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Thursday, 9 August 2001
Page: 26024

Senator HUTCHINS (4:25 PM) —That was a very thoughtful contribution from our newest member of the Senate. I am sure you would agree with me, Mr Acting Deputy President Sherry, that the Job Network Monitoring Authority Bill 2000 [No. 2] is necessary today because of the way the government has botched its job program. The fact that it has been botched does not surprise me at all because I have to admit that I have known the minister, Mr Tony Abbott, since about 1975. We were on the same campus at Sydney University. Tony Abbott first came to my attention when he and his goons used to come around and break up our rallies in support of Gough Whitlam. They used to turn up—and I am not sure whether they had been out having their usual drinking sessions or chasing women or whatever else—and try to break up our rallies. Of course, we did not respond; we treated them in the way that you should treat those sorts of goons: we completely ignored them. I was a delegate to the AUS once—I think it was in 1977—and I and my moderate Labor colleagues at Sydney University forgot to run for the five spots. It was an accident and I regret it because of the way in which the preferences worked out: we took four of the five positions, but unfortunately Tony Abbott got the fifth. It was a lesson I learned, and I never made that mistake again. When I ran tickets in union elections or party ballots, I always put up a full ticket. So it is to my regret that we had Mr Abbott elected to the AUS. Of course, we saw his antics there and the stunts that he and his goonish colleagues used to pull.

As I say, it is of no surprise to me that the Job Network is in difficulty. Where I come from in Western Sydney we would refer to Mr Abbott as someone who has `sexy fingers', because we would say that everything he touches he stuffs. If you look at the way in which he has handled this portfolio and the way in which he has handled a number of things in his political career, you would expect the outcome that we are seeing today where Labor has to introduce legislation in the parliament to make sure that there is an authority to monitor the crumbling Job Network system. As I said, the way in which Mr Abbott has conducted himself in this portfolio and in politics generally does not surprise me, and it should not surprise anybody else. Mr Acting Deputy President, you may recall that Mr Abbott was responsible for the employment of our first One Nation MP in this country, Mr David Oldfield, when in fact he was a Liberal Party activist in the northern suburbs of Sydney.

Senator Conroy —That is a very generous description.

Senator HUTCHINS —I know, Senator Conroy, but I am in a generous mood this afternoon. Mr Abbott gave us the first One Nation MP in this country, David Oldfield. You would not know what sort of machinations he and his crew in their northern suburbs offices in Sydney were up to with One Nation and with the extreme right of politics in this country. It is one legacy that Mr Abbott has left us, and it will be a legacy that the people of New South Wales—

Senator Boswell —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The point of order is that it is well known that Mr Abbott fought the far right—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Sherry)—Order, Senator! That is not a point of order.

Senator Boswell —We could look at another point of order, which is misrepresentation. Senator Hutchins is misrepresenting Mr Abbott.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Boswell, that is not a point of order. That is my ruling; will you please sit down.

Senator HUTCHINS —I am not sure whether Mr Abbott is giving the extreme right a bad name and you had to get up and defend him on those grounds. I am not sure what the Leader of the National Party in the Senate felt he had to get up and defend Mr Abbott about. As I said, Mr Abbott is responsible for David Oldfield, our first One Nation MP. Mr Abbott was also one of the leading antirepublican campaigners in the referendum in 1999. As you may or may not be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President, his own electorate voted for the republic; that is how successful Mr Abbott was. As I said, that is the tenor of this man and his contribution to politics.

This afternoon, we in the Labor Party once again have to provide the leadership in this country to make sure that this Job Network starts to work and perform for the taxpayers who are funding it. As you would be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President, this bill establishes what we would call a Job Network Monitoring Authority, which would independently monitor the outcomes and actions of the Job Network and the department of employment's management of it. This authority would report to and be accountable to parliament on issues relating to the effectiveness of Job Network and the effectiveness of the department in monitoring Job Network members for compliance, performance, quality and equity.

The authority would also act as a complaints review mechanism. It would consist of a chief executive officer and a small number of staff. It would not have power to change or manage Job Network contracts. Its role would be to ensure that the department adequately monitored those contracts. This authority would be similar to the disbanded Employment Services Regulation Authority.

The Job Network was set up in 1996 to replace the CES. When it was introduced, there were no provisions for independent scrutiny. It now has in place, over the next three years, contracts totalling $3 billion. That is a lot of money for Australians to invest, and it is a scandal that we have no independent authority to monitor exactly what is going on there. Mr Abbott's Job Network has failed. It has created fewer jobs than Labor's Working Nation. It has failed to create jobs for the disadvantaged. It has massively been rorted by agencies through the creation of phantom jobs and through job splitting and serial placements. Mr Abbott, Mr Brough and the department have been made aware of these problems and have done nothing about it.

We need an independent monitor to: (1) assess the performance of the Job Network; (2) make the Job Network's performance accountable to parliament; (3) make the system work; (4) stop the rorts; and (5) ensure that it works for the disadvantaged. Our key points in this legislation are: firstly, the government is presiding over a disaster for the unemployed and it has taken Labor to show this; and, secondly, we have a policy solution to fix Job Network.

