start to find a decreasing level of community support. In other words, they are no longer young Australians; they are still dependent kids. The government is telling young people that at 19 and 20 years of age they are still kids and that their parents will look after them. Let me tell members of the government: that will come back to haunt many families because both the parents and the children are trying to negotiate and develop a pathway to independence. That is what they are trying to do under difficult circumstances with a massive shortage of employment, but they are trying to negotiate a reasonable, sensible level of independence for those young Australians who then become the next generation. What the government is saying to those people is, `You are not part of our society; we don't feel responsible.'

This victim bashing, blaming and scapegoating has become so common, and we are seeing it across sectors. We have seen the cuts in funding to residential care for the aged. We have seen the cuts in funding to child care, and that has been horrific and will have long-term implications for the way in which we function as a society. We have seen the cuts in funding for employment support. Working for the dole, of course, has been one of the prime examples, and we note from the figures that a substantial number of the relatively small number of people who are being piloted are in fact being forced to participate because it is undignified and demeaning. We have seen increases in HECS charges for education. We have seen cuts to university funding, and we have seen cuts to TAFE. We have seen cuts in the very area we are hearing about.

We are seeing the increasing exploitation of young people in the work force. We all know about it. I defy anybody in this parliament to tell me that they are not aware of a case of a young person who is working for below the award or not getting overtime or not telling the taxation department or still getting some social security. I defy anybody in this place to tell me that they have not heard of that happening. Let me tell you that exploitation is increasing. The more we make young people vulnerable, the more they will regard our laws as stupid and the more they will defy them. You make them defy the laws on taxation and then they start to defy the laws on property. Laws are all the same and we are the ones who make them.

If this parliament makes stupid, uncaring, thoughtless and insensitive laws and tells young people they should respect it, we know what their answer will be. The increased exploitation in employment of those young people by their elders, and in many cases respected business people, should be a source of real concern to this parliament. This government says, `It's their own fault. They can negotiate their own wages.' The government's whole body language and the message it gives to both young people and employers is that employers should pay them as little as they need to. Young people get as much as they can negotiate. That is what this is about. We are seeing here the working poor, but it is unofficial. In America it is official. Here it is still under the counter, but it is happening and in increasing numbers.

What is the long-term effect of all this? We have changed the structures. We are changing CES. On 1 May we will see a massive change there. Hundreds of thousands of people will no longer have access to income support. We are seeing cuts to things such as AYPAC, the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition. This organisation is being defunded so it cannot help coordinate, guide and advocate policy on behalf of young people. We are seeing cuts in all the support systems out there that are trying to negotiate, argue and understand the problems of youth. We are seeing access to the homeless program and the various other schemes that were available to try to help families in difficulty being chopped around. We are seeing cuts in the Family Court. We are seeing charges being placed on counselling and a whole range of activities that were supposed to help families. We are seeing cuts in funding for mediation services that, again, were helping families in difficulty. On one hand we are cutting direct funding and, on the other, we are removing the structures that help hold our families together, albeit insufficiently.

What this government is about is dismantling, piece by piece, both the social structure and the collective responsibility for our individuals—it is saying, `We share with you your problems'; it is saying to a family with young people, `We share with you. If they can't get work, we take some responsibility.' This is a government that says, `We have no responsibility. It's all their own fault.' Speaker after speaker has said that we should blame the victims—sheet it back home to them—and that is disgraceful.