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Friday, 15 November 2002
Page: 6497

Senator STEPHENS (10:51 AM) —I rise to add my concerns to those of previous speakers with regard to the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002. The issues that have been raised by previous speakers—and certainly the issues raised by Senator Denman and Senator Crossin about the impact that this legislation will have on single working parents and their young children—are quite specific and are important issues that need to be raised here and placed on record.

However, I would like to consider some other implications of this legislation in terms of another issue raised by Senator Denman— that is, the impact that this legislation will have on capacity building in communities and the ability, particularly in regional communities, to embrace the principles of building capacity and engaging those people who are long-term welfare recipients in community activities. I am most concerned about the potential impacts of this legislation when I think about communities that I am very familiar with and the people in those communities who are trying to deal with the structural reform of industry in those regions, particularly in terms of agricultural restructuring. There are many communities with high levels of unemployment, particularly of mature age unemployment. We should think through the potential impacts of this kind of legislation on those people and their attempts to engage with their communities.

This issue becomes more of a concern when you think about what is currently happening in those regional communities that are so severely affected by drought. Opportunities for seasonal work, part-time employment or casual employment are limited by the flow-on effects of drought and the declining economic activity in the regions. The measures incorporated in this bill will exacerbate the situation. Really, the issue is about maintaining morale and community spirit. There is a sense in this legislation of a very punitive process that has very little flexibility for people who are experiencing the dispiriting effects of long-term unemployment and the limited extent to which they can actually get over the hump.

My concern rises when I think about particular individuals, families or communities that I have had recent contact with, and about how they are struggling with the whole process. Some of them are having to engage for the first time in the whole process of the Newstart allowance. They are trying to understand and come to terms with a real cultural issue about having to take some welfare support for the first time. Farming communities are generally considered to be very resilient communities, and the individuals who make up those communities are always described as being able to take the knocks and to carry on. But there are those people who have been reduced to being given government support through social security benefits because of an absolute lack of farm income. With the idea of mutual obligation, for example, particularly for parents and the mature age unemployed, it really is a case of how they can engage in the kinds of systems that are being set up in terms of the participation agreements.

It seems to me that this legislation, which obviously has been conceived over a long period of time, does not have in it any kind of flexibility to cover the economic circumstances that regional communities are currently facing. It concerns me very much that we are looking at this legislation almost in isolation to the economic and social circumstances of regional Australia. We do not have the capacity to find ways to work with regional communities to sustain their levels of economic and social activity, to sustain the level of community engagement and to maintain a sense of spirit in many of the communities that are so desperately affected by drought and will continue to be desperately affected by drought as the economic impacts continue probably for at least one whole season or one whole production cycle, which could be two or three years. Where the impacts of something like this will really bite will be in those farming communities that have few opportunities for people to engage in community activities, despite the fact that they have to be part of this reporting regime.

Having said that, I will look at the bill in detail. Many speakers have already spoken about the issue of the parenting payment and the new participation requirement for parents whose youngest child is between the ages of 13 and 15. I understand that the participation agreement requires an activity contribution of 150 hours over a six-month period; that equates to six hours a week. Those participation arrangements could be quite limited in regional communities. Although we have a description of what some of them can be, it seems to me that a generic application of this legislation to the particular circumstances of some regional communities could mean that they are not applicable nor appropriate.

The issues about parenting responsibilities and the impacts on young children of this kind of obligation have been quite significantly explored by Senator Crossin and Senator Denman, and they were part of the considerations of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report that we heard about earlier. Several of the submissions to that committee's review, particularly those of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and St Vincent de Paul, have really tried to focus on the potential impacts of that obligation and, to some extent, the perhaps unintended consequences.

I understand very well what the government is trying to do in terms of its welfare reform agenda. Even if we are being most gracious about these welfare reforms—and, of course, trying to crack down on those people who might be cheating the system—it seems to me that this legislation is very much based on sticks rather than carrots. It has a very punitive approach toward a whole range of people who are not trying to exploit the system but who are victims of their circumstances. These are circumstances which are beyond their control in terms of the social and economic environment that we are in.

