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Wednesday, 31 May 1989
Page: 3136

Senator REID(4.33) —We are discussing this matter today not because it was put in terms which Senator Crowley now tries to qualify, terms of commitment and aim, another qualification that we have had to what has already been put forward--

Senator Crowley —I rise on a point of order. I have actually quoted precisely and literally what the Prime Minister said and I object very strenuously to being misrepresented by Senator Reid. It is a subtle way of calling me a liar and I object.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Zakharov) —There is no point of order.

Senator REID —If I may, I will quote from the Hansard of the House of Representatives of 24 May 1989 where Mr Macphee asked the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke):

Did he, at the launch of the Australian Labor Party's 1987 election campaign, promise that his Government would eliminate child poverty by 1990; if so, what were his exact words.

In his reply the Prime Minister said:

For our next term, we are setting achievable new goals for Australia's future in the world.

And at the head of these goals is the future of all our children.

So we set ourselves this first goal:

By 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty.

When I heard that on my car radio at the time of the delivery of the policy speech in 1987, I did not have any doubt what he meant. I suspect that most people who heard it thought that he meant what he said and that is the reason we are debating it today. Had he in fact couched those sentiments, which he has put into Hansard, in the way that Senator Crowley referred to them, as commitment and aim, people might have reacted somewhat differently and interpreted his actions somewhat differently.

Senator Crowley went on today to debate the age of children and the age of youth. That is a good academic exercise but what we are really talking about is homelessness in our community. As has been said, the topic we are discussing states:

The need for the Government to take immediate action to reduce the appalling level of poverty and homelessness of Australian youth and to apologize for the Prime Minister's campaign device in promising Government action to ensure that no child would be living in poverty by 1990.

The Prime Minister's original statement has been rephrased and, in Hansard, the Prime Minister, in his answer said:

. . . by 1990 no child will need to live in poverty.

It would be everybody's hope that that would be the case. The Prime Minister, in April this year, brought down the family allowance payments. We do not suggest that they are not necessary or that they should not have been brought down, as seems to have been conveyed by some of the speakers this afternoon. It is interesting to look at the statement put out by the Prime Minister under the heading, `A Fair Deal for Families':

The 1989 economic statement contains major social reforms never before implemented by any government.

He then gave the details of the family allowance payments, and points out that for the first time family payments will be indexed and the child poverty pledge will be met in July 1989. That is perhaps the most outstanding statement of all. After the first statement, which most people had great difficulty believing, in April he said that, having brought in these welcome family allowance supplements and indexing them, he would then merely declare that the child poverty pledge would be met in July 1989. This document from which I am quoting does not say that the commitment and aim will be met in July 1989; it says that the child poverty pledge will be met in July 1989. We know for a fact that it will not be met in July 1989.

The Prime Minister really has little choice but to back down and back away from the pledge he made. He cannot ignore the fact that so many young Australians are continuing to live in poverty and will be living in poverty next year. The important thing for the Government and the Parliament to look at is why that is so and what we are doing to solve it rather than getting excited about the issues put forward by Senator Crowley.

Senator Giles seemed to devote a considerable amount of her time to what she called the abject failure of the coalition when in government. Unfortunately for us, it is now six years since we were in government. I find it remarkable that Labor members of parliament can continue to talk about the previous seven years. We were elected in 1975; that is a long time ago. I would have thought that six years in government would have given them something to talk about, the things that they have done themselves. But somehow it is the abject failure of the coalition that seems to dominate the thoughts of Government senators when they talk on these matters. Something about it really gets to them.

The fact is that anybody in our community who is involved in caring for young homeless children or who is trying to find solutions to the problem could not have been but astonished to have heard the promise before the 1987 election and would have been looking for a great deal more by now. All of us would have wanted to see the promise met. Most of us appreciate the gravity of the problem, and it comes as no surprise to look to 1990, close as we are to it now, and know that the promise has not been met. Senator Walters and others have referred to the recent Australian Broadcasting Corporation program which so graphically put together the facts on this issue.

Whatever the rationale behind the Government's policy of somewhat misinforming the public, it is shameful that the Prime Minister and members of his Government regarded the tragedy of children living in poverty as fair game for winning votes in the 1987 election. I do not think anybody doubts that that was what the Prime Minister was doing at the time. Perhaps he hoped that people would forget it. Perhaps he did not really care whether they believed him. He made the dramatic promise that by 1990 no Australian child would be living in poverty. Of course, we all know how family incomes have suffered during the six years of Labor government. A family in receipt of average weekly earnings is $56 a week worse off because of the taxation policies of this Government. That does not include the well over $2,000 increase in mortgage repayments in the last 12 months, let alone the increases which occurred before then, which affect those families attempting to buy homes.

