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Thursday, 9 August 2001
Page: 26030

Senator LUNDY (5:04 PM) —I, too, am addressing in the Senate this afternoon Labor's bill to establish the Job Network Monitoring Authority in order to bring some much needed transparency to the Job Network program. The necessity for the Job Network Monitoring Authority Bill 2000 [No. 2] has arisen from nothing more than the incompetence of the government in implementing what was an inevitably doomed policy. Many would say that this is true to form, given the government's history on botching up major programs. I do not need to remind my colleagues here about the Howard government's bungled IT outsourcing program, and more recently we have seen the complete mishandling of the Commonwealth property sales program as well. So at least the government is being consistent when it comes to the Job Network contracts, a program worth $3 billion; and not surprisingly but very predictably, it has botched this program as well. As with the IT outsourcing program, the Job Network has been dogged with controversy right from the start and, like the IT outsourcing, it has taken pressure and persistence from the Labor opposition to expose the coalition's mismanagement.

I think this really highlights the stark difference between what Labor has to offer and the coalition's policies. It is about ideology; it is about the role of government in the day-to-day lives of Australians. In the coalition we have a government that is driven by a small government mentality—a small government mentality at the expense of services to citizens of this country. The Job Network policy in the first instance reflected this ideology that it was okay to facilitate the downgrading of services provided to citizens, particularly those at some disadvantage in our community such as the unemployed. In fact, the coalition goes so far as to actively undermine the ability of those services to be delivered and, in the transfer of those services from the public to the private sector, it ensured that there was no opportunity to provide for the level of accountability and scrutiny that is absolutely necessary for the expenditure of taxpayers' money.

It is interesting to hear people like Senator McGauran talk about ideology when the evidence has shown time and time again throughout the coalition's governance that not only is it incapable of coming up with good policies to suit the needs of citizens but it is even incapable of implementing its own policies. This incapability to be an administrator, to be a government that is capable of governing, is one of the greatest weaknesses of the coalition. I think it stands in great contrast with a future Labor government, in that our record is a very proud one of not only being able to come up with innovative policies to support and service the needs of Australians, particularly those who are disadvantaged, but being eminently skilled and experienced in delivering those policies and implementing those programs.

The solution to merely privatise and outsource, on the other hand, is about escaping responsibility. It is about a transfer of risk, and in this case of the Job Network, the government have transferred that risk and not accepted responsibility for the outcome, which is the system of widespread rorting and provision of sham jobs by the Job Network system that many young people and their family members have been faced with. This is completely inexcusable.

The ball is now very much in the coalition's court, and they must take the only logical step forward and adopt Labor's proffered solution in the Job Network Monitoring Authority. In proffering the solution it is worth mentioning that we are actually trying to assist the coalition to get out of a hole that they have dug themselves into. Only through this measure can a system be put in place that is actually fair to the job seekers themselves—and, indeed, fair to the service providers, who do get tarnished by those in the crop that are not doing the right thing. I believe there are many well-intentioned service providers out there. All of these parties need to become accountable to the public and the parliament, and our authority will assist them in doing that.

It is worth reflecting that the Job Network has been shrouded in secrecy, and this has resulted in the formation of a framework that was put into operation outside of parliamentary scrutiny. Normal parliamentary debate was initially bypassed, and this prevented opportunities for amendment and our chance to have a say. That is why we find ourselves here, having to introduce this bill in an attempt to modify the flawed implementation and flawed structure of the Job Network. The last-minute tabling of the Auditor-General's report left no time, again, for parliamentary scrutiny of the damning findings and limited print media reporting. It should be noted that it took the Auditor-General to uncover the massive losses. Details of the loss of taxpayers' money of this magnitude should have been open to public scrutiny well before an Auditor-General's report.

The Job Network has inevitably led to a corruptible system where public money is going to private organisations and profits are being pocketed instead of going into further service provision for Australia's unemployed. This `private over public' mentality of the coalition has taken the focus off the government's responsibility for creating jobs. Instead of getting people into jobs, the coalition is now preoccupied with fixing up all of these structural flaws and policing dishonest job service providers to ensure they are not ripping off taxpayers.

