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Monday, 17 March 2014
Page: 2074


Mr GILES (Scullin) (18:12): I rise to make a contribution to this debate and, in particular, to support the amendment moved by the member for Franklin. I note—and indeed welcome—the comments of the member for Longman in relation to the diversity of the impacts of unemployment on people's lives. That is an area of policy upon which members on all sides of this House agree, even though—as my contribution will make clear—I see this legislation as setting out an insufficient path to alleviate those concerns, both economic and social.

The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Increased Employment Participation) Bill 2014 would amend the Social Security Act 1991, the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 and the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 to enable the implementation of the job commitment bonus and also the Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job program—both election commitments of the government.

The job commitment bonus will provide an incentive to encourage young, long-term unemployed Australians to remain off income support payments and will increase employment participation amongst a group which is recording significantly higher rates of unemployment compared to the general population. This is a laudable goal. Young Australians aged between 18-30 who have been receiving Newstart allowance or youth allowance, other than as an apprentice or a full-time student, for a period of at least 12 months would be eligible to receive a tax-free payment of $2,500 should they remain in gainful work—which is broadly defined—and off income support for a continuous period of at least 12 months. Recipients would also qualify for a further tax-free bonus payment of $4,000 if they remained in continuous gainful work for an additional 12 months—that is, a continuous period of 24 months in total. These are useful initiatives, though they do fall a long way short of constituting anything like a jobs plan.

The Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job program would provide financial assistance to long-term unemployed job seekers who have been receiving Newstart allowance, youth allowance—again, other than as an apprentice or a full-time student—or a parenting payment for at least the preceding 12 months, to relocate for the purpose of commencing ongoing employment.

I support this provision as I believe it promotes the right to work as well as the more effective operation of the labour market. However, it is hard to see this as a panacea, given the take-up rate of similar programs in the past. I am concerned that the non-payment period prescribed in this legislation has been increased to a level that is unduly harsh. I trust that this is not a precedent for other payments and I particularly support the second limb of the amendment moved by the member for Franklin in this regard.

The amendment calls on the government to publicly review, by 30 June 2015, the impact of the extension of the non-payment period for recipients of the relocation to take up a job payment if the person is unable to work the required six months. This is an important amendment. It would provide an evidence base to either allay concerns such as those I am expressing or to form a basis for reconsideration if those concerns are found to be well founded. It is an amendment that is sensible and should be supported.

More generally, the amendment also notes that if the government were really serious about addressing youth unemployment, it would be providing more support for those workers whose jobs will be lost, as was recently announced, and would be providing more support and training for young people generally. This is the critical question. What Australia needs is a jobs plan that is a comprehensive response to rising unemployment, particularly among people, and also declining workforce participation.

I value the opportunity to speak about social inclusion—moving on from the closing remarks of the member for Longman—and the opportunities for young people. I also welcome the remarks made by the minister in his second reading speech acknowledging the impact of unemployment, especially unemployment over an extended period. The backdrop to this debate is, of course, the seemingly endless announcement of job losses in this country.

This government promised to create one million jobs over five years. To be on track, they would have needed to create over 100,000 jobs by now, having been in office for six very long months. Tragically, they are a long way behind already, and I note the increasing reluctance of those opposite to cite this coalition promise and an even more pronounced reluctance to discuss how it plans to achieve its target, or at least try. Even when the promise was made, there was no outline about how it would or could be achieved, just the usual boilerplate three-word slogans, and now we are seeing the effect that attempting to run the country on three-word slogans has.

I draw the House's attention to the decline in employment participation rates, particularly among young people. This is a matter squarely raised in the title of this bill but much less so in its substance. To be fair, those matters were found in the relevant coalition policy document. They were part of the coalition's plan to increase employment participation. In fact, these two policies were all of it and that is nowhere near enough.

The Reserve Bank of Australia has reported a 1¼ percentage point fall in the participation rate of younger workers aged 15 to 24, which accounted for around 30 per cent of the decline in aggregate employment participation. This result means the proportion of Australians active in the labour market is at its lowest level since October 2006. That was, of course, under the Howard government. This is a startling figure. RBC Capital Markets economist Su-Lin Ong's view on the figures was:

It's more than likely that there is some discouraged worker effect going on, that the creation of jobs is occurring at a pace that is enough to absorb new entrants …

So participants are dropping out of the workforce, and that is pretty disappointing because higher levels of participation are quite key in lifting Australia's overall growth rate.

It is so important to address participation through targeted interventions in education and training, through the provision of affordable and accessible child care—rather than an expensive and unnecessary paid parental leave scheme targeted at wealthy Australians—and through making the most of the powers of government to get the incentives right to support jobs and to work at the multifaceted task of identifying barriers to employment participation and breaking them down.

Members opposite are keen to talk of what government cannot or should not do; they should instead look to see how we can respond to our shared challenges in this critical debate, but the government's priorities are elsewhere. The government sees fit to privatise throwing money at millionaire mothers, providing tax breaks for the superannuation of millionaires and, even in this rather narrower debate, blaming everything on the carbon tax. But all it can manage on jobs is a hastily cobbled together bill that was no doubt introduced as a fig leaf so the government can be seen to be doing something about youth unemployment.

