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Wednesday, 26 June 1996
Page: 2229

Senator WHEELWRIGHT(1.29 p.m.) —I would say to Senator Spindler that the sand is running through the hourglass for me, too, but one cannot presume that my last speech has been given until midnight next Sunday.

I rise in the MPI debate because there is a pressing problem, a proposal by the government to start a youth homelessness pilot program. To be more specific, the government has proposed a task force which will report by the end of this month, and the government hopes to have the pilot program in operation by August. For that reason, I bring to the attention of the Senate some concerns which I have with this program, and I will provide copies of what I am about to say to the task force.

The government, when in opposition, was concerned about the problem of youth homelessness and it sought to come into power and treat the problem—which it had identified in common with the Labor government—in a different way and from a different perspective. I am taking a generous view of the government's motivation in all of this. It is true that both political parties want to see young people growing up in happy and well-adjusted families. I would not want to indicate anything different from that point of view. I do think, however, that the means by which the government is seeking to bring about a different point of view has potential threats within it which, firstly, are going to damage their program and, secondly, are going to be so much worse for young people. I recognise that the coalition's election policy document said:

The Coalition recognises that there are circumstances in which young people have every reason to leave home. Equally, there are legitimate concerns expressed by some parents and community organisations that the existing system places too little emphasis on family reconciliation.

It is fair to say that the government was responding to fears expressed by some people in the community that the availability of the homeless youth allowance—which was made available by the previous government—was in some way providing a means by which young people could leave home, and that this was in some way not particularly justified by their circumstances. Although they are very circumspect in most of the statements that they make, you can see that fairly clearly. In March this year, the Prime Minister made a statement in a doorstop interview in which he said:

On the one hand there are obvious cases where family life has completely ceased to exist and young people are deserving and in need of support because they are genuinely homeless.

That is fair enough—

And yet other groups in the community representing parents who felt that the system has worked against them have argued that there is not a sufficiently effective surveillance made under present arrangements of the entitlement of young people.

That is the first point with which I want to take issue. Prior to coming into parliament, I worked as a voluntary street contact worker with the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross, dealing with homeless youth—or, as they are more commonly called, `street kids'. I have to say that my experience there, and that of everybody else that I had dealings with, was very different from that which is implied in the Prime Minister's statement and which has been said by some of the organisations that he was alluding to.

It was a very difficult position to be dealing with children under the age of 16—and, more commonly, they were children between the ages of 10 and 14—who had come to Kings Cross because it was the place they knew. They were coming to the city for the bright lights. Mostly, they were coming from the country. Their lives were characterised, certainly by the time that we had anything to do with them, by drug addiction—generally heroin addiction—and by involvement with both male and female prostitution.

One thing stood out which really astounded me—and this is the reason I want to make such an issue of this program—that is, in every case that I came across, these children would attempt every six months or sometimes every year to go home and try and patch things up with their families. It does not take much imagination to realise what sort of families they were going back to: ones typically characterised by alcoholism, beatings by their parents and discord between the parents, where they saw their mother's partner beat their mother—all the sorts of circumstances of genuinely and chronically broken homes. Nevertheless, these children—without any prompting from anybody—would go home on a regular basis and spend a week or two weeks somehow trying to patch things up with their parents. One of the saddest things to see is when these children return, as they did to Kings Cross, having failed in their attempts to find some sort of reconciliation with their parents.

I do not believe that it is fair to suggest, and I do not believe that data will be forthcoming to suggest, that the availability of the homeless youth allowance is an incentive for people to leave home. I do not believe that any cases of abuse should be forced to go through a process of reconciliation with parents. I do not believe that there should be more stringent requirements brought to bear to stop people from having that form of income support.

I should also say that I have absolutely nothing against voluntary organisations. The task force which the Prime Minister has set up and the policy which the government wishes to pursue depend very greatly on voluntary organisations. As I said before, I worked with the Wayside Chapel, which has established an excellent reputation for work in the Kings Cross area, in particular with homeless youth. I have also had extensive experience with the Oasis Centre, which was set up by the Salvation Army in Kings Cross or in Darlinghurst. In particular, I pay tribute to the work of my friend Marcello Scali, who has worked as a youth worker with the Wayside Chapel and is presently with the Oasis Centre. He is entirely dedicated to the welfare of other people for very little return to himself.

I am certainly not pointing the finger at these voluntary organisations, nor am I suggesting that their efforts are anything other than laudable. But, when you go to the specifics of the government's policy and what the task force has been asked to report upon, there are a number of things that lead me to a state of disquiet, and I think they should lead the Senate to a state of disquiet.

It is important to state clearly, and for the government to state clearly, that there should be no link between reconciliation and income support. If there is any necessity for income support—and I believe there is—it should not be predicated on the fact that these children undergo a reconciliation with their parents. It has to be a voluntary process. If they initiate it and they wish it, or if the parents initiate it and the children respond, then by all means. As I said in the beginning, I do not think anybody would want anything other than reconciliation between parents and children and a happy relationship thereafter.

