ADDRESS TO THE TASMANIAN COUNCIL OF SOCIAL SERVICES (TasCOSS) CONFERENCE

Good morning and thank you Noel and Tony for your invitation to address TasCOSS today and for the work you do as the President and Chief Executive, respectively.

It’s great to be in Tasmania and it’s great to be here to be with you today at your conference.

Ageing Population – Challenges ahead

When I was the Employment Minister in 2005, I released a publication called ‘Workforce Tomorrow’.

It outlined the challenges and opportunities of population impact:

  • with a predicted 195,000 shortfall of workers; and
  • the dependency ratio between the proportion of the population aged over 65 to the working age population increasing from 19 per cent in 2002 to 36 in 2036.

I asked my department to revisit those figures which are now about 10 years old based on available data.

It revealed something essentially positive.

Successive governments have committed to policies and programmes that have mitigated the risk of a rapidly ageing population – some of which were difficult and controversial.

During that time, changes to the retirement income system, participation requirements for specific income support groups, the increase in migration intake and technological advances have helped reduce the severity of the impact of an ageing population more than predicted.

Because of these far-sighted reforms, we now expect:

  •  labour force growth to grow by 220,000 per year over the decade from 2020; and
  • the dependency ratio will rise to 30 per cent by 2032 – a trending improvement according to Treasury figures in this year’s budget

Participation rates of working age people are now engaged in the labour marker longer, for instance:

  • the number of over 65s in 2002-03 was 125,000; today around 320,000 people over 65 are working;
  • In 1990, Australia’s participation rate for over 55s was below the OECD average of 28 per cent at 22 per cent; for 2013 is above the OECD rate of 33.7 per cent at 34.9 per cent.
  • Female participation rates has increased from 67 per cent  in 2002-03 to 71 per cent  for 2014; and
  • Migration numbers have risen from 90,000 a year in 2002-03 to 230,000 a year with Treasury anticipating a rise to around 250,000 from 2017-18 onwards.

Despite these marked improvements, real challenges continue to linger:

  •  The dependency ratio remains disturbingly high;
  • The rates of people leaving welfare have declined since the GFC from around 11.8 per cent a quarter before the GFC to around 10 per cent a quarter today;
  • Youth unemployment rates have risen to its highest level since 2001, now sitting at 14 per cent;
  • About half of those who have signed up to apprenticeships and traineeships are completing;
  • The number of long term jobseekers on Youth Allowance (other) and  Newstart Allowance has blown out since July 2007 from 291,876 to 548,879 (June 2014) – noting that around 80,000 people transitioned to Newstart from Parenting Payments in January 2013.
  • In Tasmania; the long term jobless figure is 18,786  (June 2014);
  • As of the end of June 2014, 209,719 have been on Youth Allowance (other) and Newstart for more than five years or more:
  • Average duration on Income Support  is now 230 weeks; in 2007 the average was 196 weeks

If Australians are to reduce poverty rates – an issue close to TasCOSS’s heart, we must reduce the number of people on income support who have a capacity to work, as well as the duration spent of income support.

Building a strong and prosperous community

As many of you will know, I have a longstanding personal and professional interest in how we can build a better and society; how we can strengthen the institutions of civil society and how we can strengthen community resilience.

And I know I share that interest with all of you, because it is you that are the front-line in providing such important services and such critical support to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I believe that improving our society is a role best shared by government, civil society and the community. All too often I hear people proclaim that government must have the answers; that government knows best; that Canberra is responsible for – well – everything.

That is simply not true.

I see government as an enabler; as the vehicle which can be used to empower you – civil society – to do what you do best, using best practice and using the immense experience you have.

It is true that both the government and non-government sectors are facing challenges as our society changes and the sustainability of our current models and systems are tested.

A changing society

The challenges that society faces are real and immediate. We are unfortunately seeing more intergenerational welfare.

The reality is that government has financial, as well as social, interest in investing in Australians and their wellbeing.

For example, we know that, not only does positive family functioning deliver important social benefits to our country; nurturing healthy families also make a huge difference in lifting our economic productivity.

My Department’s research shows that better family functioning can deliver the economy up to $5.4 billion per annum in increased productivity.

And this boost is not just economic – it reflects a stronger and healthier society, less burdened by crime, unemployment, addiction and broken relationships.

Conversely, when families and communities struggle, government faces a substantial financial burden, as well as an ongoing social burden.

The government is tackling these challenges in many ways.

Some work focuses on intervening early to support people before they encounter trouble.

A new Families and Communities programme

That is why we are implementing a new Families and Communities programme that aims to improve financial wellbeing and capability, strengthen communities and support migrants transitioning to life in Australia and ensure the life time wellbeing of families and children.

The programme provides a broad range of services predominantly focussed on prevention and early intervention, including assistance for relationship breakdown.

The recently launched Stronger Relationships trial is just one of a suite of early intervention and prevention activities.

The trial aims to increase the number of couples who participate in education or counselling in order to strengthen their marriage or relationship.

Services are currently being delivered by five organisations with 24 outlets across Tasmania.

And we are leading work to review our welfare system.

McClure Review

At the end of last year, I commissioned a Welfare Review, headed by Patrick McClure.

I tasked the Reference Group to advise me on how to best support and encourage all people who can work to do so. Further, I asked them to consider what we can best do for people who do not have, and will not regain, a capacity to work.

Importantly, I asked that their recommendations be simple and sustainable, to deliver a vision for a future welfare system that is at once navigable and affordable.

In their recently released interim report, they recommend that current payments be simplified and rationalised.

They saw a role for direct assistance to disadvantaged groups, whether through employment partnerships with business or through helping people manage tasks like balancing their finances or seeking further education.

They also foresaw a role for more participation requirements for existing and new activity tested cohorts.

These are ideas that the government will consider.

It is important that we understand the life trajectories of people who are dependent on welfare payments for extended periods.

I believe that the better we understand these groups, the more effectively we will be able to intervene to increase their wellbeing, health and, as a result of that, their capacity to work and contribute to our society.

It is important that we invest early and intensively in people who are able to create real and lasting change in their lives.  They need our assistance and will repay our investment.

Our interventions will be tailored to individual needs and opportunities for people in difficult situations.

I am also increasing my department’s focus on the critical role civil society plays in our modern day society; because civil society has a long history of responsible governance and management. The Government will respect and trust this.

To this end, the Government is implementing a broad deregulation agenda to boost productivity by removing unnecessary and overly complex red tape imposed on business, community organisations and individuals by at least $1 billion a year.

The Government will reinstate the Community Business Partnerships.

This will serve as a mechanism to stimulate philanthropy in Australia and encourage relationships between business and the not-for-profit sector to the benefit of both.

Abolishing the ACNC

Further, the Government is abolishing the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and will establish a National Centre for Excellence for Civil Society.

This shifts the focus of the relationship between government and the civil sector away from compliance and regulation and toward education, support and advocacy.

My department is implementing new grant arrangements to bring together 18 grants programmes from five former departments into seven broad-banded programmes aligned with the priorities of Government.

These programmes aim to reduce administrative burden and provide civil society with greater flexibility to address the service needs of individuals, families and communities.

Notably, five year contracts will be offered to most of the organisations that are offered the opportunity to partner with the Commonwealth, which will bring much needed certainty to not-for-profit organisations

Civil society gains its strength and vitality from the experience and expertise of the organisations which comprise it.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen, the Abbott Government is committed to working collaboratively with civil society and I am in particular working very closely with the social services sector.

The role you play the work you do and the contribution you as an organisation offer this state is commendable.

Thank you for your efforts, but more importantly, thank you for the outcomes they achieve.