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Thursday, 18 October 1984
Page: 1983

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Social Security)(3.29) —Senator Harradine has raised a matter of public importance which is of great importance to everyone in this country. I must say this has been a change from the matters of public importance introduced into this place in the last couple of weeks. I accept Senator Harradine's statement that he in fact introduced the matter of public importance in a bipartisan way, even though it is necessary that in the wording of a matter of public importance reference is made to the Government. Before I go through what may be done and some of the things that I and my colleagues believe should be done in this area, I think we should briefly go through the current facts, although Senator Harradine went through them in part.

The preliminary labour statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that for September 1984 the unemployment rate among youth aged 15 to 19 years was 22.6 per cent. That means that 55,400 young people aged between 15 and 19 years are looking for their first job. In total 122,900 young people of this age group are looking for full time work. No government of any political persuasion could be satisfied with that situation. Certainly, if we relate the August 1984 situation to that of September 1983 we can see there has been some improvement. The number of young people seeking full time work declined by about 6,500 in that time and the unemployment rate dropped by one per cent. A year ago 148,100 young people were looking for full time work. The unemployment rate was then 26 per cent . Therefore, there has been a fall of 25,200 or 17 per cent in the number of young people seeking full time work and a reduction of 3.4 per cent in the youth unemployment rate. Neither I nor any other member of this Government would consider that situation satisfactory. As Senator Harradine said, the youth unemployment rate is far too high and continues to be much higher than the overall rate of unemployment. It has been far too high for far too long.

There has been a greater improvement in the overall unemployment rate over the last 12 months. I point out that the change in that time has been due to two factors: Firstly, the obvious improvement in the economy and, secondly, the actions taken by the Government. These actions inevitably are of a short term basis and inevitably have the sorts of shortcomings Senator Harradine pointed to in relation to employment schemes generally. However, it is a change for a government to do something. Not one additional job was created by the previous Government in the area of youth employment in the period November 1975 to March 1983. There was an increase of 67,000 in the number of unemployed youth in that period. The unemployment rate rose from 15.6 per cent to 23 per cent during that time.

As Senator Harradine said, many factors contributed to that situation. I remember quoting the sorts of figures Senator Harradine quoted concerning the Public Service employment of young people. As he said, if in 1981 we had employed the same percentage of young people as we had in 1971 there would have been 50,000 more in employment. At the same time, if in fact we had had the same percentage participation rate in upper secondary and tertiary education in 1981 as we had in 1971 another 20 per cent-I think that was the figure-would have been in education and therefore not on the unemployment books.

As Senator Harradine said, unemployment cannot be measured just in economic terms. It is very good for me to be able to point out that in the last budgetary period we spent $330m less than we anticipated we would in the previous Budget. Of course, some of the decrease in expenditure affected the young unemployed. However, as has been properly pointed out, one cannot measure that sad situation just in economic terms. We must consider the short term social effects in regard to the increased crime rate, the increased suicide rate and the increased rate of illness, drug-related crimes and drug use. We also have to consider the long term social effect, the debilitating effect, on individuals of long term unemployment, or for that matter under-employment, and the immediate and long term social effects on families which all too often in recent times in this country have had members of more than one generation unemployed. The tensions and difficulties that arise in such families may not have been experienced by any or many in this place, but those difficulties are very considerable and are reasons enough for us as a society, and particularly for us as a parliament, to take a much more serious look at this problem than we have in the past.

As Senator Harradine also pointed out, all sorts of reasons and solutions for the situation we are in are handed out fairly glibly. The most common reason given for the rate of youth unemployment is the one which Senator Harradine mentioned and effectively destroyed; that is, that youth wages are too high relative to other wages. That does not mean that we must ignore wages altogether , but we hear frequently the statement-we heard it from the former Secretary to the Treasury, Mr Stone, the other day-that all we need do is reduce youth wages or allow young people to go on to the market and sell their labour for just what they can get and no more. That not only would not solve the unemployment problem in the way that Mr Stone and others seem to think but also would create social problems which the trade union movement, liberal politicians and enlightened political parties in every country of the world have taken measures over the years to overcome.

Suggestions are also made about other factors which contribute to youth unemployment, and we heard some of them from Senator Harradine today. We have heard about the problems of increasing automation and increasing and changing technology. That has an effect on employment throughout the various age groups. It has a particular effect on employed people aged in their 40s and 50s whose technological skills are no longer appropriate to a modern technological situation. We should beware of thinking we can turn back the tide to quite the extent that Senator Harradine suggested that perhaps we could. I do not think he is suggesting a complete luddite approach but it is wrong to think that we alone in the world can stop technology taking jobs in the way that he thinks it does. Rather, we must protect the conditions of those who continue to work and ensure that those who are replaced by or who use that technology are protected. If we concentrate, as seems to be happening lately, on ensuring that the cold hard numbers do not go down, and do not look at the working conditions for the people who will inevitably work with that technology, we are in danger of taking the simplistic approach that he talked about. We must not look at the introduction of technology for technology's sake. When new technology is introduced we must take note with greater care than perhaps we have in the past of the obvious changes that will affect the work force.

