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Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Page: 2296


Senator PAYNE (New South Wales) (21:24): There are very serious community and professional concerns relating to this government's apparent, if not admitted, dismantling of a highly effective scheme for giving Indigenous Australians the chance of a real job and the opportunity to endeavour to avoid the poverty trap that tragically ensnares many of those communities.

When the Prime Minister stood in the other place just last month to deliver the annual Closing the Gap speech, the parliament agreed, as it has previously, that addressing the low level of Indigenous employment—currently 44.7 per cent, compared with 72 per cent in the general community—was something for which we all bear responsibility, and towards which we must all work in a bipartisan way to increase those numbers. The Prime Minister described this as a massive and unacceptable gap. She also described the broader mission to close the gap as 'a plan of unprecedented scale and ambition'. Lofty words indeed.

Sadly, however, the Labor government's real commitment to closing the gap in Indigenous employment in recent times is questionable. The continued feedback that I am receiving from job placement providers across Australia, who operate under the Indigenous Employment Program is vexed with frustration and despair at this government's handling of the Indigenous Employment Program. I understand their frustration, as I myself have been unable to obtain clear answers on a number of issues. For example, an answer from this government as to when a moratorium on funding under this scheme, which started in June 2012, is formally due to cease.

One organisation, Habitat Personnel—and I asked a question in relation to them in the chamber earlier this week—which operates on the south coast of New South Wales and in the ACT and surrounding areas, has particularly felt the harsh edge of the government's approach to the IEP. I have met with those Habitat representatives; they are genuine, committed and keen individuals, trying to do a good job for Aboriginal Australians.

I am advised by them that after their contracts ceased for Indigenous job placement in the private sector in April 2012 they continued to operate so as not to let down the Indigenous jobseekers they are so committed to helping. Over the nine months since then, whilst only having funding for a small public sector recruitment program, they have still placed 97 Indigenous jobseekers in jobs—a commendable achievement, and a real example of closing the gap.

Habitat Personnel was informed by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in December 2012 that the funding moratorium had been lifted. However, they have received no formal notification of this, and no further funding has been granted. Habitat, in its case at least, has a number of other business operations that do provide them with revenue which will allow them to keep up their Indigenous job placement service for the moment. But without any further acknowledgement or indication of funding from the IEP from the department, this particular Indigenous job placement service will cease operating in May 2013. For those of us who are familiar with the areas in which they operate—the south coast of New South Wales and the environs of the ACT and the ACT itself—that will be a tragedy.

And they are not alone. There are a number of other organisations that have actually closed their doors from December 2012 as a result of the government's approach to the administration of this policy. As I alluded to earlier, I have asked questions in this chamber as to when the funding moratorium started and finished. I have not received a clear answer. I have been told about overall funding amounts that have nothing to do with the specific organisation that I mentioned, and I have heard that hoary old chestnut, 'There's been a very high demand for funding'—an explanation which I had previously thought was reserved for the Green Loans plan and pink roof batts in the ceiling, where costs have blown out completely under this government.

This sort of response, this sort of handling and this sort of so-called management is an insult to excellent organisations like Habitat Personnel and many other businesses that have been left hanging, waiting for some sort of real direction in their work. It is quite clear to observers, quite frankly, that Labor has lost control of this budget and is working relentlessly, and perhaps quietly, towards dismantling the Indigenous Employment Program as it previously existed. In my view, this damages Labor's record on closing the gap and it also, most importantly, undoes some of the good work done earlier in the government. If the money has run out—and I would not be surprised; they are addicted to spending, after all—they really should be up-front and honest with the IEP providers and acknowledge that their services are no longer required. Palming them off with answers about 'high demand' and 'extremely competitive' is not good enough. These are real businesses in real communities with a real job to do for Aboriginal Australians.

Another organisation that has had similar success in placing Indigenous Australians in jobs is the Replay Group. I asked the government in this chamber for answers on the status of its IEP funding late last year, again without success. Minister Wong has since tabled some further information on the amount the Replay Group has received so far, including a small increase in January this year, but the questions of future funding are outstanding. They have placed more than 1,100 Indigenous job seekers into real jobs in the aged-care and childcare sectors since 2000. All of those have completed at least half a year of continuous employment and achieved the appropriate Certificate III in those areas. The list of examples continues to grow, unfortunately. The minister refused to guarantee any funding for the Replay Group despite the fact that a review by her own department into IEP providers, commissioned by the minister herself, found that its job placement service was the best of the six providers examined in that review.

The recent Senate additional estimates offered further examples of the mess that this program has become and its distinct lack of transparency. My colleague from Western Australia Senator Smith asked about another organisation similarly struggling under the moratorium: Southern Aboriginal Corporation in Albany in Western Australia. They reported that they placed 245 Indigenous job seekers into ongoing employment over the past three years. That is a very good result, especially as the Great Southern regional development area, where Albany is located, experienced an overall increase of eight percentage points in unemployment for working-age Indigenous people, from 16.9 per cent to 24.9 per cent, between 2006 and 2011 according to the ABS census numbers. When Senator Smith asked for an update on the moratorium that was put in place, he did not receive a straight answer either, but it was reported that Southern had exceeded the target for employment and training commencements by 25 per cent. How perverse is it to have a situation where IEP providers are faced with the incentive of apparently being penalised for success because the government cannot manage their money? We all know what the government's record is on that.

There is a plus side. One provider, the Aboriginal Employment Strategy, did receive a six-month funding extension, to 30 June this year, following concerted pressure from AES—their founder, Dick Estens, and his team—and the odd question from the coalition as well. That is a short-term reprieve. We welcomed it, but this is a situation that never should have been allowed to get to the point where decisions like this have to be made and winners and losers have to be chosen.

I attended the GenerationOne third anniversary party breakfast in this place today. Andrew Forrest gave an inspirational speech. I had not met Andrew Forrest before. I had heard the disparaging things that those on the other side had said over time, but his speech genuinely stopped the room. It was genuinely inspirational. He truly, honestly and personally wants to make sure that he and his organisation, GenerationOne, and the Aboriginal employment covenant make a real difference to the opportunity for Aborigines in this country to have real jobs, not training for training's sake. We are way beyond that, and the organisations that have been working under the administration of the previous Indigenous Employment Program and under the administration of previous ministers deserve better than they are receiving from this government now. There are outstanding bills of up to $50,000 to small organisations which, through administrative manoeuvring, will no longer be paid. It is not good enough. It is not good enough to close the gap, and it is not good enough for what Indigenous Australians deserve.