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Tuesday, 3 May 1994
Page: 65


Senator TIERNEY (5.44 p.m.) —I wish to speak on the report that the government has now responded to, entitled Wanted: Our Future. This report was a landmark report in terms of its recommendations concerning the plight of youth trying to find jobs in our system, particularly young people aged 15 to 24 years. We conducted extensive surveys across the community. We held hearings right around Australia. We debated our recommendations under the shadow of the 1993 federal election, when the two major parties were heading in very different directions of policy. Despite this we were able, before Christmas 1992, to come up with a unanimous report covering a great number of recommendations on what should happen in the area of youth unemployment.

  I would like to pay special tribute to the chairman of that committee, the Hon. Terry Aulich, who was the leading light in guiding us through that difficult time of resolving our different points of view. I also wish to thank Karen Sowada, the Australian Democrats spokesperson on education. I had a similar position for the coalition. The three of us, and the other members of the committee, were able to come up with unanimous recommendations.

  Therefore, it should dismay the Senate that it has taken the government until May 1994 to respond to this report that was tabled in the Senate in December 1992. It should have taken a maximum of three months to respond to the recommendations that we brought down. It is callous in the extreme that this government, having 30 well-researched recommendations before it from a Senate committee, has chosen to let it lie for that time.

  We have recorded daily in our papers and on the news the plight of the youth unemployed in this country. We hear daily examples of despair and poverty and, over the time of the recession, a doubling of the suicide rate. Yet the government, having a report with 30 recommendations, dithers for almost two years.

  The then minister was a little apologetic. In May 1993 the committee received a note from the minister apologising for the delay and promising a response before the budget; that is, the 1993 budget. We are up to the 1994 budget and we have just received this response to an issue that is of great importance to the Australian people. Any survey around Australia would show that what concerns people most is the level of unemployment. What distresses people most within that is youth unemployment.

  Here we have an example of the government neglecting a major problem in the economy, a problem which we would all recall it has created through the recession that we had to have. Senator Short referred to that earlier today in the matter of public importance debate.

  There has been comment that adds to this callousness, that a government chooses the level of unemployment that it wants. This government has chosen this high level of unemployment, including youth unemployment, in our economy by the sorts of policies it has adopted. It has adopted a policy regime with high levels of business taxes—a job killer. Before the last election we promised to get rid of payroll tax. That would have been a great job creator. This government has done nothing but continue, through all its levies, to add to that and kill off jobs, particularly for young people.

  The sham that goes before us in labour market reform at the moment is just that. The government has not undertaken genuine enterprise bargaining; but that is the sort of measure that is needed to boost productivity and give jobs to young people. It could have chosen to reform the economy more rapidly, as New Zealand did. New Zealand is now reaping the benefits of that. But this government has not done that. What it has done—particularly because of union objections in areas such as the waterfront—is keep micro-economic reform to a snail's pace.

  We have before us a response from the government to our report on doing something positive about youth unemployment. Over the time in which the government has taken to respond to what was said in the Senate committee report, in the period between December 1992 and April 1994, the number of long-term unemployed, which includes a lot of youth, has gone from 340,000 to 351,000. During this period of delay there have been some appalling social consequences of the government's callous attitude in this area and its lack of response to our report. The youth suicide rate in Australia is the highest in the world, and double what it was before the recession. The divorce rate and the marriage rate are now equal. Reports from the police show that violent attacks are up 40 per cent.

  The government should have been doing something from the time the committee made its recommendations, but it has let youth drift in poverty and despair, and these other social consequences are taking hold in this country as an economic underclass develops. The tragedy for our future is that a large part of that underclass happens to be the youth of our country, who should be the hope for the future but who are in the depths of despair over what this government's policy has done for the youth of Australia.

  The white paper will address many of the issues raised by the Senate committee. One would perhaps be cynical in assuming that the government has dithered around for such a long time because a fair way back it said, `We are going to bring down a white paper on unemployment and we will fix this all up at that point in time.' That is cold comfort for the many out there who are waiting for the government to provide some sort of leadership in this field.

  The good news about this report, at last, is that the response goes some way towards addressing its recommendations. Of the 30 recommendations, 16 are agreed to in principle or action is under way; six are to be examined further; and eight have been disagreed with. If the government is in a position where it agrees with more than half the report, then it begs the questions: why did it take so long to do it, and why has it left the youth of this country languishing and waiting for adequate responses and policies?

