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Thursday, 9 August 2001
Page: 26037


Senator BUCKLAND (5:39 PM) —I rise to support the Labor Party's Job Network Monitoring Authority Bill 2000 [No. 2]. The controversy surrounding the Job Network scheme stems from the beginning of this very flawed outsourcing venture. Initially, problems were prevalent in the tendering system, Employment National was gutted, religious organisations had roles in breaching the unemployed and there has been the inconceivable practice of phantom jobs. The breaching is particularly concerning when you consider that it is generally directed at those who are less able to fend for themselves: the lesser educated, the poor, the homeless, members of the Aboriginal community and those who are otherwise finding it generally hard. Furthermore, the job splitting and the serial placement have to be considered a real concern to us all.

The federal government has rewarded agencies when they have placed unemployed people in jobs, but it did not care much about how the agencies achieved the outcome. You might consider this to be fair. However, the exclusive focus of measuring outcomes ignores the manner in which the agencies conduct their business. The more ruthless agencies cream or skim, and they ignore the hard-core unemployed and the mature aged who have suffered the indignity of redundancy or who require a good deal of help to make them job ready. It is difficult for those who have been made redundant after many years with a particular company: if they are older they find it hard to change, to retrain and to work in different environments. The agencies focus on the easy to place, who require little investment in time or money. Other agencies are quick to breach the troublesome unemployed for rule infringements—the legitimate way of getting those types off their books to make way for the potentially more employable.

A prime example and celebrated case is Job Network agency Leonie Green and Associates, which created its own labour hire company and put people to work. The word `work' really needs to be underlined and questioned. They put people to work for 15 hours per week before sacking them. Leonie Green and Associates paid each of them $150 a week and reaped $450 from the government. By my calculations, that is a cool $300 for very little, if any, effort.

A little closer to home is the recent revelation that the Salvation Army was asked to repay up to $45,000 for falsely claimed Job Network subsidies. That is the latest blow to the government's privatised employment. The charity Job Network agency Salvation Army Employment Plus is currently at the centre of a departmental investigation into up to 120 job placements in its Whyalla regional office in South Australia. Two senior Employment Plus management staff in the Whyalla office have resigned and the Salvation Army has started a national audit because of the claims, most of which were for placing job seekers with a local cleaning contractor. There must be some very big organisation in Whyalla that could take that many. I can assure the chamber that there is no cleaning contractor in Whyalla that would be employing anywhere near 120 employees, let alone taking on that many. The matter is under investigation and, regretfully, we cannot ascertain who that cleaning contractor is, but it is something I am sure the investigation will discover.

The Salvation Army communications director, John Dalziel, said the Whyalla events, which encompassed a subsidiary branch in Port Lincoln, had been `a shock'. It is very hard to understand how, in the environment in which they were operating, so many placements with a single employer—and the majority of those placements were with a single employer—could come as a shock to anyone. It simply could not be a shock. It was going on and nobody was scrutinising it sufficiently to pick up the obvious rorting. This gives a good indication of why the Labor Party is seeking what it is seeking through this bill. Mr Dalziel went on to say:

Obviously, we have shared everything with the Government about what's happened and we're very happy to pay back the money that they've paid us for jobs that we have placed and claimed job matching fees for which are not appropriate.

The Salvation Army has initiated a national audit of Employment Plus procedures to ensure all staff are fully aware of the guidelines. If the procedures were in place and were clear, and if the government had done their job properly, there would be no need to ensure that the staff were fully aware. Clearly, they had not been taught. Clearly, the guidelines are not clear enough. That is a failing on the part of the government and those that they claim are auditing these services.

