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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1467


Senator MASON(5.05) —One of the earliest Australian Democrat policies, which this party has maintained now for almost a decade, was that work should be available for all those in the community who want to work and that if unemployment became structural within our society the patterns of society should change. I agree with that view absolutely. It has a good deal of bearing on the urgency motion, which reads:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The Government's cynical abuse of the employment hopes of young Australians and the need for it to immediately address the abject failure of its education and training policies.

Those words `cynical abuse' seem to me a little immoderate-they have a kind of pre-election ring about them. Since this is an urgency motion and the Democrat vote will decide whether it passes, we must take those words seriously. Looking back over the years of the Government's record, it can justly be accused of cynicism in the way that it has brought up program after program of so-called training and assistance schemes for the unemployed-especially the youthful unemployed. These schemes have unduly raised hopes which have then been dashed as the programs have substantially failed in their objectives.

The Government regularly talks about the thousands of new jobs it has created without bothering to note that the stubborn, significant and probably understated unemployment statistics have remained much the same over the years. We heard Senator Colston doing that not 10 minutes ago. But when one looks at that admirable little compendium The Round-up, the Treasury's quite impeccable review of what is going on in our society, one sees that table 15 headed `Unemployment and Vacancies' shows that the unemployment rate last month was 8.4 per cent, compared with 7.9 per cent in March last year. When one looks at the youth unemployment rate-and for the Government's purposes, the youthful unemployed are categorised as those aged 15 to 19-one sees a steadily deteriorating situation over the past two years. From March 1985 the figures run like this: Youth unemployment, 23.2 per cent, 21.8 per cent, 21.5 per cent, 21.8 per cent, 21.2 per cent, right through the 22s, back to 21 per cent, then last month it rose to 23.3 per cent. Thus, 23.3 per cent of all Australians between the ages of 15 and 19 are out of work. How the Government can call that progress defies the imagination. Indeed, I note that even Senator Colston was not able to get those words out with any deep sense of conviction. I believe that the Opposition has quite fairly identified education and training problems as a tragic and dangerous situation. Indeed it is. However, those two matters, education and training, are not the real underlying problem.

Youth unemployment is both dangerous and tragic because of the serious effects on health and even life of long term unemployment. I point to the high suicide rate among the unemployed and the very well documented health problems, especially mental health problems, which they suffer. High unemployment rates, sustained chronically as they are, are dangerous too because they destabilise society seriously. The effects of unemployment are not simply economic. There is a striking correlation between unemployment and hard drug use and between hard drug use and crime, especially theft and house breaking by young unemployed people who are desperately trying to get money to support their drug habit. Thus, unemployment is a cancer in our society. It has not been seriously addressed because the basic and necessary restructuring of society has been evaded.

The real point, of course, is that the Government is wrong if it believes unemployment will be corrected by any increase in business activity that is likely in the foreseeable future. Any gains in that direction-and naturally we all hope that there will be gains-will be offset by losses of jobs due to further automation. That conclusion is inescapable. If this happens, society will need to be restructured in significant directions. Education and training will, of course, be necessary to achieve this restructuring, as it has been in other countries more wise than we are. We need as soon as possible to change radically our concept of work.

I listened yesterday morning to a young woman on a radio program who was discussing how boring and unsatisfying it was working modern computerised industrial machinery, which in the case of this young woman was making steel washers. She remarked that the job could be done just as well by a robot. Of course, it no doubt could be. For heaven's sake, let us accept that it should be done by a robot and that we ought to look now at the prospect of a world in which all heavy, dirty or boringly repetitive work need not be done by human beings. That would be a good world. However, it is necessary that those job losses due to automation be balanced and that other areas of work that are more rewarding and creative be provided to fill the gap. There would be no economic problems if we could get the community to accept that kind of restructuring happily. Automation can provide vast new areas or wealth simply because it gets things done more easily, more cheaply and more prolifically, and that sum total of productivity is what wealth is.

There is no reason why the arts, drama, sport and music should not be regarded as work-as areas in which young people can be professionally trained and paid for their efforts. There is no reason in the world why every suburb should not have its own theatre company and symphony orchestra and craft, art and hobby centres that cover a huge range of activities, perhaps on a scale we cannot now even imagine. If such things could be based on the schools, those institutions would become very much different places from what they are now. They could change from being factories to make people fit to and to conform with society-too often unsuccessfully, for very good reasons-into places where any citizens of any age could learn whatever suited their own abilities and preferences. That would be to the great benefit of society.

This may be seen as simply idealistic. However, I do not really think it is, because this is surely the only way the world can go if we are not to have a bitter division as we are getting in this country between the haves and have-nots and those with a terrifying, persisting neo-Luddite approach who will have every reason to fear and oppose changes which ought to be beneficial to society. When I say `neo-Luddite', I refer to those people in England during the Industrial Revolution last century who broke machinery because the machines seemed to take them away from a job. By using the term `neo-Luddite' I mean simply that the same attitudes exist in our society today. There is no doubt at all that those attitudes are here with us now.