  One recommendation agreed to in principle is the expansion of the training in retail and commerce program, otherwise known as the TRAC program. The committee visited one organisation implementing this program in my home city of Newcastle. It found that this initiative by the Dusseldorp Foundation, which is a private concern, had come up with a scheme whereby students could study for the HSC not only in an academic sense but also out in the workplace and have credit towards their HSC in New South Wales. This was an extremely successful scheme. Since the pilot scheme which we saw at the time we were collecting evidence, the scheme has become widespread across New South Wales. It is an example of the sort of scheme that other states could perhaps emulate.

  The government rejects the need to look at labour market prospects for graduates and the increasing level of tertiary qualifications. One wonders why it has rejected that. One of the unfortunate things about this government's policy of trying to create a clever country is that it is neglecting that very end of the labour market that has the greatest hope of making us a clever country. We have enormous wastage in the sense that people spend all this time training in universities and the government then creates a situation where those people cannot go forward and use that training. That is a tremendous brake on the economy.

  The government feels that it is not appropriate for ANTA, the Australian National Training Authority, to look at education and training re-entry points, or the extension of the AVC to 20- to 24-year-olds. In a flexible labour market—in a market where people move in and out of jobs, where jobs that are required in the economy change all the time, and where there is a need for constant updating of skills and retraining—one wonders why the government has not agreed to that recommendation. It has agreed to a review of ANTA, established last year, after two years. This is very much in line with other work the committee has done in relation to ANTA. We are keeping a watching brief on it. We believe that it has enormous potential for improving training levels and the prospects of youth in our country, but only if it is developed in an appropriate way. Hence, we are going to be constantly monitoring what it is doing.

  Greater flexibility for jobstart allowance recipients to do volunteer work was agreed to in principle. But the government has warned of community expectation that unemployment payments will be made only to those who are actively seeking paid employment. One wonders why the government is being so narrow in its interpretation. Volunteer work is something which is undertaken by a huge number of Australians. It is something that should be encouraged, particularly for young people who have been trained and have skills. There are no jobs out there for them. If they can be redirected and encouraged by government policy into volunteer work, we will find that they will develop further skills and that this will give them a better opportunity for jobs later. More important than that, they are undertaking community service. This sort of thing should be encouraged, anyway. Not only is it good for the community but it is also excellent for their self-esteem.

  The government has stated that job sharing and modified work schedules are to be examined. We have had an inquiry and we have come up with that recommendation. After the delay of about 18 months, the government has decided that it will examine the recommendation further. Why does it need to? Why can it not come out with a harder policy on this matter? This government only has to look at what the New South Wales government has done in its very innovative job sharing arrangements through the Public Service to see how effective this can be—not only for the people working in the sector but also for the clients.

  My wife works in the area of child welfare. She is on a job share arrangement with another lady. When she originally proposed that arrangement about eight years ago, it was said that the Public Service would not do that and that it would not work. In New South Wales, the government bit the bullet and has undertaken job sharing. Job sharing shares the work around more. More people get employed. More people get an income. More people get their self-esteem boosted. For youth, it is an opportunity for expanding work opportunities as well.

  The government, in response to another recommendation, has agreed to an independent evaluation for wage subsidies, including those who are 12 months away from the finish of a program. Wage subsidies, of course, are a big part of what the government is proposing in trying to solve the unemployment problem. One wonders again why its response is so weak in saying that it will agree to an independent evaluation. If the government has had 18 months to study this report, why has it not had people working on it and coming up with a more substantial recommendation in a very detailed fashion?

  Four Corners showed last night how poorly DEET is doing in terms of its follow-up and information gathering on the effectiveness of its current labour market programs, including the job subsidy program I have just mentioned, along with others. Now, with the white paper, the government wants to expand DEET's responsibilities in this area even further.

  One would wonder why the government is doing this, given the track record so far. In terms of government policy, one possible light out there is what has been mooted as letting the private sector compete with the inefficient Commonwealth Employment Service. Such a move could help expand job opportunities for young people, but it has been a long time coming. It has been a long time since we brought down this report, and it has been a long time since the start of the recession.

  The committee welcomes the government response to our report—in part. We welcome the fact that it is acting on a number of the recommendations. But given that the ones it has rejected had cross-party support, it is disappointing that the government has either pushed them off to further inquiries or rejected them outright. Given that the government has been considering this report for 18 months, one would have thought that it could have come up with a much more constructive response to it.

  We await with great interest the developments following the release of the white paper tomorrow. Let us hope that it contains a much better deal for the youth of our country. The government's slowness in responding to our report seems to indicate that it is not putting a high priority on youth unemployment. Let us hope that what comes out of tomorrow's white paper gives Australian youth some hope for the future.