There is nothing more demoralising for the unemployed than being abused with sham jobs, split jobs and serial placements of the one person in the same job. The blame for this failure to secure minimum quality standards rests clearly and squarely on the shoulders of the government. It is not the fault of the unemployed or of those honest service providers with a genuine commitment to helping people to find real jobs. They are caught in the middle of this mess. The opposition, ironically, has put forward this bill to assist the government to fix their problems. It is essentially about damage control. Labor, even in opposition, once again finds itself taking the responsible role that in fact the government should take in providing some solutions to help them make their way out of the mire.

With the Job Network in operation, this bill will ensure that there is, at the very least, an ongoing and independent analysis and monitoring of the Job Network process that is vital to ensure public and private sector confidence. This is essential to ensure that there will be no further cover-ups of bad practices. We need to save the coalition from themselves. One example of bad practice which has been mentioned here in the debate, the Leonie Green case, saw the largest private provider in the Job Network being forced to pay back rort payments as a result of placing people in phantom jobs. This is a classic example of the corruptibility of the Job Network system. The Job Network has seen some unemployed people being manipulated into false and misleading employment by service providers for profit.

Under the coalition's system, Job Network providers receive income by incentive schemes on a case by case basis where they find jobs for people. As the many factors that lead to unemployment are wide and varied, it is not unreasonable to assume that different people will have different needs. Wherever you have a system in which organisations have a limited capacity to service caseloads on their books and there are incentives built into the system to deal with the easiest cases first it is inevitable that the easiest cases will be helped at the expense of the harder cases. We learned this lesson a long time ago.

As shadow minister for youth affairs, I hear time and time again that if you are a young person who requires a little more assistance and perhaps a little more money to be spent on you—whether it is because you are homeless, left school early or for whatever reason—then there is a significant chance that you will be left on the bottom of the in-tray while attention is given to `bread and butter' cases that can service the quotas of the Job Network providers.

Another two aspects of particular concern that would be reviewed by the Job Network Monitoring Authority under this bill are the breaching of the unemployed on benefits and the provision of training by Job Network providers. I have spoken to many young people, community organisations and providers around the country who have added their concerns about the coalition's policies on breaching the unemployed registered with Job Network members. These concerns have been expressed by people in the academic field and in welfare and youth sector groups and have been echoed by Labor in opposition.

I find it ironic that the unemployed are being breached for failing to meet minor Job Network obligations and that many are then forced to seek assistance from community organisations—many of which are also Job Network providers—to compensate for their loss of income. Unemployed people have been breached for minor misdemeanours and many of these for purely administrative breaches, such as missing an interview, with no checking to ensure that there is not a legitimate excuse. We know through previous evidence from Senate estimates and other forums that Centrelink are under increasing pressure from the government to breach, particularly, young people. Young people most at risk include those who have psychiatric conditions, problems with substance abuse, low literacy skills, are indigenous and those young people without a permanent address. These misdemeanours have been passed on to Centrelink, which implements the breach, again without a checking process—and, as I mentioned, under pressure to reach certain quotas with regard to breaches.

There is a lack of guaranteed training provided by the Job Network. We need to monitor the proportion of money Job Network providers allocate under their contracts for training purposes to ensure it is only spent on training the unemployed and not absorbed into general revenue. Mechanisms to monitor the Job Network put in place by this government are clearly inadequate. Using the department to establish, monitor and create policy for contracts and then to allocate $3 billion to them is just not acceptable in an age of greater accountability and transparency of government and parliament. This is what the taxpayers are demanding and they are not getting any satisfaction from the coalition government. At the moment we have yet another case of the department sitting in judgment of itself.

Labor's proposal is to set up a clear solution to these problems: a monitoring authority that will provide job seekers, Job Network providers and the general public with an objective analysis of how things are really faring—including the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business's management of all contracts—and providing the basis for constructive reform.

