Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (12:39): I support the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2011. I want to canvass a number of matters, but specifically I refer to the work of my colleague the member for Kingston and the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, which I think has brought down a very considered set of recommendations. It is important for us to step back and put all this within the context of what the government is seeking to do broadly in the area of welfare reform and especially as it sits within the needs of the economy—where we are at; where we sit right now. It is worth noting that some of the things that are confronting the economy have sat in the economy for some time and have been reflected upon by the Reserve Bank for some time. Specifically I refer to the impact that capacity constraints have on the economy, chiefly through, for example, infrastructure road blocks or the impact that skill shortages have on the economy in driving wages up and not having skilled people to drive productivity and help the economy as it moves, particularly in the context of us emerging from the GFC. Productivity has been low for many years and does need to be increased if we expect our economy to continue growing and we expect ourselves to make a mark on the international scene as well.
The challenge for us is to work out how we can get people, particularly those who are long-term unemployed, to participate more fully in the work force and how we can assist those people to obtain the level of personal skill necessary, which is demanded by industry, business and commerce today, and so be able to have a meaningful engagement in the economy. Ultimately, I believe work should not of itself be seen just as an economic activity but as a means for people to pursue their own personal aspirations, fund their activities and provide security and hope in many respects for what they want to do for themselves, their families and those close to them and the communities in which they reside.
Our economy is currently experiencing the equivalent of a sonic boom when it comes to investment, and to ensure that the economy is able to progress as far as it can and as strongly as it can we do need to address infrastructure issues and capacity constraints brought about by skill shortages. Addressing skill shortages lies behind the budget delivered last night. It puts in place significant economic reforms that will help us in the years ahead. This bill and some of the other measures announced by the government have been designed to find a way to add to the pool of employees and skill them up and enable them to meaningfully engage in the economy. From within that perspective, this bill, along with some of the other work done in the budget, is designed to have a meaningful impact.
The bill was referred to the education and employment committee on 24 March for inquiry, and 16 submissions were received. My colleague the member for Kingston, the chair of the committee, tabled the advisory report on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Job Seeker Compliance) Bill this morning. One thing that is noteworthy, and I think this was reflected upon by the member for Kingston, is the degree of passion for social welfare and the commitment to employment participation. The inquiry drew comments from a range of different perspectives, but clearly people are concerned to ensure that the jobless are engaged back in the economy—but, at the same time, in seeking to meet this objective we need to ensure the conditions imposed are not onerous or counterproductive.
I sought to engage with people in the Chifley electorate on this issue, and I discussed some of these plans with people who had been fortunate enough to graduate from the Green Jobs program in Western Sydney. anticipated only being there for a short period of time for the graduation and in fact stayed for two hours, canvassing a range of issues with some people who I believe are a credit to their community. We discussed the things that they want to do in progressing from a position where they believed they did not have an opportunity to get a job that was meaningful, beneficial and satisfying to them to a position now where they are looking with a great degree of confidence to where they head. They said to me that when they engaged with job providers one of their concerns was that they were referred to job interviews that they do not themselves feel will provide them with a job that will sustain their interest into the long term. One of the things that I am very mindful of with this bill is that, while you can refer people to job interviews, there obviously has to be a connection with the interests of the person you are referring to those interviews. Interviews are one thing; accepting a final offer of employment is another. But in that meeting and that very positive discussion that I had with young people in Western Sydney who had been unemployed for quite some time they indicated to me that they would be referred to employers for work that they were not interested in.
In fact, I recall that one of the successful graduates said to me: ‘The reason I was attracted to this program was simple. I was at a job provider’s premises’—this is how simple it was—’and I saw a brochure that was green. I turned it over and it talked about this program. I said instantly that this was what I wanted to do.’ So he followed it up. He stuck with the program. This person is now going to be engaged in horticulture in a major Western Sydney council, Hawkesbury City Council. I remember just the enthusiasm on his face and the fact that he said: ‘I didn’t want to go into a warehouse—it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to go into the logistics industry or transport. I wanted to do something with my hands but outside and feeling like I was making a contribution to the environment.’
