Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Intergenerational Welfare Dependence; Report
It was a privilege to be part of this committee. I thank: the member for McMillan, as chair; the hardworking secretariat; those who made submissions and appeared before the committee; and of course my fellow committee members for their combined efforts in bringing this valuable report, Living on the edge: inquiry into intergenerational welfare dependence, to fruition.
Intergenerational poverty is a wicked problem without simple solutions. Disadvantage has become entrenched and breaking vulnerable Australians out of the path of dependence is not easy. For the most disadvantaged Australians, not only do opportunities first need to exist but people need to be supported so that those opportunities can fall within their grasp. Supporting Australians to escape the intergenerational poverty trap should be seen, I believe, as an investment, not a cost.
But, as with any investment, we need to ensure that Australians receive a social return on their investment. To ensure this, we need to adopt a wraparound support program that works. The term 'wraparound' generally means a holistic approach that does not look at individual, singular interventions. It looks at the whole person and the whole circumstance around them and their whole community. For example, access to better medical care to ensure our disadvantaged Australians are fit and healthy for work will not be enough if those people have no access to affordable housing or, indeed, public transport, or if they are trapped in homes where domestic violence prevails.
This is why the first recommendation of the report is so important; namely, that the Australian government needs:
… to prioritise funding for place-based and wrap-around services that can demonstrate evidence of successful programs for people living with entrenched disadvantage.
We know what works. We don't need to debate this anymore. The social services sector has been working on these issues for decades now, which leads me to a second but equally important recommendation of this report—recommendation 4. I will quote it in full:
The Committee recommends that funding arrangements for welfare-related programs are reviewed, with a view to avoiding short-term funding cycles. Three to five year agreements, with annual extensions subject to meeting agreed performance measures, would assist with funding certainty, while ensuring progress and satisfactory outcomes are achieved.
In plainer English, we need to stop chop-changing programs all the time. We have a program that works really well, and then we get rid of it after three years because it's a Labor program. Then we have a change in government and we have a program that works really well. Why did we get rid of it? Because it was branded as a Liberal program. We know what works; we need to allow continuity. These problems are intergenerational; they have been there for a very long time. We are not going to turn around the problem in a mere two or three years.
Even a modicum of better planning from state and federal governments will avoid these unnecessary valleys of death. I worked in social services for a number of years, in the youth sector. The best staff leave when they know a program is ending. It then takes an extraordinary period of time to ramp up for a new program, and to try to get the staff. In the meantime, communities are left with no support. Then, when new supports come in, they're expected to embrace those new employees, who are working on an entirely different program with a new set of parameters. What happens is, particularly in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there is an overwhelming feeling of distrust—naturally there's a feeling of distrust—that this program, too, will end and that they will be in the same circumstances, or perhaps worse, when they end.
My time is limited in here, and I don't wish to take up too much of the Federation Chamber's time, but I will say this: we often, in this place, hear speeches where people say, 'People just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.' But what do you do when you don't have any boots? One of the greatest privileges of my life was working in the youth sector. I remember a young person—we only found him by happenstance—who had a little two-man tent; he was camped out behind one of our jobactive organisations. We found this young man, who was homeless, and we were able to support him into housing and then into education and employment. If you are 18 years of age, you can't read and you have nowhere to live, there is no point being told, 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,' if you don't even have a pair of boots.
I rise to speak on this incredibly important issue of intergenerational welfare. Now, I'm no expert on social services, I'm no expert on the best way to deal with this, but I think I can consider myself an expert on my own seat: it's the area I was born in; I've lived there most of my adult life; I went to school there; and I was raised there. I know these people and their families and can I say—and I've said this before—all levels of government are failing a generation of Australians.
Intergenerational welfare dependence is an incredibly difficult social issue to address. There is no silver bullet, there is no magic wand, there is no easy way to address these types of social challenges, and we must attack it from all directions and with every weapon in the armoury. In my region, we have taken the tough decision to roll out the cashless debit card. I know there are individuals and there are members and senators in this house who vehemently disagree with that rollout, and I accept their right to have that view and to put that view forward. But my electorate, the people that I represent, want change; they want us to act, and they want us to do everything we possibly can to make a difference in the lives of people who find themselves in really difficult circumstances.
I know of families where the grandparents, the parents and the children have never worked. They know no-one in their family to have gotten up on time to go to work, to perform the basics of what is a regular working life for most Australians. That is something which is incredibly difficult (a) to accept and (b) to act on. We have made the tough decision to roll out the cashless debit card, but, as I've said, it is not a magic bullet. The cashless debit card quarantines 80 per cent of a social service payment onto an EFTPOS card, and that EFTPOS card cannot be used for the purchase of alcohol or the purchase of gambling products; it limits the amount of cash that can be used for the purchase of illicit substances. I acknowledge that it can be inconvenient for some who don't have those particular issues, but we are trying to make a difference in my electorate. We are trying to make a difference.
