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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5691

Senator HARRIS (12:02 PM) —I rise to speak on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Australians Working Together and other 2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2002. The increasing pressure of globalism is leading to a far greater role for economic rationalism in welfare economics. As the negative impacts of globalisation spiral, the wage earners' welfare state is threatened. All aspects of the welfare state, from financial assistance for the unemployed and disabled to health care, are experiencing considerable cutbacks. The bill before us today, misleadingly titled `Australians Working Together', reflects that fact.

We know that unemployment is rising and that the government's figures in unemployment are rubbery. The department's glossy, full covered PR pack—that is, the Australians Working Together initiative—acknowledges that today more than one in five, or over 2½ million people, are receiving government income support. Thirty years ago, just one in 20 working age people were receiving welfare. The government continues to perpetuate the myth of a low rate of unemployment of around 6.2 per cent, or a total of 609,400 Australians unemployed. In a number of regional and rural areas, the official unemployment rate is much higher. I will quote a few statistics from Queensland: in Coolum, it is 17.8 per cent; in Maroochydore, it is 14.4 per cent; in Rockhampton, it is 9.4 per cent; in Mount Morgan, it is 27.8 per cent; in Gladstone it is 7.5 per cent; and in Gympie, it is 11.8 per cent.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics define an employed person as someone who is doing paid work for at least one hour a week. The real unemployment figures would be even higher—and our estimate would be in the millions—if the definition of employment was not so narrow. The Brotherhood of St Laurence recently pointed out that the unemployment rate does not show that jobs are disappearing or being created, whether they are part time or full time, permanent or casual. It also does not show whether people are working too many hours or not enough hours, or for how long they remain without work. The stark reality is that there are simply not enough jobs to go around.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicates that, in February 2002, there were seven job seekers for every job that was available. Trends towards privatisation and outsourcing are forcing jobs offshore. Even Minister Alexander Downer's foreign affairs department has encouraged Australian businesses to consider outsourcing their computer needs to low-wage developed nations such as India. The deliberate destruction of Australia's manufacturing, clothing and textile industries through the removal of tariffs has seen the demise of thousands of jobs in small businesses.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organisation has reaped a fateful harvest for our farmers. The seemingly deliberate and well-orchestrated drive to turn family farmers into peasants on their own land has exacerbated unemployment in rural and regional Australia, with many seeing no way out but to head for a life of unemployment in the cities. Rural Australia is one of the major casualties of the global trap of free trade, yet it is interesting to note that the government's initiative Australians Working Together ignores the rural constituency. The government's PR pack does not make one mention of people living in rural Australia, not one mention of the special and unique circumstances—that is, the tyranny of distance, the lack of educational services, the barriers to employment— that these people face. Where is the assistance for those rural people?

The bill should be more aptly titled the `Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (IMF and the Government Working Together) Bill'. Most current economic reform programs here in Australia have a common origin: the International Monetary Fund. The IMF's prescription included privatisation, removal of health subsidies and cutbacks to welfare budgets. In 1998, the International Monetary Fund made a recommendation to the Liberal-National coalition government:

... to limit the duration of unemployment benefits to encourage employment search, and to scale back other social welfare benefits that discourage labor force participation.

Again, in 2000, the IMF articles of agreement stated:

Directors welcomed the steps being taken to reduce disincentives to workforce participation and endorsed the view that the welfare system should provide greater incentives for people to move from welfare to work.

This year the fund congratulated the government on its Australians Working Together initiative and urged further comprehensive reform. Pushing people off welfare rolls and into low-paid jobs—which fits into the IMF's description for abolishing the award system for setting minimum wages—is a very narrow solution to the real problem of employment. So what is needed? What is needed is legislation that addresses the deep structural crisis that Australia has been in and is currently experiencing. Indeed, we have a pathetic bandaid, superficial approach that focuses upon individual responsibilities or individual failings of welfare recipients themselves: legislation which implements a kind of new paternalism and mutual obligation or voluntary compliance centring on people's choices, not on the fundamental causes of unemployment; legislation which echoes the mantra that there is no society— there are only individuals and corporations; legislation which positions Centrelink as a new interventionist bureaucracy replacing some of the roles traditionally filled by the church, the family unit and professional counsellors.

As a counter to welfare dependence, this new paternalism advocates the controlling of patterns of behaviour. Rather than merely helping those in need, new paternalists place great emphasis on program administration and efficiency, privatisation and the enforcement of social values. They are set out in two of the documents contained within the Australians Working Together package. One has a reference `Centrelink—with life events'. The customer chart in that shows a program from birth to death. If we look at the second document, regarding life event frameworks for the new service delivery model, this is what Centrelink is setting out. The document is headed `How can Centrelink help you?' It asks: `Are you responsible for children, changing your marital or partner status, needing help after someone has died, sick or disabled, caring for someone sick or disabled, arriving to settle in Australia, looking for a job, responsible for a business or self-employed, in a crisis situation, seeking or changing education, planning your retirement?' We have Centrelink becoming the overarching program through which this paternalism is going to be effected.