The problem with child poverty and youth homelessness is that the Government has pursued policies which actually exacerbate the problems. High interest rates, high taxation and high inflation have seriously damaged the ability of middle and low income families to provide for their children in the way in which they want to provide for them. Families are facing very severe financial hardships at present, as is evidenced by the sort of public meetings that are being held in Canberra tonight and in other places.

Senator Crowley seemed to think that we were suggesting that children being driven from homes by violence was associated with poverty. In some instances it is, but we do not for a minute suggest that violence in the domestic situation relates only to poverty. None of us would ever suggest that it does not happen in families that are financially well off. We all know that it does. We know that there are many reasons why families break up and why children go in different directions. Some of them have problems with the blended family relationships which are subsequently established. Most of us have friends with families which in some respects appear perfectly stable. The families may comprise four or five children, one of whom leaves home and becomes a homeless child, while the others do not. It does not have to do merely with money. It is necessary to look at financial issues, but what we are talking about today are the consequences of a breakdown of some kind which results in children leaving families, and the pressures that are placed upon them. I had intended to refer to the comments made by Bishop Owen Dowling. I quoted his comments in the Senate the other day, so I will not refer to them in detail. He commented that the Prime Minister's pledge stretched his credulity. He, too, is a man very much attuned to what is going on in the community.

Some children, of course, who remain in a perfectly stable and quite happy home are living in poverty. To suggest that this occurs only in single parent families flies in the face of reality. Certainly, I can point to two-parent families living in poverty in Canberra because of the financial situation they face at present. The Prime Minister's recent backtracking on his promise was an attempt to imply that no family ought to be in poverty, so long as the parents are not spending the Government's largess at the TAB or on the poker machines. That sort of suggestion is very offensive. It is a gross insult to many thousands of families to suggest that they only find themselves and their children in poverty because of their own mismanagement. That is not the case.

As I, said, the program entitled Nobody's Children put together most adequately the issues that we are talking about. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has produced a report entitled Our Homeless Children. People who have read that report must be much better informed than previously, if they had any doubts about the issue that we are discussing. The Institute of Family Studies has also reported on the problem. The impact on the individual is very great. It takes an enormous toll on the health, self-esteem and opportunities of children who are living in poverty with no hope for the future. Nobody's Children referred to them as a new underclass.

The toll on the rest of the community is great. It results in increased juvenile crime. It has an enormous impact on the health of children. There has been an enormous increase in under-age drinking among those who are homeless. There are reports about increase in brain damage of young Australians who are well below the legal drinking age. There is evidence from Dr Jean Lennane, the Director of Drug and Alcohol Services at the Rozelle Hospital, that there is more alcohol-related brain damage amongst younger Australians than has ever been seen. Such young Australians do not drink because they seek great excitement; they drink out of despair. Young people are drinking to get drunk because they see that they have no future. One 15-year-old boy is quoted as saying, `Drinking is a way to blot out the way I am feeling'. How can we live with ourselves when young people are in that situation? Alcohol is frequently seen by many as a crutch.

It is even more distressing to look at the suicide rate. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures last month which show that young Australian males have a suicide rate three times greater than in the 1950s. There were 417 youth suicides in 1987. Of course, that figure does not include deaths due to accidental overdoses or deaths of young people from car accidents, where frequently alcohol is a factor. On cannot simply look at the instances and know whether homelessness or other factors were involved, but the amount of drinking among young homeless people indicates that there is a serious problem. The consequences are enormous.

Sociological and psychiatric studies indicate that for every suicide there may be as many as 100 attempted suicides. Even if the figure were only 50, it would be a tragedy. There is an appalling social cost because young people have no hope for the future. Some of the consequences that we face include the care that they need and the range of mental illnesses from which they may suffer. It is not just a problem in the larger cities; it affects every community. In Canberra about 700 young people spend time in crisis refuges every year. Many others cannot be accommodated. Many turn to petty crime, drug dealing and prostitution to survive. It is a national tragedy; no one would disagree with that. The solution is not merely to declare that it will be wiped out. We need to find suitable education opportunities, jobs and activities which are meaningful for these young people.

Any senators who fail to support the raising of this matter have a very shallow view of the matter. What led us to raise this very important matter today was the callousness of the Prime Minister in making that pledge in 1987 which cannot be met by him. I hope that all senators will support the matter. It is a very genuine message that we need to send to the Prime Minister about the urgency of the problems faced by so many young people, including homeless young people.