Speech on the Social Security Legislation (Increased Employment Participation) Amendment 2014

17 March 2014

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (18:37): I rise today to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Increased Employment Participation) Bill 2014. As the House is aware, this bill introduces two new programs. Firstly, a Job Commitment Bonus, which will go to eligible job seekers between the ages of 18 and 30 who find and hold onto a job for at least 12 months, after having been on Newstart or Youth Allowance for more than a year. Secondly, it introduces the Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job program, which provides eligible job seekers with financial assistance to move in order to find a job in a regional centre or, in certain cases, another metropolitan area.

The opposition will be voting for these measures because we support any attempt to improve youth employment levels, but we do have substantial concerns about this government's approach to jobs more broadly—their lack of a more comprehensive plan and their failure to guarantee the future of other important programs that can impact on young lives at risk of a life in the unemployment queue.

If there is one word to characterise today’s labour market it is uncertainty. Yes, last month's job results surprised most economists on the upside, but it was just one month in an otherwise bleak six or so months, and we need to look at the bigger picture. At six per cent the unemployment level announced in February is higher than at any point during the global financial crisis. But even this does not fully reflect the severity of the situation, since the large number of job losses announced since the election are yet to be factored into this unemployment data.

The prevailing theme of this government's first six months has been announcement after announcement of job losses—whether it was the 5,000 job cuts announced at Qantas; the 2,900 direct jobs at Holden; the 2,500 jobs at Toyota; the 1,100 jobs at Rio Tinto in Gove; the 544 at Electrolux; the 200 at Peabody Energy; the 110 at Simplot; or the 200 at Caterpillar. We have seen this government sit on their hands as many thousands of people across Australia have lost their livelihoods, and many thousands of families have lost their means of subsistence.

All in all, across 28 major companies that have announced job cuts since the last election, there are 27,300 jobs that will be leaving Australia over the next few years. These 27,300 jobs demonstrate the substantial uncertainty present in our labour market at the moment. And this uncertainty in the labour market is most pronounced among our young people, as other speakers have said. As the first Youth Unemployment Monitor from the Brotherhood of St Laurence has shown, the current levels of youth unemployment should be a huge concern for all members in this place. I want to acknowledge the work being done by Tony Nicholson and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, as well as a number of other groups in this country who share our concern for youth unemployment.

The unemployment level among youth in Australia is at 12.2 per cent, more than double the aggregate rate. In the Logan area, which is a big part of my own electorate of Rankin, youth unemployment is at an unacceptable 16.5 per cent. In some regions, including much of the state of Tasmania, youth unemployment levels are over 20 per cent, or one in five of all young people. It is no wonder, given those sorts of numbers, that the Brotherhood of St Laurence has described these findings as 'the crisis of youth unemployment'.

My real concern is that youth unemployment could worsen as a result of the actions of this government, including in my own electorate. One recent study by academics from Griffith University, Charles Darwin University, and the University of Newcastle has investigated the future employment vulnerability of regions around Australia. It found that five of the 13 red alert suburbs in metropolitan South-East Queensland that have been identified as having entrenched disadvantage are in Rankin, as are three of the nine suburbs identified for emerging disadvantage. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of this new research into employment vulnerability is the warning that radical austerity would make the situation worse, causing already vulnerable suburbs to become even more vulnerable. The authors specifically single out trades training, a measure already cut by the Abbott government, as crucial to combating spatial patterns of unemployment. Cuts like this will affect already disadvantaged areas via a double whammy effect, of job market inefficiency and a lack of region specific information about job possibilities.

Because of our concerns about youth unemployment, and the regional vulnerability of employment in the face of future cuts, the opposition will be supporting the measures introduced in this legislation. We understand that in the face of rising unemployment it is even harder for less experienced young workers to find a job. This is one of the reasons we will be supporting the incentive provided by the Job Commitment Bonus for young Australians.

We are also supporting the Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job program, as it really is an extension of the existing Move to Work program of the previous Labor government. This sort of relocation incentive is useful for some members of the community in some cases, though in the past it has had a fairly low take-up rate.

The issue we have with the government's approach is that the two programs introduced in this bill merely scratch the surface of what is really needed to combat the weaknesses and uncertainties in the current labour market. I want to touch on three specific concerns I have with their approach.

The first is the failure of this government to present any credible plans to improve the broader jobs market, and look after the workers affected by current uncertainty. Well over a month since Toyota announced the closure of their Australian manufacturing operations, this government is yet to present Toyota workers with a plan for the future. It is hard to understand this government's callous disregard for people facing an uncertain future after the closure of these major companies. The only explanation for what the opposition leader called this 'wilful neglect' is that this government is anti-jobs. They bend over backwards to find jobs for former Howard government cabinet ministers, but they have not turned their mind to the broader workforce.

