Senate debates

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Indigenous Employment

3:05 pm

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for COAG) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of answer given by the Minister representing the Minister for Indigenous Employment and Economic Development (Senator Wong) to a question asked by me relating to Indigenous employment.

The answer that we received during question time in relation to Indigenous employment just shows us that the government are continuing to take responsibility for what is just abysmal management of Indigenous employment services in this country. The Remote Jobs and Communities Program will start in 10 days time, on 1 July. At estimates hearings we spent a lot of time talking about which providers were already in place and which providers would be ready to go. That was on 7 June. We find ourselves today, on 20 June, just 10 days before the start-up date, with three providers still, as yet, unannounced. They are the three providers in Queensland: western Cape, central Cape and Cook. Another three in Tiwi, Galiwinku, Yirrkala and the Torres Straits islands have only been announced in the past few days.

If we were dealing with the centre of an Australian capital city CBD and we were talking about announcing providers that needed to be in place in the next 10 days, we might pause and think: 'Are they going to be ready to go in 10 days?' But we are not. We are actually talking about three of the most remote regions in Australia where Job Services providers have yet to be announced in a $1.5 billion program that this government intends to roll out in 10 days time. How can providers who have yet to be announced—we do not even know whether they have been confirmed or not—possibly have adequate infrastructure, adequate staff and adequate offices ready to help job seekers in the most remote areas of Australia within the next 10 days? It is simply beyond the bounds of credulity. In fact, based on the government's current performance, whether you are talking about the IEP or the Remote Jobs and Communities Program, their target of halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment outcomes by 2020 is going to go the same way as their commitment to halve homelessness by 2020: we have actually seen homelessness increase by 17 per cent on their watch. They are never short of targets, they are never short of rhetoric, but they are very, very short on delivery.

This story sounds terrifyingly like that of the Indigenous Employment Program, a very worthy initiative that Labor has effectively mismanaged so badly that it is almost at the point of being dismantled—by a government that claims that it is a leader in this particular area. It is mind-boggling. In fact, it would be funny if it were not so terribly serious. Under the IEP, we had job placement providers who had their funding frozen midway through last year. Some even had to close their doors at the end of last year, and others are still trying to stay afloat, because there was no certainty provided by the government on the IEP under its bureaucratically entitled 'pause on funding'. So the minister, Minister Julie Collins, has been desperately trying to save face. She has announced a new streamlining of the IEP—because, if you keep making announcements about streamlining and you review and you have a 'pause', then hopefully you can confuse everybody so completely that no-one can see that it is a completely dysfunctional operation.

I think, and I am very concerned, that the Remote Jobs and Communities Program is out of control before it even starts. That is a very, very serious problem for the many thousands of unemployed Indigenous Australians in the most remote parts of this country. If you live in Cook, if you live in the central cape or the western cape regions of Far North Queensland, what are you supposed to do in 10 days time? Who are you supposed to turn to? The government have also announced a two-month funding extension this week relating to CDEP providers for the transition to the RJCP. But apparently they did not even manage to consult properly with the providers in that case because a number of them have reportedly closed their doors in anticipation of the winding down of the CDEP. So any extension is too little, too late, and useless to them.

It is just a patch-up job. It might get headlines; it might not—but it does not make any meaningful process on closing the gap on Indigenous employment outcomes. For the sake of Australia's Indigenous job seekers in our most remote areas and in those areas served by the continuing Indigenous Employment Program, the IEP, this farce just has to stop.

3:10 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

This week in the parliament there have been, quite pleasingly, a number of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys and girls doing work experience with various members of parliament as part of the Learn Earn Legend! program.

Senator Payne interjecting

Senator Payne is right; it was an initiative of former senator Mark Arbib. It provides a wonderful opportunity for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to come to Parliament House to gain work experience with members of parliament, to learn how our system of government works and, hopefully, to aspire to one day becoming members of this parliament themselves, and to be, in their words, legends within their communities. That follows on from a number of intensive intervention and employment programs that this government has developed to close the gap in living standards between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians.

There has been mixed success. Objective analysis of the program indicates that there has been mixed success. On some indicators, we are making significant progress, particularly when it comes to halving the gap in the numeracy and literacy rates of primary school students. In other areas, progress has not been as significant, particularly when it comes to issues such as rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. But one area where the government are committed and working seriously hard with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative organisations, within their communities, to ensure that we are making progress on reducing the gap, is Indigenous employment. The Australian government have a strong record of working with Indigenous communities to ensure that we are providing training opportunities through the vocational education and training system and opportunities for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to get a tertiary education at university; and, if they are unemployed, opportunities to gain employment through a number of the Job Services providers that contract with the government.

The government has also introduced significant reforms in employment participation and community development services in remote Australia to help more people get into work and participate in their communities and to better meet the labour needs of employers. From 1 July this year, Job Services Australia, the Disability Employment Service, the Community Development Employment Projects program and the Indigenous Employment Program will transition to the new Remote Jobs and Communities Program, or the RJCP. That will build on the strengths of the existing programs, providing a more streamlined and flexible employment and participation service in remote Australia. The RJCP will operate in 59 remote regions across Australia.

The changes are being made because many people in remote Australia said that, while the existing services provide short-term help, they are not delivering long-term results. So these changes come about as a result of a serious process of consultation with leaders and participants in programs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remote communities. Those who spoke to the government wanted local people to have the training and support that they need to get local jobs, and that is reflected in the design of the RJCP. It reflects the government's view that everyone who can work should have the opportunity to work.

