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Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Page: 3174

Mr HILL (Bruce) (17:10): I would like to add my voice and make some remarks on this important bill, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs Path: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill 2016. I will start by agreeing with about half of what I heard the member for Mallee say. I have had a couple of conversations with him. His electorate is in fact one of my favourite parts of Victoria, through family and other connections, and home to my favourite national park; long may it continue. The part of your remarks that I agree with—and I really do; I think there is a lot of common ground—is around the ends and the objectives. No-one could deny the importance of doing more to deal with entrenched youth unemployment in well-designed, well-targeted programs. Often, as I heard you say, in your part of the world—and I have different cultural issues but similar socioeconomic issues in parts of my electorate—with entrenched disadvantage and households where for both parents and intergenerationally there has been no-one as a role model who has worked, there are real problems that the government needs to pay attention to. That relates to the objectives of this bill.

Unfortunately, I do believe at the moment that the best you can say about this bill itself is that it at least provides some focus and time for members of parliament and members of this House to reflect on and debate the serious and growing problem of youth unemployment. I say that because I believe that more attention on this issue is sorely needed, given the government's performance, particularly in the past couple of days. It beggars belief. They are falling to bits in front of our eyes. Question time today said it all. We moved at least from a plebiscite, where we are too afraid to actually stand up and do our jobs, to stunt legislation about refugees—pretty much B-grade stuntmen—and now section 18C is back on the agenda. As I said, I did some street stalls on the weekend and, funnily enough, not once did anyone come up to me and say, 'The national priority needs to be to allow me to say more racist stuff to my neighbours and that's what the parliament needs to spend its time on and devote its committee time to.'

We know that the senators, those in the other place, are sorely constrained for committee time, and I think their time would be better used in having a broader exploration of the sorts of things we could agree on across the chamber in relation to youth unemployment rather than on nonsensical debates about weakening Australia's race hate laws. Really, none of that creates a job. It is about saving one job, and we know that is the Prime Minister's job.

Nevertheless, there is a bill in front of us. It covers and implements only a small part of the government's overall program—such as it is. But the PaTH program, like the failed Work for the Dole program, right now seems, as best as we can tell, destined to fail the very people it purports to help. It is an important conversation to have. I will summarise the concerns I hold with the bill. First, are the internships genuinely voluntary? What sectors? What is the outcome? Is there any reasonable prospect of a job, given that we have learned that it is not really an objective of the Work for the Dole program? Payment of below award wages: young jobseekers deserve better. And there is the potential for businesses to rort this program, both through churning numbers of interns through in work that would otherwise be done by properly paid employees—and the member for Chifley well outlined some of that. I also have concerns about limitations around the volume of interns a given business can employ and the ability of businesses to reinvent themselves with different ABNs and so on.

That is a summary. But it is not just me, of course. Others have raised concerns. Even with the scant level of information we have managed to wrangle out of the government over many months about the meaning of this, it is instructive to have a look at what other organisations are saying. Organisations like ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Services, have raised concerns about the exploitation of young people and the questionable employment outcomes of the PaTH Program:

Funding for the internships program should not be used to support long, unpaid internships that do not lead to permanent jobs for disadvantaged young people … The PaTH Program … is unlikely to have a major impact on reducing youth or long-term unemployment in isolation.

There are further concerns about the program undermining workforce standards, the potential for the program to undermine wages across industries, to displace jobs with cheaper labour, coverage by workers compensation schemes and to churn numbers of internships through, particularly, may I say, in industries that might otherwise attract penalty rates—another flawed ideological crusade of the government.

The ACTU—and I know members opposite would say that you would quote the ACTU, but they do have substantial policy capability and a genuine interest in this area—said:

This policy takes employment standards in this country back almost 30 years and has the potential to drag down wages and conditions for all workers …

Importantly, they say:

The Government's plan is either very badly designed and underfunded, or very well designed to exploit Australian workers and strip them of their legal rights and pay.

They point out the failure of Work for the Dole and the ANU evaluation that showed a two per cent in the probability for paid employment. That is pathetic. Any program worth its salt must have a better outcome than a two per cent increase in the probability of paid employment. So that failed program has now resulted in this, and they have shuffled some money from left to right—sort of the 'look over here' trick.

The exploitation of young jobseekers, who will receive only $100 a week extra for up to 25 hours of work, was referred to by the National Union of Students as 'government-sponsored slave labour'. I remember my time in student politics many years ago. They are at times prone to robust language, but I understand their point. The NUS campaign also said:

The Government claims that PaTH is the way to solve welfare dependence among young people, but at the same time provides businesses incentives to churn through low-paid interns every 12 weeks, giving them $1,000 with each new intern they take on.

…   …   …

What's to stop employers from picking up a new intern every 12 weeks, relying on this cheap labour, and repeating the process over, and over.

I take the point that these things can be dealt with to a degree in program design. I feel as though I am repeating myself today, having spoken on the previous bill, but, yes, when I was a public servant I worked for a Liberal minister running youth employment programs in Victoria. We did our best to actually try to stop these things in some of the detail, program design, regulations and guidelines. And if they do happen to get this legislation through, or if indeed it is improved in the Senate to the point where we could support aspects of it, those matters of detail are critical to get right in the guidelines to enable the program administrators and the public servants to pick up rorting behaviour and rule it out.

There were a number of matters touched on by the member for Chifley that are worth amplifying and recording again. There is the issue about what an intern is. There is no definition. We have no clarity. Are we talking about someone who is working or are we talking about someone who is simply observing. Who knows?

