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Monday, 21 September 1987
Page: 436


Mr BALDWIN(9.57) —It is possible to look at an annual Budget from a range of different perspectives. Most of the discussion about an annual Budget tends to focus on the broad macroeconomic strategy that is being pursued and also the outlook for economic aggregates, such as growth, employment, the inflation rate and the balance of payments. Obviously these matters are of crucial importance for the capacity of the Australian economy to provide sustainable, high living standards and reasonable employment prospects in the years to come. So that is a natural and reasonable priority. I think on the broad macroeconomic front there is little doubt that the outlook is looking up in a whole range of different respects. Apart from the basic fiscal outcome of the Budget, with essentially a zero deficit, we are looking also at the beginnings of a turnaround in the crucial current account balance. We have seen a reduction in that from 6 per cent of gross domestic product to 5 per cent last year with 4 per cent or so in prospect for the coming year. So the outlook is pretty good on that front.

The one big weakness thus far has been the investment outlook where we have had surveys tending to show a rather weak outlook for new productive investment. But in recent weeks there have been some indications of a turnaround in that area also, particularly in the key tradable goods sectors. We are seeing prospects of an upturn in investment in the metal and engineering sectors which, of course, are of key importance to the manufacturing exports that need to be developed if the Australian balance of payments problem is to be turned around in the long term. In the past year we have also seen a very substantial rise in manufactured exports and the share of manufactured goods in the totality of Australia's exports. All in all, a range of indicators seems to show that things are on the improve.

There remain some significant concerns. One thing that strikes me as a potential significant problem is that we may be unsuccessful in turning the balance of payments around. We are now seeing some recovery in commodity prices and some prospective improvement in the terms of trade and, as I said earlier, we are starting to see clear signs of a turnaround in the current account balance. Associated with that, and caused by it to a substantial extent, we are starting to see a strengthening in the value of the Australian dollar, a strengthening in the exchange rate. The dilemma is that, as the current account balance starts to correct itself and the exchange rate starts to strengthen as a result, the very increase in competitiveness that flows from the devaluation and which has given this significant boost to our manufacturing industries and our tradable goods sector, tends to become weakened by the strengthening of the exchange rate. That is a matter that we will have to look at very seriously in the coming months and years. I think it could be a serious potential problem that could undo a lot of the good stuff that is starting to emerge.

These are obviously key issues, but in my speech I would like to concentrate mainly on a number of matters bearing directly on the Government's commitment to achieving a more just society and, in particular, the commitment announced before the election to raise the living standards of low income families. I think that the changes made in the Budget in the social security area, particularly the family assistance package, show a real and continuing level of commitment to these goals.

The family assistance package has been delivered as promised by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) during the recent election campaign. It will go a long way towards fulfilling his undertaking that, by 1990, all parents will have available to them an income which ensures that their children need not live in poverty. The family assistance package, consisting of a family assistance supplement, uniform rent assistance and a new child disability allowance, as well as improving conditions for families reliant on pensions and benefits, extends benefits to at least 200,000 families in receipt of low wages. It replaces the family income supplement with a much more generous scheme with a significantly higher withdrawal threshold of $300 a week plus $12 for each additional child, compared with a withdrawal threshold of $257 under the family income supplement. The extension of immediate rent allowance of up to $15 a week for unemployment beneficiaries with families also recognises for the first time the special difficulties faced by unemployed people with children.

I am particularly pleased to see the introduction of the child disability allowance which replaces the previous two-tiered system. Formerly, parents with a child receiving the handicapped child's allowance had their joint income taken into account and, as well, had to document all the expenses associated with the care of the child. They then received an amount which was anywhere between $20 to $92 a month. Parents with children receiving the severely handicapped child's allowance received a non-means-tested allowance of $92 a month. Parents in both categories will now receive a non-means-tested allowance of $112 a month-a substantial increase and a less intrusive method.

