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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4572

Mr BYRNE (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) (12:01 PM) —It is with pleasure that I rise today to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and related bills. This bill certainly does deliver for working families in Holt. It delivers for working Australians and others experiencing financial difficulties in these difficult economic circumstances. The key aspect of this budget that appeals to me and to people in my electorate is that it attempts, in difficult economic circumstances, to reduce cost of living pressures. When you listen to those opposite talk about cost of living pressures, one gets the impression that we are talking about cost of living pressures that manifested themselves on the day of the federal election, when in fact those pressures have been there for some period of time.

Inflation is not created overnight. Cost of living pressures are not created overnight. In fact, when we did a survey in my electorate in June 2006, one of the things that struck me—other than the very large response rate, which was in the order of 25 per cent—was the number of people who wrote back saying that they were struggling under the cost of living pressures. This was June 2006, well before the last federal election. So this momentum, this head of steam in terms of inflation and cost of living pressures, has been building for some period of time. The challenge that our government faces in dealing with these pressures is to produce a budget which provides relief to families but does not do it in a way that stimulates inflation—a budget that eases the financial and cost of living pressures without putting upward pressure on interest rates.

In terms of the Working Families Support Package that was announced in the federal budget, particular measures that resonate with my electorate are the significant family tax relief, the education tax refund to help parents with the cost of education, the increase to the childcare tax rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent and having it paid quarterly, and the dental plan that allows eligible families to claim up to $150 per year for a preventative dental check on each teenage child.

Importantly, particularly in my area, which has the highest mortgages in the country, families are going to have the opportunity to seek more financial counselling. In fact, we have doubled the support for financial support services. Prior to this initiative, in the City of Casey area and in the region, there were two federally funded financial counselling services or providers for a population of 300,000 people. If you are talking about an electorate and a region that disproportionately experience cost of living increases, to have two federally funded financial counsellors is completely inadequate. So I certainly welcome the support that has been provided by the government. These services are needed because there are a lot of families struggling under cost of living pressures.

On top of the financial counselling, in terms of some localised services that are going to be provided, there are two important initiatives. One is the $5 million that the federal government is giving for the Cranbourne Aquatic and Leisure Centre, which is a very innovative project. It basically does not use fresh water. This pool is going to be filled by water harvested off the roofs, so there is no fresh water. Cranbourne is one of the top water-saving areas in the state and in the country. Now they are getting a state-of-the-art pool, and there is nothing like this in the rest of the country. It is a tribute to the people of Cranbourne that have been pushing for this centre and to a particular City of Casey councillor, Councillor Kevin Bradford.

A program that I want to talk about is the Casey Kidz Club. Prior to the election, we had announced a funding commitment of $40,000 per annum for this incredibly innovative program. This Casey Kidz Club is a service that provides respite care for parents with special needs children between the hours of 3 pm and 6 pm. The kids go to a special school and then get a bus to Beaconhills College in Berwick, where they will be between 3 pm and 6 pm. There are very few programs like this being run in the country. It is a very innovative program. The moving spirits behind this program were Kellie Hammerstein and Amanda Stapleton. Amanda Stapleton is the mother of a special needs child called Pete, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and dealing with for some period of time. I am proud to say that this government has funded this service for $40,000 per year for two years initially, with the expectation of recurrent funding. I went down there recently to meet with the parents and the people involved in this service, and it is a great service. It is such a unique service that I think the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs are looking at it and at some of the good bits and seeing if they can apply those around the rest of the country. I am very proud as the local federal member to be part of a program that provides much needed support for families with special needs children in my area.

I move on to talk about things in a more general sense. I am Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, so I obviously have some dealings with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In my dealings with them I find them to be a very hardworking department with some fantastic public servants. I have certainly had great pleasure in working very closely with them. They do work very hard and very long hours and they are doing a great job. I want to talk about some of the programs they are working on that I have some level of interface with, because they will have some additional portfolio budget statement expenditures over the next five years. One program in particular relates to the social inclusion agenda. The interesting thing about growth corridors, particularly in areas like Melbourne and Sydney, is that we have enormous growth without infrastructure growth and social infrastructure growth to match it. So we have housing estates but, in my view, we do not have the essential social infrastructure to underpin that particular growth.

So I was very pleased to see in this budget that the government is going to provide $14.6 million over five years to establish and resource a social inclusion unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In accordance with its election commitment, on 7 December the government established the Social Inclusion Unit in the department. This unit reports to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and it will perform a strategic policy advisory and coordination function across whole of government as a means of pursuing the government’s broader social inclusion agenda. This unit will also provide secretarial support to the Australian Social Inclusion Board, which has just been announced.

The Social Inclusion Unit will work with colleagues in other departments and agencies to take the lead on progressing three of the government’s early priorities for social inclusion—that is, jobless families, children at greatest risk of long-term disadvantage and locational disadvantage. The Social Inclusion Unit will also coordinate the development of a long-term plan for social inclusion in Australia. The funds to be appropriated will provide for salaries and on-costs for Social Inclusion Unit staff, remuneration for members of the Australian Social Inclusion Board, travel and other costs associated with board meetings and board consultations, and will support one-off research projects and/or the requirement for specific expertise as issues emerge.

