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Tuesday, 15 September 2015
Page: 6899

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (20:43): Tonight I want to speak about a problem that is holding back millions of Australians and holding back our nation as a whole. Today no doubt many of us have been reading the headlines and media stories and opinion polls following the change in leadership in the government. But, disturbingly, a large segment of our population struggle to read at all. Being able to read and write is taken for granted by so many in the community. If you were lucky enough to receive a good education, then reading and writing becomes second nature. But those of us who were not so lucky face a life of just getting by—hiding their limited literacy from society and not being able to meet their potential at work—if, indeed, they find work at all.

Tonight I want to talk about these Australians, what they struggle with, how Australia is performing in terms of adult literacy and what needs to be done urgently to improve it. I am sorry to say that this government, since coming to office, has cut funding to adult literacy services by tens of millions of dollars. This is both cruel and counterproductive and I hope a Turnbull government will have a change of heart in this area. Because adult illiteracy is much more than an education or a social services issue. Being able to read and write should, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, be a fundamental human right. And not being able to read or write properly is a silent break on Australia's economic performance. Improving literacy is an economic and productivity imperative. It is a no brainer for Australia right now.

The National Skills Strategy for Adults in 2012 estimated that an improvement of just one per cent in the level of adult literacy would lead to a 2½ per cent increase in labour productivity. A modest investment in the tens of millions of dollars could unleash billions of dollars of increased productivity. That is a huge economic dividend, and the social benefits of such an improvement are priceless. We cannot afford to not improve our level of adult literacy because the signs are getting worse by the day. The latest indicator of our lagging living standards came out this morning with a NATSEM study, commissioned by Anglicare, that showed most Australians will see zero improvements to their standard of living in the next decade. Worryingly, the bottom 20 per cent of earners are expected to go backwards financially.

So how does adult illiteracy affect people's lives and what can be done to turn it around? Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was so right when he said, 'Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.' I recently met with a champion of adult literacy in my home state of South Australia as well as with those who have worked to improve their own literacy levels. One thing is too common in their stories—adults with limited literacy are often ashamed or embarrassed about it. They do not want anyone to know about it. If it is certain that limited literacy will make your life more difficult, then trying to hide it and cover it up makes life doubly difficult.

One example I have been told about recently is Mick Goss from Tasmania. In fact, I spoke with Mick earlier today and it was great to speak with him. Mick Goss is one man who took the courageous step 'from misery to hope' to address his low literacy. Ten years ago as a 40-year-old single dad of a seven-year-old son, a work-related injury led to him losing his job. Years earlier, as a year 5 student, a teacher had laughed and insulted him for his attempts to read. The experience was gut-wrenching and deeply embarrassing and led to Mick becoming, in his words, 'a nightmare at school', and he left in year 9 with minimal reading and writing. He still winces when he thinks about the incident and will not enter a classroom for any reason because of the painful memory.

Mick had always been good with his hands and found work at a sawmill. After losing his job due to injury he had very few options left. But his efforts at that time to start a dad's playgroup in Launceston led to a remarkable story of self-improvement. Mick soon realised he could not even write out the flyer for his new group, but his ambition to look out for local fathers was soon recognised by Relationships Australia, who offered him a part-time job. There was one catch—he had to agree to go to adult literacy sessions every week. He told me:

I was quite embarrassed about not being able to read and write, but I had to do something about it. After hiding for 40 years I started some training through the local Community House and realised—this isn't so hard. When I first started my writing it was like a doctor's scrawl because I was hiding it.

Now Mick writes reports and proposals, and he is expert at writing flyers for the two men's groups he runs. Mick says that men particularly are embarrassed to admit they have difficulty reading and writing.

Mick's is an inspiring story but what Australia needs are hundreds of thousands more stories like Mick's. The scale of the challenge may surprise most Australians. The recent survey by the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, PIAAC, found that one in eight Australians, or 12.6 per cent, have 'very poor' literacy skills. Taken as a fraction of Australia's working-age population of 10,400,000 people, that means that about 1.3 million working-age Australians have very poor literacy skills. An additional one in three Australians are estimated to have literacy skills which made them 'vulnerable to unemployment and social exclusion'. That is another 3.4 million working-age Australians at risk due to poor literacy. That is close to five million Australian adults with below-par literacy skills.

In Adelaide I recently met with a passionate advocate, a man with 40 years' experience in education and an expert in adult education. His name is Paul Mulroney. He works at an adult community centre in adult education and is also the vice president of Adult Learning Australia. Paul told me that adults who do not meet minimum functional literacy levels fall into two categories—those who grew up here in Australia and did not receive adequate education, and those who came here as migrants and do not have adequate English literacy. Paul also told me that both groups face big limitations socially and in finding and keeping employment. Paul works with these men and women and knows their challenges firsthand. They just get by—many of them are adept at getting by without attracting attention to themselves. No-one wants to be known as having poor literacy.

Paul told me there were two keys to reducing adult illiteracy. The first is what the government can do. The second is what the person can do for themselves. Firstly, we must have adequately funded national programs in the workplace and through community groups that deliver effective tutoring and teaching services to adults. I will speak more about this and the cuts made by the current government a bit later. Secondly, and more subtly, adults with low literacy have to want to address the issue. They have to be given the opportunity, the time and the space to decide to improve their literacy skills.

Adult illiteracy has to come out of the shadows—destigmatised and demystified. Programs to tackle adult illiteracy have been around for decades, but amazingly they have been defunded by the current government since the election. In the 2014-15 Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, MYEFO, the government announced a cut to one of its major national funding streams for adult literacy improvement—the Skills for Education and Employment program, SEE for short. The government will save $44 million over three years but as a result, according to statements at additional estimates, 3,000 fewer adults will receive literacy and numeracy programs. But it does not end there. From this year, the government abolished the Workplace English Language and Literacy program, or WELL. This program has been going since 1991, working with more than 10,000 adults a year, improving their literacy at work and so improving their productivity and capacity. The WELL program is no more and 10,000 Australians will be worse off for it on an annual basis—but we will all be worse off as a nation.

The government has also gutted the funding of the Adult English Migrant Program, AMEP, which was originally launched way back in 1948. The government has only committed to the current year's funding of $14.5 million, with no more money budgeted in the forward estimates. That is unacceptable. Any government committed to raising our productivity by giving people the skills and know-how to be 'lifters, not leaners' must be putting more funds into adult learning, not less. And it is a false economy. Whatever savings the government makes will be dwarfed by the improvement in national productivity we miss out on due to the cuts. Simply put, low literacy holds back men and women at work, and everyone loses as a result. I implore the Turnbull government to treat this issue as a national priority with a great degree of urgency for the sake of millions of Australians, for their dignity and to unlock their true potential.