The Government has also introduced a child support scheme in the Budget in response to a widespread view in the community that the present system needed reform. Because maintenance payment enforcement methods have been totally ineffective, maintenance by the non-custodial parent had, in effect, become voluntary. The Budget confirmed the previously announced establishment of a Child Support Agency which will come under the control of the Commissioner of Taxation. The Agency will collect the maintenance payments by means of deductions at source in the case of pay as you earn taxpayers, and by a monthly payment to the Agency by self-employed people. These payments will be distributed by the Department of Social Security.

I believe that the introduction of a scheme of this sort was probably unavoidable, given present levels of compliance. However, there is some concern in the community, which I share, that the onus which is now placed on the custodial parent to pursue maintenance awards could cause severe difficulties for some women. I certainly hope that the Child Support Agency will have sufficient powers of discretion, which it will apply with compassion, not to force such action on women where there is a history of physical or mental abuse in the family. It would be most unfortunate if the pressure on women to summons their ex-partners over non-payment of maintenance was merely replaced by putting them in a position where they were liable to harassment over the measures they were forced to take to obtain maintenance payments in the first place.

In addition, I hope that special attention is paid to the plight of women who have had a child as a result of a casual relationship. It must be recognised that present societal values do not particularly recognise the obligation of the child's father to take financial responsibility in these circumstances, thus placing the mother in a very difficult position if she is forced to pursue him. In the old days, I understand that a number of women chose to solve this problem by claiming not to know who the father was-solving the maintenance problem at the cost of humiliation to themselves. I should not like to see this situation restored.

The Government has chosen to implement the recommendations of the Cabinet sub-committee in two stages. The steps that I have outlined constitute stage one and will be introduced in March next year. Stage two was foreshadowed, but it will not be implemented for some time. Stage two actually consists of the first recommendation of the sub-committee-that is, that the present judicial power of determination of maintenance levels should be replaced by a legislative formula based on the income of the non-custodial parent, the number of dependent children living with the custodial parent and the existence of children living with the non-custodial parent. This proposal is based on the premise that children of a relationship should continue in a lifestyle dictated by the joint income of their parents, irrespective of whether those parents are living together. At present this is far from the case. The criteria which a judge is required to consider are ambiguous and often conflicting. In addition, there is no attempt to prioritise, so that major consideration may be given to different factors by different judges. The result is that maintenance awards on the whole bear little relationship to the non-custodial parent's capacity to pay.

However, despite these reservations, the measures introduced in the Budget to assist low income families are commendable. I congratulate the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) for changes which contain such strong elements of social justice and equity. Nonetheless, there are still distinct problems in the area of Social Security and low income families, some of which result from measures introduced in the May economic statement. Social security and welfare programs contributed about 25 per cent of the $1.6 billion taken off Government programs in the May statement-a move which may have appeased the money markets, but which did little for those who rely on these programs. As all backbenchers could tell one, sole parents were one of the groups hard hit by these cuts-in particular, by the withdrawal of pension and supporting parent benefit entitlements for sole parents with dependent children aged 16 and over.

In August, following consultation with affected groups, the Minister for Social Security introduced changes to soften the effect of the changes; namely, sole parents who lose their pension between 1 September and 31 December this year because of the changes will retain eligibility for fringe benefits until the end of 1988. As well, sole parents in full time study and receiving a pension before 1 September will now be able to stay on the pension until they complete their current course, even if their youngest child is aged over 16. These modifications were welcomed by those concerned. However, there are still many sole parents who will be adversely affected by the changes.

In principle, it is hard to argue against the idea that a woman with children who do not require constant supervision any longer would be better off no longer continuing to rely on social security payments. I am sure that this is what most of the women concerned would wish for themselves. However, I am concerned that we shall be left with a large pool of women-and some men-who will continue to receive social security payments on a long term basis, unable to obtain work. Instead of their previous situation in which, whilst they were hardly rich, they had secure incomes, they will constantly face the uncertainties of unemployment benefits and the work test, with no real prospect of obtaining work. I can think of few things more demoralising than constantly having to prove one's credentials by ringing for jobs and visiting the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES), knowing that there is no real prospect that one will achieve results.

