Social Services and Youth Employment Bill speech in Parliament

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment and Other Measures) Bill 2015.This is a bill which speaks to this government's contempt for young Australians and for Australia's social compact. It represents a triumph of ideology over evidence. It was very interesting to hear the closing remarks of the previous speaker, the member for Hindmarsh, when he spoke about fairness and assistance for young job seekers. These are two things that are very little in evidence across this government's attitude to youth employment generally and that re nowhere to be found in the provisions of this mean-spirited bill.

The purpose of this legislation is, of course, to amend the Social Security Act 1991 and a number of pieces of related legislation. It will make some very significant changes, most of which—with, perhaps, one exception—are extremely objectionable and which will dramatically affect and hold back the course of too many young lives.

In outline, this legislation will extend the application of the ordinary waiting period of seven days to recipients of payments like the parenting payment and youth allowance. The ordinary waiting period currently applies to Newstart and sickness allowance recipients. It will also raise the eligibility age for Newstart and sickness allowance from 22 to 25 years of age from 1 July next year. The age requirement for youth allowance will also be adjusted upwards from the current ceiling of 21 to 24 years.

Cruelly, the four-week waiting period for new claimants of youth allowance and the special benefit will be introduced. The low-income supplement will be abolished and indexation is to be paused for the income-free areas for all working-age allowances from 1 July, and similarly with the student payments from 1 January 2016.

If a lot of this sounds familiar it is, of course, because it is. This bill is not the first time the Abbott government has tried to attack young people and their futures with these kinds of measures. Labor strongly opposed the previous incarnation of these cuts in this parliament and in the community, and it will do so again. Labor remembers, just as young people in my electorate and in the electorate of my friend the member for Rankin remember, the previous iteration of this legislation, where it was proposed that young people receive no income support whatsoever for a period up to six months. Let me be clear again: Labor will never support leaving young job seekers under 25 with nothing to live on for six months—or indeed for one month. This is a cut of at least $48 a week, or almost $2,500 a year.

Last week I spoke in this place about the youth unemployment crisis that affects the northern suburbs of Melbourne, including those in the electorate of Scullin. The youth unemployment rate in April hit 20 per cent. Whilst there is always some volatility in month-by-month figures, this rate has consistently been at least in the mid-teens. It is extremely worrying, to say the least. The rate is usually only as high as this over the summer holidays, when more young people are available and looking for work. That it is so high in the middle of the year should be setting off alarm bells for this government, as it is for me and my colleagues. Instead, we see an attitude of cruelty, of vindictiveness, of treating young lives as somehow disposable. How are young people supposed to find work when there simply aren't a sufficient number of entry-level jobs available?

Unemployment more generally has been above six per cent for over a year. It is tough out there—make no mistake. There is no plan for jobs from this government and no plan to equip young people to work the jobs of the future. Cutting people's already meagre payments is a simplistic and superficial approach to a complex problem. Again, it is the triumph of ideology over evidence and reason. Labor understands that job seekers need support to find a job and not be attacked or stigmatised. The young people who I speak to in the Scullin electorate are very keen to find and remain in employment, as are their parents and their grandparents, whose concern for young people, both those in their family and more generally, is a key feature of every street corner meeting that I attend.

The Australia Institute recently conducted a very valuable study, Hard to get a break?, whichfound:

Younger workers aged 17-24 years were most likely to identify the lack of jobs and their own lack of relevant skills as the main barrier to them finding a job than the other age groups. In the younger group, 36 per cent considered the lack of jobs the key problem compared to the average of 20 per cent across the other age groups. Similarly, 31 per cent of this group felt the appropriateness of their skills was the most important issue compared with the average of 13 per cent.

A University of Melbourne study found:

… poor macroeconomic conditions tend to drive young people out of full-time work and into inactivity or part-time work … males who did not complete secondary school suffer the largest increase in unemployment risks as the unemployment rate increases.

So what the evidence tells us we should be doing is skilling young people up—particularly vulnerable young people, particularly vulnerable young men. Instead, this government continues to try to knock them down, to deny them every chance to reach their full potential in life.

Unfortunately it appears that we have a government in Australia that is obsessed with making ordinary people's lives harder, not better. Last year's and this year's budgets have made the macroeconomic conditions in our economy so much worse. Consumer confidence and business confidence are down. People remain reluctant to spend, with a government that has no regard for levels of employment. This in turn means that businesses are less willing to hire new staff. It is a vicious circle, but it is one that this government could ameliorate if it just took a step back from these attacks on young people.

As the Parliamentary Library's Bills Digest notes, despite the fact that the waiting period has been significantly reduced, from six months to one month, and is now only to be applied once to claimants rather than on an on-going basis, it has been argued that four weeks without access to income support would still place many young people in severe financial hardship. The Bills Digest states:

If young people subject to the proposed new waiting period are unable or unwilling to call upon family support or the assistance of charities, then they could lack sufficient means to find a job. Further, if they have no savings or other means of support, these young people would be more likely to be preoccupied with the immediate needs of paying for food and rent than with finding paid employment.

