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Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Page: 3880


Senator SIEWERT (1:15 PM) —I would like to speak about the legislation that was tabled in the House of Representatives today that deals with truancy. The Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, today tabled a bill in the House of Representatives that gives the government the power to cut off or even cancel welfare payments to parents whose children do not attend school. Julia Gillard is the Minister for Education and the Minister for Social Inclusion. This is the most exclusionary piece of legislation that I have seen in a long time and how the minister can juxtapose those two particular parts of her portfolio beats me.

It is telling that the very first piece of legislation put forward by the Rudd government to enact their promised so-called education revolution in our schools is a piece of populist and punitive legislation that demonises parents on welfare and is in fact likely to lead to worse outcomes for many disadvantaged students. It is also telling that this is a scheme for which there is no evidence base from a government that claims to have evidence based policy. It is a scheme which, I also note from the media, the government’s own caucus is struggling to deal with.

As the ACOSS President, Lin Hatfield Dodds, said in the media earlier this week:

Income management is a blunt instrument to address the complex reasons that children may not be attending school and there is no evidence that it will work.

Suspension of income support payments is a harsh penalty which itself poses a serious threat to family and child wellbeing. Many of the families affected by these proposals are already living on low incomes and the suspension of payments will increase hardship and poverty.

Suspension of income support is discriminatory—it only affects parents on the lowest incomes. All parents—

I emphasise ‘all parents’—

are legally required to enrol their children in school. These laws should be enforced and backed up by support services.

The Greens have had a very quick look at the legislation, since it was only tabled this morning, and we are very, very definitely not impressed. Not only does it allow Centrelink bureaucrats to suspend income payments for 13 weeks or more; it allows them to cancel them altogether. Yes, that is right: by our reading of that legislation, you can have your income support cancelled completely.

Let’s stop for a moment to look at how the department finds out that a child has not been at school. As we understand and interpret the legislation, the school is required to notify the department. Let’s stop and consider that. That means that a school principal will have a list of every family on income support in a district. That is simply outrageous. Why don’t we tack a sign up everywhere to tell everybody in the suburb which families are on income support? Has anyone stopped to consider that that is totally unfair? What about that family’s privacy? Are we demonising people so much in this community now that we are going to send to school a list of families that are on income support?

This is not decent public policy. These are major changes to the lives of the most disadvantaged children and their families, for which there is no evidence. Have teachers been consulted? Have educational specialists been consulted? Have child development specialists been consulted? What is more, has the community been consulted? No, they have not.

The ALP have continued to say that they are committed to an evidence based policy, but I challenge the minister to produce the evidence that cutting welfare payments will lead to increased school attendance and better outcomes for the most disadvantaged of our children. As I understand it, the trial in Halls Creek did not succeed in getting any more kids into school. What did succeed is producing and providing more teachers, a better education system and a system that is culturally appropriate.

I challenge the minister to produce the evidence to justify a measure that exclusively targets families on welfare. Are these really the only families in our country where the kids are playing truant? I think not. This is a completely wrong-headed approach. The factors contributing to poor schooling attendance include: a lack of basic education and support services in disadvantaged areas; poor quality education programs; bullying; inadequate and insecure housing; a range of health problems, particularly including hearing problems; and curricula that are not culturally appropriate and that do not meet the needs of the students.

As parents we know that most young people love school and are excited to learn. In fact, some are even keen to go to school on weekends. They look forward to the opportunity to interact with their peers. It takes a few years of bad experiences before a child reaches the point that they dislike being at school so much that they are prepared to play truant. I also note that, for younger students in particular, a parent’s bad experience in school can also reflect their interaction with the school system. The implication of Julia Gillard’s new policy is that truancy is simply a result of a failure of the parents. In particular, of course, she is targeting the parents of disadvantaged families. The proposition behind her proposal is that, therefore, they are failing to force their children to go to school.

Let us look at some of the reasons that older children are not going to school besides the ones I have just mentioned in terms of poor, culturally appropriate education systems. They are failing in classes and are feeling humiliated because they are not engaged and are getting bored, or perhaps they are being discriminated against or they are being bullied to such an extent that they do not want to go to school. This is clearly a failure of the system, not of the parents. Often by this time kids are so educationally disadvantaged that there is little hope for them to be able to catch up with their peers and re-engage in the system. So, for some of these students, there is a real issue of shame, which further enforces their isolation from the school system.

I cannot believe that any parent with a teenager having a tough time at school could think for even one minute that this measure is going to do anything but promote more misery and family conflict if the underlying causes of why a child is not in school are not dealt with.

