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28th International Conference on Social Welfare, Sydney, 14 September 1999: speech.



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Senator Jocelyn Newman  

 

Minister for Family & Community Services  

 

Minister Assisting the Prime Minister  

for the Status of Women

 

 

Tuesday , 14th September, 1999 

 

SPEECH TO THE 28th INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON SOCIAL WELFARE  

SYDNEY, 14 SEPTMBER 1999

 

Thank you Michael (Raper). 

 

Your excellency, Sir William Deane, Julian Disney, Kay Ku
, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman, I'm delighted to be able to take part in this conference today. And our welcome this morning by Wiradjuri Elder Sylvia Scott and the Ngaru Dancers, was quite inspiring. It certainly gave all our international visitors a unique glimpse of the oldest of the many diverse cultures that make up Australia today. 

 

I believe international fora like this are one of the most effective ways in which we can strengthen our regional ties. This occasion gives us the chance to really share and learn from each other's experiences.  

 

Within the region, our systems of welfare support might be different. And the way we deal with social problems can vary. But the fundamental challenge for all of us is to do whatever we can to alleviate poverty and disadvantage in our countries. The underlying challenge, though, is to build strong communities and strong families - with the resilience to withstand the pressures of a fast-changing world. 

 

The social environment in Australia and the region  

 

This morning I want to talk about the Australian Government's approach to social welfare. But before I do, I'd like to touch on the recent financial turmoil in our region.  

 

I also want to tell you how Australia has weathered the crisis, because how we deal with social issues depends, very much, on our economic strength and stability. We believe economic and social issues go hand in hand.  

 

Over the past two years, there's been major financial turmoil in economies around the world. And for us in Australia, the difficulties faced by our closest neighbours in Asia have been of deep concern.  

 

Australia has been involved in establishing the Asian Recovery Information Centre in Manila. An important part of the centre's work will be to provide an electronic clearing house for information that will help regional countries further develop their social welfare systems. 

 

Fortunately Australia has come through the financial crisis well. This is due, in no small part, to the government's economic policies over the past three and a half years. It's involved some hard decisions, and not all of them popular. But the results speak for themselves.  

 

We have:

  • the lowest unemployment rate in almost a decade, and down from nearly 9 per cent in 1997, to just over 7 per cent this year:
  • the lowest levels of inflation and interest rat es in around 30 years; and
  • we have turned an annual federal government budget deficit of more than $10 billion, into a healthy surplus.

 

While we've focused on getting the economic fundamentals right, I want to emphasise that we've not lost sight of the s
ocial issues. 

 

The Australian government is absolutely committed to what we call a modern social safety net,- a system of support for people who genuinely need our help.  

 

It's part of a much wider system that creates more jobs and opportunities and provides better childcare, education and health services. All these contribute to the strength and well-being of our communities and our families. 

 

Far-reaching reforms in our administration are designed to support a more holistic approach to social services. 

 

My ministerial portfolio of Family and Community Services now covers the full range of government income support payments and federal welfare services.  

 

And I'm very proud of our new service delivery agency, Centrelink. Creating Centrelink was a major achievement and people from all over the world want to come here to see how it operates. 

 

Because we target the bulk of this assistance to people on low incomes, Australia has less 'middle class welfare' than most other developed nations. 

 

We're committed to keeping up the real value of social security payments. Indeed, this has been the first government to provide a legislative guarantee that pensions will be linked to the increasing living standards of the community not just movements in prices.

This means that pensions are now set at 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings.  

 

Next year, when our tax reforms are implemented, the social security system will become simpler and fairer. 

 

As well as abolishing a range of inefficient taxes, we have started to address some of the disincentives to take up work that are caused through the interaction of the tax and welfare systems.  

 

There will also be major income tax cuts as well as reforms to the assistance we give families with children. And people on social security payments will be fully compensated for the price effects of the GST. 