The consumer confidence figures released last week accord with the aforementioned discouraged worker effect, showing that people's confidence levels are as low now as they were during the global financial crisis, and this is hardly surprising. People are seeing big employers either massively downsizing or leaving our shores completely and a government resolute in its inaction. The difference between now and the time of the global financial crisis is that Australia had a government then that took action to fight for and save jobs. Labor did not take the member for Curtin's wait-and-see approach as shadow treasurer. Unfortunately, in this instance, we now see the consistency of those opposite when in opposition and now in government. We now have a wait-and-see government on jobs.

Whenever I visit schools in the electorate of Scullin, I ask about their Building the Education Revolution projects—projects that created jobs when Australia desperately needed them. School communities are proud of these new facilities. Not a single school or parent has raised a problem with me about these BER projects; quite the opposite in fact. People were aware of the need for government stimulus to fight off a global recession and secure local jobs. I think there is now a hunger for leadership on jobs. People are aware that something is not right with this government in this regard. It plays games of chicken with major employers and chases them away. The coalition's bizarre and reflexive opposition to job creation and retention made no sense then and it makes no sense now.

In recent days, we have had more bad news about job losses in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. A couple of weeks ago, just south of my electorate in the electorate of the member for Batman, La Trobe University announced it would be making 350 full-time positions redundant. The full impact is likely to affect around 400 staff at a number of campuses. I have met with NTEU representatives as well as the vice-chancellor to discuss the challenges the university faces and what can be done. My thoughts are with all those who work at La Trobe at this difficult time of uncertainty. As I said, while this university's main campus is just outside my electorate, Scullin has over 4,400 people employed in the education and training sector. I could not find any response from the Minister for Education or from the Minister for Employment about these job losses, just the usual apathetic silence. What is the government's plan for these employees? I suspect it is the same as the one for employees of Holden, Toyota, Qantas and Golden Circle—that is, no plan at all.

In Scullin, the rate of youth unemployment is 17.3 per cent for those aged between 15 and 19 and 8.3 per cent for those aged between 20 and 24, both well above the national average. This is clearly too high and something I think both sides of politics want to reduce. In government, one way Labor sought to tackle this problem was by establishing trade training centres. I have spent some time at the Outer Northern Trade Training Centre in Lalor and experienced the positive benefits contributing to children's lives and giving them the skills to pursue potential career paths. Trade training centres were a way to include young people in the employment market so that they can be a part of society more generally—recognising the broader dimensions of involvement in employment for people's lives.

It is beyond belief to me that the coalition does not support trade training centres. It seems to be out of sheer spite because Labor introduced them that they must somehow be a bad thing by reason of that fact alone. What is wrong with these centres is never really spelt out by those opposite, but like so many of Labor's positive initiatives the coalition is simply against them. The trade training centres form part of Labor's $1 billion job plan. The coalition are in the process of gutting this plan, but are not replacing it with an agenda for jobs. The member for Franklin has spoken eloquently in support of Labor's training and skills agenda, which is a testament to Labor's commitment to standing up for jobs and to building employment participation with real action and a comprehensive plan. Of course, I share her views.

Being in employment is vital for social inclusion. In the electorate of Scullin—as in other electorates in Australia—social dislocation and isolation are significant and systemic problems. There is a correlation between people with financial stress, which often stems from unemployment, and family violence. I say with much regret that Scullin is consistently ranked higher than most other electorates when it comes to rates of family violence. This is just one of a range of social problems, including high rates of youth mental health incidents. Government has a role to play in addressing these systemic problems, whatever members opposite might say. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers, but I know that tackling unemployment in a meaningful way, particularly from an early age, would assist with a range of other social problems that we debate in this place.

To the extent that this bill addresses youth unemployment, I welcome it and those two components, subject to some minor reservations. These issues need a whole-of-government approach, not one where the government gives with one hand and takes with the other. One aspect of this bill is to reward young people who stay in a job, but as I have outlined above there needs to be a job for them to get in the first place and they need the skills to get these jobs. What is absent in this debate, other than contributions from members on this side of the chamber, is a meaningful discussion about how those skills might be applied.

I note, in respect of the relocation scheme, that in the explanatory memorandum to the bill the relocation payment can be for relocation between capital cities in metropolitan areas, but this would be limited to cases where the relocation is to a capital city with a lower unemployment rate. For example, as at February this year a person could relocate from Hobart to Melbourne as Melbourne has a lower unemployment rate than Hobart. Whilst the unemployment figures for Hobart are certainly concerning, I am also concerned about present and future unemployment for young people in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. What options does the government have for them? By cutting education and training and having no plan for jobs, what good is any reward of this type? It seems like a cruel hoax.

While the initiatives contained in this bill are, for the most part, welcome responses at a minor level to pressing social and economic concerns, they are simply not enough. That is not good enough to meet the great challenges of boosting productivity and participation and to meet the great moral challenge of standing up for Australian jobs.