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Wednesday, 31 March 1999
Page: 4945

Dr LAWRENCE (11:08 AM) —I will be brief today because I am sure that a great deal of what needs to be said about the Youth Allowance Consolidation Bill 1999 and associated legislation has been said, but I think it is important to draw attention to some of the regional variations that occur. Sadly, the story is pretty much the same around the country, but my own experience as the member for Fremantle is one that I would like to put on the record in the context of those changes.

One of the things you can say about this legislation is that the need for amendments so soon after the implementation of the initial bill is indicative of poorly thought out policy and poorly thought out programs. Mind you, I think all members could have referred them a great many more problems than those that they are attempting to solve by this legislation.

At base, of course, the edifice of this legislation is very clearly designed to transfer the burden of unemployment and income support to families, including those on very modest incomes indeed. That is one of the reasons that I parted company with the original legislation very early. In addition to shifting the burden from government to families who could ill afford to support that burden, it represents an attack on the very hard-won independence of young adults.

As the parent of a young man, I feel very deeply about the fact that young people are being told at the age of 21, in the case of youth allowance, and even older if they are seeking to study, that they are somehow dependent on their parents. Every other signal that we send them says that when they leave school, particularly, that is the point at which we expect them to start standing on their own two feet—even earlier in many respects. From the point of view of the criminal justice system, they are adults long before that. From the point of view of many of the charges that are made on them in the community, they are adults long before that.

We accept them as voters at the age of 18. We understand when they leave school that they will have to make their own way in the world, whether through employment or further study. We accept that they can be married even younger than that and bear children, yet this legislation is saying to young people, basically, `We regard you as dependants. We do not see you as having the capacity to stand apart from your parents.' It is a very convenient fiction indeed. Young people do not believe that and nor do their parents. They see it as a sleight of hand.

In many respects it is a double standard. You only have to look at the Prime Minister's own situation. He has a young daughter. She is working in the work force and yet she is able, because of her father's position, to get a special parking place in Sydney where parking places must be at a premium. So there is some special treatment there of the relationship between father and daughter—in this case, to her advantage. What is happening in reverse with other families is that they are being asked to take on an extra burden when they do not have the means to provide for it.

It represents a very considerable addition to what I see as the miserable attacks on the most disadvantaged in our community. Like many, I suppose, I have sat down and asked myself the question: why would this be occurring? Why would any government seek to place a burden on those already burdened; seek to remove support from those already lacking in support? I have racked my brains about that, and I cannot come up with an answer. I cannot imagine a philosophy, especially in Australia, that would allow you to conclude that you solve any of society's problems by shifting that burden. Yet it has happened in area after area. This is one—the tax changes are another—where we have seen support removed.

If I had to really answer the question—and I would find it very difficult—it is probably based on some misguided notion of standing on your own two feet, of getting government off the backs of the people. You hear that phrase very often from people who are quite happy to dip their hands into the government coffers when it is their own privilege that is at stake—what Galbraith calls the `culture of contentment'.

So if the government need to provide a bailout, for instance, as they have done in various states—and, indeed, as has happened in the United States and other places, when financial institutions collapse—that is fine. Terrific. No problems. But, if it is to provide for the welfare of the least well off in the community, that is somehow the government intruding unnecessarily in the lives of citizens. I think that is, unfortunately, the message that is now being put across to a great many in our community. I think it is an appalling shift in the view that Australians have formerly had of government.

Look at some of the changes even in this legislation—which is essentially tidying up the original bill—to reduce, for instance, the rate of the disability support pensions or the amount that those under 21 will be paid. For example, a single pensioner aged 18 to 21 who is not living at home and who has a dependent child will actually lose money under these proposals. This is a further attack on what would have to be described as one of the most disadvantaged subgroups. This is a single pensioner, a young person 18 to 21, not living at home—struggling, in other words, to be independent, and probably for very good reason, apart from the fact that he or she is an adult with a dependent child. A person like this actually goes backwards under this legislation. Seven dollars may not seem like a lot to the architects of this legislation but, let me tell you, to people who have to live on it, on the amounts of money that they have under these regimes, it is an extraordinary situation. Knowing furthermore that there will be further imposts on them with the imposition of a GST really makes my heart bleed.

I see these people; they come through my door. They cannot survive and they are not surviving. The government does not necessarily want to hear the stories but welfare agencies are stretched to the limit. The offices of members of parliament have queues of people a mile long in these circumstances where government support is simply not adequate. And it is not that these people are not pulling their weight. They are doing everything they possibly can.

