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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 3863


Senator PAYNE (3:14 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Employment Participation and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Government Service Delivery (Senator Arbib) to questions without notice asked today, relating to Employment.

I am happy to tell the chamber what there was no attempt to do. There was no attempt by Senator Cameron to deal with the issues at hand, which included Senator Arbib’s fundamental incapacity in particular to answer the question that I asked of him. There were three very simple questions, in fact, and I remind the chamber that they were whether the minister was satisfied that there were proper arrangements in place to ensure that both the Indigenous Employment Program’s employment panel and the Economic Development and Business Support Panel for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders would commence in nine days time. That is next Wednesday, 1 July—next week.

The minister was able to tell us—not entirely confidently—that he thought that that was pretty much under control but that it was a major task and a major transition. The opposition does not cavil with any of that; we understand and acknowledge that. But there is a commitment from this government to commence on 1 July, for which we have absolutely no evidence that the date will actually be met. In fact, when we asked about whether the successful tenderers for both of those panels in both of those extremely strategic and important areas for a very vulnerable part of the Australian community were able to be made public, what could the minister responsible for the area tell us? The silence was deafening. He said he would go away and find out whether the tenderers in his portfolio area were able to be made public. This was for tenders due to start on 1 July—next week.

I find it very hard to believe—and I think most senators in the chamber who have any experience either with the complexities of government administration or, for that matter, the complexities of business would agree—that tenderers who have responded to a request for tender and apparently been awarded a tender are going to be able to establish themselves in the space of time available between now and 1 July. Many of them might have to find premises. They might have to hire staff. They might have to establish information technology systems. All of that must be up and running by next week. I do not think so. I do not think it is nearly as simple as the minister hoped he could tell us it was in question time. In fact, in his additional remarks that he provided to us at the end of question time there was no more illumination provided to the chamber at all. I am not sure why he wasted his time or ours with those comments.

What is more disturbing, though, as Senator Fifield pointed out in his remarks taking note here this afternoon, is the confusion in the minister’s response between the Job Services Australia activities and the separate tender for the panels. My questions were very simple questions, and the minister went on to relate to us an experience he had recently with a visit to an Indigenous training provider in the construction sector. As I commented, I assume that was part of the Prime Minister’s hard hat led recovery policy. One had to wear a hard hat to the construction site, I am sure. The minister, in indicating that, showed quite clearly that he is in fact conflating and confusing these two parts of his portfolio. But you would find some very nervous people if you were visiting Indigenous training operations in this country at the moment or if you were visiting employment programs which are waiting to see what is going to happen across the whole range of the employment and vocational training sectors. You would find communities in the state of New South Wales—in Senator Arbib’s own state—who are very concerned about the lack of certainty that they see in their particular area of activity. They are concerned about not knowing what is going to happen to them in relation to jobs and about not being able to identify these much vaunted panels.

The phrase that the government has used and used repeatedly, and which we in the opposition think is a very important part of Indigenous policy in this country, is ‘closing the gap’. The gap is getting very, very close come 1 July, and we did not have an answer here today for an activity that is supposed to be up and running next week. Looking at the website and the minister’s portfolio does not give us any more information; it is equally vague on the details and the terms going forward. The Indigenous Employment Panel and the Economic Development and Business Support Panel for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders are informed by the website up until the date of lodgement of tender but not beyond that, so if you are a hopeful tenderer—if you are hoping, for example, to be a staff member in one of these organisations—what possible certainty do you have between now and next week? The answer is very simple: you have nothing at this stage. It is not good enough for professionals and for people in this sector and in this minister’s portfolio to have to put up with that. It is not good enough to be unable to tell the chamber this afternoon what the status of the tenders is, who the tenderers are and what is happening moving forward from 1 July.