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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 79

Senator SIEWERT (5:26 PM) —Yet again I rise to talk to a piece of legislation that is being rushed through this house that will have many intended and unintended consequences for the community of Western Australia and, once again, for our most vulnerable—people living with disabilities and people who are supporting families, many in rural and regional areas. Given the limited time that was available to analyse this complex piece of legislation, we received very good and coherent submissions that had a lot of evidence to support the statements they were making. That was contrary to the government’s position, where there was a lack of evidence, as Senator Wong pointed out. There was no concrete evidence to support the notion that throwing people onto the dole and lowering their incomes magically enables them to get a job and to support their children better. Try being a single mum living in a regional area supporting two or three children and trying to find the time to increase your skills, to look for work and to look after your children. Try having children with learning and behavioural or some sort of emotional difficulties, and having to run around for them during the day—taking them to counselling, taking them to school and taking them to activities, all of which require you to be at home. And then try having your income cut. If we were to put ourselves in that person’s position I think we would start seeing things a lot more clearly and sympathetically.

There was a clear convergence in the submissions and in the people presenting to the committee. Across the range of people that attended—employment support providers, crisis care organisations, advocates for the disadvantaged, church groups and community organisations—all were in agreement that it is a good idea to help people come off welfare and go into jobs. They welcomed moves to increase resources for employment assistance and child care, and there was a strong consensus that moving from social security to meaningful work was very important—that it not only helps families out of poverty but also helps to increase people’s self-esteem. However, in my opinion, there was unanimous opposition from the people who were presenting from those agencies to the approach being taken by this government. They believed that reducing people’s income support and using coercive measures to get people back into work was not the way to go. That does not deal with the very substantial barriers that people living with disabilities and sole parents face in getting back to work.

We also heard evidence that up to 60 per cent of people in those categories, particularly sole parents, do not have education beyond year 10 and face very real barriers to going back to work. We also heard evidence of people’s concerns that, with the interaction between this legislation and the industrial relations legislation that we debated earlier in this chamber, people’s working conditions and the minimum wage are going to drop. People are going to be faced with being between the devil and the deep blue sea.

There was a great deal of convergence amongst people appearing before the committee that these changes were not going to achieve the government’s objective. If the government’s objective is to create a class of working poor in this country, it might achieve that. But that is not the professed objective of this government; it is to move people into employment. If we are going to be moving people into employment, we should be looking at addressing the very real barriers that people face in access to study and meaningful employment.

We also heard quite a deal of evidence about the impact that these changes will have on those living in rural and regional communities. We all know that in rural and regional communities unemployment rates are higher and it is difficult to find work and to find child care. Parents do not want to bung their children into any form of child care; it has to be accessible, appropriate, quality child care and available particularly during vacations.

We also heard evidence that a lot of decisions were going to be at the discretion of the secretary or left to Centrelink or Job Network staff. I am not casting any aspersions on those staff members, but I think it is inappropriate to leave it up to those people to make very significant decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians and Australian children. When it gets down to it, that is what we are talking about; future generations of Australian children who are going to be living in further poverty. I am convinced that this is what is going to happen. With the combination of these two bills, we are forcing families into further poverty and forcing more children to live in poverty with no way out. We are creating a workplace system where it will be very hard to opt out or to take time out to try to get training. (Time expired)