In order for the changes to result in more people in the work force and less reliance on social security, as the Government wishes, there needs to be a real commitment to providing opportunities and appropriate training to assist these people to re-enter the work force. In reality, they are faced by many problems in their attempts to work. Many of them have been out of the work force for 10 to 20 years or even longer. They lack up-to-date skills, self-confidence and the confidence of the employers. A recent analysis of traditional women's jobs advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald of 13 June this year showed what an uphill battle these women are facing. For example, in the category of clerk-typist, 30 jobs were offered. Of those, 24 required a person under 40 years of age, with 35 being the most common top age. Of the 378 advertisements for secretarial positions, 186 specified under 40 years with, again, 35 being the most common top age. In addition, many specified skills such as word processing, which did not exist when most of these women were working.

Many jobs for women were inserted by employment agencies. Several of these were contacted by the researcher and indicated that they would find it very hard to place a woman over 40, let alone one without recent experience. She was also told that employers were prepared to train young women only in areas such as word processing. In the retail sales area, there were 26 advertisements for the position of sales assistant. Of these 15 specified a junior and most of the jobs which were open to older women specified experience in the relevant type of sales. As clerical and retail sales work are the major areas of employment for women, it is obvious that they face severe difficulties in the employment market.

We are constantly reading that employers are having problems finding office workers. It seems that many would rather leave a job unfilled than give it to an older woman, which is a short-sighted and stupid failure to recognise the special qualities many of these women would bring to their work. A number of women who have already approached their local CES office report having been told that because of their lack of qualifications and experience, their ages, and in many cases the areas in which they live, they are virtually unemployable.

Another area potentially of serious concern is the conflict between the age limit set for the removal of Class A widows pensions and supporting parents benefits and the Government's commitment to raising retention rates in schools. Whilst there is no doubt that the family assistance package announced in the Budget-especially the family assistance supplement and the immediate payment of rent supplement to unemployment beneficiaries-and the increased level of payment for Austudy for 16- and 17-year-olds mitigated the effect of the May statement provisions, there is no doubt that the financial circumstances of most of these families will worsen to some degree. A study just completed by Karen Coleman of the Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education, based on a phone-in survey conducted by the Sole Parents Action Group, indicates that possibly over 60 per cent of affected children will drop out before completing Year 12. If this does not occur it will cause a reduction of 3.2 per cent in retention in government schools, a situation which the Government has fought so hard to improve.

The reasons given for these changed intentions are various. Some children are generally concerned at the financial burden they are placing on their parent and want to get out and start earning money in the expectation that they could obtain work more easily than the parent could. Some children are simply not willing to continue living in the family situation where money is so tight, and prefer to leave home and share with friends, even if they are still dependent on Social Security payments. Ms Coleman makes the point in her study that this Government's good record on providing support for low income families has most likely been a big factor in the increasing retention rates in schools. It would be a great pity if this were reversed because of this decision.

Although expenditure on training programs has increased by 37.9 per cent, I am not satisfied that within this there is much to answer the specific needs of these sole parents attempting to re-enter the work force. The $2m set aside in the May statement appears to be the only expenditure aimed at creating new training places for sole supporting parents and older single women with few work force skills. This amount will stretch very thinly indeed over the whole of Australia, considering the number of people involved. I think particularly of women in country towns. What access will they have to bridging courses and training programs, and even if they do acquire skills, what jobs are available to them? Now that programs such as new opportunities for women and the community employment program (CEP) have been abolished, I hope that the Government will look very seriously at directing some of the increased funding in training areas to the needs of these women. Whilst the CEP had obvious limitations, especially a totally inadequate serious training component, in my experience it was of especial benefit to women in providing them with a transition back into the work force by giving them not only work experience but also a record of employment to present to potential employers. I close by repeating my congratulations to the Minister for Social Security for the package he has just introduced.

Debate interrupted.