Back to Work Bill 2014

Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak in support of this amendment from the Legislative Council, which is the first Greens amendment in this term of Parliament. We will also support the government's amendments, which make only minor administrative changes. We thank the Treasurer and the government for dealing with us constructively on those matters.

 

By way of context, I note that in its original form the Back to Work Bill 2014 was a blank cheque. It gave unlimited money to the Treasurer to spend as he chose, with no real transparency or accountability provisions, which was quite unprecedented. There is nothing quite so discomfiting as a government saying, 'Trust us. Give us a blank cheque, and we will sort out the details later'. The amendment originally presented by the Greens and now taken up by the government will address some of our concerns to ensure that government money is being spent wisely and that the functioning of this scheme is not kept a secret.

There is no denying that we have an unemployment problem in this state. The Greens, like — I imagine — all other parties, want to see unemployment fall. Indeed people in my electorate — particularly those born outside of Australia and their families, including those in the African community — will benefit greatly from a scheme that gives incentives to employ the long-term unemployed or create new employment. But we need to do it in a way that actually works.

The Back to Work Bill is full of detail about what kinds of forms will need to be filled in, but it remains silent on the key issues, which are who will be eligible for this scheme and who will miss out. I also note by way of context that the Greens moved an additional amendment in the other place in an attempt to codify some elements of the guidelines that will address these issues. We sought to include a group of Victorians who face particularly significant hurdles in entering the workforce — that is, asylum seekers, refugees and their families. We believe that action taken to address the serious challenge of unemployment must address the systemic issues at play, especially the issue of discrimination faced by people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The uncomfortable truth is that the unemployment rate among people with university degrees who were born in non-English-speaking countries is three times higher than that of their Australian counterparts. The Greens would like to tackle this challenge in the open by codifying the specific inclusion of refugees and people from refugee families in the scheme. The amendment was particularly crucial because initial indications from the minister suggested that only job seekers who were recipients of Centrelink payments would be eligible for this scheme — payments for which many asylum seekers are not eligible.

Unfortunately the Greens amendments to guarantee the inclusion of asylum seekers and refugees in the scheme were voted down in the other place by both the Labor and the Liberal parties. But the government has given us an assurance that asylum seekers and refugees will be eligible if they are long-term unemployed. I commend the Treasurer for responding to the concerns of the Greens on these matters and for changing the initial scope of the scheme in response to those concerns. However, we are yet to see the guidelines and we are left to trust that they will be worked out later in private. I am disappointed that the government has refused to commit openly to guidelines, but I place on the record that the assurance given to us on this count will not be allowed to remain an empty statement. The Greens will continue to advocate for the swift publication of the guidelines and will ensure the government lives up to its promises, especially regarding asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, the amendments being debated today offer an opportunity to significantly improve this bill by introducing much-needed transparency, because spending $100 million of government money without any public accountability is not good government. Imagine if an education bill had come before the Parliament giving the Minister for Education an unlimited bucket of money to spend as he chose, on whichever schools he chose, without the requirement to report publicly on how the money was spent. That bill, or a health bill that did the same thing, would not be acceptable.

Without the amendments, the most generous way of describing the bill is that it was created by a government so eager to begin that it wanted to bypass any scrutiny lest it get in its way. Make no mistake; the Greens want this scheme to start quickly. The amendments will not change the start date by even one day, despite what the Treasurer's misleading press release said when the bill was passed in the upper house. However, we want the scheme to work, and we hope the government does as well.

Our concerns are well founded, given the Abbott federal government's restart scheme, which provides $10 000 as an incentive to employ older unemployed workers, reached a feeble 5 per cent of its target uptake in the first year. Other schemes have gone a similar way. The former Gillard federal government's jobs bonus scheme offered $1000 and made only 230 payments over two years. The commonwealth government's Tasmanian jobs program also has not been very successful. It is similar to this scheme, since it targets unemployed people of any age who have been on job seeker income support for six months. There were only 114 payments in the first year. One thing those three schemes have in common is that they were not available to employers wishing to hire asylum seekers. We must not make that mistake in Victoria.

We have been told by the Treasurer that this scheme has ironed out some of the issues that made these other schemes unsuccessful, but we have not yet been given the detail. I hope these issues have been ironed out, because we do not want the Victorian scheme to face a similar fate to those schemes, and nor should the government if it is serious about tackling the unemployment rate in Victoria. That is precisely why we need to monitor the Back to Work scheme to make sure it is actually getting people back to work. The Greens amendments are simple and sensible. They require regular reporting, every three months, on the uptake of the scheme.

We have no problem with the government changing it from reporting by municipal area to reporting by postcode. It is not an onerous task; in fact it is the bare minimum we should require when $100 million of public money is being spent. The State Revenue Office already conducts similar reporting on schemes such as the first home owner grant scheme, information on which is publicly available. The amendments also require disclosure of the name of any employer who accesses the scheme more than 100 times, ensuring that rorting does not go undetected, which is very important to the Greens.

We very much appreciate the government's cooperation on this amendment and its willingness to make these reporting elements workable through its additional amendments, and I thank the Treasurer for that. This also goes to show that collaboration between parties and working together for the common good can create better outcomes for Victoria both economically, in terms of good use of public money, and socially, in terms of making sure that schemes like these actually do what they are supposed to do, which is reduce the unemployment rate. I note that the Premier, on a trip to Wangaratta last year, said he would never ever do a deal with the Greens, but I am very glad he is looking past that divisive, obstructive approach and has seen the sense in working with the Greens on genuine, sensible amendments that actually improve legislation.

Rather than focusing on getting a few lines in a media release that mislead the public about the Greens' voting record on this issue, perhaps the Premier and the Treasurer would be better served by telling the public the truth, which is that the Greens support this bill, the start date will not be delayed and we have presented a modest, sensible amendment that will allow us to make sure that this employment deal does what it is supposed to do, which is reduce unemployment and avoid rorting. I would say those are pretty modest, sensible requests, and I hope the government agrees.

By electing the Greens to this Parliament, and to this house for the first time, and giving us the shared balance of power in the upper house, the voters have told us that they want more transparency and more integrity in government. They want the Greens here to make the Labor government's legislation better, and that is exactly what we are doing. They do not want secret contracts signed or blank cheques handed out with no way of knowing how taxpayer money is being spent. The Greens took two key promises to the election: integrity and transparency. With these amendments we are delivering on those promises.

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