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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 488


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (10:06): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill gives effect to an election commitment of the Greens. It addresses a growing social problem that I attempted to draw attention to in this place a number of times in the last parliament, and I will continue to do so. It addresses the high unemployment and underemployment rates amongst people from two very important groups in our society. One is groups of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and the second is Australians with a disability. The bill will also help ensure that our Public Service is truly representative of the public it serves. In a nutshell, the bill requires the Public Service to double the number of employees from each group within five years. It leaves up to the Public Service Commissioner the means by which this will be done but requires the Public Service Commissioner to issue a direction that it shall be done.

It is worth reflecting on, firstly, the very real problem that this bill seeks to address. In my electorate of Melbourne, we have more public housing than any other electorate in the country. In that public housing are people from all walks of life, but a very large proportion are people who have come here from other countries seeking a better life. Many of those have been through Australia's migration and refugee programs and have now settled here in Australia. Quite often, they have become Australian citizens. But we know that, amongst this group of people, the unemployment and underemployment rate is much, much higher than amongst the rest of the population.

As far as unemployment goes, research has shown that officially, amongst people from non-English-speaking backgrounds, the unemployment rate is at least twice the national average. Unofficially and in reality, I suspect that it is much higher. I spoke a little while ago to one of the managers of one of the community centres at one of the public housing estates in my electorate, who said that across that estate they measured the unemployment rate at above 80 per cent.

The question of underemployment is also significant. Research shows that, if you come to Australia with skills or a tertiary degree from a non-English-speaking background, you are more than twice as likely to find yourself in a low-skilled job than someone from an English-speaking background. As result, we have in Melbourne people with masters degrees driving taxis. We have, according to the representatives of one community association I spoke to, a former jumbo jet pilot who is now driving a taxi. We have doctors who have been unable to have their qualifications recognised. We have people who have worked for two or three decades as an accountant or a financial adviser in their former country who are now unable to find work in a comparative field. What is worse is that it appears that this mismatch between the jobs that people want to have and the jobs that they are actually getting is now flowing on to younger generations, including people who have been born and brought up in this country.

The stories are legion, certainly in my electorate, of people who finish their finance degree at a university in my electorate and then send job applications and wait in vain for the phone to ring. I have spoken to many people who have sent off dozens, if not hundreds, of job applications and had no response. But they find that, when they change their name on the job application from 'Mohammed' to 'David' or from 'Fatima' to 'Jane', all of a sudden the phone starts ringing.

It is very bad when it starts happening to people who have been through Australian educational institutions, but it also has flow-on effects for young people who are second-generation migrants and come from a refugee background in our community. They look at their parents and say: 'You did all the right things. You worked hard. You studied hard. You are immensely qualified and immensely hardworking. Yet here you are doing a job that you do not like and that only earns you minimum wage.' That, in turn, affects their motivation to continue to participate in the workforce at all—to even continue to seek a job.

And the figures are not getting any better. Yes, there have been some incredible success stories, and we should sing those from the rooftops, but there are also stories of exclusion and discrimination, and it has effects for us as a society. You would probably find agreement across everyone in this chamber that, at the end of it, employment and engagement are the key. If there are people in our community who are willing to work and who are seeking jobs, then they should not be prevented from getting those jobs by artificial barriers or discrimination.

One senior researcher who has been looking at this problem for some time described it as a fence. He said: 'The people are over here on one side wanting work. The jobs are over there on the other side, and it is as if there is a massive fence in between us and we do not know how to get rid of the fence.' This bill will take one step towards getting rid of that fence.

It will also address the issue of employment of people who have a disability. What we know from the research is that the workforce participation rate is around 30 per cent lower for people with a disability. This is despite the fact that people with a disability report wanting to engage in quality employment. Of course, employing someone with a disability makes good business sense. The studies indicate that employment of people with a disability can lead to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and a more positive workplace culture.

It is difficult for this place and this parliament to encourage greater activity or regulation of the private sector if the public sector is not first leading the way. The public sector should be a place where the government leads by example. However, the public sector is falling behind. We know that almost 20 per cent of Australians identify as having a disability, but the number of people with a disability employed by the APS dropped to 2.9 per cent of the entire workforce in 2012. Similarly, one in four people in Australia identify as being from a non-English-speaking background but account for only 5.1 per cent of the APS workforce.

This bill takes a step toward redressing that. It proposes and requires that the Public Service Commissioner issue a direction to give effect to existing employment principles under the APS Act. Section 10A(1)(g) of the act sets out the existing employment principle, which is to 'recognise the diversity of the Australian community and foster diversity in the workplace'. To give effect to that principle, this bill will require the commission to issue a direction pursuant to existing powers to double the number of APS employees with a disability and the number of APS employees who come from a non-English-speaking background that exist as at 1 July this year by 1 July 2019. It leaves it up to the commissioner to determine how best to give effect to that.

This is a reform that would have significant effects on social problems that exist in a very real sense in our communities at the moment. We run a very real risk of creating an underclass of people who, as Australian citizens, are being systematically locked out of the workforce. It will not solve the problem, but it will be a significant step towards moving people who want employment into that gainful employment. At the moment we have discrimination in the Australian workforce, and this parliament needs to acknowledge that as a fact. We need to acknowledge that there are people who want work who just are not getting it. The Australian Public Service and this parliament, with its powers to control how the Commonwealth spends its money, can lead the way. I commend this bill to the House, and I hope that members from all sides will look at it as a reform that is practical and that could be implemented and that will ensure that people who are currently falling through the cracks find the gainful employment that they are so dearly seeking.

The SPEAKER: Is this bill seconded?

Mr Wilkie: I second the bill and reserve my right to speak.

Debate adjourned.