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Tuesday, 18 March 2014
Page: 2330


Mr LAMING (Bowman) (20:08): I am proud to live in a nation where one can find a job, train for a job and receive assistance to secure and keep that job. Chances of finding work in this nation are probably better than virtually anywhere else in the world. Of course, we are a big, sparsely populated country, and our great challenge is mismatch—in many cases those employment opportunities are not where we reside.

But I am also aware that in this great nation we are failing. We are failing at two key points in life. We are failing the two- to five-year-old age group and we are failing those who are aged 15 to 24 who are transitioning out of school and into employment. We can do so much better, but history will record six years of Labor government where virtually nothing happened. I am not talking about superficial metrics like unemployment rates. I am talking about a Labor government that never showed the will or the heart to engage the issue of labour and workforce distribution.

I am not going to begin to attribute tonight why that could be, but it has become increasingly obvious that, if you are not a unionised workforce or a potentially unionisable workforce, it is a Labor government that does not care much about your future. I want to see a situation where this nation can recognise across both sides of the chamber that it is business that generates prosperity and creates jobs. That is a simple precept upon which all policy can be overlaid, and the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 is going to face a whole lot more amendment than it will tonight over the coming years under an Abbott government.

That is for one very simple reason: our understanding and appreciation of welfare as an entitlement has changed, and the era of 'How little can I do to get the payment?' will be, must be and has been replaced by: 'What incentives are available so that I can work my hardest? I want a fair go and I want to be able to give it a fair go.' Under those simple liberal principles we do have 360,000 Australians between the ages of 15 and 24 who are receiving income replacement of various forms. Many of them are not engaged in full-time work or education. I appreciate that there is a proportion of those who have mental and other physical illnesses. I appreciate that a small number are primary care givers and fully occupied, often with closely spaced children, and that can certainly fill a day, as both my wife and I appreciate. But there is no excuse for 360,000 Australians lost in the never-never, doing nothing more than filling in a logbook in order to meet their activity requirements and basically being lost to Australia's economic engine.

Let's step back just for a moment. What are we? We are massively growing, the 12th largest economy in the world with one of the lowest populations in the OECD. There is nothing more valuable than our labour. Ask any boss and they will tell you there is nothing more important than the people they employ. So why do we have literally thousands of people in every electorate represented here with no connection to education, training or work? That is a failure of all previous governments, not just the one I am criticising tonight.

We have tried relocation bonuses before. I accept that they have been evaluated and many times come up short. A lot of it is not about the money; a lot of it is the support that comes with the money. I appreciate, when I talk with young people in my electorate, that the propensity to uproot and leave all of your support, your family and your loved ones to move to another city is just not something one can imagine would be easy to do. In fact, it can be quite frightening. If I had never been through school and graduated or never had a good training experience in my life, I think I would be petrified to move towns or cities, let alone to a regional area to take up a job I know so little about. I also acknowledge that, if taking up that job brings detriments like lack of access to public housing or the possibility of suspended payments if that job does not work out, I would be extremely frightened about making that move. The evidence shows that very few young people are prepared to take that risk despite the thousands of dollars on offer.

Tonight, in supporting the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Increased Employment Participation) Bill 2014—and I know the opposition is showing support for the bill as well—I say that it is not about the money as much as it will be the support that is offered with that financial incentive. We have large numbers of public servants working in Centrelink and employment network providers who work very hard in the most complex of cases, helping young people connect to and remain in a job. It is so easy for us here in this chamber to be flippant about how easy that should be, but let every one of us here understand that, if you have grown up not enjoying and never completing school or you have never had a shot at a traineeship or apprenticeship, taking up a job and keeping it can be probably the greatest challenge you have faced in your life so far. Many young people, many of whom I have not had the chance to know, have had tough childhoods that I cannot even begin to appreciate. I know how hard this is for those who are working for job service agencies and Centrelink.

But we must not give up. We know from actuarial analysis in New Zealand that there is no better investment than in the long-term unemployed. If we can reconnect them with the real economy, there is no greater public investment. Let's step back for a moment. We are not here to create jobs for public servants; we are here to most efficiently connect people with a suitable job. As I stressed before, as the second or third most sparsely populated nation on earth, odds are that job will not be close. In a country like Australia, where public transport is not as good as in more densely populated countries, getting to that job will not be easy either.

With furnace-like intent we have to focus not just on the financial transaction but also on the services we can give these young people to build confidence. Part of that will be working for the dole. Part of that will be restituting and initiating some form of work-like habit among people who simply have never learnt it or witnessed it in their own family units. Australia cannot be proud of the fact that, among the OECD, we, New Zealand and the UK have the highest proportions of families who are utterly reliant on welfare. This is of enormous concern.

There is no fundamental difference between Australians and other members of the OECD except that we have a welfare system that has made it too easy to get on, and stay on, welfare for life. That nexus must be broken. It starts with job commitment bonuses and augmenting that effort are the relocation allowances for taking up a job. I do not need to reiterate today what those payments are; they have been well ventilated already in both the second reading speech and by the other speakers. I accept this will not be easy. I accept that initially, potentially, only small numbers might take up those bonuses, but I commend the coalition for proposing two or three amendments as opposed to what the opposition did when they were in government.

