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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1655

Senator NEAL (5.37 p.m.) —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise to speak on the appropriation bills in the context of the government's support for families in Australia. The health and happiness of our community is dependent on the health and happiness of our families. This is widely accepted. Where differences lie is in how government policy can best serve families and their members.

  This government believes that support should be provided to families, particularly to those members who most need our support—our children—without restricting family members to particular roles and stereotypes. Proposed allocation funding for Australian families in the 1994-95 budget reflects the government's outstanding record on family policy over the past decade—a record of working to make things better for families in Australia.

  It is appropriate that in the International Year of the Family the government should be committed to family support and family services. The United Nations asked its member nations to use this year to highlight the social and economic issues facing families, to promote their role in society and to assist in removing the barriers that many families face in the 1990s, especially in combining work and family responsibilities.

  The Keating government has taken this request seriously. It is not just a passing phase; it is a long-term commitment. Our federal policies are designed to enhance the role and status of Australian families while recognising the diversity of family types and ethnic background. The diversity of families and the changing face of Australian families are matters which I have already raised in this chamber. However, I believe that in the International Year of the Family it is important to stress some of the family oriented projects that the government has set in place, particularly in this budget.

  When the International Year of the Family was launched in December last year the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) announced that the government would prepare a government agenda for families. This agenda would provide strategies and principles to assist families as well as to promote their role in society. The government has allocated $2 million towards this program for 1994-95 and will be advised by the International Year of the Family Council of the progress that the agenda makes towards achieving its goals. It is hoped that the final report from the national council will be submitted in September of this year, providing a comprehensive blueprint for government family assistance policies for the future.

   Other family based commitments in the recent budget include: firstly, employment programs, especially those that assist the long-term unemployed; secondly, increased access to child care; thirdly, changes to the social security system to enhance the independence of women and assist parents in combining work and their family responsibilities; and finally, better education for parents and their children on the nature of families in Australia.

  The employment programs that will assist families, such as programs including the job compact which is the centrepiece of the government's re-employment strategy, will be of great assistance to Australian families where one or more of the parents are looking for work. There is nothing more devastating for an individual or the family of which they are a member than suffering from long-term unemployment. Unfortunately, in Australia there are some families in which neither parent is employed. Parents in these families risk being robbed of self-esteem, the opportunity to utilise their skills and the ability to support their children.

  Through labour market initiatives such as the job compact the government is taking steps to lock in the recent gains in employment across Australia. The compact offers a job of up to 12 months duration to all people aged 18 and over who have been receiving jobsearch or newstart allowances for more than 18 months. This will reduce the number of long-term unemployed by improving their skills and competitiveness in the job market through training and work experience.

  As contact is re-established with the labour market, the number of families with long-term dependency on income support will decrease. For under 18-year-olds who are not eligible for the job compact the government has set in place a youth training initiative, or YTI. The YTI will serve to make sure that young unemployed people will be actively assisted in finding worthwhile employment or education opportunities while being paid a youth training allowance. They will receive intensive case management assistance to help them in their place in the work force or with educational training, taking advantage of the Working Nation labour market initiatives in job placement and training. Programs such as this will be of particular benefit to women and sole parents. It is interesting to note that, after three years, 80 per cent of people who have been in receipt of the sole parent benefit have returned to work, and this indicates the success of the sole parent and other government initiatives to return them to the work force.

  The second initiative in the budget is increased access to child care. ILO convention No. 156 aims to ensure that workers with family responsibilities can work without discrimination and without undue conflict between their employment and their family responsibilities and obligations. The most important step towards this objective is the provision of adequate child-care places at a cost which can be met by ordinary working parents. The government is committed to taking this step; a commitment which is shown by its funding of so many new child-care places. The government has promised to meet the demand for work based child care by the 2000-2001 financial year with 25,000 new places being created in this financial year. We are confident that this objective will be met.

  Children with special needs are also looked after in this budget. These children in private and employer sponsored child-care centres will benefit from the continuation of funding for supplementary services. The supplementary services program enables these children to receive the care they need in mainstream child-care facilities.