From the day it replaced the Commonwealth Employment Service on 1 May 1998, the Howard government's Job Network system has lurched from one controversy to another. It never seems to be out of the limelight. It is like a wheelbarrow with a square wheel—it just bounces along hoping to find smooth ground on which it can rest. My friend Senator Collins drew attention to the practice of reclassifying employees as trainees so employers could claim government wage subsidies. She said the government money was being wasted by a vast amount of rorting. The `phantom jobs' cynicism has been around just as long, regardless of Mr Brough's contention to the contrary. People like Senator Collins and others on this side have been showing that there have been problems throughout the history of this service, but no action on the part of the government. The government has simply been turning a blind eye to the rorting that has been occurring. The figures have never really added up. Two years ago, Job Network stumbled into its second phase, passing from the control of visionary, if impractical, economic rationalists to realistic and uncompromising bureaucrats, but this only made the picture even more obscure.

Now disability and welfare services could be outsourced to private operators, since the federal government has asked the Productivity Commission to investigate expanding Job Network elsewhere within the Public Service. But how will the Howard government achieve this when there have been numerous complaints of dodgy practices within the Job Network? How will they do it? How will the Howard government ensure that the agencies are meeting their responsibilities? It cannot run the mess it has already created; how can it be expected to run an expanded network? Will it be an expanded mess? Will they lurch from one disaster to another into the future, to the disadvantage of those who are unfortunate enough not to have jobs?

It really calls into question the seriousness of this government about helping those who are unemployed—the older people who cannot find employment because they are not as employable as they used to be and they find training more difficult, the young people without a good education—and there are still many out there—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the women coming back into the work force after many years of raising children. All of these people have real difficulty competing in the job market today, so scarce are the jobs. They do not have the training, and they no longer have—or they never had—a track record for timekeeping, reliability and capability on which future employers might be able to rely.

I want to acknowledge some of the comments made by Jill Van Dyke of Innerskill who said that the government had been warned of loopholes for potential exploitation from the very beginning of the Job Network. The government was warned from the very beginning that the loopholes were there for exploitation to take place, and it has. The government has done nothing about that; it would rather see the system bumble along. The fact that these warnings were ignored by the government has seen some members use practices contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Job Network contract. This in turn has reflected unfairly on the unemployed.

Minister Brough said that the OECD had described the Job Network as a success story for the government. Criticisms were mixed with some positives of the way the system currently operates. Many of these policy concerns mirror those that my colleagues and I have highlighted, and they are areas that we seek the government to address. If the government will not address those concerns, we propose this bill will. For instance, one concern is that the vacancies listed on the Job Network Internet site need information about who the employer is so that the unemployed can avoid having to physically register with a large number of Job Network providers.

Labor has promised to consult with people on the possibility of allowing the unemployed Job Network clients to register by phone. I support that process because, despite what was said by Senator McGauran about the additional number of people in regional areas, some people still find it very difficult to register with the system and get the assistance that they need if they are not in the larger locations throughout the country. There is no question that the figures he quoted are correct. The point is that it is not serving the community as well as it should with that number of people. It is still difficult for people in remote and isolated areas to get jobs. They have the additional burden of travelling to the larger centres to try to get those jobs and, because that is the case, the agencies tend to put those on the too-hard list, and little is done.

The Job Network needs providers who are more concerned about finding long-term training and jobs for the unemployed. The networks are not properly addressing this issue; they need to provide opportunities for people to train in the types of skills that they will need to work in the jobs that are being offered. The intensive assistance outcomes are comparatively low at only 13 per cent. I think there needs to be more accurate information about the Job Network success rate. What we hear from the government does not seem to be echoed by those in the system nor by what is going on around us.

The system was put in place by Tony Abbott, who has now moved on to a different role in the government. It has been his and the government's refusal to respond to Labor's call for an independent monitoring authority that has allowed the situation that we now face to occur. Minister Abbott was told by Labor, by the community groups and by the Job Network agencies themselves that the payment scheme was open to abuse, yet he recklessly pushed ahead with this proposal and put it into what is now referred to as Job Network 2. The recent OECD report on the Job Network said that it was performing at the same rate as Working Nation, but now it appears that many of the jobs that the unemployed were placed into did not even exist. So here we hear about the phantom jobs yet again. The proposal put forward by the Labor Party for an authority to look at this terrible situation that the unemployed are faced with is one that has credit and merit, and I would encourage all within this chamber to support the proposition.