This legislation and the surrounding bills are generally indicative of the government's approach to income support for the young unemployed and for students. The only way I can describe it is miserly. Essentially, this legislation is punitive in the approach that it takes and, unfortunately, it is being delivered via a very poor service—and I do not blame the staff for that. I will have a bit more to say about that in a moment.

In a sense, this legislation gives us the opportunity to revisit some of the warnings that we made when the initial youth allowance legislation went through. A great many people, including members on our side of the House, welfare groups and youth groups, pointed out to the government that there were likely to be serious problems, as indeed there are. Even so, I must say that even I have been amazed at the volume of complaints that this legislation has generated. What needs to be remembered, I think, is that at the outset it represented a complete loss of income support, or a very substantial reduction, for over 45,000 unemployed young people aged 18 to 21 who were, for the first time, made newly dependent on their families.

Many examples have come to the attention of my electorate office, but I will give just one to indicate exactly how it affected many families. This example is of a young woman of 20 who had worked successfully, more or less continuously, and who had lived successfully independently since about the age of 15. I have no doubt that, like most families, her mother—and I think it was a single mother, from memory—had provided her with a little additional support, as we all do. We do what we can for our young adult children.

This young woman became very seriously ill and was forced to leave her job, so she went back home to live with her mother for six months. That was a matter of necessity; she could not continue to pay her rent; she was not working, so she lived at home. When she recovered and applied for the appropriate support to find employment, she was told that she could not get any; that she was to be dependent on her mother. Her mother was at the very low end of the income scale but, even so, the young woman was assessed as being ineligible. The additional strain on the family was very substantial, and there were other dependent children.

She was amazed that this was the case. A great many people who confront the legislation do not understand what has been done. Most people are fortunate enough not to have to ask for support in this way. When they do ask and they are told that they are not independent, that they are not adults and that they should go back to the parental situation, they feel diminished. This girl, like many in her position, was very upset because it was extremely difficult for her family to support her. Being an energetic young woman she found work reasonably quickly, but for the period during which she could not find work it was extremely difficult. Ultimately she took a job that she did not want. She wanted to get into good employment and to better herself. That was part of her reason for wanting to start again, but she could not; she had to take the nearest thing in order to take the burden off her family.

I think that the important thing to consider here is the tensions caused by these newly created dependencies. In this case, the mother did what she could for the young adult daughter, but it was obviously extremely difficult for her to manage. In other cases, it is clearly not possible for families to accommodate the people who suddenly turn up on their doorsteps. Sometimes the children have left home out of necessity because family tension has been great. They have needed to leave—to become adults, to set themselves up. I think that is something all of us should think seriously about. If a government really wants to solve some of the problems associated with youth suicide and drug addiction, forcing people into what are already unhealthy relationships is not a very good step to solving those problems. These changes have clearly placed even greater burdens on families.

Senator Harradine, I have to say, was right to be incensed that in the tax package no consideration has been given to the needs of these families, as he was promised they would be. There are substantial costs in providing for the needs of a young adult; it is not just a matter of carving up things a little less generously for the rest of the family. There are needs these young people have if they are looking for employment—as they would be—or if they are studying. It is not as though they simply occupy a space in a household. They actually have considerable costs, for example clothing and, one hopes, little things like recreation—being able to go to the movies once in a while. These costs have to be considered.

These additional burdens were supposed to be taken into account, and Senator Harradine understood that he had been given very firm assurances that they would be. But, apart from the general tax cuts they were offered, we now discover that these low income families were not even considered in the tax package. And, I might say, those tax cuts for the lowest income earners are very small indeed and are likely to be eaten up entirely by the increases through a GST. I remind members that half the tax cuts go to the top 20 per cent. This relief is skewed to the other end of the income scale, not the end where you would expect it to be. The remaining 80 per cent get the other half.

I remind members that the depth of the betrayal of Senator Harradine, and of the rest of the community who implicitly were promised the same thing, is considerable. When asked before the Senate committee what steps had been taken in designing the package to account for this group about whom promises have been made, the government official revealed after some fairly strong questioning that he was not even aware that such a promise had been made. No-one had communicated to him the need to take account of this group.

Even though these families are clearly in desperate need of financial relief as a result of this bill, they are not going to be taken care of in the tax package. It is one of the amendments that we are not likely to see despite the promise given. It is not altogether surprising that Senator Harradine has been a little dark on the government. But, in the end, it is not a problem for Senator Harradine. It is a problem for the families who have been denied assistance. That is the point of this. It is not the politics of it and the fact that Senator Harradine has been upset by the government's betrayal, but the fact that there are a whole lot of families out there with newly dependent children they have to provide for who are not being given any special consideration—indeed, no consideration at all. Nor was it considered important enough to even follow through on those matters.

