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Thursday, 9 August 2001
Page: 26018

Senator TIERNEY (3:57 PM) —I rise to speak on the Job Network Monitoring Authority Bill 2000. This bill is supposed to be in response to shortcomings in the Job Network program. I will go through the key elements of this bill and how they will respond to a system which is already covered in the ways that they are trying to indicate. I will treat that systematically a little later in my contribution today. I will start by widening the frame a little further than Senator Campbell did in going back to 1998. I listened carefully to Senator Campbell's contribution. He was incredibly quiet on Labor's record before 1996 in the whole area of helping people find jobs. He had very good reason to be quiet because, in that earlier time, the ALP's record was an absolute disgrace.

I came into this parliament in the early nineties, at a time when unemployment was at 11 per cent. What was the Labor Party's response to that? Before I go into their specific measures, I remind the Senate of what the Senate committees found out about the problem of getting people into work during the early nineties under the Hawke-Keating government. We conducted three different inquiries at that time. One was called: `Wanted: our future'. It was an inquiry into youth unemployment. We had hearings around the country. We listened to youth groups and to people who employed youth, and we heard about the devastation that was wrought on the next generation by the then Labor government where unemployment rates for youth were through the roof—up around 30 per cent. Under this government, it has come down quite remarkably. It was up high; it stayed high. Whatever programs Labor thought they had operating at that time certainly did nothing for the youth of this country. The second inquiry we held was into long-term unemployment. That was an even sadder inquiry in terms of the people who had been out of work for six months, 12 months and 24 months.

As a matter of fact, at one point in time, the last Labor government reduced long-term unemployment dramatically in one stroke by redefining the time that people were considered to be long-term unemployed. They went through a lot of very tricky statistical tricks to try to make it seem as though unemployment was not as high as it was, but it certainly was very high at that time. We heard during that inquiry—and I particularly remember the inquiry at Campbelltown—about people who had been thrown on the unemployment scrap heap at the age of 50 and about their difficulty in trying to getback into any sort of work and about the incredible inadequacy of the programs that the Labor government at that time set up.

A third inquiry was into regional unemployment. We found right around the nation how, if you are outside the capital cities, it was much harder to get employment and we heard about the total ineffectiveness of the then Labor government's approach to rural and regional unemployment. As a matter of fact, one of the great black holes of the Hawke and Keating government policy for 13 years was the bush. What specific programs did they have to assist people in rural and regional Australia? They had diddly-squat. It was only in the last 18 months of government that they set up regional development organisations. What they managed to do was employ a person in an office and give them a desk and a telephone; and they employed 200 bureaucrats in Canberra to administer it. This was their answer to regional development and unemployment—a totally inadequate response.

When they really figured out they had a major problem on their hands was about 1992, when unemployment hit this 11 per cent level. They brought in a program to solve all this called Working Nation. What a title! Eleven per cent unemployment and you set up a program called Working Nation! Obviously the bureaucrat who came up with that one had a warped sense of humour. I assume it was meant in irony, because that is exactly what was not happening to a huge number of youth in this country, to a huge number of the long-term unemployed and to a huge number of people in rural and regional Australia. They did not have jobs at all. They were not working. But Labor came up with a big program and threw billions at it. They put so much money into this program that in one year, in 1994, at the end of the financial year, they had to hand back half a billion dollars. They could not spend it because of the nature of the programs that they had set up at that time. Their answer was, `Let's start with the university system.' It was the early 1990s and they were turning away 50,000 students who wanted to get into university, who were qualified to get into university but for whom there were not enough places. They were turning away 50,000.

Let us go to the apprenticeship system, another form of training. Under Labor, particularly in the last half of their government, apprenticeships plummeted in this country to the lowest level ever. No matter what they tried, they could not revive that system and get apprenticeships rebuilt. It was only when our government came into power, particularly with the New Apprenticeships system, that it turned around and the number involved rocketed dramatically. The number of apprenticeships has increased under this government. Back under so-called Working Nation, under the Hawke-Keating government, apprenticeships went through the floor.

