BILLS;Social Services Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment and Other Measures) Bill 2015;Second Reading – 09 Sep 2015

Here we go again—groundhog day. It is another day of the Abbott government wanting to punish young job seekers because they need a scapegoat for their failure to create jobs. First it was the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Stronger Penalties for Serious Failures) Bill, then the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Job Seeker Compliance Framework) Bill; now it is the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment and Other Measures) Bill.

The Abbott government are very good at naming their bills in such a way as to shift the blame to young job seekers for their own situation. Implicit in all of these bills’ titles is that Australia’s young job seekers are entirely the masters of their own destiny—that if they cannot get a job then they are not trying hard enough. According to the government’s rhetoric, what we need is stronger compliance and stronger penalties to make sure they try harder. But what the Abbott government fail to appreciate is that young people are trying hard. They are trying hard at a time when they have the odds stacked against them. What they need is opportunities for education and training, yet the government have made massive cuts to university funding and are pursuing a deregulation agenda that will put a university degree out of reach of the average family, let alone the thousands of apprenticeships and traineeships that they have cut. The Abbott government have also cut $1 billion from apprenticeships and traineeships.

What young job seekers also need—and I guess it will be no surprise for those opposite to hear this—is jobs. Yet, under this government’s watch, the number of unemployed in Australia has jumped above 800,000 for the first time in 22 years. That is more than 800,000 unemployed job seekers looking for what I understand at any given time is around 150,000 vacancies. This is particularly concerning to me, as a senator from the state with some of the areas of the highest youth unemployment in the country. But it is in response to this fact that we get nonsensical statements from the Minister for Employment, who once said, ‘When jobs are sparse, it means that you’ve got to apply for more jobs to get a job.’ Thank you for that insight from Senator Abetz! Perhaps they should just follow the Treasurer’s advice and ‘get a good job that pays good money’. It is statements like these that highlight how out of touch this government is when it comes to understanding the challenges that face the unemployed, particularly those young job seekers.

This government, which promised to create one million jobs within five years of coming to power, does not have a plan for jobs after two years in power. So, faced with no plan and an embarrassing track record on jobs, the government resorts to its old style—that of blaming other people. After all, it has been in power for two years, so it is a bit late to keep blaming those of us on this side. The only means left to deflect the blame from itself is to point the finger at job seekers for their failure to get a job. It does not matter that there are not enough jobs out there. Never mind the fact that Australia’s Treasurer practically dared the automotive industry to leave Australia. Never mind that this government put thousands of renewable energy jobs at risk through its attacks on the renewable energy target that saw investment fall by almost 90 per cent. Never mind that the Abbott government broke its promise to have our Navy’s submarine fleet built by Australians in Australia. Never mind that the government has cut billions from education and training, one of the key supports for job seekers to gain the skills they need to get a secure job. Never mind that it has taken two years for the government to belatedly explain the fate of the $16 million grant originally promised to create jobs in Cadburys in Hobart. We will still wait to see when the money actually comes through—even though it has been repromised for other things.

This government would have you believe that the failure of unemployed young people to secure a job is all the fault of those job seekers. If the government wants to deny that this is its motive, it only need to look at the submission of the Australian Council of Social Service, in a recent Senate inquiry, who said of the four-week waiting period for income support:

This proposal shifts the risk of financial hardship arising from unemployment from government to the individuals affected, implying that they are personally at fault for an economic policy problem governments have struggled to fix.

What a damning indictment of the motives of this government, from an organisation which represents the entire welfare sector throughout Australia.

The whole idea of this bill, and a number of other punitive bills the government has introduced into this place, is based on the false premise that somehow job seekers need more incentive and more motivation to seek work. I have some news for those opposite. The vast majority of young people are motivated. They want to work and they are trying hard to seek work. They need more support, more opportunities for training and education and, basically, more opportunities for employment. What they do not need is punitive measures that push them into poverty and hardship. As ACOSS said in their submission:

The unspoken assumption behind this policy, that youth unemployment is mainly caused by a lack of willingness to seek employment, is flawed and unproven. As Professor Jeff Borland argues following a careful examination of the unemployment statistics, the current rate of youth unemployment can be fully explained by inadequate demand for labour since the Global Financial Crisis.

There are measures in this bill that provide total savings of around $1 billion, but most of these measures are unnecessarily cruel and punitive and the government has given no consideration to the economic or social costs that will arise from these measures. The measures that Labor will not support in this bill are: applying a one-week waiting period to all working-age payments; requiring young people under the age of 25 to wait four weeks before receiving income support; extending Youth Allowance to people aged 22 to 24; and freezing the indexation of income free areas for working-age payments and student payments for three years. The extension of youth allowance to young people aged under 25 in lieu of Newstart and sickness allowances represents a cut of $48 a week or $2,500 a year to many young Australians.

