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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 2403

Ms KATE ELLIS (AdelaideMinister for Employment Participation and Minister for Early Childhood and Childcare) (10:23): The amendments in the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support and Other Measures) Bill 2012 form part of a broader package of reforms which we announced in last year's budget—the Building Australia's Future Workforce package.

Ours is a government that has its eyes squarely focused on keeping Australians in work. Our record in this regard is one we are proud to stand by. Since coming to government, we have seen the creation of more than 700,000 jobs. We know our economy has displayed remarkable resilience over the past few years and that we remain the envy of the developed world, with an unemployment rate of 5.1 per cent. This economic strength coupled with ongoing skill shortages in some sectors of our economy provides new opportunities for unemployed Australians to move into paid work—for some, for the first time in many years. Our government believes that we can do better than a lifetime of welfare dependency for citizens of this country and we are determined that no Australians will be left to fall through the cracks.

To achieve this we must take a dual approach of putting in place firm but fair measures to ensure that unemployed Australians are genuine in their efforts to find work and also provide the right support and incentives to help them get a job. The bill before the House today delivers on our government's commitment to modernise Australia's welfare system and introduces measures to ensure more unemployed people are getting back into work.

The element of the bill I would particularly like to focus on today falls under my Employment Participation portfolio responsibilities and builds on the significant reform our government has already undertaken. To further simplify the compliance framework and reinforce the requirement that job seekers should be moving towards gaining employment, all daily penalty amounts for short-term financial penalties will be aligned at one-tenth of a job seeker's fortnightly participation payment. That is, from 1 July 2012, penalty amounts for failing to attend an interview with an employment services provider and the failure to attend an activity or job interview will be aligned at one tenth of a person's fortnightly rate of payment.

Currently there are two rates, one-tenth and one-fourteenth, based on business days and calendar days respectively. This amendment within this bill today forms part of the government's ongoing efforts to get unemployed Australians into jobs and builds on compliance action that we have already taken. It builds on last year's measures where we delivered on our election commitment to introduce tougher measures to ensure more unemployed people are actively involved in seeking work. We introduced a suspension of income support payments for job seekers following a failure to attend an appointment or participation activity with their employment services provider. This means that if job seekers then agrees to re-engage as required then the payment is restored in full. If the person fails to re-engage and does not have a good reason for missing their appointments then penalties are deducted from their very payment.

These changes were not about punishing Australians who have a valid reason for missing appointments or participation activities. What they do achieve is giving job seekers no choice but to stay engaged with employment services, which are there to serve them, if they want to receive their income support payments. The government has advanced major reforms to Australia's employment services that are providing much more effective assistance for job seekers, and of course we know that engagement with those services is absolutely vital.

I am pleased to inform the House that these new rules are working to make sure that unemployed people are being genuine in engaging and being supported in their efforts to look for work. The new rules came into place in July last year and since that time over 200,000 participation payment suspensions have been applied. We have already seen positive early signs that this tougher approach is making a difference, with more unemployed Australians showing up to their appointments and meeting their requirements over the past six months.

This is about placing a set of expectations on job seekers. In return for the support they receive from our government, they should be making every effort to find a job by meeting their responsibilities, showing up at appointments and taking advantage of the support and investment which the government places in them. It is also about ensuring they become job ready. Just as employees are expected to call in advance and have a good reason for not showing up at work, so should the unemployed with their government appointments. Frankly, I do not believe it would be doing anyone a favour to simply turn a blind eye to those who have been unemployed, some for a very, very long time, and have become so disengaged with the system that they do not even turn up to appointments with the people seeking to assist them. It is not helping them, it is not helping their families or communities and it is not helping Australian taxpayers.

Ours is a government that is all about helping Australians to find and stay in jobs. All Australians on income support should have the opportunity to work, but with opportunity comes responsibility, and we will continue to apply these new rules to make sure that those who are receiving government support and also meeting their responsibilities. The government is also providing the necessary supports for job seekers to be able to find work. One new measure that is already achieving outstanding results is the Wage Connect subsidy, in which we will invest $95 million over the forward estimates. The Wage Connect subsidy, which provides payments of around $5,700—the equivalent of the average rate of Newstart allowance over 26 weeks—helps offset wage and training costs for the first six months of the person's employment.

The subsidy, which came into effect in January this year, has already seen more than 1,000 long-term unemployed Australians find work. Of course we know that with everyone of these 1,000, that is a real life which has been transformed with support from this initiative. I am really pleased to see the early success of this new initiative, which has delivered 1,131 job placements since 1 January.

