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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 123

Senator TCHEN (8:22 PM) —Earlier this evening, this chamber heard Senator Ellison pay tribute to the late Australian Protective Service officer Adam Dunning for his sacrifice and his achievements. I think we all share that sentiment. Tonight I would like to speak on a matter within Australia which I am sure would make the late Mr Dunning feel satisfied that his sacrifice had not been in vain.

Nearly seven months ago on 21 July 2004 I had the pleasant experience of attending a community event in Melbourne that was particularly rewarding for two remarkable reasons. I use the word ‘remarkable’ in the original sense of the word—that is, worthy of remark—rather than in the derivative sense of something which is unusual. The election and chamber priorities intervened so there was a long delay before I could speak on this but the remarkableness of the event remains fresh and relevant, perhaps more so today, so tonight I would share this experience with my colleagues in the Senate.

The first reason that this community event was particularly remarkable and rewarding to attend was that its purpose was to mark the graduation of a Work for the Dole project. The second reason was that this project was sponsored and carried out by Victoria’s Muslim community to celebrate Muslim achievements in our multicultural society. I seek leave to table the book produced by this project, called Celebrating Muslim achievements in Melbourne.

Leave granted.

Senator TCHEN —I thank the Senate. The successful completion of community projects under the Work for the Dole program is not an uncommon occurrence. Indeed, it is actually very common. Nevertheless, completion is still remarkable in that it invariably demonstrates how well the projects worked out, delivering results that not only meet the objectives of the program but also provide tangible and substantial benefits to the participants and their supporters, be they trainers, workmates, employers or the community. I have attended many such celebratory events over the last 5½ years and have always been thankful for the experience.

The Work for the Dole program is a key component in the Howard government’s mutual obligation initiative. It gives job seekers the opportunity to improve their employability and work skills, while at the same time giving them a sense of achievement and belonging. It was introduced in 1997 against, it must be said, virulent opposition from the Labor Party, but has proved to be such an unqualified success that I have on numerous occasions had to share the stage with my Labor colleagues to offer congratulations to the project participants, coordinators and community sponsors, with not a voice of complaint to be heard.

I will briefly outline the basis of this program. Those eligible to participate in the Work for the Dole program include four groups of people. Those 18- to 20-year-old school leavers who have been receiving the full rate of youth allowance as job seekers for six months or more are required to participate for 310 hours within 26 weeks. Those 21- to 39-year-old job seekers receiving the full rate of Newstart allowance for six months or more are required to participate for 390 hours within 26 weeks. Those 40- to 49-year-old job seekers who have been receiving the full rate of the Newstart allowance for six months or more are required to participate for 150 hours within 26 weeks. Those job seekers who are 50 years old and over who have been receiving the full rate of Newstart allowance for six months or more may volunteer to participate for 150 hours within 26 weeks.

Senators will note that in all cases the pre-condition of having received six months of income support applies. In other words, these are people who have experienced difficulties in joining or returning to the work force. However, having participated in Work for the Dole projects, records show that they have a one-in-three chance of getting off welfare, either by finding work or pursuing further training. These are very impressive figures and are very encouraging to prospective Work for the Dole participants.

The real success story of the Work for the Dole program, unlike superficially similar programs promoted by previous Labor governments, is that it is not an artificial labour market exercise to reduce the unemployment figures by hiding them in pretend work projects. Work for the Dole projects are community-building projects. Participants do not disappear from the unemployment statistics, except of course those who are able to successfully rejoin the employed work force. I particularly want to emphasise this very fundamental feature of the Work for the Dole program—that is, those participating in the program do not disappear from the unemployment statistics—because some of my Labor colleagues seem unaware of it, simply assuming that this program is just a repeat of the various cynical ‘hide the unemployed’ exercises practised on the Australian people by the Hawke and Keating Labor governments.

My Labor colleagues have an understandable bias against any project that we propose, but there may well be others in the community equally unaware of the community-building nature of the program who, by not supporting it, are denying its very real benefits to their communities. These people do need this reminder. What are these benefits? The Work for the Dole projects help to develop work habits in young people. These young people gain valuable work experience and are able to recover their self-esteem. Often the most valuable lesson participants learn is that the best training for work is work itself. Work for the Dole engagement provides this experience.

Work for the Dole projects also provide opportunities for participants to learn new skills which can open new career opportunities. This is especially true for older people who have had the unfortunate experience of working for most of their life in a contracting industry and have a limited concept of what other careers may be available. Finally, Work for the Dole projects involve the local community in quality projects that provide community improvements. The lasting benefit to the community is a change in attitude and perception towards the unemployed by employers and by the community at large.

The Australians Working Together package, announced on 22 May 2001 and effective from 1 July 2002, included the introduction of the passport to employment and training credits as part of the Work for the Dole program. All participants who successfully complete Work for the Dole must be provided with a passport to employment. The passport to employment is a job readiness package designed to assist participants to effectively present themselves, their abilities and their experience to prospective employers through updating their resumes, developing basic job search and presentation skills and providing relevant certificates and references. Training credits are a reward for job seekers who have successfully completed Work for the Dole. The provision of training credits in conjunction with Work for the Dole builds on the work experience and motivation gained through these activities and thereby increases job seekers’ work prospects. Entitlement to a training credit between $500 and $800 is based on a job seeker participating in Work for the Dole for a specified amount of time and is dependent on their age.

Since the Work for the Dole program commenced in 1997, more than 18,000 Work for the Dole projects have been completed, providing more than 291,000 job seekers with valuable work experience and benefiting the communities who sponsored these projects with valuable improvements. I see my time is about to expire and I have a fair bit to go through yet, so I shall come back to this topic on the next occasion.