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Thursday, 9 August 2001
Page: 26015

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (3:37 PM) —The Job Network Monitoring Authority Bill 2000 [No. 2] seeks to establish the Job Network Monitoring Authority to correct the abject failure of the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Mr Abbott, to control the accountability of the Job Network. The bill also attempts to deal with some of the rorts that have recently been exposed in the way in which Job Network is being used. I find it interesting to look back at some of the speeches made by this minister about his portfolio. In an address to the H.R. Nicholls Society in May 2000, entitled `Constructive Compassion', the minister said:

The Job Network and Work for the Dole are good examples of how the new politics can create social enterprise rather than government enterprise. The Job Network replaced a 50 year old bureaucratic monolith working to the public sector rule book with more than 200 private, community-based and charitable organisations with a mandate to do whatever they thought was necessary to get people into work.

Certainly, the evidence of what was occurring with the phantom jobs is that the service providers were pretty keen on making money. Whether or not they were as keen on running the service and providing jobs or putting unemployed people into the jobs is another matter, a matter for question. That is one of the issues that would be addressed by the network monitoring authority. We spend something like $3 billion a year on the Job Network. We ought to be able to expect to achieve a substantial return for that investment. We ought to be able to expect that that amount of money is being maximised in terms of the contribution that it can make to getting people into employment.

The best security that workers in this country can have is full-time, secure jobs. I noticed the other day that, again, there has been a collapse in the number of people in full-time employment. Again, we are seeing insecurity as the mechanism being used as the motivating force for trying to control workers in the workplace. Secure, full-time jobs were at the heart of the recent dispute at Tristar. When people feel secure in their employment then issues such as entitlements would not take on the same dimension as they have done in recent times or as they have done over the past two or three years. Once again it is interesting to look at some of the speeches of the minister responsible for this portfolio. In a speech about mutual obligation and the social fabric—I think it was the Bert Kelly Lecture to the Centre for Independent Studies—the minister said:

Tackling unemployment is not just a matter of creating more jobs or training up skilled workers.

If we do not create more jobs and if we do not provide workers with the skills to match the demand for workers in the labour force then how are we going to get them into employment? How else are you going to tackle the issue? He also said:

It requires powerful incentives for long-term job seekers to take the jobs that are there as well as new types of work for people who can't readily find paid employment.

If the jobs are not there, you are not going to be able to find them. If there are more people seeking work than there are jobs in the economy then someone is going to miss out.

If there are skills shortages, and we do not have the capacity to meet that skills demand—and this government has made substantial cuts in the area of vocational education and training, a key element and a key resource to enable workers to gain the necessary skills to meet the demand for skilled workers in the economy—how are we going to get them job ready? It is an absolute nonsense and contradiction in terms to use the language the minister is using in dealing with this issue, but then we have become well used to ministers in this government using language and rhetoric which is at odds with the reality of what is happening out in the workplace. Again, it is interesting to go back and read some of the Mr Abbott's comments. He said:

The Government believes that human enterprises work best when participants talk among themselves first rather than to third parties.

What did he do in the Tristar dispute? The parties were seeking to negotiate. Where was the minister on the weekend? He was out there saying to the company: `You should not concede. You should not negotiate. You should not reach agreement.' This is from a minister who says that the parties should be left alone to make their own arrangements in terms of industrial relations at their enterprise. He also said:

Above all, we've encouraged people to make individual or collective enterprise agreements which suit the conditions of their own workplaces rather than operate under one-size-fits-all industry standards.

What did the minister do in that dispute? Again, he was out there saying to the employers: `You shouldn't give in. You should not make concessions.' How do you negotiate an enterprise agreement for an enterprise that is tailored to meet the requirements of that enterprise if the minister is saying that you should not concede on those types of issues? How do you negotiate an outcome if you have third parties intervening in the process who are attempting to direct the negotiations from afar and to achieve outcomes that are ideologically driven rather than driven through looking at the circumstances of that enterprise from a practical point of view?

Mr Abbott is a failed priest. But he has become a missionary zealot for the ideological right-wing, conservative viewpoints that are harnessed in organisations such as the H.R. Nicholls Society. He has become the zealot who is out there promoting those points of views on every single issue. Attacking the poor is one example. Attacking workers who are trying to negotiate security over their entitlements is another. He has become the zealot who is out there promoting the agenda of this government.

The establishment of this authority is important, given all that has happened in recent times, so that we will have an authority that will provide an independent and accountable means of monitoring the actions and outcomes of the Job Network, as well as the department's management of it. The authority will report to the parliament and to the minister on the operations of the Job Network, including on the effectiveness of Job Network programs and the effectiveness of DEWRSB in monitoring Job Network members for contractual compliance, performance and quality and equity of service delivery, and on complaints made to DEWRSB with respect to the Job Network. It is also proposed that the authority will be able to act as an independent complaints review mechanism.