This is something that government members would do well to relate to. The extraordinary cruelty of the original proposals this government put forward is one thing: six months with no income support whatsoever, and not one period of six months to be cut off from any support from the state or society; this is something that could have been repeated on young people. The consequences are not simply about foisting the support of individuals onto their families, where they have families able to support them, or onto charities under other circumstances; the impact goes deeper than that. The Bills Digest has identified something that we understand, something that we on this side of the House know: this also a huge barrier to enabling people to equip themselves to find work in circumstances where it is very tough to find work, with youth unemployment in the areas that I represent at around 20 per cent. This is something that this government does not or will not understand.

The same principle applies so clearly to the imposition of the activity test in terms of child care, where we are seeing exactly the cohort of people—in that case our most vulnerable young children, in this case young people who may well be at risk of falling between the cracks—who need investment, who need support to get a start on the ladder of life, having that denied to them. This is unnecessary cruelty which carries grave consequences for all of those individuals and for the shape of our society at large. This goes fundamentally to the sort of society that we see ourselves as being. It comes down to the social compact that ought to bind Australians. In Labor's vision we do not see these young lives as things that are simply disposable. We see a critical role of government as having a plan for jobs but also a plan to enable people to equip themselves to find those jobs, to engage in secure work, to achieve their potential and to enhance all of our potential as a society.

In this regard I do welcome one belated acknowledgement on the part of this government—that is, successful Labor policies like Youth Connections and Partnership Brokers tackled exactly this problem of helping young people who may be disengaged from education and the job market transition into employment in a sustainable way. We on this side remember that six months after leaving Youth Connections, 94 per cent of the young people who had been through the program were still engaged in education and employment, and after two years more than 80 per cent were still in work or education. Those remarkable figures meant nothing, sadly, to those opposite when they cut this program in last year's budget. We acknowledge that there is now a rebadged version of this program, which is welcome, but too little too late—especially when this government is cutting schools and universities and imposing draconian cuts on young job seekers, such as those set out substantively in this bill.

I note that Labor will be supporting one measure that is yet to be considered by this place—namely, the abolition of the low-income supplement. Of course the onus now should be on the government to split this element from the rest of the bill so it can be voted on. It is typically sneaky of the government to try holding this part hostage so it can complain—again unreasonably—that Labor is standing in the way of these savings. Labor is prepared to act in good faith; I call on the government to do likewise.

What I take issue with fundamentally is those opposite attacking vulnerable, young Australians as a way to make budget savings when there are other, far bigger, potential sources of budget repair. Last week the Minister for Social Services repeatedly described the pension as a 'welfare payment'. I think that would come as news to a lot of pensioners. I know that it did to those in my electorate—who raised the issue with me—and to many other Australians.

We have a social compact in Australia that the Abbott government is seeking to tear up. This compact has an international dimension, recognised in the various human rights covenants that Australia is party to. I note that in four out of five reports of the parliamentary joint committee on human rights, the committee has raised significant concerns regarding the right to social security as recognised in article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Under article 9, the removal of a pre-existing social security right is subject to stringent scrutiny. The committee examined the measures, as introduced in the bill that preceded this one, and found that the six-month exclusion period measure, as previously proposed, was 'incompatible with the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living'. It is very hard to argue with that.

The committee also found that the exclusion period change and the proposed changes to the qualifying age for Newstart allowance and sickness allowance were 'incompatible with the rights to equality and non-discrimination on the basis of age'. Despite these legitimate and powerful concerns, the best the government could do was assert in its statement of compatibility that, while the exclusion period and age change measures would limit these same rights, the limitations were considered reasonable 'proportionate to the policy objective' and for 'legitimate reasons'. Unsurprisingly, this bald and callous assertion is not expanded on much beyond stating:

The amendments in this Schedule do not affect eligibility for social security pensions or benefits, rather they affect the rules governing when those eligible for certain payments can start receiving their entitlements. The amendments focus on promoting self-support by requiring people to meet their own living costs for a short period where they are able. New claimants who need immediate financial assistance will still be able to access exemptions and waivers provided they meet the relevant eligibility criteria.

What sophistry! If only life was so easy and straightforward. Maybe it is for members opposite, but it is not for the one in five young people who are unemployed in Melbourne's north today.

But this is the problem with this bill and the government's approach in a nutshell: it is ideology over evidence and it relies on people magically finding work where none, or none suitable, is available. We urgently need a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to this complex problem; one that works with people, not against them. I think all of us in this place want to see unemployment reduced. We want to see more people working; working in high-quality secure jobs; jobs that set them up for secure and high-quality lives.

Labor's position is starkly different from that of this callous government. You do not reduce unemployment by having people go without enough money to buy food or keep a roof over their heads. We recognise—apart from the basic dignity that is at risk here—that this is not the best preparation for anyone to find a job. Driving people into poverty or destitution solves nothing. It just makes a bad situation far worse. In government, Labor had policies that made a positive difference; policies that generated jobs growth and got people into work. Unemployment was actually lower under Labor than it has been at any stage under this government.

Reducing unemployment should not be seen as budget savings. It should not be seen as a burden. It is an investment in our young people. It is an investment in our capacity and our collective wellbeing. Unfortunately, it is the case that we have a government that is not concerned about youth unemployment or about the future of this country.

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