The government’s social inclusion goals are to ensure that all Australians are able to recognise their full potential, regardless of race, colour or creed, and to ensure full participation in social and economic life. The government believes that, in order to be socially included, all Australians must be given the opportunity to secure a job, access education and services, connect with others, deal with personal crises and have their voices heard. Low levels of social inclusion can lead to a range of problems, such as unemployment, low incomes, poor housing, crime, poor health, disability and family breakdown.

The government’s social inclusion initiatives are not about welfare; they are about investing in all Australians. The government has established the Social Inclusion Board, which brings together community leaders with significant networks, experience and knowledge. Why do we need a social inclusion unit? I have heard some commentary about the fact that we do not actually need it. As part of National Youth Week—and I think this amplifies the reason why we do need this organisation in a section within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet—I had a meeting with 14 young community leaders from a range of schools on Tuesday, 11 April. My electorate is very famous for young people—in particular Corey Worthington. He used to live and go to school in the area of Narre Warren South, so when people talk about youth in my area they talk about Corey Worthington.

In dealing with these young people, I found enormous common sense and leadership. As a tribute to the common sense and very interesting viewpoints that they put forward, I would like to read a little bit about what they discussed, what they want in the area and what their expectations are from government in this region. They represent youth from a spectrum of between 13 and 18 years of age in the region. We basically had a 1½-hour workshop where we discussed some pretty topical and controversial issues. Some of the key issues raised were: young people out of control, depression, family relationships, racism, teenage pregnancy, activities for young people in outer metropolitan areas, hoon driving, road safety, alcoholism and high-risk behaviour. After we talked about those broad areas of concern, we narrowed them down to three key areas: young people out of control, depression and family relationships. I completely appreciated the honesty of these young people. ‘Young people out of control’ was the issue of greatest concern to the group and represented an overarching theme under which depression and family relationship stress fell.

The key points outlined in the discussion surrounding young people out of control included rebellion and attention-seeking behaviour, parents allowing young people too much freedom, family and relationship violence, alcoholism and assistance with facing peer pressure. A point of particular interest was that the group felt—and this is important in terms of the debate that we are having about youth binge drinking, for example—that media organisations influenced young people and their decision-making processes. Issues such as alcohol consumption and, interestingly, the sexualisation of young people through some of the mainstream media outlets were of concern.

The second issue that particularly concerned this group was depression. The group outlined some personal examples of how depression had directly affected them and their relationships with friends and parents. Discussion points included lack of support mechanisms for young people and their families during stressful situations such as divorce, stigmatisation of mental health issues within the school environment, difficulty accessing discreet counselling services and the need for a broad education and public awareness campaign to expand understanding of mental health issues.

The third point was family relationships. Family relationship breakdown within the region was a concern, and it is accelerating as a consequence of families being under financial pressure. A number of the issues were linked closely to the topic of depression. The group’s issues included parents often playing the role of a friend and not a parent, a lack of support mechanisms for families in stressful situations such as divorce and relationship difficulties, and that friends should not have to act as therapists for their friends. The number of children that we spoke to who said that they were actually having to talk to some of their friends and discuss the issue of suicide is amazing. What are we doing as a community when we are not providing appropriate access to support services and when we are having peers counselling some of their peers about not committing suicide? There is something wrong in these outer suburban communities when we do not provide the appropriate social infrastructure to ensure that we provide that support. We are passing the responsibility on to our teenagers, and it is completely unacceptable. It is something that as a government and as a society we have to do something about.

The other issue is education, and understanding that stressful life events and situations for parents and young people are important. Throughout the discussion that became very clear. There has been a lot of discussion about the 2020 Summit and the consultation the Prime Minister is having. These people wanted ongoing dialogue. They appreciated that their views were being heard. One key thing they wanted was a broader preventative program to deal with the three key themes that I have just outlined. It was recommended that, by allowing young people to have a more inclusive role in their community and easier access to support services and by having a wide-ranging education and public awareness campaign on mental health issues, there would be significant changes in attitude within the broader community.

I was very impressed with these people. I will read their names out—and I am aware of the fact that I am running very short on time—Carina Bailey, Hayden Ostrom Brown, Sam Crongaeger, Natalie Heynesbergh, Danielle Kutchell, Teghan McLeod, Sarah Messana, Kate Miles, Dale Patman, Alana Sattler, Stacey Sewell, Reannah Smith, Casey Ward and Jade Wylie. They were very well looked after by Brett Owen, who is the youth resources officer from the Cranbourne police station. I have made them part of a youth reference group that will report to me, and via reporting to me they will report to the Prime Minister.

There is a heck of a lot more that I could say, but knowing that there are other speakers in this debate and the time constraints, I will cease. We have an ambitious agenda. One thing I can say is that, regardless of what side of the political divide you come from, there is an urgent need to address social infrastructure concerns. That is why I am so supportive of the implementation of the Social Inclusion Unit within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I will be talking more about that and more about the activities of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the coming weeks.