Standing up for Canberra

Social Services Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment and Other Measures) Bill 2015

After the budget last year, I went round my electorate and spent a number of weekends conducting doorknocking. I love doorknocking. I conduct community forums and mobile offices. I am now conducting coffee catch-ups, which are hugely popular. There is nothing like doorknocking to get a raw, unedited view of the issues and concerns of your electorate.

Last year straight after the budget, I spent a number of weekends doorknocking right across the electorate. The response was quite frightening actually when people opened their doors and I asked them whether they had any issues or concerns they wanted to let me know about. They spent a lot of time and a lot of energy, and quite often there were tears, letting me know what they were concerned about. They were frightened and they were angry.

The budget last year painted what was supposedly a budget emergency where the disadvantaged, low- and middle-income earners, the disabled and those living on pensions were targeted to address the supposed budget emergency. It is quite interesting that the budget emergency seems to have gone this year but the unfairness of last year's budget remains.

As I said, the beauty of doorknocking is that it gives you a raw and unedited view of the issues and concerns of your electorate. And the raw and unedited view was that they are angry and frightened. They were angry about the cuts to the pensions. They were angry about cuts to the DSP. They were angry about the cuts to education. They were angry about the endless broken promises. They felt incredibly betrayed by the Abbott government because the government had said that there would be no changes to pensions, no cuts to education, no cuts to health. Yet, low and behold, what did we get through the budget emergency of last year? We got cuts to pensions, cuts to the disability support pension, cuts to education, cuts to health and broken promise after broken promise. A lot of Canberrans felt incredibly betrayed.

As I said, they were angry but they were also frightened. I remember taking a phone call from my mum shortly after the budget who had just been down to the supermarket. She had run into an old friend of hers who was in tears because she had got the message through last year's dreadfully unfair budget that she was going to have to work until she was 70. She was in the process of sorting out her retirement and was looking forward to retirement. She was very frightened about the fact that she would have to work until she was 70.

In those conversations I had with the people of Canberra—in Tuggeranong, in Weston Creek, in Woden and in the inner south—they were very concerned about cuts to pensions and about the cuts to health and education. I remember doorknocking one woman. She was a little surprised to see me there. Afterwards she came running down the street after us because we had moved up a number of doors. She was in tears and said to me: 'I'm really concerned about how this unfair budget is going to affect my child's education. I'm doing it tough. I'm doing it on my own and I don't think I'll be able to afford for my child to be tertiary educated, despite the fact that I'm working very hard. I'm doing it on my own. I'm a single mum.' She was not prepared to say that to me as I stood at her front door, but she came running down the street after she had a chance to collect her thoughts and express those views, as I said, in tears.

As I said, a number of things came up in those discussions but the surprise for me and where the most anger was felt was in the cuts to youth allowance. Canberrans were shocked that a government could do that to its young people, that it could propose such a punitive measure on its young people; it is young people who are doing it tough. They said to me: 'This could happen to my kid. This could happen to my grandchild. This could happen to the young person up the street. This could happen to my neighbour's young son or your daughter. This could happen to any of us. How could a government do this to its own people?'

We are a nation that prides itself on social democracy, that prides itself on establishing policies, principles and ideologies framed around the enlightenment. We are a nation that was at the vanguard of the social democratic movement throughout the world. Yet we are making cuts to these young people, just casting them aside, cutting them adrift really. They felt angry and they felt betrayed. As one constituent said to me at a mobile office just last weekend: 'How are these people meant to live? What are they meant to live on? Are they meant to live on air?

So I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment and Other Measures) Bill 2015 and join my Labor colleagues in standing against this terrible legislation, this terrible policy. I am doing so to protect young people across Australia and in my electorate of Canberra. Since this government came to office, we have seen an unprecedented attack on young people. This legislation continues those attacks and that is why Labor strongly oppose it.

This legislation will leave job seekers under 25 with nothing to live on for one month. This measure revises last year's horrendous budget measure that required young people under 30 to actively seek work for six months prior to receiving income support payments. But whether for one month or six, Labor will never support measures that leave young people with nothing to live off. As this woman said to me at my mobile office at Weston Creek just recently, 'What do you expect them live off? Air?'

This bill also sees the government press ahead with its changes to the eligibility age for Newstart, pushing job seekers between the ages of 22 and 24 onto the lower youth allowance. This legislation is fundamentally unfair and these cruel cuts will impact those Australians, those Canberrans, who are most vulnerable who were targeted in last year's budget. It will hurt those we should be doing everything we can to help. This legislation will see 54,000 young job seekers under 25 forced to live on absolutely nothing for one month. How does the government expect these young people to get by? Where does the government expect them to live? Who will pay for their groceries? Who is going to pay for their bills?

