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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1755


Dr STONE (Murray) (13:34): I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011. These three bills are very important when it comes to support and wellbeing for both Indigenous and other disadvantaged groups, individuals and families across Australia. The three bills are all important bills that the coalition supports, although with some amendments.

The first bill amends the Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security Administrative Act 1999. It enables income management to be triggered by referrals from state and territory agencies. It also enables a minister to specify states, territories or areas in which the vulnerable long-term welfare payment and disengaged youth management measures will apply. It allows for continuing income management if there is a change in residence, so people will not be able to up and move to escape the measures that are meant to help them.

It also gives the authority to permit a school attendance plan to be entered into with parents that may lead to the suspension of income support payments if the plan is not complied with. This sounds a very punitive measure but it is an important one and gives us a full set of tools to help young children have continuing and ongoing good quality education. However, no amount of education or attendance at school is going to help if that school has poor teaching or poor infrastructure or teachers at the school do not teach the children in a language that they can understand. I am very pleased to be part of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which is currently looking at how we can make sure young Indigenous children can, when they attend school for the first time, learn in a traditional language or in Kriol. These children must be taught in an English as a second language environment so that they can also become fully competent in English.

The second bill comprises three measures tackling alcohol abuse, land reform measures and food security measures. The third bill repeals the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 and makes amendments to relevant acts. It also makes amendments to existing principle legislation as part of the government's Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory program.

I want to particularly focus on the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. It enables targeted, place based income management. In determining how best to proceed with this bill, there were five locations chosen from around Australia where disadvantaged communities would trial a project that had a number of aspects and facets. One of those areas that have that pilot is the City of Greater Shepparton, which is a key part of my electorate in Murray. I have participated in the early planning for the trial introduction of Better Futures, Local Solutions: Place-based income management. I was concerned at the beginning, and I continue to be concerned, about how we are going to get an excellent outcome out of quarantining the welfare of some of our most disadvantaged individuals and young families. We are going to see this income management applying to vulnerable families and individuals from 1 July 2012. It will apply to parents referred for income management by the state child protection authorities. It will apply to people assessed by Centrelink social workers as being financially vulnerable—which could include people referred by housing authorities because they cannot pay their rent and they are in danger of becoming homeless—and it will apply to people who volunteer for income management. Income management can quarantine up to 70 per cent of their welfare payments. Clearly, this situation will require those individuals and families to have a very strong sense or understanding of financial management and how to manage on a very tiny cash budget when previously they had a larger welfare payment to spend.

This schedule makes minor legislative changes to allow these child protection vulnerable welfare payment recipient and voluntary income management measures to apply to these new populations. Why am I worried about these new measures in my city of Greater Shepparton? Greater Shepparton consists not only of the larger metropolitan area of Shepparton-Mooroopna but also of very tiny towns like Toolamba, Tatura, Dookie and others. For a start, we do not seem to have any real incentives built into the program to encourage teenage parents into education or training. For example, if you are a young parent—and I am talking about very young parents in some instances—with a young child, we are almost bereft of public transport in places like Toolamba, Tatura and Dookie. How do those young parents, who have to suddenly learn how to manage what is left of their welfare payments very differently, get to training when there is no public transport and no child care? Unfortunately, since this government has ceased to fund the occasional childcare program Take a Break, we do not have places for children whose mothers—it will typically be the mothers—must take some time to train at the Goulbourn Ovens TAFE, which is in Shepparton and is a 20- or 40-minute drive away from where they live, usually in very cheap accommodation. That cheap accommodation is usually a very long way from public transport or from child care. There is no suggestion anywhere that those particular problems are being taken into account.

There is also a lot of duplication. We already have the state government program Best Start, which supports children from birth to eight years old. The Best Start program seems to be okay and seems to have all the elements that are desired, yet now we are going to have this government's Communities for Children, which is for the cohort of birth to 12 years of age. How are these two programs going to be coordinated? Are they simply going to compete for the kids or compete for the funding that is around? It seems absurd to me. I am also very worried about what happens if a young person cannot get to their classes as part of complying with their welfare quarantining. Are there no sanctions at all? When I ask these questions locally I am told, 'Well, I am sure there will be some way to manage that when the time comes.' The time is coming very quickly and we need to sort this out very fast indeed.

There is also a very great difference between quarantining someone's welfare and giving them a BasicsCard to go to the one store in their town or community. In a very remote community you have only one place to go to buy your food, but in a place like Shepparton-Mooroopna there are literally scores of food-selling outlets. They range from big supermarkets, to small supermarkets, to farmers markets where a lot of our local people now go. These farmers markets, where they can buy the cheapest, freshest food for cash, are only on weekends or every second weekend or so. Are these welfare quarantined individuals with their BasicsCard going to be able to take advantage of these farmers markets and buy fresh produce cheaply? Will they somehow be able to negotiate with the stallholder in advance and said, 'Look, I've got this piece of plastic from the Commonwealth; will you honour it?' This is a problem. I have been asking the coordinators at Centrelink how they are going to handle this. What have they planned and what are they doing, given that the commencement of this project is fast approaching? They tell me: 'Well, someone else is working on that. We think it will be okay, but of course this is new territory and we cannot be sure. We do not know how many stores are going to cooperate yet. We just think it will all be okay in the end.' I am very concerned about our young teenage parents with this BasicsCard. How are they going to manage the business of getting good value for money? I do not want them to be stigmatised either when they queue up in the checkout line with their BasicsCard, which will soon become known for what it really is and what it implies.

I am also concerned about the planning and the very strong possibility of duplication. We have layer upon layer of advisory committees, reference panels and the like associated with this project in the City of Greater Shepparton. I am aware of at least three layers of advisory panels and NGOs who are already getting together, supplemented by new players. There are so many of these layers and they are so complex that there is now to be a very well paid facilitator—a coordinator—of these layers of advice and panels so that Centrelink can move forward with this program. I would rather that very well paid facilitator was directly engaged with assisting the young people who will be seeing their welfare quarantined than supporting a brand-new bureaucratic structure of the same old people attending the same sorts of places and going through the same stale agendas month after month, talking to each other as they do at so many other venues. I wish that we could cut through all of that and focus very much on the individuals on the ground with something that is really going to work for them. Let me move on to talk about the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011. Much of these bills is focused on alcohol abuse and the incredible destruction that alcohol makes happen in small and large communities of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Existing alcohol protections will be preserved in alcohol protected areas, with additional provisions that enable the geographic areas covered by these measures to evolve or change over time according to the needs of local people.

The SPEAKER: Order! It being 1.45, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour, and the honourable member will have the opportunity of continuing her remarks.