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Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Page: 3579

Mr THISTLETHWAITE (Kingsford Smith) (17:12): The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014 is a poor excuse for an environment policy. The purpose of the bill is to amend the Social Security Act and the Social Security (Administration) Act to clarify social security arrangements for participants receiving the Green Army allowance paid under the Green Army Program.

It is my understanding that the coalition's Green Army Program aims to recruit young people to perform environmental tasks across the country and to pay them a training wage to perform environmental tasks that are currently being performed by other employees and businesses throughout the country. There are two arms to the coalition's environment policy, Direct Action. The focus of Direct Action is to pay big-polluting companies a government subsidy in the hope and wish that they shall reduce their carbon emissions over time. It is a complete reversal, the complete antithesis, of the Liberal and conservative philosophy of government subsidies to business to pay big polluters in the hope that they will reduce their emissions over time.

The program that we currently have in place, the carbon price, is one whereby the big polluters pay for the right to pollute in our economy. The money and revenue that is generated from those big polluters paying for the right to pump carbon into our environment is used to commercialise renewable energy. Half of the revenue that is raised from the carbon price is used to promote renewable energy in Australia and throughout our economy. The other half is provided to people on low incomes and pensioners to ensure that they can meet cost-of-living increases as a result of electricity price increases. That is the system we have at the moment. The polluter pays system is going to be replaced by a system where the government pays the polluter, and the coalition calls that progress! That is the first arm of this government's environmental policy, and what a backward step that is.

The second arm of their environmental policy is the one that we are debating here in the chamber tonight, the Green Army Program. This is a program that will see Australians being paid a training wage to perform environmental tasks throughout the country, replacing those who are already performing those tasks—the bush regeneration companies, the landscapers and the local government authorities—who are being paid a normal wage and are getting the protection of occupational health and safety and workers' compensation provisions throughout the country. They are getting paid an award wage for the work they perform. But the government are going to replace those employees and those businesses that are doing that work at the moment with a group of Australians on a training wage. The government are seeking to deceive the Australian public into believing that this is an environmental program. The reason for that is simple—they do not have a coherent environmental policy. In fact, many on that side do not believe earnestly in climate change and our nation taking action on this important issue.

The program we are debating here today is an employment program and as such the participants should be treated as employees. Labor believes that environment based work and training programs can be an effective pathway to work for many job seekers as well as providing environmental benefits. Workplace training programs have potential, if well designed and implemented, to achieve these twin goals; however, there are a number of questions that remain unanswered with respect to the Green Army Program. The bill does not, as is expected by the people whom I represent in Kingsford Smith, lay out the detail required for analysis or discussion. It is also clear that it is a pseudoenvironment policy from a government that could not care less about serious policies to tackle climate change.

In contrast, when Labor were in government we developed policies aimed at conserving Australia's pristine environment. One policy was Caring for our Country. Caring for our Country aimed to achieve an environment that was healthier, better protected, well managed and resilient and that provided essential ecosystem services in a changing climate. Under the first phase of Caring for our Country, from 2008 to 2013, the Labor government invested more than $2 billion to protect and rebuild the resilience of our environment. The second phase of the program was designed to support land managers; community groups, including Indigenous groups; industry; and local environment groups. Caring for our Country target area grants provided funding of between $50,000 and $2 million for projects to maintain ecosystem services, protect our conservation estate and enhance the capacity of Indigenous communities to conserve and protect natural resources across six target areas. The target area grants focused investment in critical areas of our environment, which were selected in recognition of their high levels of vulnerability and importance. Through the target area grants and the second round of the Biodiversity Fund Labor invested in landscape scale restoration of our environment, including some of our most valuable ecosystems.

In addition to Caring for our Country, Labor became the first government to seriously deal with the central challenge of restoring the Murray-Darling Basin to health after chronic neglect by the coalition. After decades of overallocation and disagreement on how to manage the river, Labor began to restore the balance in the system and bring the river back to health. Under the plan 2,750 gigalitres of surface water will be recovered for the environment and used to benefit wetlands, forests and river flows, including the Ramsar listed wetlands in South Australia. Importantly, the plan was designed to achieve the government's target of having the Murray-Darling river mouth open nine years out of 10.

Labor agrees that we need to do everything we can to get people into work. Labor in government had a record of creating jobs in our economy. Close to one million jobs were created over the six years of the last Labor government. We believe that every individual who can work should be given that chance. We know this can only happen with appropriate support. Labor put in place a number of important employment programs—such as Youth Connections, which I understand is facing the axe in tonight's budget—for people in our community living with disabilities, the young, elderly job seekers and the long-term unemployed to ensure that they have the necessary support to get back into the labour movement. Labor believes in helping people to get a job through the right training, work experience and incentives and, most importantly, with the appropriate level of support.

This bill as proposed by the government omits much of the detail related to workers' rights, benefits and protections. The statement of requirements is equally scant on some of the detail. The question that I pose on behalf of many businesses in Kingsford Smith is: what happens to those small businesses that currently work in this space—the bush regeneration businesses and local landscaping businesses that do local government work—businesses that are currently training staff, paying award wages, providing occupational health and safety and workers compensation support? They are providing training and apprenticeships for people to undertake and gain training in landscaping and environmental conservation. They will be forced out by a cheaper government scheme. Access to formally recognised training delivered by a registered training organisation under the Australian Qualifications Framework is noted in the SOR as an optional component of the program to be negotiated with each individual participant. This gives no confidence that participants will actually gain access to training.

Labor is concerned that the bill does not provide adequate protections for participants in the scheme, namely in the areas of OH&S, workers compensation and rehabilitation. We have been told that participants will be covered by relevant state legislation and insurance, while work safety will be audited by the department. Although this provides some protection, the price of safety will be constant vigilance.

Australians are right to be suspicious of the motives of this government when it comes to environmental and employment programs. The government has made it clear that protection of the environment is not one of its priorities through its Direct Action program. A further concern of Labor is the crowding-out aspect of this bill. The government must assure those hardworking Australians in local government and other authorities and those small businesses that work in this space that they will not be displaced and that their businesses will not be affected by the Green Army participants coming in and doing their work.

To conclude, I believe that the government needs to answer a number of questions before this bill is given passage through the House and the Senate. Those questions are as follows. Firstly, why are participants not considered workers or employees under the Work Health and Safety Act, the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the Fair Work Act? Secondly, exactly what are the implications for participants not being considered workers or employees under these acts? Thirdly, how will the program support people into mainstream employment? That must be the focus of employment and training programs. It is not a quick-fix, quasi-environmental program. It is an employment program. How will people get into long-term employment through these pathways? That question has not been answered by the government in proposing this bill. Will there be minimum training outcomes? If so, what are they? And will there be minimum training hours required for those participating in the program? What protections will there be to ensure that no businesses currently providing and working in this space will lose business or that, indeed, no employees will lose their jobs as a result of the passage of this bill? They are the questions that constituents in Kingsford Smith, in our community, wish the government to answer before this bill is passed.