The other problem with the legislation, which became very clear to me as a local member, was the very unrealistic tests made to establish independence. Some of those are improved a little in this legislation and some are possibly compounded because they are enormously complicated. I challenge any member of this parliament to look at some of the forms that people are now required to fill out through Centrelink and to fill them out with 100 per cent accuracy. I think they would find that they failed rather dismally. In addition, some of the material that is required takes an inordinate number of hours to put together due to the number of attachments required. The difficulty in getting evidence required is very considerable in many cases. Remember that you are dealing here with people who are often not the most able members of the community in terms of their literacy and numeracy skills—something the government has recognised in a very punitive way. Nonetheless, it is true that many of the young unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed, are people who have considerable problems in dealing with everyday literacy and numeracy demands that are made upon them. That is why as part of any decent labour market program you need to address those problems, but you need to address them in context and in a way that encourages and does not punish.

There are, as I say, very unrealistic tests to establish independence, and people fall foul of them. They make the wrong claims. What happens then? They are called fraudsters; they are said to be rorting the system. They are blamed for the problems that Centrelink has created. I have had many examples of that, and only through the intervention of a member of parliament—in my case through my office—have injustices been able to be reversed.

People have benefits cut off, for example. In one case not strictly related to the youth allowance, a gentleman on a disability pension received a letter from Centrelink saying that, as a result of a reassessment of his position that he had not initiated, he was entitled to an additional amount of money. Obviously, he was grateful for that. The money was paid into his account in due course and he settled into what he regarded as the new regime. About three months later he got another letter saying it was a mistake and he had been overpaid and that they were going to take $50 out of his pension every fortnight to repay it. That was absolutely thoughtless.

I would challenge any minister here or any member of the bureaucracy in Canberra or any employee of Centrelink to try and live on those amounts of money, let alone have $50 a fortnight removed because of a mistake made by Centrelink. I have to say that that happens not once a week and sometimes not even once a day. But these problems are legion. If the government does not recognise that, it should. It is showing a distinct lack of humanity if it does not follow up on these complaints. We write to the minister to register the complaint and we get the usual placatory letters back that tell us nothing and go nowhere.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Centrelink people. There has been a massive increase in their workload. There have been substantial staff cuts and, as a result of restructuring of Centrelink and the old Department of Social Security, there are a lot of people working in jobs whose rules they do not know. The rules are changing all the time but they do not know them. What we are seeing are delays and queues and errors in assessment that I have just talked about.

If you look at just a simple thing like getting through on the phone, the most recent figures show that 81 per cent of callers to Centrelink in 1998 did not get past the engaged signal. I have to say that is confirmed by my experience, and the experience of a great many other people, particularly those who try to do the right thing and use the telephone system rather than turn up and queue.

That is dangerous because if you get through eventually and make a time for an appointment that appointment might be for two or three weeks later. In a recent Austudy case I know of, a young person had done just that and waited patiently to get an appointment. It was well after the beginning of term time before he finally got to the top of the queue whereupon they said to him, `You don't really need to be here. You could have done that in writing.' I had been party to the initial application and it was not made clear to him that that was what was required. As he walked out the door he looked at the form and it said, `You are only paid from the date of application.' By then nearly a month had passed, during which time he had been living on the bones of his backside, not to put too fine a point on it. He did not get any money for that period even though he had been studying for the duration. That is a fairly typical problem created by the difficulty of getting through by phone and by the long queues.

People are having to wait for weeks, in my electorate and in others, to get an appointment for youth allowance and for Austudy, not to mention other benefits. At Centrelink in Fremantle there are currently only four staff working on the youth allowance section—two are working on the applications, one is the manager, and one is the receptionist. Two additional staff were put on briefly to handle the Work for the Dole and mutual obligation schemes.

The result is that people just cannot get service, and the staff themselves are in desperate straits. Those staff are under stress, and I have a great deal of sympathy for them. As a result of waiting too long, being given wrong information, and being messed around, people become abusive. Their tempers are short and sometimes there are violent reactions. I do not condone those but I can understand why they occur.

Centrelink staff sometimes ring my office in tears. Do not worry about the recipients of these benefits ringing us in tears. Centrelink staff do it as well. I get anonymous emails from staff members from right around the state complaining about the way they are being treated as employees by this government. The government should be a model employer. It is not. It fails miserably. These people are being asked to do a job that is impossible to do with the resources they have. The result is a great deal of dissatisfaction and disaffection from people who should regard them with admiration because they do try enormously to do the right thing by their clients—a word I use reluctantly.

The government has made a complete botch of this. This legislation, in a minor way, improves some of the obvious flaws, but the fundamental principles are wrong and they are not likely to be remedied by this tinkering around the edges.