What else did they have? They had a whole lot of mickey mouse programs—what were called labour market programs. These were short course programs and people were supposed to get skills under these sorts of programs. I can remember going around to different places that were running these programs and two things always struck you, no matter where you turned up, whether it was a Skillshare or what on earth it was. Firstly, there were not too many people around and, secondly, not too much was happening. That was the overwhelming impression every time I went to one of these places. Even if the people did get skills, the whole philosophy and approach was, `Let's give people some skills.' Bar courses were very popular at one point, so a whole lot of people got skills in bar work. None of it was actually tied to any jobs at the end in any way.

We can all remember that Kim Beazley was the minister for employment—he seems to go through a lot of portfolios where disaster follows him and it was certainly the case in employment. He was in Wollongong, and we all remember the footage on TV. He was in front of an audience of youth and he was saying, `We have these labour market programs', and one voice in the audience said, `But there are no jobs.' In Wollongong at the time they claimed that they were the best trained unemployment queue in the world because they would do a short course in one of these labour market programs, they would try to find a job, but there was no job, and then they would come back and do another short course. Of course, they were taken off the unemployment list when they were doing a short course. That is how Labor were fudging the figures as well. When unemployment was 11 per cent, it was actually considerably higher. At the end of the second course they would not find a job so they would go back and do another course. We had the best trained unemployment queues in the world. That was the record of the previous Labor government. I am not surprised that the first speaker, Senator George Campbell, said nothing about Labor's absolutely appalling record.

What will Labor do in the future? What is Labor set up to do? I wonder. We have a policy-free zone opposite again. Something called Knowledge Nation came out. It was full of waffle and a whole lot of excellent objectives that people could agree with and, in a perfect world with unlimited budgets, you might be able to do, but it certainly was not a blueprint for responsible government. What are we going to do in 2002? What are we going to do in 2003? You look through Knowledge Nation in vain to find any specific program. Those opposite are a blank sheet. The alternative government in this country is a blank sheet. When they were the government they were an absolute disaster. One would assume that, as they are a blank sheet now and they do not agree with our programs currently, we will go back into a disaster zone if we are unfortunate enough to have them as a government after the next election.

When we came into power we decided that what was there was not working and that we needed a radically new approach. That is when the Job Network system was started. The Job Network system has consistently outperformed the previous system. The Job Network Monitoring Authority Bill 2000 [No. 2] is trying to regulate, it claims, the Job Network system to get better outcomes. What the bill totally ignores—and I will go through this section by section—are the programs that are already in place to do what the bill says it is setting out to do. In the area of monitoring, it sets up new procedures, totally ignoring the monitoring systems that are in place. In the area of evaluation, it sets up a new system, but it is totally ignoring what we already have in place. And, in the area of complaints resolution, it sets up a new system, again ignoring what we have in place.

I want to go through these three aspects and prove that this bill is totally superfluous, that we do not need new legislation and that we do not need this new authority. The reason is that in the three areas that the new bill addresses we already have procedures in place and they are working quite effectively. Let us have a look at monitoring. Clause 6(1) of the bill states:

(a) to monitor and evaluate the operation of the Job Network

... ... ...

(ii) the effectiveness of DEWRSB in monitoring Job Network.

Let us go through those points. If we look at what is in place already, you would wonder why you need a totally new authority. There are a lot of bodies that monitor and check what is happening in the Job Network. To name a few, there is obviously parliamentary scrutiny, there are statutory agencies—for example, the Australian National Audit Office—there is the Office of the Ombudsman, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Privacy Commissioner, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner, there are also interest groups that keep a very careful eye on it, such as ACOSS, and a raft of academics constantly studying it as well. So there is a whole range of mechanisms which monitors what is happening in the Job Network. Any extra scrutiny would be counterproductive because it would impose yet another layer of bureaucracy on the system. The government has in place comprehensive governance arrangements that ensure Job Network providers will deliver quality service and comply with the terms and conditions of their contract. We do not need to establish an independent regulatory authority to do that.