What is done is done, and Labor is not suggesting that the Job Network be dismantled or abolished. What Labor is suggesting is that the Job Network be monitored by an agency other than the one that runs and funds it and that is accountable for the implementation of that program. Only in this way will it be possible to ensure it is meeting the important goal of providing quality service to Australia's unemployed and getting them into real jobs.

The role of Labor's Job Network Monitoring Authority will be to (1) investigate Job Network providers who are applying high levels of breaches and take action to ensure that the Job Network provider is only making breach recommendations where there is no reasonable explanation; (2) conduct an urgent and independent review of the payment system; (3) make sure that the department is doing its job of making Job Network providers provide the training they are supposed to; and (4) provide some measure of how well the Job Network is performing, including the effectiveness of Job Network programs and the effectiveness of Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business in three areas: monitoring Job Network members for contractual compliance, performance and quality; equity of service delivery; and the handling of complaints made to the department about the Job Network.

Problems need to be identified, publicly discussed and solutions nutted out. An authority like this would have been able to do this had it been set up at the same time as the Job Network back in 1996. It is time for this government to remedy this now and realise that the creation of Job Network does not mean it has successfully farmed off its employment service obligations. The coalition does not have its job creation bases covered and, in the latest Howard-Costello budget, it has failed to provide any targeted initiatives that actually create jobs. This is despite its own predictions that general unemployment could possibly exceed seven per cent and will average seven per cent by June next year.

The government's new welfare training initiatives, such as Working Credit and the Literacy and Numeracy Training Supplement, are not expected to kick in until September 2002, over 12 months away. This is particularly bad news for the over 70,000 young people aged 15 to 19 years who are currently faced with an unemployment rate of over 20 per cent compared to around six per cent of the general population who are looking for full-time work. Many young Australians are already facing barriers to a successful transition from school to work. This includes different classroom environments, teaching and assessment techniques and curriculum which pose differing educational and social challenges for young people. In addition, they face broader social and cultural issues, such as poverty, homelessness, poor health—including disabilities and mental health issues—regional isolation, incarceration, cultural attitudes and high youth unemployment.

The long-term unemployed and, in particular, young people need education and training activities to develop key skills and abilities through a broad range of learning mechanisms. From this perspective, case management, if it is implemented appropriately, has great merit in providing personalised training and support to unemployed people.

In the last few generations, Australia has undergone massive technological and labour market changes. This generation of young Australian school leavers heading into full-time employment or further training and education are faced with many different pathways. Most young people today go through some form of transitional phase before ending up in full-time employment. Many individuals also go through several career changes in the course of their working lives. Employment services can often bridge this gap. Investing in unemployed people to assist them to make a successful transition during periods of unemployment is a critical factor in an individual's future economic security and personal wellbeing and an appropriate place for strong public policy. This investment is a most sensible investment in Australia's economic and social future and also part of the social glue necessary for community wellbeing—people knowing that they have support if they are ever faced with unemployment.

Labor's Job Network Monitoring Authority will fix up the current process to prevent rorting and will make the Job Network transparent and publicly accountable. I call on the minister to come clean about the government's knowledge of the Job Network rorting, particularly given the government's own report into the phantom jobs rort which says that senior officers in the department knew about the scam and that Centrelink made a formal complaint about it. It is necessary for the government to show at least some good faith: come clean with the problems and support this proposal to adopt a system that will improve accountability.

In summing up my remarks I refer to an earlier point on the difference between the ideological approach of the coalition government and their rejection of the role of government in supporting employment services and the needs of the unemployed. Job Network is a system that is here to stay. There is an opportunity here to improve it and I find it absolutely astounding that the government can stand here and say that they will relinquish that opportunity and reject it. Not to improve a system when it is obvious that there is very clear evidence of the flaws is a grave indictment of a government that has the responsibility of the executive in the Australian parliament.

I conclude my comments by asking the representatives of the coalition present in the chamber to think about the dignity of unemployed people, not the ones that the coalition so often claim are rorting the system but those who are genuinely in need and look to these employment services in a serious effort to help them through a very difficult time. The coalition's current policies are not helping them and quite often those people who are in need of serious help become the victims of its maladministration.