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Thursday, 9 August 2001
Page: 26022

Senator CHERRY (4:17 PM) —I am rising to put on the record the Democrats' general support for the Job Network Monitoring Authority Bill 2000 [No. 2] as presented in general business today. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this occasion, it not being my first speech—

Senator McGauran —It is his first speech.

Senator CHERRY —It is not my first speech—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Sherry)—Order, Senator McGauran!

Senator CHERRY —as I consider the whole issue of how we treat the jobless in Australia to be one of the most important issues facing Australia today and, in particular, how we treat some of our most disadvantaged people.

Senator McGauran —It is not his first speech but it is his first speech!

Senator CHERRY —Throw him out!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Order, Senator McGauran! You are well aware of the Senate's traditions, and interjections are unruly at any time.

Senator CHERRY —Back to boot camp. The Democrats are in full support of greater monitoring of the Job Network and of the use of the full power of the law to pursue those who attempt to make money out of the least fortunate and the most vulnerable in our society—the unemployed. We have been pushing this issue for years. I acknowledge the work of Senator Stott Despoja on the whole issue of Job Network over the last five years. Three years ago in this chamber Senator Stott Despoja moved for greater monitoring of the Job Network in view of the difficulties reported with it in that year. Since then things have gone from bad to worse with a growing litany of serious charges of misuse of public money and, just as importantly, the exploitation and misuse of unemployed people.

Democrat policy on this issue is quite clear. We support the provision and maintenance of a free public employment service composed of a network of local and, where appropriate, regional offices, sufficient in number to service employers and workers in each region. We emphatically do not support the retention of the competitive employment services model which views the unemployed as a means of turning a profit rather than as individuals requiring help. We support the critical review of the design and operation of Job Network to develop a more accountable system. In our policy we state that accountability needs to be enhanced by minimum training standards, regular service delivery reports, qualitative monitoring, closer scrutiny of the tendering process and a charter of conduct to promote social equity, consumer protection and regional protection standards.

This problem will not go away. Today the ABS announced that unemployment in Australia is stagnant at 6.9 per cent; 169,000 full-time jobs disappeared in Australia in the last year, replaced by part-time jobs. Senator Tierney says that under Labor we had the best trained dole force in the world. We now have the most underemployed work force in the world. There are over 682,000 unemployed people in Australia. In addition, the participation rate has fallen in the last month as more people give up looking for work and disappear into the growing pool of hidden unemployed in Australia. At the same time we know that they are chasing only 95,000 vacancies. This means that unemployed people are under very great pressure. There simply are not enough jobs to go around. This government, while it likes to boast about its achievements in employment, says very little about the unemployed, their poverty and the lack of opportunities they face, as evidenced by Senator Vanstone's answers today. It does not matter how much training you give people, how many you-beaut Job Network services you offer or even how hard you breach them or preach to them; if there are not enough jobs, there just are not enough jobs. That is the major challenge for this government and any future Labor government.

The government remains callous about the income levels of the unemployed and it remains focused on reducing taxes for the well-off. It sets aside the issues that affect the truly poor in our communities in favour of offering electoral bribes. To have unscrupulous Job Network providers making money out of them as well is an outrage. It must be stopped. Clearly the government's current monitoring approach is too soft, too slow and, as the minister himself admitted on the front page of the Age last weekend, could turn into a cancer. There obviously are scams at work out there. Some people are making a lot of money out of the unemployed. This is thoroughly repugnant. It undermines the good work of legitimate, sincere Job Network providers who would never be involved in scams or rip-offs of the unemployed but who work hard to train and assist the unemployed.

The government, having privatised Job Network services and allowed people to make money out of the unemployed, have a high moral responsibility to protect them from scams and exploitation. This bill in front of us could be some sort of move in the right direction. They have a high moral responsibility to prevent Job Network placements that are really fake jobs or cut down jobs that split jobs into little bits to make more money for providers. They also have a moral responsibility to make sure that the unemployed are not uselessly churned through fake jobs or pushed circuitously through labour hire agencies.

The current machinery for monitoring this scheme has proved hopelessly inadequate, as the Democrats have long said both inside and outside this chamber. The government must move quickly to cut out scams, prosecute those who have broken the law and, more significantly, face up to the fact that there are not enough jobs out there and that the current policy mix is not doing enough either to create them or to protect the disadvantaged. If the government insist on sticking to a policy that privatises job placement services, they have a moral responsibility to pass laws that will give some real teeth to monitor and prosecute those who rip off the unemployed and who give those Job Network providers who are attempting to do a good job a bad name. Of course, the Democrats have consistently opposed the privatisation of job placement services. As Senator Stott Despoja put on the public record in this place in 1998:

... Job Network is flawed in its conception, design and indeed in its implementation ...

We have called for reviews for some years. Job providers do not necessarily work better just because someone makes a profit out of them, and we have many supporters of this view. The OECD, for example, found that there was little difference between the outcomes arising from Job Network and the Working Nation. They said:

While Job Network has cut down on costs compared to previous labour market programmes, the actual results in terms of raising the exit rates of benefit recipients from unemployment into jobs, are not so different from those achieved under the Working Nation initiative of the previous government. Until recently, at least, the programmes did not seem to be having much impact on core long-term unemployment overall.

This raises the important issue of what Labor would do in relation to Job Network. Despite all the evidence of rorts, of a system that is not adequately monitored, policed or supervised and of outcomes that are not much different, especially for the long-term unemployed, Labor do not oppose the Job Network. They simply want to have an oversight body established—another level of bureaucracy to keep an eye on the bureaucracy.

We will support this bill not because it is a perfect solution to the problems before us but because it is a start. It is necessary, given recent events, but is far from enough. Job Network is not doing the job well enough for Australia's unemployed. Some Job Network bodies, not the majority but some, are churning, short-changing or simply ripping off the system. They should be stopped. The entire operation of a privatised system for the provision of a public good needs overturning. Both Labor and the coalition are wrong in allowing profit to be made from services that should be publicly provided, not for profit, to all Australians who need them.