All Job Network members are required to comply with the Job Network code of conduct, which forms part of their contract with the Commonwealth. The code sets out minimum standards of service and comprises a set of principles, commitments and measurable service standards for the delivery of ethical, professional and relevant assistance. In addition, the department has established an integrity committee, chaired by the secretary to the department, and it has responsibility for, amongst other things, ensuring the government's policies, programs and services are delivered in accordance with high ethical standards in the spirit intended. The committee's objective is to develop and foster an environment of openness and high standards of ethics and integrity both within the department and in its contractual arrangements with other agencies.

The department also has in place a very comprehensive contract performance monitoring framework for Job Network. The principles and objectives of this framework are to ensure that Job Network members deliver the services that they are contracted to deliver and that they comply strictly with the terms and conditions of their contractual obligations to the Commonwealth. The department also conducts on-site audits of Job Network members to assess their performance against principles and their commitment to service standards specified in the code of conduct. Most Job Network members view quality audits as a valuable tool that assists them to deliver a better service and provide better quality. Quality audits can be initiated by the department where the Job Network member is the subject of continuing complaint or the subject of a particular serious complaint. Also, quality audits have been conducted on Job Network sites that exhibit best practice. In the 12 months to June 2001, 92 quality audits were performed and a further 25 were planned in the next three months.

Turning to evaluation, clause 6 of this new bill says:

(1) Subject to this Act, the Authority's functions are:

(a) to monitor and evaluate operations of the Job Network.

These sorts of things are happening already. We do not need to establish an independent regulatory authority to perform tasks that are already being performed. There is an effective evaluation procedure in place. There has been a number of reports on how it has operated to date—Job Network Evaluation Stage One report, May 2000, and Job Network Evaluation Stage Two report, May 2001—and there is another report due in December of this year. The department also released in April 2001 the Job Network: A Net Impact Study report. This measures the difference in outcome achieved by those receiving Job Network assistance compared to a control group of similar job seekers who did not. In March 2001 the department released the Job Network member performance ratings. These rate individual Job Network members on the basis of a one to five star assessment system, reflecting their relative achievement. In addition, the department issues labour market assistance outcome reports every quarter. In addition to all of this work on evaluation, the government has announced that the Productivity Commission is to conduct a public inquiry into the Job Network, commencing shortly and reporting in 2002.

Turning finally to the issue of complaints, which one would assume is what has sparked opposition calls for this authority. Let us look at how the Job Network system handles complaints. If a job seeker or an employee or any other party believes that a Job Network member is not delivering a service in accordance with the principles and commitments set out in the code of conduct, they are encouraged in the first instance to raise their concerns with the relevant Job Network member. A customer service operator will assist to resolve the complaint and will investigate the matter further if appropriate. Customer service operators can require Job Network members to take action to fix the problem. Most Job Network members are keen to resolve complaints quickly and will agree to take action to resolve the problem. Most complaints are resolved very quickly: 95 per cent within 30 days. That is a very high success rate for complaints resolution. The department operates a free Job Network customer service line staffed by customer service officers in each state and territory. Through this line customer service operators can assist callers by providing advice, resolving complaints and investigating concerns as appropriate. Customer service operators can also require Job Network members to take remedial action on complaints. In the 12 months to 30 June 2001 there were approximately 19,000 calls to the customer service line. Approximately 59 per cent of calls were simple queries or requests for information. The remaining calls related to complaints about Job Network, particularly the quality of service provided. Job seekers represented 80 per cent of calls to the customer service line with over 97 per cent of these problems being resolved within seven days.

Not only do we have a system that is far more effective than that which operated under the last Labor government but we have a system which very effectively covers these three major areas—monitoring, evaluation and complaint resolution—that are supposed to be investigated by the authority this bill purports to set up. I say to the parliament that we do not need an extra layer of bureaucracy, because these areas are already covered by an adequate mechanism that is in place.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Sherry)—Just before I call Senator John Cherry, I indicate to the Senate that this is not the senator's first speech and, in calling him, I am acting in accordance with the standing orders and the traditions of the Senate.