Firstly, there is the recognition of the additional costs faced by families having to relocate and move to a place of work. That extra $3,000 will go a long way. Secondly, I acknowledge that there are incentives for both one and for two years retention at work, with the larger payment coming after two years. That is an excellent reason to stay and to give it your all. Finally, we have the proposition that you will be paid more if you move to an area of higher unemployment or to regional Australia than coming the other way. That is perfectly sensible.

While supporting the legislation, I note that the opposition has made a big thing of the cessation, or temporary cessation, of payment for people who leave these work opportunities without a valid excuse. Of course, when we include conditions like this, the only thing the Labor opposition hears is that we are suspending a payment. They really could not care why that is occurring. But I trust Centrelink, and I trust the job service providers to work out whether a person is giving it a real shot.

In Australia, we have a fairly acute sense of whether a person is giving it a fair go or not. We have adequate Fair Work legislation which oversees that. And it may come as some surprise to the Labor opposition, but I trust employers in Australia to do the right thing. Overwhelmingly, I trust them to supervise well because they love their businesses. They will supervise, they will train, they will give the opportunities, they will wear the on-costs, and they will wear the risks of staff turnover to give a young Australian a go in an overwhelming proportion of cases. They should be liberated to do that as only a Liberal government can.

I have had enough of tolerating areas of high youth unemployment scattered around this country with just a one-size-fits-all approach. That will not be good enough in the seat of Blaxland, the seat of Port Adelaide or the seat of Gilmore—places where youth unemployment is in excess of 30 per cent. This is a national emergency. It is not enough for any government to sit back and say, 'We have a $3,000 location bonus. That's what we have done for the problem.'

I hope our government will commit to getting those figures down. I know that nobody on this side of the parliament can rest easily at night while we know that we have those double-digit unemployment rates, and we have figures in the high 20s and low 30s for youth unemployment. Between the ages of 15 and 19, the teen full-time unemployment figure that we have is in excess of 30 per cent and rising in some areas. Between 15 and 24 years—what we refer to as youth unemployment—is 13.2 per cent in Queensland, a per cent higher than the national average.

My electorate of Bowman cannot claim to be either the best or the worst. We have around average unemployment in my area, but pockets of extraordinarily high need—I have talked about the Moreton Bay islands before, and I do not need to go into detail again. These are young people separated from services, separated from opportunities, living across a watercourse and facing enormous expense just to get to the mainland, and having that trip slugged by a carbon tax only then to be told to do it twice a day if they want to hold a job, and make sure they are on time. Many of them move to the islands for the cheaper rent and many of them move there for the solace and the isolation, but connecting with the real economy is a genuine challenge. Some people want to live on islands, and I respect that choice. Seven thousand citizens in my electorate do just that. We must not rest until they have opportunities, be that green army, be it work for the dole, be it traineeships or be it assistance to get onto the mainland, connect up with work and stay there.

We have talked in depth in this chamber about the importance of young people, and I do not think we need another waxing speech about how much we care about young people without seeing some kind of material change. I do not think it is adequate that we wait 12 months to initiate some job support options for the long-term unemployed. There is no excuse to wait that long for both skills and confidence to wane. We must move that forward.

Secondly, we have to stop relying purely on public servants, in the role of managers of complex cases, in many cases where people could work but are persistent evaders. A government must take stronger action on those who do not support the system, and we must free up those who are absolutely giving their best. They deserve the support, whereas the former deserve sharper and way more immediate sanctions than currently happen. If there was a characteristic from the Labor period in office it was an unwillingness to suspend payments, and an unwillingness to take a strong- armed approach to those whom I refer to as being 'persistent evaders' of an activity requirement or genuine work.

We pay billions of dollars every year to young people who are not engaged in study, training or work—and they should be. They are not, for a variety of reasons. But I do not see why we should be paying completely unconditional cash transfers to those individuals if they are using that public money in an inappropriate way. I hope that this is the first step of a series of amendments that will see that youth allowance is more carefully targeted and is not abused. I referred to it before as 'cash for couches'. We should not have a system that makes large cash payments as an incentive for someone to leave home. Public money is there for basic essentials: protection, shelter, food, public transport, getting to work and getting employed. It is that simple transition that is not an unreasonable case to make in liberal democracy to every young person who is capable.

We should not be paying unconditional payments that are spent instead on alcohol, gambling, illicit drugs, vehicle modifications or whatever. That is not what public money is there to be spent on, no matter how people may think these public payments are an entitlement. The public will no longer tolerate that. If you want to get support from the government there is an obligation to adhere to basic and fundamental social norms in return.

In conclusion, I commend the initiation of relocation bonuses that are higher for those who move into areas of higher unemployment and regional areas and I commend the assistance that is offered to families. That is absolutely vital. I also commend the end of the Rudd era of going soft on persistent evaders. I found absolutely appalling the notion that you could wake up in the morning and decide whether you were going to turn up to work for the dole and if you did not feel like it you would be docked a day of your welfare. No, sir, that is not how the world works. There is the expectation that you will contribute to society as best you possibly can. The great challenge is that payments in many cases squeeze that out. They make it way more attractive to simply live with other people who are on income replacement and pool resources and do just enough to keep getting your payments.

I know that Centrelink and job service staff do everything they can, but they have literally millions of clients. In my electorate there are 2,000 young people disconnected from education, training and work. One of the genuinely great failures of our wonderful democracy is that we have not been able to make those connections as effectively as we could. These relocation incentives and these rewards for committing to a job are the first step. There are many more amendments to come and I will support each of those.