 

We've made sure that everyday items will be GST-free. This includes things like fresh food, health, education, childcare, nursing homes and hostels, local government rates, water and sewerage charges and charitable activities. In many instances these items will actually reduce in cost through the abolition of the wholesale sales tax. 

 

I believe these landmark reforms represent good news for Australians, and especially for those Australians out of work. 

 

Aboriginal housing issues  

 

But I'm the first to admit that Australia is not without its social problems. And we have to do much more in a lot of areas including housing. 

 

In our community, it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who perhaps have been most severely affected by housing problems. 

 

From the city to the bush, many indigenous people live in appalling conditions, conditions which contribute directly to poor health - especially in children. 

 

While the Commonwealth does not have principal responsibility for housing, we're, determined to do what we can to turn this situation around.  

 

Already we annually allocate 'tied' grants of $91 million to the States. There's also extra funding from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Both are specifically targeted at improving indigenous housing. 

 

In partnership with ATSIC and the States and Territories, we're also developing strategies to ensure that housing in remote indigenous communities will be healthy and sustainable. I want to ensure that aboriginal mothers have hot water to wash their children, their clothes and their cooking utensils. I also want to see that their drains and toilets work properly. In the past much of the support provided for housing has not met the needs of the people.  

 

Employment issues  

 

As I said earlier, our approach will always be to support those in genuine need.  

 

But the Government also has an obligation to give people more opportunities to help themselves.  

 

Now, one of the prime objectives of our modern social welfare system is to continue the shift away from a culture of passive dependency to one of independence, choice and self-reliance. 

 

For example, our approach to employment is underpinned by what we call the principle of "mutual obligation", a principle that is supported by the community. 

 

Mutual obligation requires that unemployed people who get financial support from taxpayers dollars, should strive to improve their chances of getting a job and actively look for work and give something back to the community that supports them. 

 

We believe finding and keeping a job is the best outcome for people who can work. We deliberately encourage people who can, to actively look for work, and to accept any reasonable job offers.  

 

The community also expects, as does the government, that people will improve their skills and job prospects as part of what we call a mutual obligation contract. They can do this through activities like volunteering, or taking on some education or training. 

 

This is showing good results for the unemployed and it has positive spin-offs for their families, their communities and, in the long run, for our country, as a whole. 

 

I believe one of the strongest examples of the effectiveness of the mutual obligation principle can be seen in our approach to youth policy. In recent years, youth unemployment has remained far too high and our young people deserve better.  

 

This new approach is a very good example of how our policies are working to help young people. 

 

We've created a new income support payment for young people, called the Youth Allowance. The Allowance not only supports the mutual obligation principle it is also a major reform to income support for young people. By rolling five payments into one, the Youth Allowance makes it easier for young people to move between study, training and looking for work and ensures that students and the unemployed are eligible for equal assistance from the government.  

 

We recognise that some young people need more help than others and we've put in a lot of resources so that young people with poor literacy and numeracy skills can get extra help and where necessary they can be provided with voluntary mentors.  

 

For other young people, who need workforce experience, we've set up a very successful and popular program called "Work for the Dole". This involves working on projects that bring lasting benefits to the community. At the same time, these also give the unemployed people involved contacts in the job market, greater self confidence and more motivation. We believe the Work for Dole scheme is an important component of the mutual obligation principle. 

 

There's another very pressing issue - that's the ripple effect long-term unemployment has on people. It can lead to poor health, inadequate housing, divorce, domestic violence, the spread of welfare dependency across generations and, in the long term, social dislocation. 

 

Sadly, we are also seeing the effects these have on our children's future prospects. 

 

Our research shows that the children of people on welfare payments are more than twice as likely to depend on welfare themselves, by the time they're 19. They're also more likely to leave school early, be out of work and have children when they are teenagers. 

 

Cycles are developing where dependency and lack of opportunity pass from one generation to the next. And a look at the statistics shows that family breakdown is often the catalyst that pushes people into the poverty spiral. 

 

Common sense tells us prevention is better than cure and that keeping families together should be one of our major social objectives. And that's just what the Australian government is determined to achieve. 

