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Debate on government plan to introduce literacy and numeracy courses for unemployed.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD: We start today with criticism of John Howard, that he’s blaming the victim by requiring the unemployed to take literacy and numeracy tests.  The Prime Minister’s spell-for-the-dole plan announced yesterday in his Federation speech has already attracted a huge amount of criticism.  Indeed as Sally Sara, our political reporter tells us, on talkback radio this morning John Howard was forced to defend his proposal.


SALLY SARA:  Mr Howard is confident that most Australians support the proposal, that it’s good politics and good policy for the unemployed to only expect to get help if they first help themselves.  Number one advocate of the scheme is Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer.  In fact, he takes it a step further, claiming that some of those who can’t read and write have chosen their own fate due to a lack of effort.


TIM FISCHER: Where they choose to be undermotivated when they have no mental condition whatsoever, where they choose to not make any effort to improve their lot, that is their decision.  And it is not outlandish, before your switchboard lights up, to say that those who choose to be undermotivated must accept the responsibility of that decision.  That’s all I say, we will help, we will help in a range of ways and that will continue to be the case.


SALLY SARA: But the switchboard was lighting up on Melbourne radio 3AW where the Prime Minister was receiving an earful from some talkback callers.



CALLER:   Look, the reason I rang, I don’t think the Prime Minister’s got a grip on what it’s like to be illiterate.  As a young person I suffered from health problems at school.  I could read quite well, do mathematics, I couldn’t spell.  The biggest problem with young people, they will feel down, they will feel that there’s no future for them and they won’t know where to turn.  And this policy will just turn them off, it will push them deeper into their self-doubt.  I mean, society should be helping these people in creating jobs.


SALLY SARA:  But the Prime Minister is holding his ground.  The spell-for-the-dole scheme is the latest extension of an idea at the very core of John Howard’s values - that is, the concept of mutual obligation where those in need receive help in exchange for some effort on their behalf.  So it’s with a degree of frustration that John Howard outlines the proposal to those who don’t agree with it.


JOHN HOWARD: It’s a condition of them getting the unemployment benefit.  I mean, is that so unreasonable?  Is it so unreasonable that a society that is prepared to say to people we will not allow you to starve in the streets, we will provide you with a basic level of support, we will give you an unemployment benefit, but we have identified that you have a particular problem with literacy and numeracy.  And in return for getting the support society wants to give you, we want you to do something about addressing that problem.  Now, I cannot for the life of me understand what is unfair, heartless, insensitive or lacking in compassion about that.


SALLY SARA: But others are equally fixed in their view, and unfortunately for John Howard they dominated the ranks of talkback callers on 3AW this morning.  A woman called Jean claims her son who’s dyslexic was failed by the education system.



JEAN:   He was not given any help at school and has striven through his 20s and obtained a position.  I think Mr Howard is once again blaming the victim.  Put the money into the schools, have the children taught to read and write before they leave school.  My child can read, he cannot spell properly because of his condition, but he has managed to work all this time.  And I think Mr Howard is once again blaming the victim.


SALLY SARA: But John Howard is eager to further extend the idea of mutual obligation, confirming what he’d hinted at in his speech that there’s more on the way when it comes to people doing their bit to receive assistance.


JOHN HIGHFIELD: Sally Sara reporting.


MONICA ATTARD: Well, according to the New South Wales Council for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, the problem doesn’t lie with young unemployed people themselves.  The council’s president, Christine Erskine(?), spoke to Petria Wallace.


CHRISTINE ERSKINE: Nobody wants to be illiterate and innumerate, but when they turn up to various organisation, notably Centrelink, they’re not being referred.  Now, they’re very good at not wanting to be referred, but at the moment organisations are waiting there with tailored programs for these people but they’re not being told that these programs are available and the kids aren’t being, for want of a better word detected, I guess.


PETRIA WALLACE: Where, exactly, is the problem occurring?  Is it mostly because the kids themselves don’t want to do a literacy program or is it just that these courses are not even being offered to them?