We know that Newstart is a payment of $260 a week and it is pretty difficult to get by on it. Compare that to $391 a week for the aged pension or $641 a week on the minimum wage. These incomes are difficult to get by on and so how can anyone be expected to live on just $213 a week? Yet this is what the Abbott government is expecting young jobseekers to do right up until the age of 25. Commenting briefly on the measures in the Brotherhood of St Lawrence’s submission to this Senate inquiry into this bill, Executive Director Tony Nicholson said:

The extension of the age for Youth Allowance (Other) also risks potential adverse consequences for disadvantaged young people’s capacity to transition into adulthood.

Particularly, our concern is how it will affect the ability of those young jobseekers who lack family financial support as they struggle into self-reliance.

We have announced our position on the one-week waiting period and the indexation changes following the 2014-15 budget and we will continue to oppose these measures.

The measure in this bill that Labor is most concerned about is the four-week waiting period for income support for young jobseekers under the age of 25. I have spoken previously in this place on another government bill through which those opposite were proposing to introduce a six-month non-payment period. This month-long waiting period is still unnecessarily punitive. In fact, it is more than that—it is downright cruel. There are two questions that I would really like to hear those on the other side try to answer about this measure, though I do not expect to hear any coherent answers on this because the measure simply does not make sense.

But I ask these two questions all the same, because maybe it will prompt those on the other side to contemplate how monumentally ridiculous, cruel and unfair this measure is. Firstly, what are young jobseekers expected to live on for the month that they are denied any form of income support? Are they expected to take out a private loan with their future income support payments as collateral? Are they expected to beg and borrow from friends and family? What if their friends and family are not in a position to support them financially? Do they knock on the doors of already overstretched welfare agencies? Do they go begging in the streets? Do they engage in theft and other criminal behaviour to maintain themselves? Or is the government simply expecting them to not eat or pay for rent or electricity for four weeks? On this point, we heard on the ABC’s AM program last month the story of ‘Sally’—not her real name—a 19-year-old woman who has been homeless and has relied on social security since the age of 13. Sally is convinced that, when subjected to non-payment periods, young people will turn to crime to support their income. To quote Sally:

Well, if that’s the only way that people are going to get money, then they’re going to do it, you know?

Logic is, okay, so I can be homeless or maybe I can try and get something illegally, and then if I do get caught, well then at least I’ll still have a roof over my head and getting fed in jail.

According to the AM story, Sally is now studying to be a youth worker. She will have a rewarding career helping people like herself, but where would Sally be now if she was subject to a non-payment period? It is really worth contemplating.

The second question I have is: what practical purpose does this measure serve? How does cutting off a jobseeker’s income support for four weeks, regardless of their willingness to comply with their obligations, help that person to find a job? I can answer that question quite easily: it serves no purpose whatsoever. In fact, in terms of helping young jobseekers gain employment, it is highly counterproductive. If a jobseeker cannot afford to eat, or maintain a roof over their head, how do we expect them to travel or to undertake any of the job-seeking activities they are required to do? How do they get to appointments with their employment service provider? How do they apply for jobs online if they cannot afford internet access? How do they travel to job interviews? How do they buy the clothes and other accessories they need to make themselves presentable for a job interview? How do they enrol in, or even attend, education or training? Where is the motivation to go out and look for a job when they do not even have the means to do so?

This measure simply kicks young job seekers when they are down. It absolutely cripples any job seeking ability they may have had. I do not know how any of those opposite can possibly think that this is a good idea. All this policy achieves is cruelty, heartlessness and brutality—and a relatively small budget saving. But is that saving worth the collateral damage that it will deliver to young jobseekers who will be pushed into poverty and hardship? Perhaps it is to a government which sinks to the cruel and heartless depths that this one has.

But what the government has not factored into this bill is the cost of this measure. We have seen the savings—some $170 million for this particular measure. But who pays to support these people financially? Who provides their food, heating and accommodation? And if the government has no plan to provide for this, who pays for the social and economic costs of pushing thousands of young Australians into poverty and hardship? And if this government needs any more convincing of the folly of this measure, it should take a look at the submissions to the Senate inquiry into this bill, particularly those from the welfare sector. I have already mentioned the comments of the Australian Council of Social Service earlier in this speech, but I will quote from a few of the other submissions, starting with the Brotherhood of St Laurence. Its Executive Director, Tony Nicholson, said:

… a period of four weeks without income support continues to have potential for harsh unintended consequences that will be borne hardest by those young jobseekers who do not have financial support of their families.

The National Welfare Rights Network, who had previously conducted research into the impact of people not being able to secure adequate income support from Centrelink, outlined some of the harms that this measure would unleash on people from disadvantaged backgrounds. They predicted:

… increase in family tensions, family breakdown, increased isolation, deterioration in physical and mental wellbeing, homelessness and/or housing insecurity, increased barriers to looking for work and social and economic participation.

