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Wednesday, 26 March 2014
Page: 3285

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (Gorton) (19:10): I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014—an important debate, because it goes to whether the government is legitimate in relation to assisting with the reduction of carbon and whether the government is legitimate and sincere when it talks about fulfilling its aspirations for the environment.

While the opposition do not, in any way, want to impede the capacity for young people to participate in environmental action and have applauded schemes which enable young people to acquire skills and to have accredited training, we are concerned that many questions arise out of the bill's construction. Firstly, we would say—and it is reflected in the amendment moved by the member for Port Adelaide—we are concerned about the interpretation of the so-called 'participants'. Clearly there is an issue about the relationship between the participants and the sponsors or the sponsoring organisations, given that the participants are in workplaces. We are concerned, for example, that workers compensation and occupational health and safety issues may be adversely affected as a result of the participants not being deemed to be employees.

The government has sought to assure the opposition that the legislation—which is primarily state legislation—will deem participants to be employees for the purposes of workers compensation and OH&S if compensation is sought as a consequence of a participant being injured. The opposition want to be assured that the occupational health and safety standards and rehabilitation and workers compensation laws that apply to employees across the nation would apply to these participants. These matters are yet to be sufficiently clarified and there are public liability concerns for new workers who might be confronted by challenges of rough terrain or potentially dangerous work in the rehabilitation of rivers. The amendment moved by the opposition asks the government to clarify with some certainty that the protections which they assert exist for participants of this program indeed do exist, so that we can be assured that the participants are deemed to be employees.

Another concern with this proposed legislation is the extent of the training afforded to participants in this program. We think the purpose of the government in relation to this matter is to fulfil two functions—one is an environmental function and another is to provide opportunities for young people to become job-ready and to acquire skills that might be in demand when they are looking for other work. We would hope if there is training provided to the participants of this program that the training is worth something, is accredited and is of a standard that prospective employers would value so that their chances of being employed, dare I say it, in a real job would be more likely and the prospective employers would say that they have the right skills to fill existing or future vacancies.

That seems to me to be left wanting in the proposed legislation. There does not seem to be sufficient explanation of the nature of the training. The opposition cannot be assured at this point that the training will be formal and have accreditation that the participants can present to future employers. We think it is critical that the young participants are able to acquire skills. I argue that this program needs to fulfil that obligation to them. I do not argue against the notion, particularly for young people who may not have had much work or any formal work, that they will definitely get job experience as a result of engaging in these activities. Working in teams and working under direction are real life skills needed for the workforce. I think it is only reasonable in this day and age for those participants to be given proper training and for that training to mean something, and for the skills that are acquired under such training to be in demand so that they are more valuable to employers.

Whilst we can see some benefits with the initiatives that are contained within the legislation, we have some serious questions that need to be answered before we can support the proposed legislation. If I can just repeat the concerns we have. We have concerns about whether these participants will be endangered because they will not be fully covered by federal or state legislation with respect to workers compensation rehabilitation and occupational health and safety, and whether the training afforded to them during these weeks will be proper and accredited. I also think there has to be a question—and I have not touched on this yet—about whether the design and construction of this program could lead to the displacement of existing workers.

I am someone who understands the importance of labour market programs and environmental activities programs that have worked in the past and I can see the benefits, particularly for entry-level employees, but what we do not want to see happen—and I am not suggesting for a moment that the government wants this to happen, but I want to be assured that this will not be a consequence of this legislation—is participants of this program undertake work that is currently undertaken by existing workers. Instead of increasing the capacity for people to be employed, you could, if you are not careful, end up having people on very low allowances, not wages—and these people are not even deemed to be employees for the purposes of their remuneration—performing the tasks of people who are paid full wages. That should not be entertained by the government. This is about getting people into work, getting them the work experience and proper training, and fulfilling some environmental goals, however limited those goals might be. We do not want to see, for example, council workers being displaced by participants in those programs who receive allowances that are far lower than the payments that were being made to those full-time workers. We would not want to see that form of displacement.

Whilst we are not going to be prescriptive about 'additionally'—and by that I mean making sure that the participants add to the people performing work, not displace existing workers—we would say that the government should have regard to the design and implementation of the program so it does not endanger the jobs of other workers. That can cause conflict, particularly in small communities. A form of resentment can build when something undertaken by a full-time worker is then undertaken by people who are not even deemed to be employees. The last thing we want to have is any enmity aimed at young people who just want to participate in a program, become job ready and acquire accredited skills for prospective employers.

There are a number of caveats manifest in the amendment moved by the opposition. It asks the government to clarify those matters. We ask the government to make sure that those questions are answered fully and guarantee, without qualification, the health and safety of participants and the potential workers compensation rehabilitation that may arise—and we hope it does not—if any of the participants are injured in a workplace. Finally, we hope some thought goes in to ensuring that we do not see the program's participants displace existing workers who are performing functions on full-time wages. We do not think that would be in the best interests of the participants or the organisations involved in the programs—and certainly not existing workers' interests, who may feel they have been displaced. They are the things we need answered before we can support the bill in toto. We ask the government to focus on that and, indeed, the Minister for the Environment to respond in due course to those matters.