As I said, there has been rorting by agencies. As I understand, it was discovered by Labor members through the Senate estimates committee in June this year that many job agencies have been filling phantom jobs in order to claim incorrect payments from the Commonwealth. Some Job Network agencies set up labour hire companies, then hire an unemployed person for a few days and thereby claim a $400 payment from the government. One such agency was Leonie Green and Associates, which has admitted to placing 2,300 people into jobs in this manner. The government has now asked this agency to pay back $70,000. These people are simply asked to look for work. In one case, the agency IPA used Job Network clients as promotional walkers to distribute flyers promoting itself. The agency then paid these people as little as $10 an hour for 15 hours work, claimed the $400 from the government and made $250 a head profit. The Sunday Age reported that the Director of Public Prosecutions is considering laying charges against five individuals working for Job Network agencies over possible fraudulent activities. In fact, the Salvation Army's Job Network agency, Employment Plus, has been asked to repay $45,000 in falsely claimed payments. So we have $70,000 from someone and $45,000 from someone else.

Mr Abbott carries a great deal of the blame for this. When he expanded Job Network to Job Network 2, Labor, community groups and Job Network agencies themselves warned that the system was open to abuse. Labor originally put forward the proposal contained in this bill to ensure proper scrutiny of the contracts being performed. If the government were to accept this bill, it would be less likely that this massive rorting would be allowed to happen again in the future.

I said that there were three ways that Job Network was being ripped off. I have already mentioned the phantom jobs issue. Another area where it is exploited is in what is called job splitting. This is where a single full-time job is divided into a number of part-time jobs so as to receive multiple payments—that is the scam. In a speech to the National Employment Services Conference on 24 July this year, employment services minister, Mal Brough, admitted that this was a problem in the Job Network. That was in July, and we have seen no response from the government.

The third area was serial placements. This is where the same job seeker is repeatedly sacked and then put back into the same job to receive the multiple rorted payments. Once again, at the conference on 24 July this year, the minister, Mr Brough, admitted that this was a problem. But there are no solutions, and it is up to Labor to provide some solutions, as we are doing here this afternoon. There is a need for some sort of authority to look into these matters, and in May this year there was an evaluation report from the department of employment. It found that disadvantaged groups were not faring well under this program, including older job seekers, the long-term unemployed, the poorly educated, indigenous job seekers and the disabled. However, this report did not assess the actual performance of the Job Network; that is, the Job Network's effectiveness in securing sustainable employment for job seekers or the extent to which the Job Network delivers value for money. I believe an independent authority would deliver independent advice on these crucial matters. It would also facilitate public discussion on how to address issues like finding employment for the disadvantaged. In fact, the government's own interim McClure report into welfare reform said in March last year things like this:

Assistance is fragmented, disjointed and focussed on un-coordinated program outcomes.

It said that people who require specialised assistance, like the disabled, those with English as a second language, those with literacy and numeracy problems or those with child care needs, are not being and have not been given adequate assistance. It warned that the government's `blame the victim' mentality is damaging and that this indicates that we are reverting to a `job snob' attitude.

I see that Senator McGauran is going to follow me in this debate, and I would be interested in his comments on this Calvinistic approach to people who are unemployed. It is similar to `blame the victim', as I said earlier, because clearly a lot of these people who are disadvantaged, as has been recognised by the McClure report, are indeed disadvantaged and they should not be blamed for being in this particular predicament. I know of Senator McGauran's intellectual pursuits in certain areas, and I would be interested to see how he wriggles out of the Calvinist view that this government seem to be implementing in their program.

The Job Network has failed to assist long-term unemployed people to find work. The intensive assistance program for the long-term unemployed has failed—37 per cent of job seekers were in work three months after receiving intensive assistance, compared with Labor's 59 per cent under our former wage subsidy program and 41 per cent under our former training program. In fact, the OECD has reported that it has created the same amount of jobs as Labor's Working Nation—but Working Nation was not plagued by phantom jobs like those in this system.

A number of things have occurred in this scheme, and you would think that that has not been highlighted for the government. Mr Brough himself admitted on 24 July that there were some deficiencies and has failed to provide any leadership or way out of this matter. In fact, both Mr Abbott and Mr Brough have known about these rorts for some time. A Mr Martin Buzza, the owner of a labour hire company, has been widely reported as saying that he met Minister Abbott and told him all about it. The government's own report into the phantom jobs rort says that senior officers in the department knew about the scam and that Centrelink made a formal complaint about it—not to mention the hundreds of job seeker complaints. The fact that the minister was not made aware of this beggars belief. Mr Abbott's answer to the failure of the Job Network to find jobs for the long-term unemployed has been to call them `job snobs' and to claim that they are responsible for their impoverished and disadvantaged positions, but the government's own McClure report into welfare reform has said that there is a need to `counter the popular stereotype of people receiving income support as passive non-contributors'.

Labor, community groups and Job Network agencies themselves have highlighted these scams and no-one in the government has had the courage to do anything about it. No-one has provided the vision or the leadership to do anything about it and it is up to us in the Labor Party to do so. That is why we believe an independent authority is needed, because this program has been in place for 4½ years and we still do not know whether the money being spent on training is actually being spent on training, how many mature age job seekers are parked, how well intensive assistance and other programs are really doing and how individual providers are performing.

Australia spends $3 billion on this program and we have a right to know whether or not it is really working, where the problems are and how we are going to fix them. As long as you have the department reviewing the program as it conducts it, you are not going to ever find out what really is going on. That is why we need an independent monitoring authority to identify problems like phantom jobs and inequality in the system, and to look at how well the program is working and how we can make it much better. You cannot simply outsource a job finding program and not subject it to any serious independent scrutiny without expecting major problems to arise. That is exactly what has happened. The Job Network is not working as well as it should be and it is being rorted. We need to stop wasting taxpayers' money and ensure that the government does what it is supposed to do—put people into jobs and keep them there.