Each of the people who have found a new job because of this subsidy has been unemployed for at least two years, but some of them have been unemployed for much, much longer. A couple of weeks ago I had the absolute privilege of meeting Ms Julie Penfold, one of the very first Australians to benefit from the Wage Connect subsidy. Julie had been unemployed for over 10 years. She now, with the assistance of the subsidy, has a full-time job at Hungry Jacks in Port Adelaide. She is enjoying her new role but she is also particularly excited because she will soon commence training to be the party planner for Hungry Jacks, Port Adelaide. As both a mother and grandmother, Julie has been very keen to be able to work with children as part of a new role.

Her story, one story out of more than 1,000 which already exist, shows us that having a job brings a sense of dignity, a sense of pride in being able to provide for yourself and your family and also a sense of connectedness with your community. We can put a value on the contribution Julie is now making to our economy by getting off welfare and into paying work, but we cannot put a value on that. The Wage Connect subsidy is going to help thousands of Australians like Julie to be able to enjoy the benefits of paid work. It will mean that Julie and others will be able to get the skills they need to start working and to keep working. I congratulate each and every one of these newly employed Australians, and indeed their employers, who have had their lives, the lives of their families and often their communities transformed by this government initiative. It can be no easy thing returning to the workforce after such a long, long time out, but it is that dedication and the courage of those individuals which we should be congratulating.

Finally, a significant grassroots initiative which I know that you are well aware of, Deputy Speaker Lyons, that our government commenced at the time of the global recession was a series of Keep Australia Working Expos. These were hosted in some of our hardest hit communities, where those expos served as what is in effect job supermarkets, bringing together employers, training agencies, government services and, of course, those who are looking for work.

It might sound like a very simple proposition but what was essentially a travelling jobs road show managed to deliver some simply outstanding results at a time when many Australians were doing it very tough. In fact, more than 15,500 Australians who were out of work were connected with a job opportunity at one of the 40 expos during this time. Our government knows a good idea when we see one and we decided that these expos had to continue in those communities that are doing it the toughest. I am pleased to update the House that we have already kicked off with the next phase of these Jobs and Skills Expos—and with great success.

Late last year I spent the afternoon at the expo in Burnie, chatting with residents and being introduced to local businesses by the forever-hardworking member for Braddon, Sid Sidebottom. At that expo we know that around 1,300 people attended and they took full advantage of the more than 500 job opportunities that were on offer that day. We know that at that one expo 766 resumes were submitted to the 60-plus exhibitors. We know that the average workforce participation rate in Burnie is well below the nation average, while their unemployment rate is well above, which is why it is one of government's priority employment areas. Among those who were job hunting in Burnie was one local resident, Daniel Fletcher, who I had the chance to speak to. Daniel had been out of work for a few months after he had suffered an injury which meant he could no longer work as a firefighter. Daniel told the local paper that he had been searching the papers and online regularly, but he said, 'When you don't hear from people, it's a bit of a downer.' But, with the Jobs and Skills Expo, employers and other agencies who could help Daniel were all in one place, and I am very pleased to report that he had a few leads on employment even before the end of the day.

Following on from this, and keeping with the Tasmanian flavour here, just last week I had the chance to join with the dedicated member for Bass—Mr Deputy Speaker at present—as I saw thousands of people turn up at the jobs expo in Launceston, hoping for the opportunity to see that the government was not walking away from them and that, even when we have relative prosperity compared to the rest of the developed world, we are standing shoulder to shoulder with those communities who continue to do it tough. That is what we were doing in Launceston on Friday, that is what we will continue to do, and I look forward to travelling around Australia to see the continued success of the expos and, importantly, to see more Australians being able to access the benefits of work as a result of them.

To conclude this morning, I am incredibly proud to be a part of a government whose commitment to keeping Australians in jobs and creating more jobs for the future is steadfast. I am also proud of our record of keeping people in work during the global recession, acting to protect manufacturing jobs today and overseeing the creation of more than 700,000 jobs since 2007. We are committed to jobs because we know the many benefits that come with work. We know that a job means more than collecting a fortnightly pay cheque. We know that a job gives people dignity, a sense of self, a sense of pride and, indeed, a sense of social connectedness, as well as providing the opportunity to contribute to Australia's economy. This bill, amongst other things, builds on the government's ongoing work to support more Australians into jobs, to make sure our unemployed are serious in their efforts as well and to build on our compliance system, which is an important part of our system. I commend the bill to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Lyons ): Thank you for running the 44th jobs expo in Launceston last week.