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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 8950

Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (11:12): I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Family Participation Measures) Bill 2011. This bill establishes two pilots: one that requires teenage parents to complete their education and one that requires eligible parents in jobless families on income support to get themselves job ready. These reinforce the principle of mutual obligation, about which the coalition has always been serious. We do not believe in the welfare entitlement mentality. One of the core Liberal principles is mutual obligation:

… whereby those in receipt of government benefits make some form of contribution to the community in return, where this is appropriate.

Those words are part of the Liberal Party federal platform.

Encouraging people to take charge of their own lives and obtain the skills to be able to support themselves and their families is a good thing for the people involved and for society in general. Welfare dependency clearly has adverse effects. When people receive passive welfare payments with no obligations attached they fall in to a cycle of dependency that can be very difficult to get out of. I am sure that many senators in this place would bear witness to this occurrence in their own electorates. Individuals who are in this cycle of dependence have little opportunity to play their part in Australia's prosperity.

According to government figures, there are approximately 11,000 teenage parents in receipt of parenting payment. Of those 11,000, about 90 per cent have not completed year 12. Completing year 12 is not in itself the ultimate educational goal—there are many other opportunities such as work or apprenticeships—but it is a process of learning. We want to encourage these young parents to continue their education, whether it be in a formal academic setting or perhaps in on-the-job training processes. There are also about 257,000 jobless families who receive income support and who have reported no income in the last year, and these are families with dependent children. In 2007, according to the latest available international comparisons, Australia had the fourth highest rate of children living in jobless families within the OECD.

One of the most dangerous outcomes of welfare dependency is the effect it can have on the next generation. Some kids grow up never knowing what it is like to have a parent with a steady job. There are children who are missing out on learning about the life skills and pride that come with earning for yourself and being able to support your family. That is why the coalition worked very hard to encourage people to move from welfare into work when we were in government.

In terms of the big economic picture, the coalition's record is one where, while in government, we got the budget back into the black, we got rid of billions of dollars of previous Labor government debt and we laid the framework for a secure economic future for the nation. This led to more jobs, lower taxes, more productive workplaces and better living standards, among many other things. In such a positive environment, more people were—and are—able to find work. The unemployment rate under the coalition fell from 8.2 per cent in 1996 to just 4.3 per cent in August 2007—the lowest unemployment level in 33 years.

More specifically, through programs like Work for the Dole, the coalition encouraged more Australians off welfare and into work. From 1997—when Work for the Dole commenced—to 2007, over 555,480 people took part in 32,826 Work for the Dole activities. This helped them to improve their work ethic. It is something that many of us can bear testament to. At the Work for the Dole programs that we attended during that time, the individuals who were involved in these programs often sought us out, came up and said how meaningful and valuable it had been in helping them get their lives back on track. It gave these individuals valuable work experience and helped to improve their self-esteem and sense of pride in making a contribution to the community.

I say these things to demonstrate to the Senate that the coalition does indeed have a proven track record of supporting mutual obligation. This is in stark contrast to many of the words that are used by the Labor government. Time and time again, we have seen that this government makes tokenistic attempts at meaningful action. We have seen repeated knee-jerk reactions to problems that are often of its own making. In many instances, as the saying goes, this govern¬≠ment is all about spin and not about substance. There is a growing concern amongst others and by me that we see more tokenism again in this bill. I make the point that this bill establishes a pilot program—not a proper program. It begs the question: why doesn't the government commit to a proper program? One could draw the conclusion that it is concerned that it will once again make a mess of the program—like it has done with so many others—and by calling it a pilot it can say, 'We were just experimen¬≠ting with this.'

The coalition has consistently pushed for better mutual obligation requirements. Whilst the government has embraced a small part of that with this bill, it is going only part of the way that it should. It raises a number of questions. The first one relates to the monitoring of the teenage parent pilot program. Whilst the coalition welcome the intent behind this bill—it aims to encourage engagement—we still clearly have some concerns. With the teenage parent pilot, we ask: how will the government monitor whether the parents have been complying with their participation plans and how will the government enforce the obligations of the parents? It is all very well to establish a pilot with good intentions, but we need to be able to monitor it effectively to ensure that it is working properly and for its intended purpose.

The coalition also supports attempts to have parents re-engage with the workforce early. However, the coalition is concerned that with the jobless family trial, as demonstrated in this bill, once again, there is no requirement to comply with the plan signed by the participants. So the coalition will be proposing some amendments to ensure that the parents do comply with their plan. Let me spell this out quite clearly: signing onto a plan is enough for the parents in this jobless family trial, but they do not actually have to comply with the plan that they have put forward. This does not pass the commonsense test. There should be a compliance regime that requires participants in each trial to comply and follow through with what they have promised to do in their plan. In addition, it appears that this bill completely removes the power from the secretary to intervene in extenuating circumstances. The coalition would like the secretary to be able to intervene in extenuating circumstances, and so I flag that we will be moving amendments to reflect that.

In conclusion, we know very well that this is a government that is big on talk and very short on delivery. We know that, unfortunately, this government has breached faith with the Australian people on many occasions, either by failing to keep its promises or, indeed, breaking its promises. While the coalition support the principle behind this bill, we believe it can be improved. We believe that, to encourage parents to improve their lives and those of their families, we need to make some amendments, and we will be doing that to seek to make this bill more effective in achieving its stated aims.