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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1879

Mr HOWE (Minister for Social Security)(3.19) —Once again we have heard from Opposition members the view that a compulsory work scheme would be good for the unemployed, that it would be good for the community and that it would combat fraud. But beyond that view which one way or another the Opposition has returned to frequently in the past, we have learned absolutely nothing in the debate so far about what the Opposition means-or what the several oppositions mean-by compulsory work for the dole. Not a single item of information has been given to this House or given to the Australian people. Opposition members have no idea what they mean. They understand from some opinion polling that there is a view in the community that it would be a good thing if people were required to work for the unemployment benefit. They know that the prejudice exists in the community. All they are about-let everybody in this House be quite clear about it-is exploiting the prejudice. The repeated use of the word `dole' rather than `unemployment benefit' is simply a way of loading in, coming in on the back of that particular prejudice, simply reinforcing it and saying to all the people in the community who might support in principle, in theory, some idea of compulsory work for the dole: `We are on your side'. As soon as we ask this Opposition, or any one of the various factions within the Opposition what they mean, we find they have very great difficulty in telling us. Let me refer to two statements made by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Menzies (Mr N.A. Brown), within a day or so of one another. He stated:

The Opposition's work for Unemployment Benefit Program on the other hand will be both compulsory and comprehensive . . .

What could be clearer than that? Everyone who is on unemployment benefit will be put to work. This is going straight back to the sixteenth or seventeenth century. We are going to create work houses for the 500,000 or 600,000 people on unemployment benefits at any one time. They are comprehensively going to be put to work. That sounds clear enough. There are some problems with it, but that seems very clear. But two days later, what does the honourable member say? He says:

. . . basically what we would do would be to say, OK look there won't be a community job for everyone to do, but if a job comes up we will expect someone who will be selected to do that job. Now if there's no job for you to do, well, of course you can stay on the dole and you continue to get it.

On 2 March the honourable member suggested that everyone who is unemployed-no selection at all-whether it is for a couple of days, weeks or years is going to be put to work. Then someone says: `Look, you can't do that; it is going to cost an absolute fortune'. So a couple of days later he comes back again to the concept of selecting the people who are going to be required to work for the dole by some kind of notion of a lottery; that is, if a person's marble comes out and it has his name on it he is conscripted-that is what we are talking about-to go and work for the dole, but if a person's marble does not come out he will not be required to do that. Has anyone in this House heard anything so absurd, so lacking in any development in terms of a concept?

No one in the Parliament ought to be bemused for a moment. While members of the Opposition talk about this proposal of compulsory work for unemployment benefit being put forward as good for individuals who are unemployed, good for the community and so on, that is not what it is about at all. What it is about, essentially, is an exploitation of certain attitudes in the community and reinforcing those attitudes towards the unemployed. Secondly, although the honourable member did not say so, it is about saving money. The significant fact in the honourable member's speech was the reference to the scale of unemployment benefit which is currently running at something like $3 1/2 billion. That is a fact. Unemployment benefit does represent a major element in the social security program because a very high proportion of social security is locked in in terms of the aged, the disabled and those groups in the community who do have considerable respect and support. The honour- able member knows that he can get only at certain areas. What the honourable member opposite wants to do is to get his hands on some of that money and take it away from the people who are unemployed.

That is the hidden agenda that is there. It is not very hidden, but it is very clear in terms of what the honourable member is about. What he is about is taking money away from people who happen to be unemployed and diverting it somewhere else. He is not interested in any sense and that is why we never have a concrete scheme. There is never any development of this concept to any stage at all because the Opposition is not on about helping the unemployed or the community; what it is on about is trying to make credible the incredible economic policies of the Opposition. That is what it is on about. It is on about giving credibility to the incredible in terms of the Opposition's policies. It is increasing costs. The scheme is designed to save money but, as I will argue in a minute, what it will do is increase costs. It will put additional millions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, on top of the bill that members of the Opposition are running up as they try to develop their arguments.

Let me turn to the question of compulsory work for unemployment benefit. The Government is prepared to look at any proposition. If a proposition came from the Opposition, we would have a look at it. Let us have a look at some of the problems that are associated with compulsory work schemes. Firstly, they are likely to displace people who are already working. These compulsory work schemes are not designed to create additional jobs, they are designed to take away jobs from people already in work, particular people in the community sector. That is the sector of the community that the honourable member has targeted. Members of the Opposition are on about getting into the community sector and displacing people who work in that sector. They are not interested in whether the jobs are productive or unproductive. The honourable member said nothing about that. He talked about these jobs somehow adding to the value or wealth of the community but said nothing specific about that. There was no suggestion at all that he might need to justify this kind of scheme in terms of it being productive in any real sense. Indeed, the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) suggested the other day that a person who is unemployed ought to go and collect waste, go and clean out the waste paper basket. Apparently, any kind of work will do. He suggested that he would put the unemployed on to it irrespective of whether it could create work, add any value or be productive.

