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Monday, 17 March 2014
Page: 2088

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (19:07): It is pleasing to see a bill before the House in relation to youth unemployment, even though the measures in this Social Security Legislation Amendment (Increased Employment Participation) Bill 2014 are a mere fraction of what needs to be done. The relocation allowance and the incentive to stay in work are positive, but they just do not go to the root causes of youth unemployment. The Brotherhood of St Laurence has launched a campaign in relation to youth unemployment. The My Chance, Our Future campaign is aimed at drawing attention to youth unemployment. Last month the brotherhood, as part of that campaign, published its Australian youth unemployment snapshot. The snapshot draws on ABS data to demonstrate the need to take action to reduce unemployment among people 24 and younger.

Queensland's figures are distressing. Three of the brotherhood's 10 hotspots for youth unemployment are in Queensland: Wide Bay with 17.6 per cent youth unemployment; Moreton Bay north, the area around Redcliffe, with 18.1 per cent youth unemployment; and Cairns with 20.5 per cent youth unemployment. In inner-city Brisbane youth unemployment is also unacceptably high. The Parliamentary Library information shows that it was at 11.1 per cent as at December 2013. Since the election of the LNP state government in 2012, unemployment has been on the rise in Queensland. When the LNP were elected in March 2012 unemployment was 5.5 per cent seasonally adjusted. In February 2014 it was 6.2 per cent seasonally adjusted. In January this year Jobs Australia observed:

Despite Australia’s relatively healthy economy, young people continue to experience high levels of unemployment. The national unemployment rate was 5.8% in November 2013, yet the unemployment rate of teenagers was 16.5% and for youth aged 15-24 it was 12.4%.

Young people were hit harder by the Global Financial Crisis … than older people, and its impact lingers. At the height of the GFC in 2008-09 the unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds rose by around four percentage points, while for teenagers it rose by six points. This compared with an overall rise in the national unemployment rate of around two points.

Jobs Australia specifically noted that teenage and youth unemployment rates indicate a need to support young people to make the successful transition from school to employment. It also noted that the casualisation of the workforce has meant that when young people do get a job it is more likely to be part time or casual.

Jobs Australia and the brotherhood have identified the need to support young people's transition to work through measures such as meaningful work experience, improving employability and creating opportunities for young people within communities. The brotherhood has noted the improvements in education attainment that have been made and has said that the next step in fighting youth unemployment is to bolster programs that build work readiness among Australian youth. It went on to state that what is needed is a service that has these key elements—and I will cite the report because I think it is really important to talk about what is actually needed to address youth unemployment in this country. The first element the report mentions is employability skills. The report states:

Employers have identified that young job seekers are often not job-ready. They need employees who are reliable, willing to learn and able to fit into the workplace. A Youth Transitions Service—

which the brotherhood is advocating for—

would focus on building ‘employability’ skills such as punctuality, the ability to work in a team and having a practical understanding of workplace expectations—all of which are essential for successfully moving into work.

Another element that is called for is work experience. The report states:

Access to real workplace experience is critical to building work readiness. A Youth Transitions Service would connect young people to real-life opportunities to get a taste of varied workplace environments and obtain meaningful work experience and volunteering placements. This would enable young people to try out different jobs, build their personal networks and mentors and learn about the world of work and the available options.

Another element is coaching. The report states:

Intensive and sustained coaching would assist a young person identify their strengths and aspirations to make sure they are on the pathway to secure their first job. Parents also have a critical role to play. A Youth Transitions Service should also focus on directly engaging with parents to support their children’s transition to work.

The brotherhood also raised the elements of vocational guidance and rapid action. The report states that a youth transitions service could proactively scan the environment to find out where there are disengaged young people and get in touch with them. Connecting with local employers is obviously an important step to take to find out how best to address youth unemployment through finding the skills that are needed and to build links and connections. In other words, the brotherhood has called for real strategic action to get young people into work, not just fiddling at the edges of payments. This bill is a missed opportunity for the government.

Labor has always stood for jobs. In government Labor worked to address youth unemployment by supporting young people to finish school and get the training and higher education they need for well-paying jobs. Labor improved training, improved engagement and improved employment services for young people. Under Labor the successful Youth Connections Program assisted more than 71,000 young Australians. The great success of that program has been acknowledged. It kept people at school and a number of people who went through that program went through further education, including tertiary education. The member for Rankin addressed that issue in his earlier speech in support of this bill and the proposition before the House.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence snapshot acknowledges the significance of the Youth Connections Program. That program assists young people not fully engaged in education or employment through, as the brotherhood has described it, 'outreach and re-engagement activities, case management and initiatives that build youth service capacity'. Jobs Australia also said about the Youth Connections Program:

The Youth Connections Programme has been successful in preventing and addressing disengagement from education, training and employment and helping young people achieve long term outcomes. The strengths of Youth Connections include flexibility, capacity to provide intensive and holistic support, and outreach with the most disengaged.

The Youth Connections Program has received acclaim from bodies with an interest in dealing with the youth unemployment problem. In fact, the brotherhood have described this as a youth unemployment crisis. That is the scale of the issue we are looking at.

