THE HON ED HUSIC MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT SERVICES,
WORKFORCE PARTICIPATION AND
THE FUTURE OF WORK
MEMBER FOR CHIFLEY
NESA NATIONAL CONFERENCE
THURSDAY, 9 AUGUST 2018
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I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, paying respects to Elders, past and present – and to Elders from other communities with us today.
I’m very grateful to have the chance to be with you.
Not just because I have the opportunity to spend time with employment service providers from across the nation.
But this is a special occasion – a year where NESA celebrates two decades of being.
Since its’ formation in 1998, NESA has concentrated on shaping the evolution of a sustainable, effective and diverse employment services sector.
By speaking up strongly for its members, being thoughtful advocates – guided by a view that employment is a crucial pathway to a more inclusive community.
Maintaining organisations for that length of time isn’t easy.
It takes a lot of people working together, consistently and effectively.
So to NESA chair Rowena McNally, the board, NESA’s hard-working staff through to the ever present, ever energetic CEO Sally Sinclair – I extend the warmest of congratulations.
A MILESTONE YEAR
Like any organisation that has thrived over NESA’s time, you’ve witnessed waves of change.
The nation may have enjoyed decades of continued economic growth but there have been sharp episodes that have tested us all.
This year 20 years ago, NESA was formed.
And this year, ten years ago, we were fending off the impact of the Global Financial Crisis.
In other countries, unemployment soared to rates that were truly crushing.
For instance, it’s hard for us to imagine a national youth unemployment rate of 56 per cent.
Yet for a young person living in Spain – in the aftermath of the GFC – that was a horrible reality.
In Australia we avoided such economic brutality – because of the way we rallied and responded as a nation.
Crucial federal Labor government decisions in 2008 to protect the economy made a difference.
As did job programs – channelled through the efforts of people working within the employment services system – at that point in time.
A system flexible enough – but acting with urgency and purpose – to help people find work quickly, ensuring they weren’t trapped in long term unemployment.
We can always find ways to improve our employment services system.
But let’s remember that with the right approach employment services can make a postive impact.
While unemployment hasn’t reached the awful heights experienced elsewhere, it’s concerning to see the stubborn rate of joblessness.
The Turnbull Government loves talking about the number of jobs created during its watch.
It tried to make a big deal of the number of people placed into work under its jobactive system.
We should and do cheer for those who’ve found work – but you can’t overlook those who haven’t fared as well.
The government rarely mentions the rate of unemployment, which has hovered close to six per cent for nearly the entire time it has been in office.
It brushes past the fact that over 700,000 Australians continue to remain without a job.
It’s rarely upfront about the substandard performance of its own job programs.
For instance, between them the Work for the Dole program and the Youth PaTH intern program draw nearly $1.5bn of government support.
Yet around 20 per cent of Work for the Dole participants secure full time work.
Youth PaTH isn’t doing much better.
It was lucky to place 5,000 young Australians into an actual internship – a 17 per cent success rate.
And instead of deeply considering what can be done to improve the performance of those programs, the government simply rushes to announce new measure after new program.
All designed to distract attention from programs failing to do their job of finding a job for others.
As you know my side of politics has had great reservations about the direction of employment services under the current government. I’ve been very upfront about this with you.
We’re uncomfortable about:
- Jobseekers being churned through appointment after appointment, provider after provider and not securing work;
- Continued concerns that jobseekers being improperly classified via the streaming process and denied access to early intervention and support;
- Major underspends in critical planks that are supposed to support the system, like the $1bn Employment Fund;
- A lack of on the ground collaboration in areas of high unemployment;
- Job programs with weak protections against unsafe work practices or jobseeker exploitation;
- Programs that leave participants with few new skills or shallow experience rarely valued by employers; and,
- A system that – despite promises from the Coalition to tackle this – is weighed down by more and more red tape.
From the recently release employment services discussion paper we know:
- Mature age jobseekers remain unemployed for significantly longer than others;
- More than half of all jobseekers exit the system within 12 months;
- Almost two thirds of jobactive’s caseload is long term unemployed;
- Almost half have been on the caseload for over two years;
- The average length of time on the caseload for stream C is five years;
- Research suggests that the average employment services consultant manages nearly 150 jobseekers;
- Jobactive provider consultant turnover is almost three times the national average;
- Indigenous australians comprise more than 10 per cent of jobactive participants despite only making up three per cent of australia’s population
With all these challenges you would expect a close working relationship with government to help tackle them.