CHRISTINE ERSKINE: I don’t believe it’s because they don’t want to do it.  What’s happened is that over their school life they’ve been really good at hiding it.  Nobody wants to be exposed, so number one they’re not going to say:  Hey, you guys, I can’t read or write.  They’re going to wait till somebody sensitive and skilled detects that.  If you’re not working with people then who know what to look for and know how to offer these programs, then you’re just going to stay quiet.


PETRIA WALLACE: I understand that your organisation had actually made a complaint to the government about the literacy program that the courses had not been filled.


CHRISTINE ERSKINE: Yes, on behalf of a number of organisations we had written to the department to ask what pro-active processes are they going to put into place to ensure that people are notified that these courses are available, and we’re waiting on that reply at the moment.


PETRIA WALLACE: What do you make of the Prime Minister’s comments then?


CHRISTINE ERSKINE: Well, if you’ve ever been in trouble at school, I suspect you may have heard statements like:  ‘If you don’t pull your socks up you’re out’, and I think that’s what this statement is saying.  And it’s very similar to what, in the old days, you used to be told as a naughty school kid.  And when you’re looking out of education and these people wanting to develop skills in an adult field, in an adult world, treating them like kids in trouble doesn’t help and they turn off.  Just as they turned off in school, they’re going to turn off now.  And the fact that they’ve been threatened to have their income taken away means that they’re definitely not going to own up.


PETRIA WALLACE: But given that you have concerns that unemployed young people aren’t doing these courses, what’s the problem with the Prime Minister coming up with a policy to force them to take on the courses?


CHRISTINE ERSKINE: That approach has always been there to force them.  That’s part of their obligation to start with, that they had to agree.  The problem is the approach taken that people, we want them to feel comfortable, we want them to see that this is going to make a difference, that there’s going to be an adult approach to breaking down those barriers, and this punitive approach doesn’t help that.  People are just going to steer clear.


And the other thing is that if there’s another option to do an agricultural course or a computing course, they’ll say:  Oh, I’ll do that as part of my mutual obligation agreement;  therefore, you can’t kick me out, I’m doing the right thing.  But what will happen is they’ll fail as they’ve failed before.


MONICA ATTARD: Christine Erskine, who’s the President of the New South Wales Council for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, speaking there to our reporter, Petria Wallace.


Well, the man who will have to oversee the plan is David Kemp, the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, and Mr Kemp joins us now on The world today. Thank you for being with us.  What is this going to cost to provide all these literacy courses?  Can you tell us?


DAVID KEMP: Yes, it will cost $143 million that we’ve already allocated to these courses. And what we’ve found is that young people offered a range of options, even though they have literacy and numeracy skills they may well not take the literacy and numeracy course.  And because literacy and numeracy is the single biggest barrier for many of these young people to getting a job, the government has taken the view that if the taxpayer is prepared to fund this course and prepared to offer young people support, then it’s fair that the young people should actually do the course and overcome this barrier to employment.


MONICA ATTARD: And you believe you do have community support, because this morning, certainly from talkback radio, the Prime Minister has been inundated with criticism.


DAVID KEMP: Well, I believe there’s very wide community support for this.  The sort of criticism we’re hearing from some organised groups and from other political parties is exactly the same as the criticism that accompanied the introduction of work for the dole.  And what we found there is that even young people who didn’t volunteer initially for work for the dole but were referred by Centrelink have found it a most positive experience and they’ve found that it’s lifted their self-esteem and it’s increased their likelihood of getting a job.  And literacy and numeracy is undoubtedly one of the major barriers facing many young people, and this will be their big chance to get over a problem that should have been dealt with in their earlier years of schooling.


MONICA ATTARD: Dr Kemp, has the government done much polling on this issue?


DAVID KEMP: I’m not aware of polling on this issue.  I am aware of talking to many constituents of mine.  I talk constantly, as the Prime Minister does and other Ministers, to the community and I think the community is very concerned over the extent of this literacy and numeracy problem.  Many people believe that these young people have been abandoned.  There is a full recognition of the fact that there’s an unwillingness on the part of many of them to admit that the problem is there and therefore we’re putting in place a system that, once the problem is identified, provides young people with a very strong incentive to go ahead and finally address it and get their lives in order.


