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Wednesday, 23 May 2001
Page: 26897

Ms KERNOT (3:59 PM) —I want to begin by saying that we know that the Treasurer was wandering around last night glorying in the sound of his own voice, but one might have thought that he would have listened to our response, because after he finished his budget speech, the Labor Party immediately and unequivocally said we would support the initiative the Treasurer has just asked me about. We simply said that we would question why the government had not given the extra $700, and the bills are now before the House, and we are debating them.

We have been told a lot, and we were told last night about how this budget would be brimful of a vision for Australia's future. But I think it would be fair to say that in many areas it is not a vision at all. In fact, in my area in particular, it is a bit of a mirage for the moment. The government cannot have it both ways. Either there is an urgency about the unemployment situation in Australia today or there is not. The budget papers themselves forecast unemployment to rise above seven per cent, and place the unemployment rate for the June quarter 2002 at seven per cent. We know, from the government's own evaluation of the Job Network, that they expect its performance to suffer because it is not expected to perform well in a weak labour market. Everyone in this country knows that we do have a weakening labour market right now. The government admits to it in these budget papers. In fact, we have had a weakening labour market dating almost precisely from the time the GST was introduced last year. Since the GST was introduced, we have seen a rise in the unemployment rate of 0.7 percentage points and we have seen an increase in the number of unemployed by 79,400—and the GST was going to be good for jobs. We have seen a halving in the rate of jobs growth and we have seen a fall in the number of full-time jobs of 51,700. These are fantastic economic management credentials, aren't they?

We are a long way from Treasurer Costello's boast—remember it?—late last year when he said, with a smile, that we would have an unemployment rate with a five in front of it. Well, the GST is about to put a seven in front of it. So there quite clearly is an urgency in tackling the unemployment problem. Unfortunately, the urgency of policy in this area has very much taken second place to the government's need to pile up some money for some more election pork-barrelling. As I said earlier, the unemployment rate is forecast to rise. But what so many commentators have not extracted from their analysis of the budget so far is that most of the employment programs announced last night, and trumpeted as part of a wider welfare reform, scarcely spend a dollar before June next year, and most of them do not start until September next year. It is called `Helping people to move forward ... but after you wait another 16 months till we get around to it.'

We could be a bit suspicious here because, if you take time to consider it, if the coalition government were to win the next election, all these policies would have to run the gauntlet of another of their budgets, and who knows what other strings would be attached or for how much longer these policies would be put off. Remember what happened in the post-election budget in 1996? They cut $1.8 billion from labour market programs and $240 million from TAFE.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition referred very accurately to the way in which some of our larger policy items have been stolen, have been copied. I am glad the Minister for Employment Services is sitting across the table from me at the moment, because not only at the macro level have they copied heaps of policies but they have taken advantage of a lot of the policy work that I have been developing on the Job Network. After all that abuse when they said, `You couldn't possibly have training; what a shocking thing to suggest,' guess what we have got? Training for Work for the Dole. It gets a big red tick. We have got better referrals under the Job Network—another Labor idea. We have got more tailored Jobsearch training. We have increased intensive assistance, improved sequencing of employment assistance, more staff for Centrelink to do a better job with referrals, tailored case management for mature age unemployed and, importantly, better company management of retrenchment. That is not a bad scoresheet, is it, even if it is at the micro level. The really good thing about it is that we will not have to do it when we get there because this part of the work will already be done.

I also sound just a little note of concern because there is another example of giving with one hand and taking away with the other in this area. Hidden away in the figures yesterday was an offsetting saving which takes the cost of the welfare package from $1.7 billion all the way down to just under $800 million. There are $924 million of savings in this welfare package and there is only one sentence of explanation. Guess what it says? It claims that these savings will be realised by people moving from welfare into work. We have heard this before. Last year the budget included $250 million savings attached to the preparing for work agreements measure. This was meant to do the same thing. How was this made up? This was not made up by moving from welfare to work; this was made up by people being breached. In fact, Minister Abbott has presided over a 250 per cent increase in breaches in the last three years.

We know a lot about what this government's vision is about. It is about one-sided mutual obligation. It is about making, at a time of rising unemployment, the unemployed wait for another 16 months for an improvement in crucial services. Yet Minister Abbott proclaimed this Monday in the Australian that the budget was based on the great ethical precept that `we are all our brother's keeper'. He went on to say that this budget wanted to tackle the moral deficit as well as the budget deficit. That is not to mention the skills deficit that has been created by this government over the past five years in their wilful resistance to the inclusion of any meaningful accredited training in any of their Job Network and Work for the Dole programs. So this government fails both on the moral deficit account and on `being our brothers' and our sisters' keepers' account.

The Treasurer said, `What do we believe in?' Let us start with saying this: this government's employment and social vision is all about competitive individualism, the pragmatic focus on individuals who may or may not choose to contribute and give something back to the communities who have fostered them. In the Labor Party, we believe in building communities as the core of employment and social policy, and that includes investment in public institutions such as schools and hospitals—something conspicuously absent from last night's budget. In Labor, that means that we ensure that businesses take seriously their social responsibilities to their workforces. It means investing in community solutions to social problems, including unemployment. That is why we have taken seriously our commitment to provide training to improve a job seeker's employability.

The Treasurer claimed that this is a budget looking to the future. That is a very glib statement. It ignores the fact that Australia's unemployment is rising now. It will have future consequences, but the unemployed need meaningful assistance now—not in November 2002, four months after the scheme is actually introduced and the first Work for the Dole participants become eligible for their $500 to $800 worth of training. This document may be helping people to move forward, but after 16 months it is just a bit too tricky.