 

Families  

 

We firmly believe that strong families are crucial to maintaining a stable, cohesive and compassionate society and this belief is the bedrock of our whole social welfare system. 

 

No government can legislate to make families strong, but we can set up strategies and community systems to positively support families and help them through their ups and downs. 

 

I'm sure we all recognise the enormous social and emotional toll that family separations take, especially on children.  

 

So, we're putting in very substantial resources to help prevent families splitting up in the first place - to pay for services like pre-marriage education, family and relationship counselling, for mediation and for parenting education. 

 

We're also developing a national family strategy that will build on these programs and make them more effective. The idea is to build better links between family services across Australia and to focus more on prevention and early intervention in all our programs. 

 

Many of these services come from other levels of government and from community organisations, so I'm pleased the State and Territory Governments have agreed to work with us on this. We also want to work closely with community groups, who have valuable insights into local problems and solutions. 

 

Communities  

 

Building better links with all levels of government and the community is very important. But it's only by working in partnership with individuals, the business community and charitable and welfare organisations that governments can hope to get the best outcomes possible for the most disadvantaged in our communities. 

 

It's these partnerships that form what our Prime Minister, John Howard, calls a social coalition, "one that addresses modern social problems in a modern way". 

 

In Australia we have some good, practical examples of how well this is working. Large banks - like the National Australia Bank and Westpac - commit time and staff to innovative and worthwhile community projects. Our great welfare organisations, like the Sydney City Mission and Brotherhood of St Laurence, have had tremendous successes through joint ventures with the business sector.  

 

This community-based approach, I think, helps families and communities build the services and assistance that best suits their needs, instead of having the Government dictate to them what will happen. 

 

It recognises that everyone has a role in helping families and communities support themselves. 

 

Working More Closely with Countries in the Region  

 

As I said at the outset, Australia has been working closely with countries in the region.

In my own portfolio of Family and Community Services, we have long had an involvement with the region through the activities of the International Social Security Association (ISSA) and the Asian Development Bank. In March 1998, for example, the Department of Family and Community Services completed a major study on retirement systems in 18 APEC countries for the Asian Development Bank. 

 

Over the past year or so, we have been working closely with China on a number of capacity building projects and, while in China on a visit last week, I observed at closed hand the practical effect that the development of this close relationship has achieved.  

 

Of particular note were the discussions I had last week regarding a new World Bank project in which we are hoping to be involved. The project provided for consultancy service to the Chinese Ministry for Labour and Social Security in four chinese cities. 

 

I am keen to build on these links and to facilitate a greater dialogue in the region on strategies that will help to continue the development of social safety net arrangements that are suited to countries in the region. Such a dialogue would also need to recognise the diversity of countries in the region.  

 

Over the coming months, I will therefore be exploring with countries in the region with more developed social security safety nets what interest there would be in a meeting in Australia in mid-2000 to discuss their different experiences with a view to stimulating ideas for future action. I have already raised this idea in China and received a very positive reaction and an endorsement of the concept. 

 

Collaboration and sharing of ideas has been particularly beneficial to social policy development in many of the English-speaking developed countries in recent years. We are very supportive of the creation of more opportunities to share ideas and experiences with countries in our region with policy development being tailored to the needs of our region. 

 

Conclusion  

 

In closing, I'd like to sum up what I've spoken about today. We share many problems and challenges- and our economic health and social stability is inextricably linked with how well we can respond to our social obligations and responsibilities.  

 

In Australia, we're taking a new approach that:

  • is positive and active;
  • focuses on prevention rather than cure;
  • provides choice and incentives and opportunities,
  • encourages self-reliance, responsibility and independence; and
  • recognises that the best results are achieved by working cooperatively across society.

 

The key to
improving our social condition lies in our capacity to strengthen our families and to strengthen our communities. 

 

Australia has being playing its part in the development of social policy in the region and I believe that we can continue to play a positive and constructive role. 

 

Thank you. 

 

 

jy  1999-09-15  13:43