That sort of mechanism is essential to have in place when you have a program of the size of the Job Network—as I said, somewhere in the region of $3 billion per year is being spent in that area—to ensure that it is not open to rorting and that people are not manipulating the process to maximise the profit and return to them as opposed to maximising the profit and return to the unemployed of this country. At the end of the day we are spending that $3 billion for one purpose: to maximise the number of unemployed people in this country that we can put into employment as quickly as possible. It is incumbent upon this parliament, as indeed it is incumbent upon the minister, to ensure that those programs are being applied in the most effective way they can be.

Under our proposal the authority will consist of a small number of staff, as well as a chief executive officer, and will need to work closely with DEWRSB to carry out its functions. Its main task will be to provide public accountability for the operations of Job Network members, as well as for DEWRSB's management of the Job Network. Information pertaining to the main functions of the Job Network monitoring authority will be made available to the minister, the parliament and the public. The proposal is that there will be open parliamentary accountability for the way in which the network is managed and that there will be open accountability to the parliament to ensure that those $3 billion are spent in the most effective way to maximise the job opportunities that are out there for the unemployed.

I wonder how much time the minister spends every day worrying about the programs that he has within his portfolio, going through the various programs that he is responsible for and applying scrutiny to ensure that they are operating in the most effective way. Anyone who watches this minister or hears his frequent interviews on radio or television would have to come to the conclusion that he spends much more of his time sitting down concocting one-liners that he can throw out to the press or subjecting those in the community who are least able to respond to another one of his attacks or diatribes. In recent times we have seen people manipulating the processes of the program to maximise payments to themselves rather than maximising the returns to the unemployed. Minister Abbott has clearly demonstrated that he is utterly incapable of managing his portfolio, including the Job Network. He is widely described around the place as the minister with `L' plates on.

The Job Network was set up in 1998, and it has contracts totalling $3 billion that are in place for the next couple of years. Currently there is no provision for independent scrutiny, but it needs it. I can recall being a member of the Senate committee on workplace relations and education which conducted an inquiry into the Job Network at the time these contracts were let. I went around the country with others, including Senator Kim Carr from this side and Senator Tierney from the other side, hearing perplexing stories from a wide variety of organisations which were part of the old system as to why they had been dropped out of the new system.

These were not organisations that were underperformers and these were not organisations which had been found to be incapable of meeting the criteria for operation under the old system; these were organisations which had performed extremely effectively in terms of the way in which they had delivered programs for the unemployed in their areas. Many of them were in regional areas. One has to wonder how the Job Network program has been managed and what the rationale was behind many of the decisions that were taken to change the structure of the programs back in 1998, I think it was, to bring a range of new players into the system, some of whom had no prior experience at all in the area of dealing with the unemployed.

It is no wonder that the McClure report, which is ACOSS's evaluation of the performance of the Job Network, and papers by a number of academic and welfare groups have been highly critical of its operation. They have been highly critical of the way in which this network has performed. The Auditor-General's report into Job Network stated that DEWRSB was not doing an adequate job in monitoring the network. It is obvious there is a need for an independent authority that not only is capable of critically analysing the workings of the Job Network—in particular, examining DEWRSB's monitoring of it—and coming up with broad policy recommendations for public discussion but also is able to ensure that the public, the community, is getting the best bang for its buck in terms of what is being expended on this program.

As we said, for $3 billion we are entitled to feel comfortable that that is being used as an effective resource on behalf of the unemployed. It is envisaged in our bill that the authority would, in addition to working with DEWRSB, work with Job Network members and community groups to facilitate those public discussions. It is important to note that the bill does not give the authority the power to change or manage Job Network contracts; it is only a role of independent scrutiny. However, it is a critically important role, because the Job Network program, in conjunction with our vocational education and training system, is the key element in providing the unemployed—whether they be short-term or long-term unemployed, whether they be mature age workers or whether they be young people just out of school—with the capacity to find their place in the work force. That has to be done by not only being able to match those individuals to the jobs that are available but, more importantly, being able to develop a system whereby the unemployed can get the skills that are necessary to be able to meet the demands that are there in the economy for various types of workers. That can only be done with a combination of both those programs.

It is obvious that there is no coordination between the two. It is obvious that the minister has not been applying himself to ensuring that Job Network is operating in the most effective manner. If he had been, we would not have had the examples that came out in July and we would not have had headlines like `Doubt cast on $3 billion in job contracts' or `Job agency rorts worse than feared' or `Minister attacked on dole cheat comments' or `Job Network places fewer in second year', et cetera. We should not have to be confronted with those types of headlines in the newspapers. We should have an authority that is effectively monitoring the programs that are out there. We should have a minister who is committed to ensuring that the programs under his control are being used effectively on behalf of those unemployed members of the community and who is not preoccupied with simply getting one-liners that will get him a headline that will maybe enhance his capacity to be the deputy leader of the opposition after the next election. There will be a vacancy, and obviously he assumes that vacancy will go to someone in New South Wales. That is on the assumption that the Treasurer will be the next leader of the opposition. So it is all based on assumption. He is out there using every means available to him to actively promote his chances of winning that position after the next election. (Time expired)