darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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October 29, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12.40 pm) — I rise to highlight an issue of enormous concern to Gippslanders and, I assume, all members in this place, that being the issue of youth unemployment. Recently a report was released titled How young people are faring, and its findings in relation to employment outcomes for young people, particularly in regional areas, should be ringing alarm bells throughout the federal government and its state counterparts. In summary, the report found that the proportion of teenagers out of work increased from 12.2 per cent in May last year to 18.5 per cent in May this year. It also found that the number of people getting into apprenticeships or traineeships has declined.

I would like to quote from an article in the Melbourne Age by Farrah Tomazin, a very talented education reporter for that newspaper. The article said:

Experts say the findings should be a wake-up call for state and federal governments, whose investment in education has failed to help those who need it most: disadvantaged students, indigenous children, and those in rural and regional communities.

The article goes on to say:

“The geographic areas where you have low-level participation also tend to be poor, and in many cases, have high indigenous populations,” said Melbourne University education expert Professor Jack Keating.

“Yet we haven’t made a lot of gains in those areas over the last decades. That’s the crucial question — can we find strategies to help get young people in those areas into education and training?”

There is a lack of recent figures in relation to Gippsland. The last available that I could find were in October 2007 for youth unemployment. They said the unemployment rate at that stage for 15- to 19-year-olds was 19.4 per cent, and I fear it is much worse now. In fact, I fear the hidden unemployment could be worse, with a number of young people being forced to leave my communities to obtain work outside the region.

The experience in particular in Morwell, in the Latrobe Valley, worries me greatly. The last available figures on the federal parliamentary website from December last year had the overall unemployment rate at Morwell at 7.7 per cent, which was double the national average at that time. It was in that context that I wrote to the Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion in September this year seeking an explanation as to why Gippsland was excluded from the program of local employment coordinators to assist with developing projects to stimulate employment opportunities. I am yet to receive a response from the minister in that regard but I will be following it up with her because I believe that the region, given its high unemployment rate, should have been one of the first to have been included in that program. I commend the government for the program but ask the question of why Gippsland, in particular, was not included in it.

On a separate but related matter, I will also be seeking an explanation from the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs following a decision to cut the funding for specialised Centrelink officers to deal with young people. It has been reported to me in the Latrobe Valley that unemployed youth are no longer able to access a specialised youth worker and receive the one-on-one service that they used to be able to receive in our region. Instead, I am advised that they must deal with whichever Centrelink officer is available at the time that they visit the relevant office. This means that they may deal with different staff each time.

If anyone is familiar with the issues of youth unemployment, they will know that there is a lack of trust there to a large extent and there needs to be an opportunity to build a relationship with the individual officer to manage the case. I think this is a step backwards from the high quality of service and support that was provided in the past. Locally, qualified youth social workers have contacted my office to report that the Centrelink staff used to be able to arrange courses or training for unemployed young people and provide that level of specialised support which I think is very important and influential in helping some young people back on the right track. I am told that the practice has now stopped, apparently due to reduced funding availability for the Centrelink officers.

I must say that I am not here to criticise the individual Centrelink officers involved, because, by and large, in my experience, the Centrelink officers in Gippsland do a remarkable job with often very difficult cases. They are quite magnificent in the way they manage some quite awkward situations. But young unemployed people do need a level of specialised assistance, particularly, in my experience, in cases where they have come from a broken home and have experienced little adult supervision during their lives. Many also come from a background of almost institutionalised welfare dependency now. We have young people who have experienced several generations of unemployment in their families and do not have great role models to turn to for how they break the poverty cycle and get themselves engaged in our community. To break that cycle we need to get those young people engaged in practical and productive work that offers the prospect of regular employment in the future, and I think the opportunity of specialised assistance through Centrelink is one of the avenues we need to explore more fully.

I believe that the decency of a job stands at the heart of our contract with young people. We need to be continually striving to create the right economic environment for businesses to prosper and to hire young people in the future. For those young people in my community who do need a helping hand, we need to have the appropriate support services in place in our regional locations to ensure that those young people are assisted and given every opportunity to achieve their absolute best. I recommend that the government looks seriously at what youth support services are available through the Centrelink offices in the Gippsland region in order to assist those young people to achieve their best.

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