Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


Youth Connections

8:01 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This evening I rise to put on the record some remarks regarding an amazing program, established by the Labor government, that I know has been operating across Australia in the last several years: Youth Connections. In the environment of cuts and austerity currently being imposed on the Australian people by this coalition regime, I think it is time here this evening to really talk about how taxpayers' money should be invested. We should make sure we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater at this critical juncture of transition of government.

Since the election, we have heard almost nothing but negativity from the government on the issue of expenditure towards core services. Education, health and infrastructure are a few of particular interest to me and the region in New South Wales where I live. Instead of positive proposals, we keep hearing about an agenda of cuts—to health, education, welfare, vital nation-building infrastructure such as the NBN, and public transport. These cuts will severely damage confidence and capacity within our society.

Parents are worried about how they are going to pay for school supplies after the government rips away their schoolkids bonus. Parents and teachers are concerned about school funding since the government walked away from the Labor Gonski reform agenda. People are fearful of cuts to Medicare and other health services that are being advised to them now in the lead-up to this upcoming federal budget. The notion of being taxed just to see your local GP is causing incredible concern, and communities are angry that vital infrastructure such as the NBN is being abandoned in favour of a hotchpotch, century-old, obsolete copper wire. These cuts are damaging. They are hurting the community now, as they will into the future. Concern is becoming increasingly evident in consumer confidence surveys. The sudden lift on the change of government that is so often the case has withered away very, very quickly.

But it is not only the known pre-advised cuts that are causing concern; it is the impending cuts that people sense. There is much uncertainty and angst about this in many parts of the community, particularly amongst those most vulnerable and least able traditionally to participate in civic processes and have their voices heard. The government has refused to release the Commission of Audit report which does, I expect, detail the many horrors it has in store for us. It has hidden it until well and truly after the WA Senate election in what I would characterise as a cynical act of secrecy that underlines contempt for the very people it should be serving and supporting. My expectation is that such cynicism should be and will be punished by voters at the ballot box in Western Australia.

I also note the coalition have stayed quiet on their half a billion dollar cut to rail line projects in Perth. I do not think that the community appreciates that silence. It is a silence that must be broken. For the sake of those in the community who the coalition's secret agenda of cuts will adversely affect, it is time the government stop treating the public's right to know with the degree of incredible contempt that we have seen in this place day after day. We need to have the plans and figures that the government are working with. They need to be in the open so there can be an informed debate about the priorities of government before the die is cast and the negative consequences of that in communities is irrevocable.

Labor believe in providing adequate funds, particularly for health, education and infrastructure. These areas give rise to the expression of our core beliefs which form the founding principles of our party's great social democratic tradition. In government, we put our money into these areas, investing billions in health, education and infrastructure for the benefit of all Australians. Where I live on the New South Wales Central Coast, the positive impacts and outcomes of these investments are clear.

I have heard maligned in this place today the Building the Education Revolution. I just want to put on the record one more time the way in which those buildings have transformed the experience of schooling for young people. They can now gather in places where there were no school halls formerly, whether it is raining or not, to celebrate the successes of their learning. They can gather the civic community around them to identify talent, celebrate sporting achievements and celebrate cultural achievements. They have been provided space for learning and community engagement in new buildings that replaced ones that students frankly described to me thus: 'It was a stinky, old building, Miss. I'm very glad to have a new place to learn. There are no leaks in this room.' That is the kind of transformation of the learning experience that children have had. It has done the same thing in lifting professional esteem. Our school buildings express in a symbolically powerful way what we value. Proper quality in those buildings on the Central Coast has lifted teachers' perceptions of the nature of their work, the professional status that they should be afforded and the high esteem in which they should be held.

I note from the assistant minister's comments in this place last week that all Medicare Locals are under threat, right across the nation. These are agencies that have looked into the community right across Australia, found where the gaps in health provision are and then systematically and carefully gone about filling in those holes in creative, innovative and locally appropriate ways. For example, the Central Coast has a large number of residents who seek retirement there. We have a large number of aged-care settings and aged-care homes available for people to live in as they age and need to move into care.