As we know, one month is a very long time with no form of income. The assumption is that these young people will be able to fall on their family and friends for a one-month period; but what about the most vulnerable in our society, who do not have the option of moving back in with mum or dad or whose parents simply cannot afford to support them?

This move in particular has received outright opposition from the Australian and Canberra public—rightly so. People were absolutely horrified by the government's plan to leave young people with nothing to live off for six months and they are still horrified by the one-month period. The chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service, Dr Cassandra Goldie, says that making young people wait for six months or one month will only cause hardship and homelessness. It risks consigning young people to a vicious cycle of poverty. It must not become law.

This legislation will also push young people under 25 from Newstart onto the lower youth allowance. This is a cut of at least $48 a week or almost $2,500 a year. For those people shifted from Newstart to youth allowance, this represents an almost 20 per cent cut in support. The Australian Council of Social Service reports that Newstart payments are 35 per cent below the poverty line of $400 per week for a single adult. These young people are already just getting by—many are not getting by—and these cuts will push young people into a cycle of poverty. Now is not the time for the government to turn its back on young Australians, when youth unemployment has soared to 13.5 per cent.

What those opposite fail to understand is that unemployment can happen to anyone. That was the point that those Canberrans made to me when I was doorknocking last year, straight after the budget. It can happen to anyone. As they said to me, 'Gai, there but for the grace of God goes my neighbour's young son, my girlfriend's young daughter, my granddaughter, my grandson, my son or my daughter.' This is what this legislation completely overlooks. It can happen to anyone. In a social-democratic nation and in the nation that has mechanisms in place —or it did it in the past—of looking after those who are doing it tough, it is particularly outrageous. As one Canberran said to me last year, 'The budget measures that the government introduced last year in response to the supposed budget emergency cut into our social fabric.' I agree entirely.

At a time when youth unemployment is around double the national average and at a 10-year high, we should be supporting our youth, not abandoning them in their time of need. The CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Kate Carnell, has said that:

… unless the youth unemployment issue is addressed - and it will need to be addressed quite aggressively - that we will end up with a generation of young people on the fringes of the economy.

She is not the only one voicing concerns about this policy. John Falzon, one of my constituents and the CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society, said:

This change is a clear admission of the cruelty of this measure without actually abandoning it.

The National Welfare Rights Network said the one-month wait period:

… will place young people in severe financial hardship, leaving them without food, medicines, money for job search and rent. No income means no income – whether it’s for six months or four weeks. There is no place in our social security system for such a harmful approach. The Parliament should reject this plan outright.

Just this morning, I saw the reports and heard on the radio about a study has just been launched again by the Australian Council of Social Service, which found that inequality between the richest and poorest in Australia has grown. Instead of taking steps to address Australia's growing inequality, the Abbott government is almost doing the exact opposite by continuing its savage attack on low- and middle-income Australians. It is continuing its savage attack on the disadvantaged, it is continuing its savage attack on the disabled and it is continuing its savage attack on those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners. It is bad policies like this one that entrench disadvantage. They entrench disadvantage by cutting people adrift and sending them into a cycle of poverty. This will lead to greater inequality in this country.

Australians do not want to live in a country that abandons young people who have fallen on hard times. That is the very, very strong message I got from the people of Canberra last year particularly, as I knocked on those doors. I got that raw, unedited communication from them and that raw, unedited message from them. They spoke about what this government had planned in so many areas in terms of its cuts to pensions, its cuts to education, its cuts to health, its cuts the ABC, its cuts to SBS and its cut to youth programs like Youth Connections. Youth Connections was doing a fantastic job in terms of linking up youth at risk it with programs and keeping them in the education systems. Cuts to programs like that are just incomprehensible. It is a program that is helping out young, at-risk kids in terms of keeping them in the education system and then essentially giving them a path to a career and being a productive member of the community. This government gets rid of programs like that. It just beggars belief as to what the thinking was behind that.

Labor will oppose the measure to push young people under 25 from Newstart onto the lower youth allowance, as we have done for the last year. Why are we doing it? Because the measure is wrong. We will oppose the pauses to the indexation changes of income-free areas, because these changes too will hurt the most vulnerable people on income support payments and over time these changes will only hurt these vulnerable people more. We will also oppose the measures in the bill that apply a one-week waiting period to all working age payments. This is nothing but a shameful cut by the government that will leave people on income support with nothing for a week.

We will, however, support the ceasing of the low-income supplement in this bill. My colleague has just mentioned that. We call on the government to split the bill when it gets to the Senate, separating out the low-income supplement measure so that this can be agreed on. If the government is not willing to split the bill, Labor will oppose it in its entirety. The Abbott government, despite all its rhetoric about 'earn or learn' is essentially giving up on these young people. This measure has been rejected by this parliament once already and it should be rejected again.

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