Yet, the failure to consult or respect the expertise of the sector is astounding.
For example: massive changes to the jobseeker compliance framework proposed by government via blaze of publicity last year.
Yet only later we discover hardly any consultation held with employment services providers – the very groups required to help maintain that new framework.
What’s also striking: concerns about the government repeatedly rushing in changes to system or programs – and threatening contract termination if providers complain or refuse to play ball.
I’m staggered by the number of providers that have told me that the government has directly told them it does not view their relationship with the sector as collaborative.
You’re just providers not partners. There’s a master – and there’s a servant.
That attitude filters its way through the system – where responsibility for failure is sheeted to anyone but the government.
We saw that in the last week where the government blasted job seekers for supposedly sabotaging job searches by applying for jobs they’re clearly not qualified for.
There is anecdotal evidence some are deliberately “ticking boxes” and applying for work they “know they will not get so they can stay jobless.”
Where that’s happening, deal with it by all means.
However, with a system that has so much data why is there none to back-up claims of: “…people on Newstart applying for positions they are patently not qualified for, and have no chance of securing.”
At Estimates we found the government couldn’t even provide data quickly on the worst employment regions for unemployment across a range of socio-economic groups or cohorts.
Yet apparently they can pin-point with laser-like accuracy the existence of those deliberately sabotaging job interviews.
And there’s no mention of the government’s hand in this, where they demand job-seekers apply for a minimum amount of jobs each fortnight.
If their own job programs aren’t placing people into work, and the compliance regime has been beefed up without adequate consultation, at what point does the government accept responsibility for the way its system is failing to work?
By the way, I just want to leave this on the record – from the employment services discussion paper:
“Departmental administrative data shows the majority of jobseekers want to work and only rarely fail to meet a requirement (often with a reasonable excuse).“
Instead of throwing out constant distraction or blaming others, the government should get its act together and improve the employment services system.
To distract from that the government announces new program after new program.
Little regard for coming up with concrete program objectives – or a way of measuring actual program performance.
Look at the last budget.
At least four new programs announced, no program objectives or measures released, despite repeated requests for this by the Opposition at Estimates.
A regional employment trial announced, targeting “disadvantaged regions” – yet government ministers are unable to tell you how they define what is considered a disadvantaged region.
The appearance given that new money has been found for new programs – when the reality is money from underspent programs has been shuffled to new programs or money suddenly found for previously announced initiatives.
In 2017 the government announced the Career Transition Assistance program for older unemployed – set to start in 2020 with a trial set to run in the coming year.
Then in the 2018 budget it brought forward the start date to 2019 and also increased the funding.
And as a result of this new timetable, it emerges the government will in fact be selecting successful providers for the program before the trial even finishes.
Again, proper planning and wise use of government funds takes a back seat to the government’s desperate need for a headline.
It’s making a mockery of a job program framework that is the second largest area of government procurement outside of defence.
The jobless – and the taxpayer – deserve better.
CHANGE IS COMING
Make no mistake – this is the year we take a deep breath before plunging into major change in this arena.
We cannot maintain the current arrangements and spending that govern the employment services sector without asking what can be done to improve the system.
Regardless of who forms government next it’s unlikely we will see the maintenance of a status quo in employment services.
The size of the jobactive contract is huge.
The numbers of people affected by the system, significant.
Reform must be considered, the transitional and implementation arrangements well thought out and methodically executed.
We are watching with interest the work of the current Employment Services Expert Advisory Panel.
We don’t know where the panel will land with its final recommendations to government but we apparently won’t have to wait too long.
I suspect from there we witness big claims by the Turnbull government about changes it might be considering for employment services.
And when it finally makes a decision it will be interesting to see if the government races frantically to introduce a new system in 2020, forcing others to move mountains to meet a forced deadline.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, based on what the government is saying, an election will be held in the first half of 2019.
The Labor Opposition believes the government should not sneak out a response to the Panel recommendations over the summer break and then scramble to lock in new contract arrangements right before an election.
It’s our firm view the government should meaningfully consult with the Opposition ahead of any significant decision about the shape of the future employment services contract.
We have deeply held views about the the system as it stands, a system where change must be considered.
We simply won’t be strong armed into accepting new contract arrangements because they were hastily signed by the Turnbull Government in the last weeks before an election.
We are prepared to work constructively.