The workers compensation problems and issues are incredibly serious. The possibility that a young person in a workplace—whatever the capacity the government ends up inventing as the classification for the work or activity they are undertaking; if they say it is not about work in the end, who knows?—may not be covered by workers compensation legislation and may be vulnerable and fully liable, left with accidents, is unconscionable. These are serious technical issues that have to be worked through, given the different jurisdictions of different state governments and the complexity of that area of law. There is no clarity there, despite our questions to the government. And, as I said, there is the potential for large numbers of interns to be churned through.

Lest I be criticised for quoting the ACTU, the NUS and the Australian Council of Social Services, let me also record some of the views of the government's ideological love match, that left-wing radical think tank the Institute of Public Affairs—and didn't they look like a bunch of geese last night on Q&A talking about climate change, but that is another discussion. In relation to the Victorian government's incentive program—my first point—the Institute of Public Affairs said:

… the subsidy offer provides a powerful incentive for businesses to fudge the paperwork to fit the eligibility requirements, particularly when combined with a government desperate to make its policy a success.

They would say that and use that kind of language in relation to a Labor government. But then they went on, talking about this government's program, to say:

The problem with the PaTH program is that wage subsidies have been tried, and the problem of youth unemployment has persisted … There is no value in these programs if they displace jobseekers that would have been hired without a subsidy, or if employment ceases as soon as the subsidy ends.

The potential for rorting is a warning for the PaTH Program, as the Institute of Public Affairs briefing said. I am not in the habit of quoting them, but they do highlight important risks which the government would be well advised to pay attention to. It does point to the importance of honest program design, careful evaluation of what is working and what has not. As the member for Mallee said, perhaps with some more deliberative conversations between us we could find different mechanisms to try that we agree on. But these things have to be honestly evaluated, because they will not always work.

More broadly, in relation to youth unemployment, 12.8 per cent is the youth unemployment rate, which, as we know, is around twice that of the wider population. The data is seasonal and lumpy and the honest thing to do generally, unless you are looking at particular aspects, is to look at the annualised average. But that figure of 12.8 per cent can numb the mind. What that represents in human terms is 271,400 young people across this country aged between 15 and 24 who will be disillusioned, disenfranchised and well aware of the status accorded to them by this government. It further disenfranchises young people when we spend public money on a system that funds the payment of below-award wages and encourages rorting by business. Youth unemployment has deep and complex causes, and understanding the causes and tried and tested program responses—and there is surely enough experience from times past around what works and what does not—must inform our decisions about where we focus our energies.

In my electorate of Bruce youth unemployment remains well over 12 per cent. In fact, in the south-east of Melbourne the youth unemployment rate is pushing 20 per cent—slightly over at the moment—and there are anecdotal reports in certain migrant communities of youth unemployment approaching 30, 40 and 50 per cent. In terms of the government's failings, in our view this is a poorly designed proposal. It is a thought bubble from an election campaign, because they had to have something to say, and unfortunately it continues this government's focus on punitive, harsh responses. They are obsessed with punishment. Just recently, as we know, the social services minister announced plans that he would force some young jobseekers into poverty by forcing them to wait four weeks to be eligible for Newstart. As we have said, that is an improvement on six months waiting, but they still do not get that unemployment is not a personal choice. For most people unemployment is not their preference. For most people unemployment is a failure of the market or the economy to create the right jobs and a failure of governments to help those with entrenched disadvantage to get into those jobs.

Labor's approach is not just about readying young people for the workforce, but real employment opportunities. We floated the idea of work placements at an award-equivalent training wage, cert IIIs in the subject of their choice, looking at gap training and six-week work readiness courses focused on essential employment skills. I feel like I am repeating myself for agreeing with the member for Mallee, but he makes a very valid point that often what the research finds, from my previous work in this area, is that it is the soft skills that many people lack. They may have finished year 12, but they need the soft skills and the ability and habits they learn from their parents of just getting out of bed and getting there on time. All the evidence shows that at times, in families where there is no role model and no-one to support them, the role of mentors and those wraparound services is what makes the difference. It is not the couple of thousand dollars to the employer that gets a disadvantaged young person there, it is having someone holding their hand, giving a hoot about whether they get there and checking on them. The research, as I recall—although I would have to refresh my memory in detail if I were doing a program design, which I am not now—showed that it was in the order of at least six months that you need someone standing there, ringing that person, being available to them every week, helping them with the soft skills and mentoring them through if you are going to break that cycle of disadvantage.

We had some of those programs and that approach. They were Labor programs, successful programs: Youth Connections, Partnership Brokers, national career development services. But of course the government, when they came to office, cut them all.

The fact that we have such a long gap between the election, when this policy was announced, and when it is apparently commencing, which is around April or May next year—who really knows when?—is nothing new. Last year, in the government's previous term—you never know whether they are a new government; sometimes they are and sometimes, as we heard from the Prime Minister today in relation to his absence of knowledge of Senator Day's matters, it is a different government, so how could he be responsible?—we went through well over a year where the government had no youth unemployment policy. They had no programs, no care—nothing.

We believe there are serious problems with this bill and serious questions that need to be answered. To date, our questions have not been answered. It is a regrettable fact that the parliament's time and the government's time is being spent on saving the Prime Minister's job and helping keep his backbench at bay instead of actually using proper committee inquiry time to have a look at the program design and the causes and what we can meaningfully do together. Nevertheless, perhaps the Senate inquiry will shed some light on this and maybe we will find some more common ground.