Private Members’ Business: Financial Counselling

(1) recognises the heightened importance of financial literacy and financial counselling given the global economic recession and its impact on the Australian economy;

(2) supports the actions the Government has taken to improve financial literacy and provide additional financial counselling services for people struggling to make ends meet; and

(3) calls on Australian banks and financial institutions to assist Australian families by providing additional support for financial literacy programs and financial counselling.

It is going to be a tough year. It has been tough in my electorate in south-west Sydney for a number of years. We have seen house prices fall by 16 per cent, we have seen the number of home repossessions go through the roof and we have seen rents skyrocket. Interest rate cuts over the last few months have really helped, but I fear that what is happening across the rest of the world will sweep through Australia and steal away jobs from people who are already struggling to pay their mortgage. You cannot pay the mortgage if you do not have a job. Unemployment is already 50 per cent higher in Blaxland than it is across the rest of the country, and the statistics that the ABS put out indicate that it is already on the rise. Statistics that the ABS put out in December showed that more people turned up to Bankstown Centrelink seeking unemployment benefits than anywhere else in New South Wales and almost anywhere else in the country. That is why last week I asked the Minister for Human Services, Joe Ludwig, to come to Bankstown and have a look for himself and to talk to the people on the ground, on the front line. That is also why two weeks ago I, and everyone on this side of the House, voted for the $42 billion stimulus package.

But there is more that we can do than just vote for legislation. As members of parliament there is a lot more that we can do-practical, real things to help people. Members would have heard me speak in this place before about the housing stress information nights that I held across my electorate last year. They were run by experts like Paul Clitheroe, and we brought together organisations like Legal Aid and the Consumer Credit Legal Centre to give people practical advice. Here is just one example resulting from those information nights. A woman named Sophia Helene came up to me in the street last year, gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: ‘Thank you for putting that together. The information that I got that night helped to turn my life around.’ I am going to do the same thing again this year, except this year I am going to run free home budget information nights, giving people basic home budgeting skills and basic financial literacy skills.

I know there is a need for something like this because last month I put together a free home budget kit and I put some information about it in the local newspaper. In two days we had 231 phone calls to the electorate office from people asking for a copy of the kit. Next door to my office is a financial counselling service called Creating Links, and they have a waiting list of two weeks. Those are things that the government are already doing. The federal government have increased the budget for financial counselling from $10 million to $20 million, and at last we have a government that are doing something about financial literacy in our schools. But there is more that we can do.

I think there is more that Centrelink can do. Centrelink run what are called financial information seminars, which usually focus on things like pensions, superannuation or share portfolios. I think they can do some more good work here. Let us remember that one in three Australians-more than six million people-is a Centrelink customer. I think those people-in fact, all of us-could do with a helping hand, with a bit of information on how to run a home budget and basic financial literacy skills. I think there is more that we can do there.

I also think that the private sector can do more. That is the subject of this motion before the House. I know from talking to the Australian Bankers Association that banks are doing a lot of good work in this space already. We should pay particular credit to some of the programs that are being run by the ANZ, Westpac and the Commonwealth. But I think they can do more. One idea could be lending their staff to the charities and the NGOs that I am talking about to provide the sort of information that people need, financial counselling services on the ground, a little bit like the way big law firms offer pro bono services to community legal centres. I think banks could do the same or, even better, banks could fund positions in these organisations-organisations like the Smith Family, the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul or the organisation next door to my electorate office, Creating Links. All banks have corporate social responsibility plans and, in these tough times, I think they should be focusing these corporate social responsibility plans on financial literacy and financial counselling-not just on lending money responsibly and cutting interest rates but on lending a helping hand, on giving people the information, the advice and the skills that they need to get through these tough times ahead.