MONICA ATTARD: So can we look at a bit of the detail of the plan?  Who is actually going to be determining whether a dole applicant is illiterate?


DAVID KEMP: This will be done as a result of professional assessment.




DAVID KEMP: By an organisation which is qualified to do this and that has been contracted by the government.  They will conduct the initial assessment.  They will determine at what level, against a national reporting system on literacy standards, the applicant is and they’ll direct that person towards an appropriate course.


MONICA ATTARD: And which organisation would that be?


DAVID KEMP: There are a number of organisations in the adult literacy area that have been contracted by the government.  They’re very professional organisations, they’re public organisations.


MONICA ATTARD: So you’ll be paying them in addition to funding Centrelink?


DAVID KEMP: That’s correct.


MONICA ATTARD: So clearly the government is paying people to teach these people to read and write and then paying other people to find them jobs?


DAVID KEMP: Well, the government is making a huge investment on behalf of the taxpayer in lifting literacy and numeracy standards.  The community is fed up with young people coming out of school without these standards.  Employers are appalled at the number of young people who present to them unable to read and write.  The community is deeply concerned over the problem of youth unemployment and this problem has been allowed to drift on under the previous Labor government for 13 years.  Now we have instituted for the first time a fully comprehensive program in the early years of schooling, and what we’re doing with this particular program in the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday is picking up those young people who’ve been abandoned over this period.


MONICA ATTARD: So do you have to actually become literate to get the dole or do you just have to attend a literacy course?


DAVID KEMP: Completing the course will complete the mutual obligation on the part of the young person.


MONICA ATTARD: And what if you’re unsuccessful?  What if you fail?


DAVID KEMP: Well, that’s a matter then for that young person to consider, and those who are helping that young person to determine what the reasons for the failure are.  There’s no doubt that the great majority of young people undertaking these courses can do so, and will do so, very successfully and improve their employment prospects.


MONICA ATTARD: But if you’re not successful do you have to stay in a course forever or does the government just give up and give you the dole at the end of the day?


DAVID KEMP: No, well I don’t think anyone gives up.  I mean, if there’s one thing that could be said about this announcement is that this shows that the Australian Government is not prepared to give up on these young people.  I’ve heard a lot of the comments that have been made in the last 24 hours, and some people seem to think it’s an imposition or a terrible thing to ask young people and provide them with an opportunity to overcome the biggest problem they’ve got in getting a job.


Well, that’s not the attitude we take. Our attitude is that it would be abandoning these young people not to do something about the problem.  It should have been solved earlier;  it hasn’t been.  It can be solved now.  And the community, I believe, thinks it’s very fair that if they’re providing the dole that young people take the necessary step to address their major employment obstacle.


MONICA ATTARD: But, Minister, if they fail because of a real learning difficulty, what happens to their dole payment?


DAVID KEMP: Well, provided they’ve completed the course they have met their mutual obligation requirement and they continue to receive unemployment support.  But that doesn’t mean that they are abandoned.  There are plenty of people around, and certainly the government itself, looking at ways of assisting these young people.


MONICA ATTARD: Dr Kemp, a final question.  You don’t think you might be picking on the wrong people?  The Australian Education Union has put out a press release today and they’re saying that a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics survey shows that 15- to 24-year-olds are actually amongst the most literate in the Australian population.


DAVID KEMP: Well, of course the Australian Education Union opposed the government’s literacy plan for years 3 and 5.  They opposed the testing of young people.  They’ve, in fact, been major contributors to the disadvantage that young people face.  I don’t believe they have the appropriate standing in this debate.  The government is now picking up a problem that should never have been allowed to develop the way it is and I believe we will have community support in doing this.


MONICA ATTARD: Dr David Kemp, thank you for your time.


DAVID KEMP: Thank you very much.


MONICA ATTARD: And that was Dr David Kemp, who’s the Federal Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs.