Aug 14, 2003

Matters of Public Importance: Employment: Job Network


14 August 2003

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (3.39 p.m.) —On 8 August the Prime Minister was interviewed on ABC radio in Hobart. He, at least, admitted that there were problems with the new Job Network. He described them in two ways: as teething problems and, later in the interview, as glitches. We know that the teething problems are the problems being suffered by providers. The glitches are the problems being suffered by the consumers, the unemployed. First of all, I want to go through the glitches—the problems that unemployed people are having. I will then go through the massive teething problems with Job Network 3. 

Today we had another example of the so-called glitches. We were contacted by an unemployed man in Brisbane who had gone along to a seminar as part of Job Search training—a compulsory element, part of the mutual obligation arrangement, that anyone who has been unemployed for three months has to do. This man went to a seminar held by a company in Brisbane and was given an exercise on first impressions. When you look at the original of the document, it is very clear that of the four caricatures, person A and person B are white, in a suit and tie and very businesslike. Persons C and D are of a much darker complexion and both are stereotypically in thongs. People had to fill in a survey which went through a series of questions. They were asked to identify which young man, out of A, B, C, or D, they would: (a), buy a used car from; (b), give preference to in employment as an electrician; (c), have confidence in as their doctor; (d), would not like to see married to their sister or, if female, would not consider going out with; (f), think would be likely to use illegal drugs; (g), think would have respect for authority; (h), think would be intelligent; and—last but not least—think would be likely to vote Labor. Here is an unemployed person going along to a seminar and being asked which way they think these people would vote, who would be likely to use an illegal drug and who would have respect for authority. It is a totally inappropriate exercise. It is consistent with a Job Network system of which the government have washed their hands. From July 1, with a fully privatised system, the government have said, `We will just hand over the money and we will take no responsibility for any of the problems.’ This is today’s problem.

Yesterday’s problem was outlined by the member for Ballarat in question time. An elderly woman in her electorate was sent off for combat training. There are other examples. There is 27-year-old Tom in Tasmania. Tom had been unemployed for longer than 12 months. Tom was pretty keen to get a job; he would do almost anything. He put himself through a TAFE course. However, he did think that getting matched up with a job as a callgirl in an escort agency was just a bit too much, so he declined it. But the minister took no responsibility. Then there is Mark from Western Australia. Mark is 41. He was matched with a job in an overseas based company and was told that all he needed to do was to receive money for them in Australia and deposit it in their bank account. The job offer on the government’s Job Search web site said: `We are now hiring an honest, reliable partner in Australia who agrees to receive payments from our customers. You receive up to five per cent for just receiving payments.’ That is a pretty good job. You do not have to do anything except launder money.

Then there is Joanna, in Tasmania. She is a former art gallery worker who was also matched with a job in an escort agency. She at least was the right gender. She was also matched with a job requiring a chainsaw licence. The other jobs that she was offered were without exception more than 200 kilometres away. To add insult to injury, Minister Brough’s spokesman told the Hobart Mercury that if mature age job seekers want to improve their chances of finding a job they should just remove their age from job application forms. This minister’s idea of age discrimination is that they should just take their age off. The member for Mackellar gave a great performance on AM last week taking him apart.

There are numerous other examples, because the system is simply not working. Why isn’t it working? For a start, the government has relieved itself of all responsibility. From 1 July the government determined that it had no role in labour market programs. Employment National shut throughout the country. 400 workers lost their jobs—people whose job it was previously to get people work found themselves on the other side of the counter. If it is not a core responsibility for government to have a role in getting people employment, then what is? But it is not under this government. It was not only the public sector that got hit. Fifty three per cent of Job Network offices under Job Network 2 closed up on 1 July—a loss of 1,101 sites. The government closed more offices than it kept open.

The third teething problem was the big whizzbang IT system that we have heard about. All the providers are incredibly frustrated at the fact that it simply keeps going down—not for an hour or two but for days at a time. And we as local members are being contacted by them about these issues. Computer World magazine quoted a Job Network provider as saying:

All the providers I have been in contact with have indicated that EA3000 is the dog we expected. In terms of impact, we are no worse off than other providers, job seekers are clearly being impacted …

But there is more. The fourth problem is that the government’s database of unemployed was obviously not being kept updated. We have heard for seven years about how this is a government that keeps its eye on the unemployed: `They are all job snobs and dole cheats and we are going to get into them. We will find where they are and make them fulfil their obligations.’ The government does not even know where they are. A large part of the reason why there are problems with people not turning up is that the database has been shown to be completely hopeless. The government sent out 18,000 letters to people on the personal support program who are not required to participate in Job Network—that is 18,000 mistakes.

The fifth problem is the ministerial wars in Canberra. Whenever this minister is away the member for Warringah has to step in and overrule him. Under the system, every week DEWR published data as to how many people have been sent referrals, how many people have turned up and how many people have found jobs, but it was not working out too well, because there were glitches. The media were getting hold of some of this because providers were so angry they were providing it to the press gallery. So what happened? The minister said, `We just won’t publish any information any more.’ But that lasted two days until Minister Abbott had to overrule Minister Brough. The situation with the Centrelink minister, Senator Vanstone, is even worse. The relationship there has completely broken down because she is having to fix up the mess. She is having to fund Centrelink people to work overtime on weekends to try and fix up the data because time after time the data is disappearing from this whizzbang IT system.

The sixth problem is that the government chose an automatic referral system. It has been shown internationally that automatic referral simply creates problems. Referral letters have been generated that contain confusing information for unemployed people. For example, unemployed people are being referred to Job Network agencies that they are supposed to turn up to without it being explained who the agency is or what their obligations are.

The seventh problem is that the government’s policies have actually been found to be prolonging unemployment among many job seekers. That is not what we are saying; that is what is said in the research from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Public Policy, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the St Vincent de Paul Society—all probably communist fronts according to Minister Brough. The report, Much Obliged, said that the long-term unemployed `were so engaged in meeting their Centrelink requirements, that these seemed to have replaced actual job search activities’. The report went on to say:

In effect … the system operates for many disadvantaged job seekers not as `welfare to work’ but `welfare as work’.

The eighth problem is that when we had an MPI debate and some questions before we rose in June—before 1 July came in—about how the system was going to operate, Minister Brough stood up and said, `It’s all okay. It’s all on track. It’ll be fine.’ The truth is he slunk out of here on the last day that parliament sat and had an emergency meeting. He faxed the CEOs of every Job Network agency in the country and had the meeting at five o’clock at Sydney Airport Hilton. At the meeting he promised them, `We understand you have this massive problem with cash flow. We understand you’re going to have to close your doors. What we will do is, despite the system that we set up and the forward program of the income you were supposed to get—even if you don’t get it—we will delve into taxpayers’ funds and give it to you.’ So a $30 million bailout happened—and that was the first one.

The minister has an opportunity today to rule out a further bailout, because he knows that the system is still not working. It is incredible. I do not blame the providers for this; I blame the minister and the system. Quite clearly the business plan did not work. But $30 million of taxpayers’ money bailed them out, not as money to be given to the unemployed—not for training, not for labour market programs—but so they could keep their doors open. The fact is that the system is not working. The minister has an opportunity today to rule out any further bailout money going. By the way, Minister, we are not arguing that that should be the case. We think that you should bear the responsibility for your actions. We hear a lot about Work for the Dole and how terrific it is, but part of the bailout was that they had to take 75,000 job seekers back into Job Network out of Work for the Dole so as to generate some income for them. So it did not really matter; Work for the Dole was pretty flexible there.

NESA, the peak body, has found that 90 per cent of Job Network providers surveyed reported that their cash flow and revenue were well below what they were told they would get. One provider said:

Cost of system errors in delayed data entry, extra staffing costs, client ineligibility in wrong referrals added to unexpected costs which until now could not completely be assessed.

NESA said:

… if Job Network Members are not provided with substantial additional funding then we will see most providers retrenching staff within weeks and a number of providers actually ceasing to trade within a month.

So much for the great new whizzbang system, Minister. But it is consistent. Problem No. 12 is that it is consistent—there is a pattern. There has been an underspending on Job Network of $214 million in 2000-01, $70.8 million in 2001-02, and $15.6 million in 2002-03—a 10 per cent underspending on predictions. Why? It is because the system is not finding the number of unemployed people the jobs that they said it would. That is why Job Network providers are getting less money. The fact is also that in the mutual obligation system eight out of 10 have been overturned.

Minister, you must be the only person in this nation who did not know that 1 July was the day after 30 June. They had three years to get it ready. It was not as though it was a surprise and they did not have the IT system ready. They were told that in terms of some job search activities it would not be ready until September or October—forget that the new system began on 1 July. Minister Brough must be held accountable both for what he has done to providers in terms of the misleading information that they were given and, most importantly, for what has happened to the unemployed as a result of the botching of this system. (Time expired)