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Thursday, 7 June 2001
Page: 27586

Ms KERNOT (4:11 PM) —The government was just a little too smug and smirky yesterday about the growth figures and it continued that approach in question time today, but today's employment figures have put a nasty dent in the duco of those figures. At the end of the day, growth figures are not about statistics; they have to be about jobs. While the government is understandably keen to move on from the damage it did to the economy in the latter half of last year, these employment figures will unfortunately be a more lasting legacy of its economic mismanagement.

Don't we all remember when the Treasurer boasted about achieving an unemployment rate with a number five in front of it? We remember. As we stand here today, we are just millimetres away from a figure with a seven in front of it, and the budget says we will get there pretty soon. Indeed, the budget says that we will go above seven per cent. Make no mistake: despite all the sanctimonious lectures in question time on a daily basis, this employment figure is all the government's doing. There would scarcely be a person in Australia today who does not understand the effect the GST has had on the labour market. I think we all remember what happened to Australia when that momentous decision was taken and implemented in July 2000. If we look back at trend unemployment then, it was 6.2 per cent. It went down to 6.1 per cent in August and that was as far as it got because by November it was 6.2 per cent, by December it was 6.3 per cent, by January 2001 it was 6.4 per cent, by February it was 6.5 per cent, by March it was 6.6 per cent, by April it was 6.7 per cent, and today it is 6.8 per cent.

What else has happened since the GST was introduced? Since the GST was introduced we have had a rise in the unemployment rate of 0.8 of a percentage point, we have had an increase in the number of unemployed by 84,300—I bet they are all smirking about the growth figure!—the rate of jobs growth has more than halved and we have had a fall in the number of full-time employed workers of 41,700. You would think that the government would be just a little bit perturbed about the effect of its economic decisions on the unemployed. You would think that you might actually do something which showed that you cared about the consequences of your actions on the most vulnerable. We have seen the government's much vaunted welfare review and the response to that in this year's budget. The Prime Minister said in question time today, `The employment job is never done.' It is okay to say that, but it is not good enough to never start. If you look at this year's budget, you will find that all the measures to improve the Job Network, all the measures to provide training, do not come on-stream for another 16 months. What have our trend figures shown us? That since July the needs of the unemployed have been steadily rising.

There is no action on the policy front on this government. But there is plenty of action from the minister for employment, isn't there? There is plenty of action making barking mad speeches to poor unsuspecting groups of bewildered observers. He is not the minister for employment; he is the minister for union bashing. He talks about treason. If the minister believes any of us to be guilty of treason for drawing attention to the effects of the GST on employment, I reckon most of the disadvantaged unemployed would want to see him hung, drawn and quartered for his punitive victimising approach to the treatment of them and their future employment prospects. In fact, I think we could all have a different offence in mind for the minister for employment: libel against every trade unionist in this country. On Monday we even saw the minister for employment refuse on behalf of the government to support the One.Tel workers' bid for their entitlements. Then he was backflipped by the Prime Minister. And then there is the Minister for Employment Services: plenty of action from him too—most of it, though, not about getting people jobs.

If employment is to keep rising, as both the budget and the ANZ job ad series tell us it will, how is the government placed in policy terms to deal with it? What is the only employment option open to people now when they go to what used to be the CES? The only option open is the government employment services agency of the Job Network. We have recently had the second round evaluation of the Job Network. There have been so many misleading assertions about its success, and every time one tries to draw just a little bit of attention to maybe it is not working as well as it ought to, one is always contradicted. However, we have had Senate estimates and we have had the second round evaluation. These documents show three important things. Firstly, that the Job Network is underperforming in serving particular groups of clients. I quote from this government's own evaluation report:

Some groups have consistently lower outcomes than other job seekers across all services ...

Now just listen to who they are:

These include older job seekers, those on unemployment allowances for more than two years, job seekers with less than year 10 education, indigenous job seekers and those with a disability.

It almost begs the question: who does it actually help? What the figures from the evaluation show is that those being helped by the Job Network are those who would be the easiest to place under any employment services system. The evaluation network report also showed that only an extra three per cent of people who undertook Jobsearch training left benefits compared to a similar group of people who did not undertake Jobsearch training. This means that for every 103 people who found a job under Jobsearch training 100 would have found a job anyway. And for intensive assistance the figure was only 10 per cent.