When a person in aged care has a fall of any kind, the likelihood of breaking a bone is pretty high. In response to that reality, in response to the bed block at Gosford Hospital and in response to the distress of moving an aged person who has had a fall necessarily by ambulance to hospital, there has been a massive change. This is just one program out of Medicare Local that responded to that reality by funding a mobile radiography van. So if there is an incident, it is reported and the van goes to the person. They are in an environment where they are comfortable. This is particularly important for people who might have dementia, just to decrease the stress of the whole experience. This kind of creative response does not happen unless somebody is there doing the coordinating work. It is exactly that kind of work that our Medicare Locals are doing.

In addition to that, I do want put on the record that they were the recipient on the coast of $6.5 million in the Partners in Recovery fund. Partners in Recovery is a vital connecting agency that puts multiple community partners together to wrap care around people who have had severe and long-term challenges in terms of their mental health and wellbeing. Families and colleagues of people who are receiving this support are very frightened that the recently arrived support is about to be ripped out of our community.

The recent NBN hearing on the Central Coast was afforded an opportunity for the incredible expertise of business, education, health professionals and international communication experts to come on board and say very, very clearly that the economic opportunities for jobs growth on the Central Coast are going to be cut away by this small-minded, short-term vision of the coalition government. That is, by taking away the opportunity of fibre to the premise for every community person, business, home—every place in which an aged person wants to age in place and have the security of not just a little bit faster but reliable and very speedy internet that gives them the chance to live safely in their context.

These are the reforms of government. Politics does not sit outside people's lives. It is absolutely deeply embedded in them and you can see it in those examples that I have given you. We are proud of the reforms that we made in government, but we are deeply concerned by the agenda of cuts that put under threat those particular areas of education, health and infrastructure. The government seems determined to undo this good work by dismantling reforms and slashing and burning, in a vain and petty display of what can only be conceived as partisan vindictiveness by the people who are now receiving the benefit of these programs.

It seems that the Abbott regime is increasingly being defined in the negative. They are known for what they are opposing or seeking to dismantle, rather than articulating anything about an aim to support, build or enable. Today, I call on the government to change course, particularly by committing to fund Labor's Youth Connections program beyond the end of 2014. This is an important issue, because it impacts on very vulnerable young people in our community. The profile of most of the people engaged in this program are young people, disconnected from school or work, under the age of 17.

People who might be listening to this broadcast and certainly people here in the chamber should cast around in their minds and you will know the people whom I am talking about. They are young Australians who have incredible potential but who, sadly, might be robbed of the opportunity of connecting with their future because of a failure to fund a program that is helping them make their connections back to work, into work and back to school.

From 2010 to 2013, Youth Connections cost a mere $286 million. This year, it cost $76.8 million. For under $80 million a year, the coalition could—if they wanted to and if they were willing to listen to these young people and the community that is supporting them—prove to this place, as well as the nation at large, that they actually care about supporting young Australians who need a little bit of extra support to find their way in life.

Worryingly, at recent Senate estimates it was revealed that the government has not funded Youth Connections beyond 2014. The head of department, Ms Lisa Paul—who gives very fulsome answers to very many questions—when asked about the need to address this matter simply said, in a prophetic way: 'That is a matter for government.' It is a matter for government. It is a matter of importance for government and it is matter of importance for the young people who are the beneficiaries of the Youth Connections program.

We established it because we believe that the government does have a role to provide support for the most vulnerable of young people who are falling through the cracks. Youth Connections' mission is to assist young people who are finding it difficult to cope with education and who are not currently in training or work. Also, to help them focus on their future and help guide them towards further study or training in their desired field.

It has been a hugely successful program. It involves over 67 organisations across 113 service regions right across the country. It employs 750 specialised youth workers. When speaking to these youth workers, you really start to understand the level of skill, expertise and communities of care that have wrapped around the kids because of the commitment of ongoing funding to this program. Youth Connections caseworkers work with young people to develop a formal plan for their future in education and training, employment or both.