I welcome the idea, in schedule 2 of the legislation, of providing a language, literacy and numeracy supplement of $20.80 per fortnight to assist people to undertake approved language, literacy or numeracy training. It is an issue of great concern to me that the level of literacy and numeracy in Australia is still recognised as being significantly lower than in many countries. At least one in five people in Australia experiences severe language, literacy and numeracy barriers. Again, this prevents them from participating in a whole lot of social and community activities and engaging in community life, which we consider to be such an important aspect of living in our society. The notion of social participation and of participating in these kinds of programs and training is very important and very valid.

The problem is that we are seeing here one piece of legislation in the legislative program that does not marry very well with some other things that are going on within the federal government's programs. I would take issue with the fact that, while we have a requirement and an incentive for people to participate in language, literacy or numeracy training, we have not really looked at the capacity for increasing provision of language, literacy and numeracy training, particularly in the regions. The options and opportunities for engaging in those programs are very limited, simply because of the kind of cost shifting that is going on between the TAFE and ACE sectors and the private sector for private provision of basic education access services. That is a problem that we have in the application of this legislation to other things that are going on within the government's legislative program.

I would like to speak a little about schedule 3, the Personal Support Program, which is intended to replace the Community Support Program. The concern with participation agreements is that, if the government is looking to mandate participation, how are we going to ensure that those who are homeless or extremely disadvantaged are not going to be exposed to indiscriminate breaching? Again, I am thinking of the application of this provision to people who are either itinerant workers in regional communities or, due to the current circumstances, are moving to try and find some employment or opportunities, given the fact that the drought is now moving right across the country. In the case of those people who are actually on the road, working itinerantly or looking for casual work, we have to think about how we are going to ensure that these people are not exposed to indiscriminate breaching.

My greatest concern is about the mature age allowance and whether new applicants for Newstart who are in the age range now covered by the mature age allowance will be impacted. This is an issue and a trend that we are seeing much more of in regional communities. We are seeing a decline in the manufacturing industries or traditional rural industries and more closures. This particular cohort is probably going to see the greatest increase in those registering as unemployed in coming months. How do we send a message to those people so they are not seen to be at a disadvantage and, in many respects, being kicked while they are down? It is not their fault that they have lost their jobs if their jobs have disappeared from an industry. They certainly do not expect or need to be seen as not having community and government support in their circumstances or to have a punitive regime that sees them being breached.

My concern is about whether or not this bill has the balance right in a whole range of areas. When I am trying to think about legislation such as this and what the impacts are, it always helps me to take it back to the communities and individuals that I know will be most significantly affected by it. This is something that I have tried to do with this legislation because of my concerns. There is also the issue of the modified implementation date for the working credit scheme, which was announced in the 2002-03 budget. I see this scheme as similar to Labor's earnings credit scheme. Its implementation should not have been delayed. It is disappointing that it has been delayed, because it is one of the few measures that I believe will play a positive part in people's return to work.

Schedule 7 of the legislation contains an amendment that enables Centrelink to better record family homelessness. In this respect, it amends the Social Security (Administration) Act and relates to the new tax system and the Family Assistance Act. My concern is about the privacy considerations being addressed sensitively. I welcome the fact that this is the case and that it will actually help to identify people at risk to ensure that they are less likely to fall through the cracks and ensure that those people have what they need to participate in the system and get support. My concern about the delayed passage of the bill is that it will affect the start date of the measure. It is very important to make sure that that does not happen.

I ask the minister to think about the impacts of this legislation in terms of the current situation in regional Australia. We have to make sure that we consider the economic circumstances of people living there and the flow-on effects of the drought in regional communities, regional industries, regional employment. We have to make sure that we consider the winding back of a whole lot of social and community activities that occur in times like this in regional communities because of the whole process, and how that impacts on people's opportunities for social participation and the requirements that the minister is seeking in that regard.