The National Welfare Rights Network noted that in New South Wales, a property owner may commence eviction proceedings against a person who falls just two weeks behind in their rent. The committee conducting the Senate inquiry also received these comments from Lin Hatfield Dodds, National Director of UnitingCare Australia:

We recommend that the committee seek documented evidence from the government that demonstrates why it believes there will be benefits from the tightening of exceptions for people to serve waiting periods, and demonstrates how this measure will result in more positive outcomes for individuals facing hardship. UnitingCare is not aware of any evidence that these measures will do anything other than lower the living standards, and increase the risk of harm, for an already vulnerable group of people.

The National Youth Mental Health Foundation, or headspace, made the following comments in their submission:

The impact of such a change has the potential to leave young people without the ability to meet their basic needs at a time when they should be focused on finding and securing employment, and to increase their risk of experiencing homelessness and mental health difficulties. Such changes would also impact disproportionately on those most vulnerable young people, who are unable to rely on family or other social connections for financial or housing support in times of crisis.

To summarise what the submitters to this inquiry, particularly those from the welfare sector, were saying: the four-week waiting period has the potential to drive many young people into poverty and hardship and potentially worse problems such as homelessness; the waiting period will also make it more difficult for young people to actively participate in activities to help them find work, and there is absolutely no evidence that this measure will provide any benefits for young job seekers.

Despite all the evidence weighed against this ludicrous proposal, it is exactly the kind of thing we have come to expect from a government which is increasingly out of touch. It is a government whose Treasurer tells us that poor people do not drive cars and that the best way to afford a house in Sydney is to go out and get a well-paying job—how insulting. It is a government whose employment minister seems to believe that the best way for young people to get a job in a market where jobs are sparse is to apply for more jobs. It is a government that does not understand the real barriers to employment for young people, in particular the fact that there just are not enough jobs around to apply for. And, it is a government that has no plan to create jobs.

It is a government that is now overseeing a situation where we have the highest number of unemployed Australians since 1994 and yet they are still trumpeting their target of one million jobs in five years. A plan to create jobs is what Australia’s young job seekers need now. They also need education and training so they can gain the skills to fill those jobs. What they do not need is punitive measures which push them into poverty and hardship.

In regard to the Senate inquiry report recently released, the government senators actually admitted that the four-week waiting period will disproportionately impact on vulnerable young people, including those with mental health issues—I was pleased to see them come to that line. But the Abbott government is still knowingly pushing young people into poverty and into hardship. If Mr Abbott gets his way, young job seekers under 25 will be pushed further and further into that hardship with nothing to live on for one month. I would like to suggest to those on the other side that they try to live on no income for one month—not in their maybe quite fancy houses but out there like young people maybe in shared accommodation—and see how they go. How would they go trying to buy food, trying to pay for your electricity, trying to apply for jobs and trying to afford the clothing to turn up to an interview looking decent.

I cannot believe the mentality of those opposite to always blame and blame and blame others, whether it is in their speeches when they are blaming the Labor Party for things that have happened in the past or whether they are blaming young people. Two years they have been in government, two birthday candles on the cake and all we have seen, as I said yesterday in another speech—

 Senator Jacinta Collins: Two-year-old behaviour.

 Senator Bilyk: Thank you, Senator Collins, indeed it is two-year-old behaviour of tantrums, of dysfunction and of chaos. They have no idea what they are doing, so what do they do? They make the young people pay for it. It is always someone else’s fault, everybody else is to blame. Until those on the other side actually get real about life, nothing will change unfortunately. I cannot believe that anybody would think that people can live on nothing for a month—absolutely atrocious. I call on any of those opposite to take that challenge, to live on no income for a month, to not be able to access their bank account and their credit card and everything else, but still have to pay their bills and still try to eat. If they come from a family that cannot support them, think about how hard that is for those people.

Not everybody, like a number of those on that side, was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. That is the problem—too many silver spoons into the mouths when you were born. You have no concept of reality about how the real people live in this world and it will be the failure of your government. You will lose the election because you have no concept of how real people live and about how those who are suffering hardship live. You know what? I will be the first one to cheer when you lose government because I think this is absolutely atrocious. I cannot believe that those opposite constantly say that it is the fault of other people that they cannot get jobs when your government has done nothing to create those one million jobs that you were going to create in five years. You talk about how there are more jobs, but the trouble is the jobs you have created are all part-time or casual. I have a 30-year-old and a 29-year-old. My daughter is in work, and my son has just come back from overseas and is looking to work. He has us to fall back on but he is finding it hard, so I do not know how you think other people are going to live.