People have a great, unreasonable fear of losing their jobs with nothing else being provided for them. Until we cross that bridge we will have achieved absolutely nothing at all. Perhaps we have achieved even worse than nothing because, for the reasons I have stated, the longer we allow unemployment to drag on the worse it will be. So that alternative involves a bitter division of society as a result of allowing unemployment to drag on. Perhaps eventually this could lead to urban terrorism on our streets because that is what we are begging for by allowing young minds to do nothing after providing perhaps the best education that any generation has had for decades or centuries. If we want that to happen, if we regard that alternative as good enough, let people say that my alternative is idealistic. I believe that what we are doing is not good enough. It is because we feel that the Government has been too complacent, too smug and too smart together about this problem that the Democrats will vote with the Opposition on this motion.

It can be seen that this is not a situation for the faint hearted, the indecisive or those who want a bob each way. We need the same determination from some Australian government as in Japan where the problem was perceived clearly and early and acted upon. Automation is proceeding apace in Japan, but on a basis-I was assured of this by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry when I was in that country some years ago-on which job losses do result. That outcome is not negotiable in Japan. However, many people do different things. There are people who beautifully landscape the grounds around Japanese factories. Others provide workers with travel advisory services and the like. People have been retrained to do those things. The point is that those things are useful. They add to the quality of life of everybody. This is far better than having people on the dole doing nothing or breaking into houses and stealing television sets.

I repeat that unless members of the Australian work force are absolutely assured that they will not be thrown on the scrap-heap as a result of automation, they will reject such a proposition fiercely and perhaps mindlessly. They cannot be blamed for that. We can be blamed for it, however, because we are the Parliament and the Government sitting opposite me is supposed to be capable of solving that sort of problem. It has not done so, as the figures that I have read out clearly indicate.

I am not altogether happy with the Opposition's view of this matter. This motion is very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black. There is no evidence at all that the Opposition really wants to address the basic problems of unemployment or that it is prepared to consider the quite radical social changes necessary to overcome it. In fact, I note that the Federal Council of the National Party of Australia has adopted a 25c in the dollar flat tax policy which would mean that there would be no money at all for such initiatives. I do not think the Liberals are much better. They vary in their attitudes according to their degree of dampness. I do not think they are really prepared to face up to the fact that restructuring is what is needed and that the sooner we get on to it the better. That is a pity because there needs to be a social and political consensus if any major change is to be made.

Perhaps if we looked at unemployment as the national crisis it really is, something would be done. Instead, I think we are tending now to consider this problem from a cliche point of view, to look at it as just another social statistic like deaths from road accidents and the appalling and tragic illness and death rates from smoking cigarettes. Indeed, all three of these things indicate that the Government is prepared to tolerate even the most serious social evils provided it feels that it can keep control of the vote of the majority who are not disadvantaged. This can readily be done by appealing to the lowest common denominators which are invariably, as I said, selfishness and reluctance to change. This may well be a way of winning elections but it is not the way to run a country.

Criticism can readily and fairly be extended to most of the trade union movement, which has shown a distinct preference for looking after its members who are working and who, presumably, can pay their full union dues rather than the unemployed. This has been evident from the union movement's substantial opposition to part time work with proper conditions and its opposition to a sensible system of industrial democracy, which is the only way in which meaningful extensions in productivity could be achieved in this country with at least some change of some growth in employment.

One of the cynical aspects of the Government's attitude towards unemployment has been the use, as Senator Vanstone noted-I agree with her-of large amounts of public money to publicise schemes which are supposed to help the unemployed. This spending perhaps induces people in the community towards a vague feeling that the Government is doing something, especially if a very expensive, glossy and glib public relations approach is taken, as was taken with the Priority One scheme. Of course, the Priority One program, like its predecessors, has not been effective, as Senator Vanstone very clearly indicated-she gave the figures-simply because it was not designed to address the basic causes of unemployment which, I repeat, are structural.

The Government has also knocked back over the years some very reasonable and progressive Democrats suggestions which would without doubt have helped get the unemployment figures down-perhaps not substantially, but to an extent. One such suggestion was to allow early retirement by perhaps two years whereby the person who retired would be replaced by a person who was at that time unemployed. Since the pension rates are the same, this would cost the community absolutely nothing. This sort of thing is done in a number of European countries. But the Government basically does nothing about things like that. It does not really want to know about anything that would help the situation. As the Opposition says, the Government cynically abuses the unemployment hopes of young Australians.

Looking briefly at education, it is distressing to see from the Government's 1986-87 education budget that the Commonwealth's momentum to improve the country's schools has slowed down. There have been cuts to a number of important programs. For instance, the computer education program was scrapped after a life of only three years and there is a lack of growth in others. In the latter instance, the best example is the participation and equity program. This is the program that incorporated special programs of the Fraser Government, such as the school to work transition program, to deal with the problem of young unemployed. PEP has covered both senior secondary education and technical and further education areas. It has helped to build useful bridges between the two sectors, encouraging greater co-operation and development of programs between people in the two sectors for the benefit of those most prone to unemployment. That sort of rundown leads to the situation where in technical and further education colleges-a sector we tend to overlook-35,000 people in New South Wales alone had to be turned away from vocational courses at the start of 1986 because of a lack of places. I think that figure alone is eloquent enough that indeed we say that we want our young people to stay longer in school and we say that we want them to have a better education, but we deny them the opportunity.


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