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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 2410


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (10:52): I rise to speak against this bill. I have heard speeches from speaker after speaker from both of the old parties, that are in many respects indistinguishable. They justify this bill at its core on the basis of the importance of work. Let me say that I agree we should be doing everything we can to provide meaningful employment for people. In a moment I will tell you about what I am doing in my electorate of Melbourne to make that happen. But sometimes I think there is complete incomprehension by members of the old parties about what life is like for people in this country who, for whatever reason, are unable to find work or unable to find work that is meaningful and suitable for them.

Let us be clear about one thing: this bill is a budget cutback. It is not a measure to improve the job prospects of sole parents on income support. In my electorate of Melbourne there are more public housing dwellings than in any other electorate in the country. It is an electorate of significant wealth disparity: home to some quite wealthy people and home to some people who are doing it really tough. I spend a fair bit of time with people from right across the income spectrum. To live in public housing, by definition you are not doing well income-wise, you are in some of the lowest percentiles. I spend a fair bit of time talking to the people there. The one overwhelming message that I get from most of the people that I speak to, especially those who have come here from overseas on non-skilled migrant visas—and they make up a significant proportion of the people in public housing—is that they want work. They want meaningful work and they are doing everything they can to find it. What they find as they look for it is barrier after barrier.

Many people who have come here from overseas on refugee or family reunion visas have degrees or skills in their country of origin that are not recognised here. They try to get them recognised. They try to get some recognition of prior learning. They try to get work in the equivalent sector and people tell them, 'Unless you have got an Australian qualification or you have Australian work experience, we are not going to give it to you.' As a result we have in Melbourne someone from Somalia who used to pilot jumbo jets but is now driving taxis. At a time of shortage in the medical workforce, we have qualified doctors who are now driving taxis or working in takeaway joints because they cannot get their skills recognised. It is having flow-on effects through their families as well. The kids in public housing look at their parents and say, 'You worked hard to try to get a job. Now you are driving taxis. Why should I bother?' It is double-edged too because some them have actually got degrees from RMIT and other institutions in Melbourne and they are finding when they turn up to go for work that they are not even getting an interview because of the name on their application or perhaps because they turn up with a hijab or some other reason.

It is not just that group of people; there are many others as well whose health has suffered because of their income. There are people who have got significant dental problems. There is rightly a lot of attention on dental care and it is something that the Greens have sought to put on the national agenda. Dental care is not just a health issue; it is a social justice issue. I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker: if you were an employer and someone turned up to a job with some of their teeth missing, would you look at that person and be less likely to give them a job? I reckon most employers would do that. These are the kinds of barriers that people are routinely facing every day.

Not only that but, as I will go into in a moment, many of the people who are going to be affected by this are caring for other people, some of whom have disabilities and their own barriers to full participation in school, education, training or work. It is these people that this bill, for the sake of a budget cutback, is turning its full ammunition on. It is shameful. If adopted, this bill would cut the social security payments of almost 100,000 sole parents and young people over the next four years. These are the people who deserve our support, who do not deserve to be attacked by this government. This measure delivers cuts of approximately $58 per week for sole parents with 12- to 15-year-old children.

Sole parent families on income support are already among the poorest in the country. An OECD report estimates that most parents on the maximum rate of sole parent payments are living in poverty. This bill will deepen their impoverishment without improving their job prospects. Plunging families deeper into poverty will not help them get into paid work. These parents are already finding it hard to secure paid work and around one in seven are also caring for a child with a disability. They may have a disability themselves or have limited qualifications.

The bill would also bring in cuts of $42 a week for young unemployed people aged 21 years. Twenty-one-year-old unemployed people would lose access to Newstart allowance from July this year and remain on the lower youth allowance for a year after their 21st birthday. Youth allowance for single young people living away from home is $201 a week and Newstart allowance is $243 a week, so it is a cut in payments of $42 per week for young unemployed people living away from home and independently of their parents. $243 is a miniscule amount and it is going to be cut by about 20 per cent. I ask whether anyone can realistically live on $243 a week, let alone $201 a week. During the course of the campaign and talking to people in my electorate of Melbourne, I met a bunch of students who are living together in a three-bedroom house in Collingwood—a brick house, completely unremarkable. It costs $540 a week to rent that place somewhere near where you are going to TAFE, where you are going to university—all these things that we hear from the government about the opportunities that they are providing. That is $190 per person for a bedroom in a three-bedroom house, and we are looking at youth allowance of $201 a week.

Under this bill, when a young person is living at home with their parents, a youth allowance rate of $133 per week applies. Where that person has not demonstrated financial independence from their parents, parental income tests will apply and this will further reduce payment for those young people. The main argument in favour of this measure is that the gap between lower student payments, youth allowance, Austudy payments and higher unemployment allowance—Newstart—discourages participation in education. This may be true but the solution is surely to increase the low level of student payments for people living independently of their parents, not to close off access to the higher unemployment payments. This bill would cut the maximum rate of income support to unemployed 21-year-olds regardless of their parents' income.

This is another example of governments failing to put people first. Governments in some sense used to be about people. It is clearly the case that if you are a powerful corporation you can expect to receive money from this government, but if you are someone doing it tough you can expect them to turn their back on you. Instead of increasing the mining tax to a sensible amount where we might have enough revenue to look after some of the people in our community who are doing it tough, we are now saying we would rather give a dollar to the big miners than to single parents. That is what this government is saying, and it is failing to put people first.

Overall, we should be increasing welfare payments, not cutting them. It is a measure of how bad this bill is that the government is being outflanked to the left by Judith Sloan and Ian Harper. Ian Harper, the economist hand-picked by former Prime Minister John Howard to set the minimum wage, has said the dole is too low. He warned that giving people so little to survive on is causing desperation and depression. Judith Sloan, hardly a friend of mine or someone with whom I would ever suggest I would agree with on economics, also argued at the tax summit last year that the dole was no longer adequate.

The ACTU has also called for unemployment benefits to be increased. In the face of this rather unusual coalition of voices, the government should be saying, 'Something's going on here with the people who are doing it toughest in this country. Let's have a look at it. Let's have a look at how we can help them out.' Instead, we are saying we would rather give a dollar to the big miners by forgoing a proper mining tax than pay a proper level of unemployment benefits. This bill should not be supported.