The fundamental proposition-I say to all honourable members of the House that it is hidden-is not made explicit, but the real purpose is to save money. Honourable members should remember that. That is what members of the Opposition are on about. They have got to cut back on this burgeoning welfare bill, as they see it, and they can do it by compulsory work. We have had a look at a comprehensive scheme because we are not prejudiced; we are prepared to look at any proposition on its merits. We have done some costings on a comprehensive welfare scheme in terms of work for the dole. The scheme was designed to cover something like 750,000 to 800,000 people who are currently on unemployment benefit for more than three weeks in any 12 month unemployment benefit period. Vast numbers of people will be on unemployment benefit for more than three weeks. We find that that will require an extra 1,000 staff within the Commonwealth Employment Service. This is the Opposition that wants to cut back on the public sector. The total annual cost for that comprehensive scheme has not been described by the honourable member, but we should remember that he talked about such a scheme as being a comprehensive scheme. This scheme will cost $700m. The administrative costs for CES staff alone will be $35m. The employment-related costs and costs for the supervision of people would be absolutely massive. Who will look after the people who are out working in the community on these compulsory work programs? It has been estimated by the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations at $484m. This includes the costs of materials that people are going to have to use to work. There are very substantial travel cost reimbursements of $181m for the participants. That is $700m on top of the $3 1/2 billion that we are currently spending on unemployment benefit. That is really quite outrageous. We have an Opposition that is constantly telling the Government: `You must save money', yet it comes up with a heavily biased ideological proposition such as this which is designed to exploit community prejudices in respect of unemployment and on top of $3 1/2 billion is added another $750m.

As usual there is nothing of any substance in what is being proposed. Members of the Opposition have not been looking at schemes that might exist in other countries or the experience of other countries. For example, the United Kingdom and Canada have both opted for voluntary schemes, such as the one introduced by the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, rather than compulsory schemes. Even in the United States of America, which is often held up as a model for compulsory work for benefit schemes, such schemes are primarily targeted at single parents with dependent children. Unemployment insurance schemes cover the bulk of the unemployed. When people talk about Workfare, they are not talking about the unemployed, they are talking about what we in Australia call supporting parents. Such schemes are limited to a minority of states; only eight states in the United States have compulsory work schemes. Where they have such schemes, only a minority of the relevant target group is involved. Only in one state, West Virginia, is compulsory work the primary component, and that still only caters for 40 per cent of the relevant target group.

The Government is concerned to ensure that the unemployment benefits system is administered effectively, efficiently and in a way which is designed to eliminate fraud, which was mentioned as a third possible advantage of compulsory work. We have brought in a number of measures during the current financial year which, together, have been extraordinarily successful in achieving the Government's objectives. The number of persons in receipt of unemployment benefit last Friday, 27 March 1987, was 592,892. This represents a decrease of 27,086, or 4.4 per cent, compared with the figures four weeks earlier. As the various measures are coming in, we have broad evidence that those measures collectively are biting. If we look at unemployment benefit growth from November 1985 to March 1986, we see a growth of 58,800 in the number of beneficiaries in the peak period of the year. If we look at the same period a year later, from November 1986 to March 1987, the rate of increase was 36,800, or a drop of 22,000; indicating the very significant effect of the measures that the Government has introduced.

The Opposition's matter of public importance simply fails to come to terms at all with the details of how to run any kind of scheme designed to help the unemployed. Help the unemployed! The concept of the honourable member for Menzies seeking to help the unemployed is an absolute joke. It has no credibility whatsoever. When has the honourable member for Menzies ever said anything in this place which was designed to help people in difficulty, particularly the unemployed?

Mr Hand —Kick the weak!

Mr HOWE —It simply represents, as the honourable member for Melbourne suggests, an attempt to provide some justification for an attack on the unemployed, which would be a very high priority of a coalition government. The community volunteer program, which the Government has sponsored, has been established and is showing considerable promise of operating very well. The honourable member for Menzies suggested that somehow there was nothing new in what was proposed, but the new scheme not only will provide substantial opportunities to extend, particularly to country areas, projects established under the previous scheme but also will allow for the funding of new, innovative projects.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) -Order! The Minister's time has expired.