Questioning in this week's estimates revealed that the Job Network's performance under intensive assistance for getting people into full-time jobs went from 19.5 per cent for the period May 1998 to September 1999, to an average of 16.3 per cent. This is a one-third decline in performance. And, when placed on the spot, the government's only response was that the performance had not really declined that much because the original figures were `overstated'. Who has been doing all that overstating? The minister sitting opposite here and his predecessor, Minister Abbott. Now, through the courtesy of Senate estimates and the `frank and fearless' testimony of the department, we know about the overstated and bogus figures. I think Minister Abbott should apologise to the House for serially misleading it on the performance of the Job Network.

Finally, we have serious allegations about a scam under the Job Network. An alleged scheme involves Job Network providers setting up their own labour hire firm and then hiring an unemployed person—one of their clients—for 15 hours work, which is the minimum period to qualify for a job matching payment. The provider allegedly pays them $150 for this work and then sacks them. The provider would then receive up to $400 from the government for finding the unemployed person a `job' and would make a $250 profit for no effort. The government has long concealed full information on the Job Network's performance to protect its spin from public scrutiny. The danger was always that this obsession to protect from public scrutiny would increase the scope for unscrupulous practices.

We can see from all the above that the government is sleepwalking its way through this employment problem. Its only ideas are those which have been stolen from Labor.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—The minister will have his turn soon. Be quiet!

Ms KERNOT —As usual, the government can steal ideas but it does not know how to implement them and make them work. The core of the problem is twofold. One, it is philosophical: its starting point is that the markets and economic growth will fix everything and look after everything and that it is all the fault of the unemployed that they are unemployed. That is at a time when we have seven job seekers for every one job in the country. Its second problem is that it has a very lopsided view of reciprocal obligation and no program for creative, community based job generation. It only has Work for the Dole—and we are glad it has finally seen the light to add basic accredited training to it to make it a more genuine program.

What is needed is a genuine doctrine of corporate responsibility. That includes policies like the national entitlements scheme we have been talking about all week. Corporate responsibility means that employers join with governments and unions to plan for the future of workers about to lose their jobs, before they lose their jobs, rather than just treating them as disposable and letting unemployment happen to them. That is where our idea of a national work force council, the skills profiling process and the early intervention for at-risk workers comes from. We believe in getting to workers before they become unemployed and on the downward spiral onto the scrapheap of long-term unemployment. We know it is so much easier to find them a job while they still have one.

If it means being honest about the performance of programs like the Job Network, so that we can build on its deficiencies, this is what we should be able to see from this government: policies which fulfil the government's side of the reciprocal obligation bargain: training, incentives and meaningful assistance in the search for work. Australians are spending $1 billion a year of taxpayers' money on the Job Network, and we need to be able to honestly appraise its strengths and work on its weaknesses. My private member's bill to set up an independent job monitoring authority ought to be taken up by the government, so that we can actually have a more honest assessment of how and why these figures were overstated, Minister. Taxpayers have the right to know how this $1 billion of money is being spent and how effectively it is being spent, and not in the el-cheapest way, to create long-term sustainable jobs for the most disadvantaged job seekers in this country.

In conclusion, we have to challenge the culture that is creeping into commentary on unemployment figures in this country, a culture whereby, if the unemployment level is not as high as the market has been predicting, we say, `Oh, it's good, actually. It doesn't matter. It's not really nine per cent. It's only 8.9 per cent.' Try telling that to the 4,900 Australians who have lost their jobs in the last month. Try saying, `Oh well, it's not as high as the market said, so it doesn't matter about you. You're only one of 84,300 Australian who have lost their jobs since the GST was introduced.' I want to conclude with the remarks of the BT Funds Management report of today on employment and unemployment. They make wonderful reading. This is the beginning of the report, which talks about market implications. It backs up what I was saying:

Market Implications.

Credit markets sold off, on the apparent interpretation that this report was strong.

Then in bold letters it says:

The inmates are now, apparently, in charge of the asylum.

Please note: employment fell and unemployment rose!

And it is your work, Minister.