  The government is funding the creation of thousands of new places in short-term occasional day care, thus providing relief for parents either engaged in part-time work or at home and requiring some relief in the care of their children. These child-care places can be utilised also by parents who need time to study or to attend other appointments, and will permit many thousands of Australians to more easily combine the responsibilities of parenting with their other daily obligations. These places will be made available in existing child-care facilities, which will help speed implementation and establish stronger links with other local family related services.

  Contained within this budget are changes to social security. These changes increase the independence and opportunities for parents. The government has made a number of changes to the social security system which does this. One principal change announced is the new parenting allowance. This allowance will come into effect from 1 July next year, and it is perhaps this budget's most important initiative for the family.

  The government will provide $1.2 billion over the next four years to make the allowance available to an estimated 118,000 families across all states and territories. The allowance will be available to partners of the unemployed and low income earners whose main activity is caring for dependent children under the age of 16 years. It is estimated that this will be worth an additional $59 a week to the average family, and up to $133 to low income working parents. The allowance will be paid directly to the carer and will permit greater flexibility in the working arrangements of parents, especially those with very young children.

  Senator Minchin made a few comments earlier about the home care allowance, claiming that it was merely a new name for the dependent spouse rebate. I note in particular that it is not an initiative of this budget but oflast year's budget. I felt drawn to make some response in relation to Senator Minchin's comments. Senator Minchin does not seem to understand the real difference between the government's programs—that is the difference between the home care allowance and what used to be the dependent spouse rebate.

  Firstly, the home care allowance is paid directly to the carer—usually the mother—rather than to the household through the tax system. This ensures that the carer and the cared for benefit directly from the payment and it is not syphoned through the person who is employed in the family—normally the husband or the male spouse. Secondly, tax rebates are by definition regressive. Those who earn more attain a greater benefit from the tax rebate than those who do not earn sufficient to even pay tax and therefore are returned nothing from a tax rebate.

  The government, within its budget, has also looked at education for families within the schools. An education program for children and their parents has been instituted. The government has introduced a new schools curriculum unit entitled Family Studies. This unit is designed to investigate the historical development of family patterns, the gender distribution in family roles, and the various issues and problems associated with family life. It has also been resolved that in cooperation with state and territory governments a further $12 million will be allocated to fund the national prevention strategy for child abuse and neglect.

  It is a tragedy that child abuse and child neglect remain a feature of modern Australian society, and it is to be hoped that this program will serve to dramatically reduce its incidence. The government's aim through this national strategy is to create an environment that supports families and communities and helps them to meet their responsibilities to care for and protect their children.

  This is the goal that should have the support of all Australians, and it will certainly fill a major gap in the present protection of children within states where there is a dire need for funding. The government also relies on continuing past initiatives. Those that have been set in place in earlier years are just now coming into effect. One of them is the new Commonwealth child-care cash rebate, which will cut the cost of child care for many Australian families. The rebate is available to families who are at work, who are in formal education, or who are looking for work, and will cover up to 30 per cent of work related child-care expenses.

  This rebate will not be means tested in recognition of the fact that it is an expense created by a parent working. It will be available to parents whose children are in formal or informal child care—whether that be in child-care centres or pre-schools, or with friends or relatives, who are paid—provided both the parents and the carer are registered with Medicare. This initiative is expected to assist over 230,000 families and, along with the continuing child-care assistance subsidy provided on a means tested basis, will be of great benefit. The government has also promised to meet demand for work-based child care.

  Senator Minchin was critical of this government's initiatives when he addressed the Senate a short time ago. His criticism amounted to a carping that the family support that the government has provided is too complex and that it would be simpler to make one all-up payment based on the number of children in the family. He is right: it would certainly be simpler, but it would not be fair and equitable. Unfortunately, this is a complex world and families' needs are complex. Therefore, simple solutions, though attractive because they are easy to state and publicise, do not meet those complex needs.

  One simple uniform payment would mean that those most needy in our community, those whose circumstances are most dire, would receive the same payment as millionaires with the same number of children. I could never see this government taking up that suggestion.

  The measures announced in this budget and as part of the International Year of the Family reflect the ongoing support for family services that has been a hallmark of the Keating Labor government. The government's theme in the International Year of the Family is `Let's look after families'. It is clear that the 1994-95 budget aims to look after Australian families. I thank the Senate for this opportunity to address it and hope that the policies set out in the budget will continue to be pursued in the future.