The second factor which makes Australia stand out from other countries is the extraordinary difference between what the young people in Australia and comparable countries are doing. I refer in particular to the retention rate of the education system. It is generally fair to say that in this country between 34 per cent and 36 per cent of young people aged between 15 and 19 years are in some sort of upper secondary or tertiary education or training, which leaves something like 63 per cent or more either in jobs, if they are fortunate, or on unemployment benefit if they are not so fortunate-and there are plenty of them. We have developed a system whereby far too many young people at the age of 15 or 16 years are presented with two alternatives-either get a job or go on unemployment benefit, however inadequate that might be. That inadequate unemployment benefit-I do not think anyone here would argue about it being inadequate, as it has been for some time-is much better than all or most of the other benefits available and it is for that reason that when we compare Australia with other comparable countries we find that our retention rate in upper secondary and tertiary education and training schemes is almost the reverse of those countries, which in general have some 66 per cent of that group in such education or training.

An investigation that the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, and I organised into income support for youth demonstrated that we had an almost chaotic situation, with 37 payments for youth, most of them inadequate and nearly all of them inappropriately targeted. As a result, we have this situation where people just go on to unemployment benefit because no other adequate benefit is available. It was because of that we thought we would look further. We thought we would get the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to compare our system with other systems and suggest what we might do about it. That report is about to come down. As a result of that and as a result of our investigations, one thing became very clear: There are no simplistic solutions. Immediately putting up the youth unemployment benefit by a considerable amount will not solve the problem and immediately forcing young people back into the education system somehow will not solve the problem because they left the education system not only because they did not have sufficient money to stay there but also because they found that education system inappropriate for their needs. We also realised that in this country there are just not the facilities and structures for training. This is evident when we compare our apprenticeship system with systems in the social democracies of western Europe. We do not have the structures to make a sudden change to the ratio of retention to employment rates that I mentioned.

It is for this reason that we decided we had better sit down and make some proper investigations and take some hard looks at the situation. That is what we are doing. We make no apologies for not solving all the problems of youth unemployment in the 19 months we have been in Government. We accept the criticism of those who say we should have immediately reversed the situation or gone a considerable way down the track towards reversing that situation, but we believe that that was impossible. We believed we were in grave danger of falling into the trap of introducing simplistic solutions to what is a very complex problem and so we have proceeded down the track towards developing good, sound, long-standing policies which can be developed only after we have asked the right questions and got the facts together-something which is often very difficult in this country.

The Government suspects that in the long run there will be multifactorial solutions, as Senator Harradine suggests. We certainly have to look at the retiring age; we certainly have to look at the desire of some people to retire before they are 60 or 65 years old. However, I warn honourable senators about overseas experience in this area. In those countries where voluntary early retirement has been introduced with some substantial benefit to enable people to retire early, what has been a voluntary early retirement age has too often become a compulsory early retirement age and people have been forced out of the work force who have not wanted to be forced out. In Birmingham a couple of years ago people were offered I think 80 per cent of their wage if they retired early so their job could be taken by an unemployed youth, and I think six people in the whole region retired.

Senator Peter Baume —Alabama or Warwickshire?

Senator GRIMES —Birmingham in Warwickshire. The survey of that scheme shows that an incredibly small number of people took up the offer. Senator Harradine said that another solution to the problem would be to remove married women from the work force.

Senator Harradine —No, I did not say that.

Senator GRIMES —I am sorry. He spoke of changing the conditions so that those who are in the work force and who do not want to be in it can leave to make way for young unemployed. No one would be stupid enough to deny that some women in the work force are there out of economic necessity and, if they received adequate assistance in other ways, they would leave the work force. Therefore, there may be some jobs available. But I suspect, as I believe recent surveys demonstrate, that that is not the only or main reason why women are in the work force. In the past 25 years we have seen in this country social change with increasing numbers of women joining the work force. The increasing educational standards achieved by women have led to their being in the work force not only for economic reasons but also for personal advancement, and so they should be. They seek to advance their lot in the community and, in turn, the lot of the whole community. Therefore, I suggest that any vigorous attempt such as is suggested frequently, usually in letters to newspapers, to force women out of the work force to make way for others, first, will not succeed, and, secondly, will not provide the numbers of jobs some people seem to think will arise.

As Senator Harradine said, we do not have much time in these matters of public importance to debate the issues. I could go through the programs which have been introduced, particularly by my colleague the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis). Those programs have provided jobs. The jobs are frequently short term, but I do not think people should sneer in the way that sometimes happens in this place. As my colleague Senator Button often says, if a person has a job he or she is not too concerned about how long it lasts so long as there is hope at the end of the tunnel. We need to improve economic conditions. We need to change the retention rate in upper secondary and upper tertiary education. We need to take a close look at the education system and at the provisions for training young people. We also need to do all the things Senator Harradine said. For example, we need to look at the impact of technological change and the appropriateness of industry in this regard. I commend Senator Harradine for raising this subject for debate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Elstob) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.