The Australian people deserve a government who will do all they can to fight for Australian jobs, and this government has shown themselves to not be up to this task. While this government's anti-jobs approach is devastating for those facing job losses today, their lack of vision for the jobs of the future is even more troubling. The reality of the situation is that the vast majority of the 27,000 job losses over the last five months, announced by the 28 companies I mentioned earlier, are likely gone forever—at least in their most recent form. Because of the government's lack of a plan, the young people of Australia will be hit the hardest by our approach. The youth of Australia need a government who can actually articulate a plan for future jobs, one that goes beyond the Prime Minister's glossy brochures promising a million jobs, without any consideration of how to get there.

My second concern about this area of policy is the refusal of the government to guarantee the future of several programs proven to improve the job prospects of young people. It was revealed recently in Senate estimates that the Abbott government has not allocated government funding for the tremendously important Youth Connections scheme past the end of this calendar year. The Youth Connections program provides individualised support to young people at risk of not obtaining a year 12 certificate by re-engaging them in education and giving them pathways to future study and employment, which is so crucial to their job prospects for the rest of their lives. I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit the Logan Youth Connections program run by BoysTown in Woodridge and Kingston in my electorate. I saw firsthand very recently the hugely valuable and life-changing support being provided to young people through this program, as well as the passion and dedication that the talented staff at BoysTown have for the at-risk youth in our community. I want to take this opportunity to commend them for their work.

The program goes well beyond education alone, and it really assists young people to overcome barriers to social cohesion, rebuild their resilience and self-confidence, and re-engage with their community. For many of the young people who enter the Youth Connections program, the alternative paths for them are very bleak—substance abuse, crime or mental health problems. The reviews of this program conducted by what used to be called DEEWR, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Mission Australia and the Brotherhood of St Laurence have been hugely positive. In the first half of 2012 alone, the DEEWR review found that the Youth Connections program had resulted in 4,115 young people commencing or re-engaging in education. For each one of those 4,115 young people, Youth Connections has been a force for good in their lives, improving job prospects for all involved.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence review of the program found that most graduates had maintained some form of outcome several years later. Many had gone on to tertiary study and some were concurrently working and studying—a tremendous outcome. The impact in our Indigenous community has been particularly substantial, with 5,750 Indigenous young people benefiting from Youth Connections in 2010-11, and with 35 per cent recording sustained improvement in their engagement with school and 23 per cent making significant progress.

The Mission Australia study estimated that, if the 30,000 young people that had been supported by Youth Connections each year instead ended up on Newstart, the potential cost to government from income support payments alone would be upwards of $390 million a year, or around $2 billion over five years. With the rising problem of youth unemployment, this government must commit to extending this program beyond the end of this year. That way the great people working in this area and the kids they are helping will get a little bit of certainty in an otherwise uncertain market.

The government's refusal to guarantee future funding of the Youth Connections program comes after the brutal attacks on education funding that have already been announced. In just the first six months of this government, we have seen a backflip on needs-based schools funding and cuts to trade training centres. In the context of rising youth unemployment, there is absolutely no sense in cutting trade training centres, which exist to prepare young people for employment. The trade training centres rolled out by the former Labor government across Australia, including in almost every major regional centre along the Queensland coast from Gold Coast to Bowen, have been hugely successful in bringing school students closer to local industry. The current trade training centres cover programs from aviation engineering to building, horticulture, manufacturing, electrotechnology, allied health, mechanics, plumbing, boat building and panel beating. In Queensland alone, the government has diverted funding from the 123 further proposed trade training centres. Thousands of young people will miss out on the skills, the training and the industry connections that these centres would provide. The government's plan for future jobs should have programs like Youth Connections and trade training centres at the forefront, as these programs are what are going to ensure we have the dynamic, skilled young workers required for the future.

My third concern with the legislation before the House today is the large number of people across Australia who have been excluded by the design of the jobs commitment bonus program—many of them in my community. The new section 861(12) of the Social Security Act would amend the definition of Australian resident to explicitly exclude special category visa holders for the purpose of the bonus. This means that New Zealanders arriving in Australia before 2001 on protected visas who are currently eligible for Centrelink payments have been explicitly excluded in this program. This, to my knowledge, is the first time in the Social Security Act that protected special category visa holders have been explicitly excluded. In my electorate of Rankin, we have a large population of people who may be affected by this change, and I am worried by the precedent that this legislation would set.

As I said before, we will be supporting the introduction of these incentive based programs today, but we need to do more and not less to properly address youth unemployment and prepare for the jobs of the future. The most important focus of our policy response must be on fostering conditions that see the jobs of the future created and the skills and human capital required for these jobs becoming widespread in our community.

If the government are really concerned about tackling youth unemployment, I call on them again to restore and commit to the further funding for Youth Connections and to reconsider their cuts to trade training. If we want Australia to have the dynamic and nimble workforce necessary for Australia to compete globally, we need to go beyond the financial incentives introduced in this bill and really commit to addressing the underlying factors at work in growing our economy and proving that inclusion and growth are complementary and not at odds.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Broadbent): I thank the member for Rankin. I call the member for Braddon, which has been in the news most recently.