Hand-in-hand with the cashless debit card, we have announced the Hinkler Regional Deal, which is looking to address an increase in our regional economy, to provide more local jobs. In fact, in the budget overnight, $173 million was committed to the Hinkler Regional Deal to drive our local economy into the future. This is a game changer for our region, but I have literally thousands of individuals who are multigenerational welfare dependent people, and we need to act in their interest, no matter how difficult it may be in a policy sense.
We have any number of services. In fact, when we did the review as part of the CDC, we found there were more than 60 support services throughout my electorate that were funded by the federal government. We need to coordinate those services in a better way. We have a million dollars committed for additional services where needed and for an identified need. We are currently in the midst of the cashless debit card rollout. There are some 3,000 individuals who have been contacted who have been issued a card or have activated them. There are only around approximately 1,500 who have had their payments transferred onto the card. We have shopfronts in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay; we have a 1300 number. Can I say that the targeted cohort—those who are 35 and under—are obviously very capable with online services, smartphones and modern technology, and they are managing the rollout, to be honest, with ease. This is a tough policy but a necessary one.
In terms of other options, we also run a program called Employment First Aid. Can I recommend this to anyone who is listening to this broadcast. Employment First Aid is run by an organisation called IMPACT Community Services, and it is a post-employment support service. What we've found is that any number of people who have come from a difficult background, who have been welfare dependent for a long time, struggle when they find themselves in the workplace. In fact, they don't last very long at work at all. Employment First Aid has been incredibly successful. Employers utilise the service for individuals who they think have difficulties or who are struggling at work. They've managed to keep many of those employees in the workplace, and, as we all know, as time continues—the longer you are in that job—the more likely you are to stay there. So I congratulate IMPACT Community Services on the work that they are doing.
We have been the recipients of some of the apprentice trials in the last two weeks. We have 19 young people who have been successful in apprenticeships with support from the federal government's pilot program. I'm very pleased to say that the youth unemployment rate, while still unacceptably high, in the last quarter of recorded statistics before Christmas dropped from the totally unacceptable number of 27.8 per cent to under 20 per cent in just one term—in just one quarter. I'm hopeful that that is a trend and not an anomaly. Clearly it is a combination of all circumstances, including local business looking for more staff, including the work that we are doing in training people and including the work of Employment First Aid and the cashless debit card. We are throwing everything we can at this very, very difficult issue. We are making the tough but necessary decisions.
You cannot simply train for training's sake. You must train for employment that is available. It is no good turning out 4,000 baristas when you only have 40 positions. We must ensure that whatever we do at a federal level, whatever support we provide, is for real work, real training, real skills and real jobs. That has certainly been the focus of what I've been doing as a federal member in conjunction with our local RDA, our councils and, of course, our state members. It's important that we work together on this tough challenge. Once again, I acknowledge and accept that there are people who don't like what we are doing, but it is the only option on the table. There are no other policies which have been put forward. The cashless debit card trial in the other trial sites has been, in my view, very successful. I look forward to it being successful in the electorate of Hinkler between Bundaberg and Hervey Bay.
Once again: we need more employment, and to do that we must have a strong regional economy and we must have strength in our local businesses. Most importantly, they must be confident. I'm a former local businessperson myself—I'm sure like you, Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks. I was in business for over 15 years in a number of different areas, including a small business that I started originally with just me and a truck. That ended up at 15 staff running across the east coast, and when the mining boom closed, when all sorts of problems broke out across the world, unfortunately it meant that we lost people as well. It's to my great regret that I had to reduce staffing numbers. I sold on that business when I was elected to this place because, quite simply, it was a conflict in all sorts of places, and I'm very pleased to say that the business is still there and still going well and that my former staff are still employed and adding to the local economy.
We need more of those. There are some 12,000-plus businesses who, overnight, will receive the $30,000 instant asset write-off. That might not mean much to those individuals who find themselves in tough circumstances, but what I know as a former business owner is that the fact that I could purchase capital items, write them off in the year of purchase and have that cash flow back in my business gave me confidence, and the stronger the bottom line, the more likely it was I would look to expand and employ more people. Right now we need to ensure that small business, in particular, is confident, that small business is looking to extend and employ, and that small business is willing to take the risk on one of our young people, on one of those people who are looking for a job, on one of those individuals who have been through our training courses and done everything they possibly can to get work. We need business to be part of that response and part of that solution.
I note the report itself on intergenerational welfare dependence. I am preaching to the converted in this room, I believe. Looking around the room, I know we are all interested in ensuring that we get rid of intergenerational welfare dependence. The member for Moreton has just entered the room, and I know this is something of great interest to him. We have looked at these issues across the board for some time. We've looked at why it is not a solution for our local people to go and work on local farms when work is there. All of these challenges are very difficult to address. I have some 4,000 backpackers across the electorate at peak season who are working full time in horticulture. Why can't we use our local workforce? These challenges are real. They've been around for quite some time. But we are acting. I acknowledge that not everyone accepts the actions we have taken, but they are actions nonetheless, and I would rather do something than do nothing.