The mentorship is an important element of the program, helping participants overcome the barriers they face, especially as many come from disadvantaged backgrounds. From my many visits to the Youth Connections program on the Central Coast, I have so many wonderful memories, particularly of meeting men who were highly qualified tradespeople, who could be out making an awful lot of money, who had decided that they had got a hand-up from somebody else and they wanted to contribute to the life of these kids. They were generous in nature, powerful in their communication, mentoring and guiding these young men and women in how to rebuild their lives while teaching them the skills of actually physically building. To get the right person to do that job is no small thing. What we are on the edge of, because of the failure of the government to declare that they will support Youth Connections, is the complete dismantling of a highly skilled and very effective sector of youth workers who are helping to rebuild the lives of kids who did not get off to a good start in life.

Providers are community based. They are mostly not-for-profits with intimate knowledge of the local area. They are really delivering Youth Connections programs very effectively. At Senate estimates, education department officials informed us that Youth Connections has a success rate of 75 per cent, with participants either achieving or working towards achieving a final outcome. The great thing was that, of those who had achieved a return to school or a placement, 93 per cent of them were still in that school placement or learning placement or work one year on. That is a powerful indicator of how good this program is. Seventy-four thousand young people were helped between 2010 and 2013. We know that 20 per cent of Youth Connections clients are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander kids. Making a success of this program for them is another step in closing the gap. It is our job in our time to make sure that we do that. We cannot do it by pulling support from the most vulnerable.

I want to put on the record my concern that the evaluation report into the National Partnership Agreement on Youth Attainment and Transitions that was released in December 2012 showed an increase, but we have not been able to get a more recent report, at least not published. It is on the record that it was available in January this year, and I am concerned that it is still not available to the public, because the public deserves to have the information about the success of this program.

I want to give some detailed insight into the life of one young person who has been helped by Youth Connections. The person's name and the places that are mentioned here have been changed to preserve their anonymity. I want to talk about Kate. Kate experienced a severely dysfunctional upbringing. She experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse from a very young age, including domestic violence from both her mother and her father. She witnessed a sexual assault from her mother to her sisters and witnessed drug use throughout her life. She was disconnected from her family at age 11 and, although she was placed in the custody of her grandfather, there was still ongoing conflict and she had been in and out of home since the age of 13. Her father had spent the majority of his life in prison and, despite years of abuse and neglect, Kate still seeks and holds a very strong relationship with her father. Her older sister has also been in and out of prison, for drug use and assault, and for her survival she engaged in prostitution. Kate would babysit her sister's children while this was happening. This is the sort of person I am talking about who is getting the funding and support from Youth Connections.

At the age of 14, Kate engaged with a casework team, through a referral from her school. She was, after that, proactive in asking for support and aiming towards what she wanted to achieve. Mid last year she was referred into a living skills program to help her move towards independent living. She completed the course over a six-week period, and the organisation that she was placed with was so impressed with her that they gave an interview to her for a housing program. The caseworkers then advocated for Kate, because she was only 15, and they helped her negotiate and sign a lease to give her a safe home to go to, perhaps for the first time in her life. With the support of the caseworkers and this well-devised plan of support, Youth Connections was able to encourage a partnering organisation to be the guarantor on Kate's lease until she turned 16. She is still successfully maintaining her rental and the program will continue till later in 2014, when she will be skilled enough, based on her track record, to maintain her own accommodation and a job. She belongs to a community of care now, with people in the community who are looking out for her.

ACOSS has stated:

The government must urgently signal its ongoing commitment to fund vital services which assist vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community, including those which prevent homelessness and address youth unemployment.

Surely Youth Connections is one of those programs that deserves a place in the budget. It is eight weeks till the budget. It is five more days of debating here in the parliament. When are we going to hear a compassionate response from this government to those in great need? When are we going to see this outstanding program get the attention that it deserves and the funding that it needs to continue to do its work for the most vulnerable and needy young people in our community?

With youth unemployment remaining stubbornly high, you would think that the government would be racing to continue funding of such successful programs. You would think that they would be there before we could even raise the question 'Do you intend to review your decision around Youth Connections?' We seriously have to question the sorts of motives that are at play at the moment in the coalition's decision making. The overwhelming body of evidence backs the critical importance of completing year 12 and making a successful transition into work or study, showing it reduces the lifetime risk of unemployment and ill health and boosts lifetime earnings. I fear that, in an ideological pursuit for smaller government, there is a meanness that will relegate our young people to a small future. It is time to break free of this self-imposed ideological straitjacket and give the young people of Australia an opportunity. (Time expired)