Jobs Australia has recommended that the services provided under Youth Connections continue beyond 2014. We know that presently there is no guarantee of funding continuing beyond 2014. In fact, it has been revealed that there is no money allocated for the program to continue beyond 2014. If the government are considering defunding this program, which unfortunately seems very likely, with a view to making savings, I caution them to be very wary of false economies. In other words, are there really net savings to be made from discontinuing this program or are we being penny-wise and pound-foolish by failing to provide a program that has a track record of success in re-engaging young people? It is clear from the statistics that there is a youth unemployment problem in this nation. We must act to assist young people to get into work. If the government is considering de-funding this program, I would caution it to be wary of false economies. In government, Labor made a record investment in skills and training for smarter jobs and a stronger nation. In total, the former Labor government invested over $19 billion in skills funding between 2008-09 and 2012-13. This was a 77 per cent increase compared to the former Howard government investment.

The former Labor government was delivering a training guarantee, including rolling out a national entitlement to a publicly funded minimum of certificate level III qualification, a guaranteed training place for all Australians. It was giving all Australians access to over $90,000 worth of training to get a diploma or an advanced diploma through HECS style loans of the VET FEE-HELP program introduced in 2009. It was opening up access to university education by uncapping the number of places universities offer, meaning no-one who wanted to go to university would miss out because of funding caps.

During the federal election campaign, Labor announced changes to job services and training to give workers losing their jobs a Jobs, Training and Apprenticeships Guarantee. This would have ensured they would receive immediate help finding work and learning the skills needed by local employers. It would have given business a greater say in the type of training provided to jobseekers, ensuring taxpayer-funded employment services were relevant to businesses' needs by consulting with local businesses. Under that guarantee, workers were to receive employment services within two business days of losing their job, and we know that early intervention is really important.

Labor's reforms were aimed at building on the existing training guarantee by building better links between employment service providers, training providers and local employers. Labor had announced Jobs and Training Boards aimed at connecting local businesses, employment services and training providers to make sure that training services matched business needs. Of course, Labor's most significant achievement in government when it comes to jobs was careful and successful stewardship of our economy, which shielded Australian working families from the worst effects of the global financial crisis.

As Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer said of the former Labor government's legacy:

Unemployment remained low under Labor until the financial crisis hit hard, but … it rose much less and began falling more quickly again than elsewhere due to Labor’s stimulus packages and the RBA’s emergency rate cuts.

That remains Labor’s biggest triumph: keeping hundreds of thousands of people out of unemployment, with all the attendant budgetary and social costs (and the longer-term impact on participation and mobility). And more than 900,000 jobs created in the past five years has also been a solid achievement.

In contrast, the Liberal-National government has failed to support training, and it has failed to support jobs. The Abbott government has already broken Mr Abbott's promise that there would be no cuts to education, by cutting $1 billion from training, cancelling 650 future Trades Training Centres. At the same time as it is reducing Australians' access to vocational training, unbelievably, the Abbott government is opening loopholes to allow greater use of subclass 457 visas. The use of temporary skilled worker visas should not be accompanied by cuts to training. Demand for foreign skilled workers indicates that more investment in training is needed, not less.

When it comes to jobs, the Abbott government's record is dire. Over 60,000 full-time jobs have been lost since the Abbott government took office. We have seen job losses announced at Qantas, 5,000 jobs; at Toyota, 2,500 direct jobs; at Holden, 2,900 direct jobs; at Rio Tinto at the Gove refinery, 1,100 jobs; at Electrolux in Orange, 544 jobs; at Simplot, 110 jobs; at Peabody, more than 200 jobs; at Caterpillar, 200 jobs, and many other indirect jobs. Sadly, we know that this will lead to even more job losses.

And a disturbing theme is arising from this government: blaming workers for their own job losses. We saw it with the attempts to characterise SPC workers' conditions as too generous. We are seeing it now with the attacks on penalty rates. But Australians will not fall for claims that wages are too high. Australians know that, as Matt Cowgill has observed, since 2000, Australian real wages have not kept pace with productivity growth. The labour share of national income has been reducing, and in 2011 reached its lowest point in at least fifty years. Meanwhile, labour productivity has had a period of sustained growth. Last year, Austrade reported on the Conference Board data showing that Australian labour productivity, measured in GDP per hour, grew at an average annual rate of more than one per cent over the 10 years to 2012. This exceeded many major developed economies, including the UK, Germany, Canada, France and Italy.

Instead of a government that blames workers and working conditions, Australians deserve a government that will fight for jobs and support workers and job seekers. While measures to support young people in work are to be welcomed, we still must focus on giving them the skills and experience to get a job in the first place. While Labor supports this legislation and the principle of encouraging young people to find employment, Labor does not want to see these payments to job seekers replacing wage subsidies or support for employers to employ young people, nor do we want it be at the expense of investment in training and higher education for young people.

The Abbott Liberal National government is failing young people. It has done nothing at all about youth unemployment other than to rush this bill into the parliament after youth unemployment figures became the focus of national attention. And the punitive measure in the bill, increasing the non-payment period to 26 weeks, implies that there is a problem with young people leaving jobs without a good reason. This is yet another example of the Liberals and Nationals blaming their failures on the very people who it has failed, young people. Instead of implying that youth unemployment is attributable to young people leaving jobs, the government should act on the recommendations of organisations like Brotherhood of St Laurence and Jobs Australia and provide real support to get young people into work out of school. To transition them from school into work is the key. The measures in this bill will be supported, but as my colleague the member for Rankin said, they barely scratch the surface. This government needs to fight for jobs, and take real action to get young people into work.