It is very easy for a member of parliament to sit around drinking cups of tea in their office—in fact, it's incredibly easy—but to get out and do tough things, to convince your community, to bring them with you, to get all levels of government on board takes a long time and is incredibly difficult. So I thank them for their support in terms of the cashless debit card rollout. I think it will be successful. We continue to drive a stronger economy, particularly in the regional areas. The Hinkler Regional Deal, in my view, is a game-changer for our people—$173 million. I look forward to its success, and I certainly look forward to the election so we can continue this great work.
I rise to speak to the report of the House of Representatives Select Committee on Intergenerational Welfare Dependence. I thank the member for McMillan for so ably and sensitively chairing the committee. I thank my fellow committee members for their consideration and support, and I especially thank the member for Cunningham for her wisdom, her careful and selective questionings and her counsel throughout the committee.
Welfare payments are a vitally important part of the social compact. They must be adequate. Whilst we rightly view them as a social safety net protecting people when vulnerable, they can also be seen as an important investment helping people access important opportunities. That is why I am pleased that the inquiry's name did not have an impact on the outcomes of this committee. The real issue, of course—as indicated in the body of the report and, I'm pleased to say, in the recommendations—is that of intergenerational disadvantage. For many people facing profound disadvantage, the provision of social security payments are, and must be, a lifeline which mean that they and their children have the basics of life but also have the ability to reach out and grab the opportunities necessary to break that cycle of disadvantage.
Many people say, 'You just need to pull yourself up by your boot straps, get a job, get moving'. But it's very hard to do that if you have challenging children and your only concern is making sure they get to school and stay at school. It's hard if you are worried about getting enough food and have to walk around looking for food parcels to make sure your children are fed. It's hard if you have trouble paying for a place to live or if you are homeless or dealing with sickness in the family. That's why I am pleased that the recommendations of this report do go to that very sensitive issue of intergenerational disadvantage.
The recommendations include the need for place based programs that are driven by and accepted by the communities involved, programs that actually reflect an understanding of who the people are that require these initiatives and what their local circumstances are. The recommendations call for wraparound services—services that are coordinated, meaningful, localised and not replicated or unnecessary. Targeted, wraparound support services are essential in engaging children and their families where barriers to education and employment are complex.
I have perfect examples of such situations in my own seat of Batman. Families where there is domestic violence, families where there are complex health issues and families where there might be drug related issues require a great deal of support beyond social security payments. They require the support of experts who know how to help these families through, around and over these barriers so that the children can get access, as I've said, to the opportunities of education and help when they need it. We need social security payments that are adequate and provide the necessary resources to actually be able to live as well as pursue opportunities for a better life.
The report highlights the importance of transition phases that occur in each person's life, and each of these are individual and must be individually tailored. One thing we learned from the inquiry is that one answer or one intervention simply does not meet everybody's needs. They must be individualised. They must be tailored. This approach is referred to as the 'life course approach', and there were many examples where this has worked from many wonderful people who presented to our inquiry.
The report discusses the need to provide targeted and early intervention to support people through life's changes in order to prevent entrenched disadvantage. It considers early intervention programs that should target the following phases of life: prenatal and parenthood. It's astounding to see the success of such programs that helped new mums right through their pregnancy, through the early stages of parenthood and on to when their children are transitioning to school. The results have been astounding—simply sitting with parents and helping them read to their children, understanding healthy living during pregnancy and understanding that having a connection and being a good parent is vitally important to breaking that cycle of disadvantage. This is something that, I guess, as policymakers, we may not see as important but was highlighted over and over again in the inquiry.
It is the transition to education, including preschool, primary and secondary; through to year 12, TAFE and tertiary; and then, of course, on to employment. It is something as simple as having somebody sit in a household and read to children after school or at any time they can, because the parents are not able to do that. Simple interventions like that can mean a world of difference, and we should be prepared to be flexible enough in the provision of our programs to make sure that such interventions are available.
Finally, the importance of collecting data for evaluation and effectiveness of programs is highlighted in the recommendations. Collecting data shows us where people who need our services are located. There were some very stark examples of how important data is. There are nearly a dozen postcodes in this country where interventions are needed. We can put our finger on them on a map and say, 'That is where we need to focus.' We can take some of those children from those families by the hands, so obvious it is to indicate to us where these children are at risk of being in this cycle of disadvantage, and we can lead them to a better life. It is the data and the evaluation of these programs that shows us that.
On behalf of the committee, I would particularly like to acknowledge and thank the inquiry participants and their representatives for their willingness to share difficult personal experiences of entrenched disadvantage. I must admit there was some reluctance on behalf of many of the organisations to present to the committee but I am pleased to say that they did so, with great vigour, with great interest and with great compassion, and I think now they would be very happy with the recommendations thanks to their submissions.
It became clear during the inquiry that Australian communities have people that are doing it really tough, particularly in remote and regional areas of Australia. In many instances they are single mothers and their children. I thank all of them for their stories and I thank all of the people who came forward with their submissions. I recommend this report to the House.