The new paternalism amounts to the close supervision of the poor. This supervision goes hand in glove with future scenarios which would employ the use of biometrics in human service provision. I will raise that issue later in the debate on the bill. This could be along the lines of the model in the US state of Connecticut which uses a person's fingerprints to verify their identity or it could be an extension of Centrelink's speech recognition system, the multimillion dollar system that will be used by customers reporting for the government's working credit scheme, a key initiative of Australians Working Together.

`Personal support programs', `community work coordinators', `personal advisers', `participation plans', `training accounts', `passports to employment' and `mutual obligation' are phrases that our unemployed people are increasingly more familiar with. For the government, it is a cosy middle ground between the welfare state and the market economy. It is cosy because governments world wide are gradually extracting themselves from the provision of welfare and other social services. Take the UK, for example, where the leading Centre Left think tank, the IPPR, recently published its report Building better partnerships. This report was seen as a key event in the move towards the privatisation of essential public services in the UK.

In the context of the General Agreement on Trade in Services, GATS, it will be necessary to eventually dismantle the public provision of health, education, welfare and other social services, precisely because these services represent the major area of expansion for corporate profit. Corporations will transform welfare in rich countries so that profits can be made from the delivery of tax funded services. GATS means that these developments may well be forced on our citizens. In Australia, the community welfare coalition has already foreshadowed the outsourcing or privatisation of Centrelink programs and services and has raised issues regarding a lack of staff resources and the enormous pressure to get clients in and out as quickly as possible.

The Howard government's welfare reforms are premised on the idea that unemployment has been caused or at least exacerbated by the welfare system. The government's attitude towards unemployment is reflected in Minister Abbott's statement that welfare is `cruelty masquerading as compassion'. Rather than addressing the causes of unemployment which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech—causes such as the dramatic decline in our manufacturing industries, the devastation of family farming, privatisation, outsourcing and corporate collapses—the government's programs represent and promote the belief that unemployment is a problem because of the deficiencies of the individual, like being unmotivated or lacking a work ethic. The real problem is that there is insufficient demand or growth in the economy to employ these people.

The Australians Working Together initiative creates a new stream of bureaucrats— that is, personal advisers—who will give information about getting back to work and about balancing work and family, and tips on how to look for work or take on study, training or volunteer work. This is a new sort of intervention where Centrelink becomes a coordinating service for people's lives. It is a form of paternalism—a life events approach from birth to death. Almost everywhere, the welfare state is under siege and is being recast in new directions. Unquestionably, welfare reform is needed. Equity and efficiency demand suitable new welfare programs where existing programs can be reliably shown to discourage the search for work and the acquisition of skills or to hinder growth and employment. There is even greater need, however, to reconsider the problems that globalisation brings: unemployment, the ascendancy of market immorality, the overriding preoccupation with international competition, privatisation, and the codification of social welfare as economic activities.

Many of the new social problems that old welfare state programs are failing to meet spring from the effect of economic policies being pushed on the world by radical liberalisation. Much of the welfare state crisis is due to market failure and free market ideology. While there will always be support for government initiatives which generally assist unemployed people, One Nation believes that we need a far more vigorous and long-term assessment to ensure the continuation of the public welfare safety net. This will be achieved by the government committing to a program of constructing public infrastructure and the introduction of domestic consumption premiums on primary produce consumed in Australia. One of the major problems that One Nation has with this legislation is that it does bring some benefits but it fails to address the real cause of the unemployment that we see in Australia.

As I mentioned earlier, there is Centrelink's program for the implementation of voice recognition in their services. The speech recognition system would be used, firstly, for customers reporting to the Commonwealth government's working credit scheme, which will begin in April next year. People using the scheme will call the automatic speech recognition line, report how much money they have earned and thus, according to Centrelink, they will be able to keep more of their income support payment. People will call in every two weeks. What we actually have is a program whereby, instead of the person going to Centrelink and having at least a one-on-one interview with a person, they will pick up the phone—their voices would eventually have been digitised so that they would be recognised by that system—and they will then give their details to a machine—that is, a computer—over the phone line. How impersonal! How will our unemployed people have an incentive to use a system such as that? I believe that is only one of the uses to which biometrics is eventually going to be put. In conclusion, One Nation sees enormous discrepancies in this legislation. We see that there are areas that should have been addressed, including those that I have raised my speech. I seek leave to table the two documents that I have circulated in the chamber.

Leave granted.