It is absolutely important that there be no feeling of compulsion on the part of the children. If they feel, as I believe the task force criteria suggest, that there is a link between their continued income support and the fact that they undergo a reconciliation or mediation process, I think that would be absolutely disastrous. There has to be some sensitivity in this matter. The sensitivity has to be shown to the people who are suffering out of all of this. Overwhelmingly, the people who suffer are the children themselves.

It is important to bear in mind that a decision by a young person to go home after reconciliation should not be seen as a one-way door. It is quite naive to imagine that people might leave home, have some form of reconciliation and then return home, and that is the end of the matter. If people knew about the circumstances from which these children were fleeing, it would be immediately obvious that the problem could recur. The young person may go home for a while but it may become impossible for them to stay there. They will leave, go home and leave over a fairly long period, at least until they are able to make their way in the world themselves.

Therefore, it is very important that this is not just seen as a closed loop: the children go through a process of reconciliation; the income support is terminated; they go home; and that is the end of the matter. The income support should always be there and both the parents and the children should be entitled to counselling support after the period of reconciliation. They should be entitled to continuing surveillance to make sure that the children are not at home under any form of duress. There should be every opportunity for them to step out of that situation if they feel it is in their best interests.

The final area of my greatest concern has to be that I do not think voluntary organisations should bear the responsibility for the counselling process and I do not believe that they should be relied upon to provide to the department the recommendations which the government seeks to place upon them in terms of whether income support should continue. The opposition's policy document says:

Under the pilot a young person who applies for a homeless payment will be initially assessed for eligibility by a departmental officer.

That is well and good. If there is a prima facie case for eligibility, he or she will be given a six-week temporary payment. That is fine.

This is where the changes occur. One of the conditions of the payment will be that the person will be required to report to a participating voluntary agency. One of the principal roles of the agency will be to provide counselling and, wherever possible, mediate a reconciliation between the young person and his or her family or guardian. The agency will prepare a detailed report on the person's circumstances. The report will include an assessment of the possibility of reconciliation in the short and in the long term and a recommendation as to whether the person should continue to receive the payment after the six-week transitional period. The final decision as to the entitlement will rest with the department, but it will be based primarily upon the report of the agency.

I think that is too great a responsibility for voluntary agencies to bear. As I have said before, I have a great deal of respect for the work that voluntary agencies do; but I still think that, in the terms of the policy which was stated by the government in its election platform and in the terms of the task force guidelines, it is too great a responsibility. At the end of the day, it is only a department that is accountable. It is only public servants, through their responsible ministers, who are actually accountable for their actions.

Voluntary agencies mean well, and voluntary agencies do a great deal for very little reward to themselves. But the fact remains that they cannot be accountable in the same way as a public servant is accountable or a minister is accountable to this Senate and to this parliament. Unless that link is very clear, there is a danger that these children will be placed into situations where pressure is upon them to go back to their parents, to go back to their family home, and the sorts of things that made them leave that family home will be visited upon them again. I think it is an unfair pressure. I think there ought to be a great deal of sensitivity in this matter. I really believe that relying upon these voluntary agencies to provide recommendations and that that be the guiding principle upon which a departmental officer makes a decision is too great an onus.

As I said at the beginning, I do not think anybody believes that youth homelessness is anything other than a blight on our society. It is a sad reflection that we can be as wealthy as we are, we can point to economic growth from year to year to year and, at the same time, in this supposedly wealthy society, we can find children, as I have seen, living a homeless life in places like Kings Cross. I might also say that the problem is getting worse, not better. In fact, it is now the case that Kings Cross is no longer the major focus for this problem. In Cabramatta the problem is even greater—greater because there are now greater numbers of children out there and greater because the sort of support which has been built by voluntary agencies and others around Kings Cross is simply not available in the Cabramatta area.

So I urge the government to reconsider that particular recommendation and to reconsider the other principles which I have raised today. I hope that in all of their work on this pilot program they are motivated primarily by the welfare of the child—primarily by the welfare of children who have done something which most children will not do. Every person in their life probably packed a vegemite sandwich, walked down the street, saying that they were never going to come home, and were home by teatime. It is not that sort of problem, and we are not dealing with those sorts of feelings. We are dealing with fundamental problems of people who are being abused, people who would prefer a different life and who are, nevertheless, in a wealthy society, living on the street.

As I said, my time finishes at midnight next Sunday; but, if this matter comes before the Senate after my term expires, I hope that other senators will take up these points in debate. In the meantime, I hope that the government's task force will reflect some of the things that I have said, and hopefully the government's pilot program will be less onerous than I fear it will be, given the information I have provided to the Senate.