However if we are given the opportunity by the Australian people to govern we reserve our right to extend the existing jobactive contractual arrangements to allow us to consider further reform of the system, consulting with appropriately with the community.
And given this is a multi-billion procurement we are telling the government in no uncertain terms that it should avoid hurtling into a replacement for jobactive before the election.
LISTENING AND CONSULTING
Unlike the federal government, the Opposition has spent considerable time listening to people with an interest in the way we get people working again.
From jobseekers to employment services providers to business and community groups with an interest in a functioning employment services system.
I’ve travelled from capital cities to our regions hearing directly from people about what works and what doesn’t.
Through that process, I’ve been grateful for the thoughtful contributions of NESA members through the roundtables and consultations I’ve held.
Your advocacy and measured input has helped me think through views on aspects of the system I’ve not been a great fan of, for example, wage subsidies.
Give and take is important.
We need to build a better system.
There is a lot of experience and collective know how in the system.
As much as I am concerned by the churn experienced in frontline staff, I readily acknowledge – and am impressed by – those who have dedicated themselves to the sector for decades.
It’s important to tap into that experience to improve employment services.
Labor’s vision looked to a more future focused system that helps people into a job today and prepares them for future jobs.
This is the right approach because, as you know, employment is the means to a more inclusive society.
At a time when inequality is growing and the world of work is set for major change it’s crucial that employment programs are future looking.
Last year Deloitte Access Economics and The Australian Computer Society reported that our digital economy added 40,000 jobs to the Australian economy over the two preceding years.
By this year the figure was 63,000.
Digital jobs aren’t just growing – their growth’s accelerating at a time of skills shortages.
These jobs require need people from different backgrounds – trained in either tertiary or vocational fields.
It’s predicted the sector may create an extra 81,000 jobs by 2022.
But where are these workers going to come from if we’re experiencing graduation rates of only 3000 to 4000 a year?
Not all skills shortages are being experienced by one sector.
A range of specialities appear on the skill shortage lists.
For instance, we know that the government has identified national shortages of tradies.
There are also thousands of vacant jobs according to the mining industry.
And within this sector – where I’m told they can’t find enough engineers – I think of all those instances I’ve heard of highly qualified jobless, with degrees, unable to secure work.
And what about the challenges of an ageing population?
Age-related bias in Australia is considered widespread – especially when it comes to employment. This is costing the economy.
The Australian Human Rights Commission found an increase of just five per cent in the paid employment of Australians aged over 55 would have a $48 billion impact on the economy each year.
With the number of Australians aged 65 and over projected to double by 2055, there will be huge demand for aged-care services with additional strains on the welfare system if greater labour force participation isn’t achieved.
The 2016 Willing to Work report urged the government to create a national action plan to address employment discrimination using public education campaigns to tackle age bias. Where’s the evidence of meaningful action on this by the Turnbull government?
WHAT GUIDES US
From Labor’s perspective our focus is on employment services that delivers lasting jobs – not fleeting headlines.
What you can expect from Labor is an approach that:
- Works to build valued, sought after skills and experience in jobseekers;
- A system that helps ease the stranglehold of skills shortages – so the system meets the employer needs, encouraging them to work closer with employment services;
- By dealing with these issues we place jobseekers on a much more sustainable path to long term employment;
- Does not maintain job programs to simply punish the jobless through arrangements that have them stuck on a participation merry-go-round;
- And we certainly won’t tolerate job programs that allow jobseekers to be exposed to unsafe work practices, exploited or used as a secondary, government subsidised workforce reinforcing rates of record underemployment in our labour market;
- We can measure the investment in well thought out programs, delivering meaningful results instead what we have to endure at the moment: another dash to a headline, announcing a new program to paper over past problems;
- We use the existing job investment measures – like the $1bn Employment Fund – meaningfully by addressing underspends that have plagued the fund;
- We reform the employment services framework that provides sharper focus on regional economic needs – providing local industry with talented locals. Or through local coordination we work together tackles known job barriers;
- Resets the relationship you have with government, placing it in on more cooperative ground to get the best out of our collective experience – and put that to work getting people into work; and,
- Flowing that approach right through to our regions, seeing providers work together in priority areas to effectively tackle what they tell us are hurdles preventing long term unemployed getting back into the job market.
I want to work with you on this.
My travels around the country, seeing first hand the willingness of people to find better, practical solutions that give hope to and energise jobseekers, has given me reason to believe we can change this system for the better.
And you can be assured Labor wants to work with the community to make this a reality.