The key with job providers, as I said, is obviously that referring people on for interviews is just one thing. Making sure that they attend is important, as is checking, if that person does not attend, that they have a reasonable excuse as to why. I note that the member for Kingston indicated today that there has been a recommendation put forward for some moderation in the criteria, so that ‘reasonable’ rather than ‘special’ excuses should be taken into account by Centrelink before making a decision on benefits. I think that is an important measure. I was equally moved to consider the point made by the member for Melbourne that engagement with the social security system, social security law and practice as maintained by Centrelink does present people with a challenge in its complexity. The member for Kingston, the chair of the committee, also reflected in her contribution this morning on the importance of having plain English materials available to explain to people these measures that will be enacted, letting them understand clearly what is at stake and their rights and responsibilities under this system.
I think these are important measures. But again I come back to the point that, if we put in place a punitive measure, that will not be to the longer term benefit of the people we are seeking to help. I am encouraged, having had discussions with the member for Kingston on this issue, because I have a deep interest in the bill, particularly for the seat that I represent—Chifley, in Western Sydney, where we have our fair share of long-term unemployed and where retention rates are lower than the national average. In fact, when I reflect on it, political parties of either persuasion have sought to tighten up compliance in welfare reform. It makes for great headlines, but whether or not it has a meaningful impact on the long-term unemployed is the next step that needs to be considered.
In terms of the long-term unemployed themselves, we potentially look to hit a barrier where some of those people are not engaging in the economy for particular reasons—one of which, I would advance, is mental health issues, for example, or disability. What support measures are in place to ensure that they can start to engage with employers and take on work? It is not that they do not have a passion for it; it is that there are barriers that need to be addressed. We always need to be mindful of those. Again, in the consultations and discussions with the chair, the member for Kingston, she said that this was a matter that had come up during the course of the public submissions and meetings that took place. It was reflected upon, too, that for people who did engage in the system who had, for example, a mental health issue or a disability, even if they had short periods of work and then lapsed—for want of a better term, for the purpose of ease of discussion in this debate—they still found a point at which they could re-engage and those periods of engagement lengthened. That is important as well.
As I said, both sides of the House take punitive measures in this regard, and I am certainly not a bleeding heart. I think the priority is to keep people engaged in work, to keep people in a position where they are able to earn money for their own sake and their family’s sake and meet the aspirations that they have for themselves and the ones they love. But this problem of long-term unemployment has bedevilled both sides of politics and we need to have (1) a commitment to provide adequate resources and (2) patience so that we will commit over the long term to dealing with this long-term problem. We need to deal with the problem from an economic perspective, because particularly in an environment where we have skills shortages we must get those people re-engaged, and from a social and community perspective as well. Those are the points that I am very mindful of in this debate, in considering this bill, and in broader welfare reform as well. But this does not deny—both sides of politics share this—that we do need to find ways to keep people engaged in the economy and in the community.
From an employment perspective, particularly through the course of a global financial crisis when 16 million jobs were lost in other advanced economies, I am proud of the fact that in our country we have been able to create more than 300,000 jobs since the GFC began. That included a training program, Work for the Dole projects et cetera. In this year’s budget, as I have mentioned, the government is working towards and continuing its commitment to building our future workforce capabilities, especially through training and skilling Australians to boost the economy. It is building on the reforms the government has delivered in education, welfare and employment services. With obtaining a job comes a sense of responsibility and personal commitment, especially for the long-term unemployed for whom motivation to seek a job is difficult. However, there are many opportunities available and means to obtain assistance. The Minister for Employment Participation has previously said that for many years the rate at which job seekers attend appointments with employment services has been around 55 per cent and that the system is demand driven and there are no more waiting lists. This calls for a greater improvement in the appointments designed to help job seekers get into work. The bill improves the relationship of those seeking work and those wanting to help them find work .The proposed bill is a method to encourage job seekers to take steps to attend that first crucial appointment and to continue these appointments to help find work. Attending an appointment, commitment and punctuality are skills that job seekers can take when applying for future jobs.
The suspension of income support payments for job seekers who fail to attend an appointment or participate in an activity with their employment service provider sends a sense of immediacy and seriousness at the importance of attending those appointments and activities to help find a job. If the job seeker fails to re-engage and does not have a reasonable excuse—a reconnection failure for missing their appointments—then there will be a penalty deducted from their next payment. However, if the job seeker then agrees to re-engage and to stay engaged and meet this requirement then payment is restored in full. The bill heads up job seekers to go down the right path and early intervention at the appropriate appointment stage looks at those affected by long-term unemployment. The bill encourages recipients into participation in work and community life and is part of our commitment to welfare reform. I commend the bill to the House.