Stop and consider a child who is not in school—a child, say, from a family with two, three or four children. If one child is truanting, the parents’ payments are cut; what happens to the rest of the family? Those other kids may be going to school perfectly happily, but all of a sudden their family has no income support. How does that help those kids to remain in school? What happens when they do not have food in their bellies? What happens when they do not have a roof over their heads and their parents are in crisis because they have no income and no way to support their children? Rather than having just one child who is missing out on an education, we will now have a whole family missing out on an education.

What happens to grandparents who are struggling in the later years of their lives to bring up troubled grandchildren and teenagers who have had a tough and traumatic childhood? How will the government be helping them—by cutting off their pension payments?

Where are the support services to help these families when they get into these situations? Where are the services to help these families when their payments are cut off? Where are the support services for these families that are in crisis? Where are the support services to help the most educationally and socially disadvantaged? Rather than just cutting off their income support payments, why don’t we actually start dealing with the real issues? Where are the minister’s plans to address the underlying causes of truancy, of non-attendance?

What we need is a more supportive, inclusive and engaging education system that can adapt to meet the challenges and the needs of children from different social and cultural backgrounds so that curriculums meet the needs of these children and their families, so that schools are interacting with the community and so that we are producing and providing culturally appropriate education. We need much more funding for early intervention programs to help children who are struggling at school. Teachers can clearly identify these children, so perhaps we should be identifying all children who are struggling, not just those from families who are on income support.

Parents play an important role in their children’s education and they definitely need to be encouraged and supported to ensure that their children attend school—but you do this by helping parents, not by punishing them. If parents are struggling to fulfil these responsibilities, they need additional help. Very clearly, they need strong support, not punishment. Often the very reasons why they are struggling—such as family conflict and break-up, domestic violence, economic hardship, mental health issues, drug or alcohol problems—are the kinds of things that a punitive approach, such as cutting income support payments, will undoubtedly exacerbate and bring them to crisis point.

The first responsibility of government, surely, is to ensure that the right services and supports are available, including family support services, parenting programs, and mental health and drug and alcohol services. Governments must also ensure that high-quality and culturally appropriate education services are available to all children, irrespective of where they live and whether their parents are on income support. We do need a return to an evidence based policy in education. We do need a true ‘education revolution’. But what we are seeing here is an education devolution. We are not seeing the kinds of support services that we need for these families. We are not seeing a comprehensive plan that deals with the issues of these children in crisis. And, please, I do not want anyone saying the Greens do not want kids in school; we do want kids in school. But we want kids in school that are there through a proper plan having been put in place. This measure will not get those kids back into school because in no way does it address the reasons why they are not in school.

The government have not outlined how they are now going to provide those support services to those kids. They have not articulated how the education system is going to be improved so that it meets the needs of those kids. They have not looked into where, for example, we have had some culturally appropriate education programs that have been cut. No, they have not been looking at that; they have gone straight to: ‘Let’s punish them, let’s demonise them.’ And where is the government plan for the kids of parents who are not on income support? Or does the government for one second expect us to believe that it is only the children of those on income support who are playing truant and not in school? No, of course not. What is the government’s plan to get the children of parents who are not on income support into schools? ‘Oh, for them we might try and look at the education system and provide one that’s actually much more appropriate to meet their needs.’

One of the areas in which the government is planning to run these trials is Cannington. The ministers, both Minister Gillard and Minister Macklin, have said it is the suburb of Cannington. Well, from the information that I have received, it is not the suburb of Cannington; it is the Centrelink area of Cannington, which is a much bigger area than the suburb of Cannington, for a start. Furthermore, I have also been told that, for that very large area south of Perth, the government is providing funding for one financial counsellor—one financial counsellor. Now, please tell me, when you have got all these people in crisis—and I know that some of these families are in crisis and do need help—how does one financial counsellor help? Is that all the government is going to do?

When I was asking Centrelink some questions about this they did not have an idea at that stage what support services were going to be provided to parents—and this was actually about the debit card, because there are two measures here: the debit card process and cutting off welfare payments. They could not tell me what support services were going to be put in place to support families whose income was quarantined in these instances. They could not tell me how many people were involved. They could not tell me whether the debit card was going to be able to be used outside the Cannington region, whether it could be used at the corner store. There was a total lack of knowledge. This new system is being laid on top of that, and I am just wondering how much information the government does have about how it is going to work. Please, please, please clarify for me that they are not going to provide a list of families on income support to every school in the district so that principals can notify Centrelink if those kids do not turn up. Surely, in Australia in the 21st century, that is not considered acceptable policy. Let us see the education revolution, not the education devolution.