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The impact of the budget on youth mental health

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 15 Jul 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (22:09):  On 13 May this year, the coalition government handed down a budget that was really quite unprecedented. I have seen quite a few budgets come and go in my life span, but I am hard pressed to think of a budget that has attracted such universal condemnation from people right across the political spectrum in terms of its unfathomable burden—the burden it places on some of the most disadvantaged people in the community.

I have heard people—again, across the political spectrum—asking how people in the government could actually think that this was a good idea or fair. As the implications of the budget have filtered through, both that night when it was handed down and over the following days and weeks, Australians in all walks of life have reacted very strongly.

It is hard to narrow down which of the government's budget measures is the most damaging or callous, because the cuts are broad and deep, to services and to the structures that support some of the very things that we value and take pride in in Australia—the land of the fair go, we used to call ourselves—like health, education and, essentially, the safety net that we have always prided ourselves on, in terms of making sure that those people who are really battling are not left behind or abandoned.

So it is hard to narrow it down, but tonight I want to focus on the impact of the 2014 budget on young people, and I am going to focus particularly on the mental health and wellbeing of young Australians, because I am fairly well acquainted with that. I am indebted to John Mendoza and the team at ConNetica whose Budget 2014 Policy Briefing Papers give a breakdown of the key health and mental health measures coming out of this year's budget. The papers were prepared by John Mendoza, Sebastian Rosenberg and Lesley Russell, and they conclude that young people will do more of the heavy lifting than any other group in Australian society to get the budget back in the black.

It seems that this government has young people in its sights—and I will go through the evidence for that just from the budget cuts. But first I would like to unpack this phrase, 'young people'. As the ConNetica report suggests, it appears that the Abbott government sees adolescence as a period now spanning a couple of decades, because we see discriminatory measures, based solely on age, against Australians aged up to 29; under 30, with the Newstart measures; and, indeed, even up to 34, when it comes to changes to the Disability Support Pension. Since when in Australia do we lump those in their late 20s or even their early 30s under the rubric of 'youth'? And since when has it become acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of their age, particularly when they are in their late 20s or early 30s?

As a result of the budget, 'young people' will be hit, with new arrangements for those under 35 receiving the Disability Support Pension—allegedly with a view to increasing employment. And more employment options for people who have a disability would be a very good thing. More employment options that will actually, genuinely see people being able to enter and sustain employment would be an excellent thing, because many people with disabilities and mental ill-health desperately want to be part of the workforce and desperately want to be able to be employed. But the assessments indicate that this will just create more barriers and fewer services for people, rather than going with the evidence of decades which shows that it is the provision of post-employment support that actually assists people to enter and sustain employment.

The budget has also hit the Youth Connections program, a program targeting young people at risk of disengagement from education and/or employment. I recently had the opportunity to visit Employment Options, which has links with Youth Connections, in Mount Barker, a suburb on the outskirts of my home city of Adelaide. Each year, that organisation helps 1,700 South Australian young people to get back into education or employment. I met some young people who had benefited from the program, and they have an outstanding success rate. The alternative is that often young people will end up isolated, withdrawn from schooling and employment, and, in some cases, destined to spend a life without being able to achieve their potential and, ultimately, spiralling into worse and worse mental ill-health. It was a good, effective program to support youth—and it is gone.

As of yesterday, the government has also cut the Tools For Your Trade payments that assisted young apprentices in paying for their tools and training.

And what about university fee changes? There will be dramatic increases in university fees from 2016, and increases in the cost of borrowing to pay those fees will make university degrees ever more unattainable, leaving many young people unwilling and unable to take the risk of incurring debt, particularly those who do not have wealthy families to support them and to ensure they will be able to manage that debt—and who have an aversion to debt. They ultimately will not be able to take that step. I have spoken to young people who are in that situation now.

Perhaps worst of all we have the changes to Newstart allowance, which in some cases will mean young people—and again I am talking about people potentially up to the age of 29—without any income for periods of up to six months. The government is also planning to force young people to relocate for work or risk using all support. That is a measure which suggests there is an idea that, somehow, someone who may be 27 or 28 or 29 may not have a life. They may not already have children in schools in particular areas and yet, if they become unemployed and are not able to obtain employment, they may end up in a position where they have no supporting income for a period of up to six months.

To top it all off, the age of eligibility for Newstart allowance and sickness allowance will increase to 25 for new applicants. So young job seekers aged between 22 and 24 years will now be considered very young and will still be receiving youth allowance until they turn 25. These are all parts of the government's attacks on young people, and it will have the effect of making young people who receive support payments feel like second-class citizens.

What are the implications for the mental health and wellbeing of these young people? Who will take care of them when the pressure becomes too much? What services will they have access to? Given the funding for mental health in the budget, the prospects are not looking very good. The 2014 budget included just $56.3 million over four years in new spending on mental health programs, and that was the lowest in more than a decade. Of this, $32.9 million was to meet election commitments, but it was offset by cuts of $53.8 million over two years. They give with one hand and take away with the other.

This is from a government that does not even have a dedicated mental health minister. We know that young Australians are already struggling with poor mental health and wellbeing. Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute recently released a report about the mental health of Australian young people, which found that one in five young Australians are likely to be experiencing mental illness and that our young people are now more likely to die by suicide than in a car accident. These are chilling statistics.

Young people are particularly vulnerable when it comes to poor mental health, making prevention and early intervention crucial in supporting them to live full and happy lives. Half of all lifetime mental health disorders emerge by the age of 14, and three-quarters by the age of 24. Yet it seems that these government policies, embodied in the budget are making it impossibly difficult for young people to get the support they need. It is creating a sense of increasing insecurity and despair among many young people.

We are told we must 'earn or learn', while the support and the assistance to do either is being stripped away. So there are no trade support loans to make tools for apprentices affordable; deregulating university degrees so degrees will become further and further out of reach for those without a bottomless bank account.

In their report, ConNetica talk about a 2012 survey by the Brain and Mind Research Institute which found that nearly one in five young men aged 16 to 24 years had considered life was not worth living, and one in 10 seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months. These policies have an effect. In Europe they found that, after the global financial crisis, austerity measures adopted by European governments led to significant increases in suicide in the countries where harsh measures were introduced.

Our young people are our future. Not only do we have a responsibility as policymakers to ensure that we allow young people the opportunity to feel hope, to feel that they have an opportunity to achieve their potential and reach for the stars; we also must make sure that we have the supports and services available for them when they need assistance and support.

The policies, the messages that we send young people in everything that we do—including measures like those that we are seeing in the federal budget this year—are important in giving young people a sense of hope in the future, or doing the alternative. This is a harsh budget— (Time expired)


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