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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21336

Senator LEES (10:20 AM) —It is most unfortunate that some senators went into this very important inquiry with a view to proving which government did what when or what process or program was better than another, looking at statistics and economic outcomes. There is no doubt we have a strong economy, but we went into this very important inquiry to look at what is happening to a very large number of Australians. Surely, no-one who sat through even one of the hearings can have any doubt about the fact that we have far too many Australians, particularly children, living in poverty. The evidence is clear that somewhere between nine and 13 per cent of Australians are living in situations which mean basically that they cannot regularly put food on the table and they cannot afford to buy for their children what other children take for granted. There are families where just one extra medical bill or one extra crisis, such as the fridge breaking down or the car not starting in the morning, means for them an enormous amount of effort and trouble, perhaps borrowing from family, perhaps getting further into debt—families that do not have an easy and comfortable life in this country. It is rather sad that we could not approach this inquiry from the point of view of looking at the evidence and then working out cooperatively, with a unanimous report, what we do about the problem.

There is no doubt either that charities are massively overworked, overstressed, overstretched and underfunded. I take this opportunity to thank all those groups—St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, Anglicare, the Uniting Church—that are working so hard with limited resources and having to turn people away because they themselves do not have any more food parcels or any more cash to help someone pay an urgent electricity bill.

I do not have time to go through the recommendations one by one, but I wish to begin by saying that perhaps the most important recommendation is the one calling for a national strategy. We were given examples of where the strategies have worked. Senator Hutchins was saying that the Irish strategy has proved most effective. The ACT has done some very good work on at least identifying where the problems are in a holistic manner, mapping it properly as to where the specific areas are that need attention.

There are many factors that push people into poverty. Senator Knowles quite accurately talked about some of the good statistics with respect to job creation. But the fact is that many people living in poverty have a job. Quite a large number of them have one job or, in some cases, more than one person in that family unit manages to get their hands on some part-time contract work, some casual work and that is simply not enough. When we look at some of the recommendations, we see that we simply have to have more opportunities and better opportunities for people to have realistic jobs. It is not a matter of going back into the 1970s, as the Liberal senators have suggested, and looking at some of those schemes. We have work that needs to be done—real jobs, such as upgrading our national rail network and improving infrastructure at our public hospitals and our universities. I spent time at the Adelaide University's Dental School only a week ago. The school is struggling to teach in rooms that were designed in the fifties for half the number of students it is trying to push into them now, with equipment that dates back to the mid-1960s to early seventies that no dental school in the world would want as a hand-me-down. Still it struggles to get enough money to do the basic upgrading that is needed. There are plenty of jobs out there to be done. If our school systems were funded properly, we would have more teachers aides and more teachers. If our hospitals were funded properly, we would have the right number of nurses. The jobs are out there; it is a matter of matching those people who are unemployed through proper work programs and, in particular, training for the jobs that are waiting to be done.

As to why people are finding themselves in poverty, it is a mixture of things. It is a mixture of underemployment or unemployment and, for those who are unemployed, often the breaching regime catches up with them. It is a mixture of housing costs, the lack of public housing and affordable housing and the lack of adequate education opportunities, particularly if people have left school early. There are some students in the gallery now. It might seem very attractive to disappear at age 16 or 17 to a job that will give you 20 hours a week in a fast food outlet, but what happens when you are 18 or 21? Those people are really struggling now to get meaningful work. And there are a whole lot of other costs. In my home state of South Australia we have seen the cost of electricity go up in the last year or two between 25 per cent and 30 per cent. The cost all adds up for people who are struggling.

The committee was then given evidence of other issues, such as gambling, that further exacerbate the problems. As Senator Hutchins mentioned, very easy credit is another problem for people who are struggling and looking for any means to afford that school excursion or do the repairs needed to the car. It is very easy to fall into the debt trap and get further and further behind. Perhaps the most important area that governments—and I am not just singling out the Commonwealth government but also the state governments—need to work on is children in poverty. This includes providing direct support to families—indeed, before the children are born—to make sure that new families or families to be have the resources that they need as they bring children into the world. It also includes providing support in those early years to ensure proper child care, adequate child care that will not just keep kids amused but give them some opportunities to begin lifelong learning experiences. It also includes providing support to those students in our primary schools who are struggling with basic costs and expenses. I think it is an indictment on all of us that one of the charities now runs a program where we can sponsor Australian students through school. It was for many years available to us if we wished to support children in Third World countries. But we now have programs for us to support Australian students because they simply cannot afford the costs of books, school fees, uniforms and sports equipment et cetera.

When we look at priorities, we see that the needs of children and families is perhaps the most important message that comes out of this report. Programs need to be improved for other specific groups, including students. Trying to survive on youth allowance is, for many students, having a major impact on their studies and sees many of them dropping out. People with disabilities have already been mentioned, as have Indigenous Australians. These specific groups, I believe, have to have as a matter of priority some real government attention as to what the specific problems are and what needs to be done about it. But this country does not have a plan. We do not have even an adequate map of what is happening. People get pushed between various authorities, Centrelink and the charities. Responsibility gets passed between state and federal governments. For many Australians, it is just an ongoing day by day battle to keep their heads above water.

In closing, I emphasise that a mixture of measures need to be taken, starting with the national plan of action, involving the charities as well as the state and federal governments, the education authorities and health authorities. But it certainly needs urgent attention. In going around with the com-mittee to the various hearings, I found it very depressing listening to the stories of those who are struggling to make ends meet in what is the lucky country but, unfortunately, it is not lucky for all of us. I would like to quickly thank the committee, which put so much time and effort into this inquiry.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson)—Order! The time for debating the report has expired.

Debate (on motion by Senator Greig) adjourned.