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Tuesday, 15 September 2015
Page: 6902


Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (20:52): I echo the sentiments that were just expressed by Senator Xenophon. In fact, they relate quite closely to the comments that I want to make this evening, about a piece of legislation that, happily, was rejected by the Senate last week—that is, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Youth Unemployment and Other Measures) Bill. I take this opportunity to speak to the nature of the government under Mr Abbott, sanctioned by then senior minister Mr Turnbull, and articulate their miserly vision of Australia that have seen implemented over the last two years, and why we should not expect much difference going forward.

Youth unemployment in Australia is at levels not seen since the mid-1990s, and that has happened on the Abbott-Turnbull government's watch. Of the almost 800,000 Australians who are unemployed, over 284,000 are young people—young people searching for work. At no stage during the global financial crisis was youth unemployment as high as it is today under the Abbott-Turnbull government. During the past 12 months, the average rate of unemployed young people looking for full-time work has been assessed as being 15.7 per cent for 15- to 24-year-olds and 28.7 per cent for 15- to 19-year-olds. Youth unemployment on the Central Coast is, sadly, close to 15 per cent, and in the Hunter region, just a little further north up the M1, it is 20 per cent, the highest in the state of New South Wales.

What was the Abbott-Turnbull government's response to the genuinely damaging and life-changing problem of unemployment, which scars people and damages communities? It was to come into this place and the other place with a social services bill that attempted, yet again, to prevent young people from having access to essential services and a small amount of money to enable them to live, to feed themselves, to travel legally on public transport, to seek work, to make their car payments, to honour their commitment to their landlord if they are renting, to pay the part of the rent they might be responsible for in their family. The government—Mr Abbott, sanctioned by his entire frontbench and everyone who sits on the other side of this chamber—were happy to see young people cast on the scrap heap, in many cases at the very beginning of their adult lives, for one entire month, with nothing, no resources of any kind. That is the shameful reality of what Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull and their team stand for.

We see it manifested in many programs. Take the Work for the Dole program. The government argue that this is designed to provide young people with new skills that, they say, help the transition into work. But the evidence does not show any such thing. In my discussions with young people on the Central Coast of New South Wales, they suggest that Work for the Dole absolutely fails them. It does not deliver any of the claimed advantages that we hear spoken about in this place, because it does not actually prepare young people for work and entering the workforce—not the genuine workforce. It rarely allows those involved the education and training that would enable them to become proficient in new areas and to develop new skills that they need in a genuine workplace. Rather, what we have on the coast is the revelation of Work for the Dole as a program in which people find themselves doing a variety of menial, unskilled tasks, often in a work environment—nature—that bears absolutely no relation to their existing knowledge or enthusiasm, and does not meet any of the tests for developing competent workplace capacities.

I am really mindful of the illusion that this government tries to create. When Mr Abbott announced the funding for the Work for the Dole program on the Central Coast, he made sure that the television images that evening would show him once again adorned in a bright shirt in a workplace with lathes and other high-tech equipment around him so that people would think the Work for the Dole program was actually going to lead young people to that kind of workplace. But the reality on the Central Coast is that young people, as well as older people, who are called to participate in the Work for the Dole program are walking along coastal tracks, pulling weeds. In a sophisticated, knowledge economy in the 21st century, this backward way is the government's signature program for getting young people into work. It is an embarrassment and it is certainly not supported by any articulated policy.

What drives the Work for the Dole program is politics, not carefully thought through, evidence based policy. Policy programs such as those the Abbott-Turnbull government have on offer has very little, if anything, to do with the availability or creation of secure employment. Work for the Dole is not structured around formal skill development that would make a tangible difference to the likelihood of securing employment. It is unfortunate that programs such as this are allowed to continue when they only pretend to offer solutions to these really critical problems that young adults face during periods of unemployment.

This is particularly a problem—and, Madam Acting Deputy President Peris, you would be very mindful of this yourself—in regional, rural and remote settings in Australia. There needs to be an authentic and ethical understanding of the challenges of creating jobs in that context, outside of cities, and people's ability to move their body from where they live to a place where work is available. That is something that this government, previously under Mr Abbott and now under Mr Turnbull, seems incapable of coming to terms with. Instead, we see callous insults hurled at tens of thousands of young Australians who are desperate to get on with their lives, desperate to find paid employment.

One of the suggestions that they make is that young people really do not want to work, that they want a life of being a 'leaner'—that appalling language that has characterised this government and been supported by one and all. That suggestion is absolutely false. It is utterly fatuous, but all too typical of a government that is anxious to wield a big stick but not prepared to work to solve the problems of youth unemployment.

Labor understands that it is our role in this place to develop evidence based policy initiatives and to participate in the legislative program to enable change that will bring about employment for young people—real and authentic opportunities for them to get genuine training and cadetships, to grow their skills and knowledge. We must ensure that they can confidently—with literacy capacity, with social capacity, with emotional capacity—take their place as citizens who can make constructive contributions as members of our community, not just in their workplace but in the broader community.

Labor believes our role with young people and those seeking employment must be one of support, encouragement and skill development, not a role of abandonment as characterised by this government. It is Labor's view that the mark of a civilised society is that during times of crisis and hardship a fair and just government provides targeted support to those who are exposed to the frustration and misery of unemployment.

I recall, very sadly, the passing of the father of one of my daughter's good friends—in her primary school years. The friend's father was sadly killed in a tragic accident in the family home. He was an employer of young people. That put the entire workplace at risk. All of those young people had responsibilities; they had debts that they needed to pay. Becoming unemployed through no fault of your own is a reality for Australians. This government does not seem to understand that a safety net for those who find themselves unemployed is a fair and ethical thing to do. Rather, they seek to demonise those who are vulnerable. The stories that were told to the Fair Work task force that visited Gosford last Friday reveal just how desperately we need a government with a vision for the country, not this miserly Abbott-Turnbull government and what it has provided so far.