Federal youth minister Kate Ellis ordered the Salvation Army to shelve a report slamming her department’s treatment of disadvantaged young people, the Salvos say, apparently because she feared a political backlash among a key constituency in an election year.
The You Think: Your Say report, which surveyed 1,200 young people across the country on their attitudes to government services, was completed last November but only uploaded to the Salvation Army’s website on Monday. It is a stinging assessment of the government’s approach to disadvantaged youth and flies in the face of Labor’s attempts to force under 21s into work or study.
Despite its completion seven months ago, the Salvation Army says the report remained under lock and key while it waited for a green light from Ellis’ office, who funded the report, to release it into the public domain.
Salvation Army spokesperson Brad Halse told Crikey the organisation repeatedly contacted Ellis requesting that the report be released. “We were in regular touch to inquire as to whether or not the government was going to release it.”
“I have no idea why it wasn’t released earlier,” he said.
Ellis initially refused to be quoted on the record when contacted by Crikey, but a spokesperson said later the minister had only received the report in January and it was up to the Salvation Army, not the government, to release it.
“The Federal Government’s Office for Youth received a copy of the final report in January 2010. The Salvation Army were not told that they could not release the report,” the spokesperson said.
Funded by Ellis’ Australian Youth Forum initiative, You Think: Your Say arose from forums attended by 700 young people in June 2009, some of which were facilitated by leading social researcher Hugh Mackay. It covered the impact of the Global Financial Crisis, how young people access government services, the best approach to youth homelessness and the best way to deal with the government’s controversial “earn or learn” stipulation.
It found young people had been hit hard by the economic downturn, that access to Centrelink was “complex and repetitive” and that government bureaucrats regularly infringed on young people’s privacy. The government was singled out for not doing enough on homelessness, despite Kevin Rudd’s pledge to fix the issue in a whistle-stop tour of shelters after the 2007 election.
In its foreword, Salvation Army Major David Eldridge said the report “captures the thoughts, feelings, opinions and suggestions of the young people and uses their words to convey to government some important messages”.
Centrelink in particular was on the receiving end of young people’s pent up frustration. Said one:
“Most Centrelink workers are sh-t. They don’t listen, not understanding, don’t take into consideration the facts. They treat us like a number. It’s not by name it’s by reference number. They act like cops.”
“You get screwed around a lot. They make mistakes, forget and lose your stuff. They don’t give a sh-t about young people.”
On what the government could do to help homeless youth, the participants didn’t hold back:
“The department is always trying to catch out young people. They never tell you why you are being removed from your house. You always feel like it’s your fault.”
Another slammed the government’s supported accommodation policies:
“I’d rather sleep in the f-cking train station than sleep in a refuge — they’re sh-t holes.”
But special opprobrium was reserved for the government’s Compact with Young Australians, which mandates an ‘earning or learning’ mutual obligation concept for under 21s.
“It’s bullsh-t,” said one respondent. “What if you can’t get a job or the training you want and you really need Youth Allowance? How are you supposed to survive?”
Another called the compact “crap”, while others questioned what the point of mandated training was if there were no jobs available: “You can’t earn and learn if there’s no jobs to earn and learn from.”
The report, put together by consultants Business Group Australia, summarised that “the notion of ‘earning or learning’ was seen by many young people as just another way that disadvantaged young people would continue to receive negative responses from those various government agencies they deal with.”
The Salvation Army’s Halse strongly backed his organisation’s findings this morning:
“It deserves to not only be heard but also thought about. The examples show that disadvantaged young people need to be able to access government services in a easier way.”
Shadow Minister for Tourism, the Arts, Youth and Sport Steven Ciobo slammed the delay when contacted by Crikey and said there was nothing in the recent federal budget to fix the problems in the system.
“Kate Ellis is the minister for delayed reports. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest,” he said.
It is not known whether the government is preparing a response to the report, with the Salvation Army telling Crikey they weren’t expecting anything official from Ellis any time soon. Ciobo was equally pessimistic.
“She took nearly six months to say a peep about the Crawford review, so by her standards close to four months for a response would be lightning-pace,” he said.