Remote job seekers, including those on CDEP wages, will be given the personalised support that they need to take up opportunities and those who cannot get a job will participate in meaningful activities that will contribute to their communities as well as providing them with work-ready skills. There will be a single service provider with a permanent presence in each of these 59 remote regions. It is part of the government listening to the wants and needs of leaders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, particularly those in remote areas— (Time expired)

3:15 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I enter this debate as a Senator for Queensland, and I ask the Labor Party: what have you got against North Queensland? The three communities that are still to get one of these providers are all in North Queensland—the western Cape, central Cape and Cook communities—and would normally have the Indigenous Employment Program. I can only ask the Labor Party: why is it that you are picking on Cape York? Perhaps it is because, for the first time almost in living history, the people of Cape York and the state electorate of Cook voted to return a Liberal-National Party member to the state parliament. It is almost unheard of. It has happened only once before in the history of the Queensland parliament, and that was when Mr Eric Deeral, an Indigenous person, won the seat for the National Party back in the 1970s, but since then it has been held by Labor continuously. Why? I will quote some Indigenous leaders, who said this to me in a public meeting I attended recently: 'We blackfellas have been promised everything by the Labor Party for decades. We've always gone along with their promises but we have eventually worked out that all the Labor Party does for us is promise. They never deliver.' And here is a classic example of it.

People on Palm Island, just off the coast of Queensland at Townsville, have for years voted solidly for the Labor Party. Why? Because at every state and federal election, whatever they wanted they were promised. And they were taken for granted. The Labor Party used to get about 80 per cent of the vote on Palm Island. Would you believe, Mr Deputy President, that at the last state election the Liberal National Party got 48 per cent of the first preference vote on Palm Island? Just incredible! Look at what happened in the Northern Territory election. I only raise these things to say that eventually Indigenous people are working out that the Labor Party is all talk. And this program is typical of that.

We have 10 days to go before the program starts, and three of the providers have not yet been appointed. As Senator Payne pointed out, how can you start a program in 10 days time when not only have the providers not been appointed but there has been no infrastructure set up? I can only presume that this is payback from the Labor Party. That perhaps may be going a little too far; perhaps it is just the typical Labor Party inefficiency, incompetence and incapability of managing any government program. Good heavens, you do not need me to elaborate on that—have a look at the pink batts program; have a look at the school halls fiasco. Whatever the Labor Party touches it destroys.

Mr Deputy President, do you know what the Labor Party could do to provide real jobs for Indigenous Australians? This is what Indigenous leaders right across the north and I assume right across Australia are telling me every day: they want to be treated as normal people; they do not want welfare; they want the government to stop this paternal way of dealing with Indigenous people; and they want the government to stop succumbing to the Greens demands to stop every element of progress that could provide real jobs in these communities. Through the Greens the Labor Party is trying to lock up half of Cape York in a World Heritage listing. Do the Indigenous people and local people want that? Of course not. Have they been consulted? Of course not.

Mr Deputy President, if you want real jobs for Indigenous people, get rid of the green tape and get rid of the influence of the Greens political party. Who could tell you better than anyone in Australia? Indigenous leaders say to me all the time, 'Get rid of the Greens, because they are the ones that are stopping us from having real jobs.' Up around Weipa, Indigenous people want to do things, but they are prevented by the Labor government relying on Greens preferences to stay in power. That is why there is a real problem with Indigenous employment in Australia. I plead with those who have it in their hearts to do something positive for Indigenous people— (Time expired)

3:20 pm

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I listened carefully to Senator Payne's contribution and in no way do I doubt her very genuine and real concern for these issues around Indigenous employment. These are incredibly difficult issues which governments of both persuasions have struggled with for decades. I have listened to some of my colleagues who have spent their whole lives dedicated to progressing the cause of our Indigenous people with programs. We only had to listen to Senator Crossin the other night as she explained that we cannot impose these things on Indigenous people: we have to talk to them, to consult with them, to enter into partnerships with them and to work with them to get the best results. I will not say that everything this government has done has been perfect in this regard, because it has not been. But, as I say, all governments have struggled very sincerely with these issues. I do not doubt for a second this government's intention to try to get the best possible outcomes. Often implementation is incredibly difficult. The process of consultation and working with different communities is very problematic. I have chaired Senate estimates where I have heard Senator Scullion talk about a whole range of issues in remote areas. We have explored some of the incredible difficulties about consultation in remote areas, getting people on board and getting commitments from the local community to get some of these things to happen.

I do not want anyone to think that there is not a very genuine attempt by this government to make a real difference in Indigenous employment, because that genuine attempt is absolutely there for all to see. As I said, is it perfect? It is not. But it has been a problem for many, many years, and I know Senator Payne comes to this debate with very genuine intentions. Senator Macdonald's contribution was not worth listening to at all. But let me—

Honourable Senator:

An honourable senator interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is being generous, I must say, after listening to that. He just wanted to completely politicise the whole issue and I think it does this issue a significant injustice.

Significant reforms to employment participation and community development will commence on 1 July 2013. These reforms will see flexible and integrated services being delivered to people living in remote areas of Australia, 85 per cent of whom are Indigenous. The reforms have been as a result of extensive community and industry feedback since 2011 and represent $1.5 billion of investment by this government over the next five years. By any measure, that is a significant investment. It goes to the point I was making earlier about the consultation with communities to ensure that we get this right. I agree with some of the comments that have been thrown around in these debates that simply throwing money at the problem, in itself, does not fix the problem. Fixing the problem takes money, but it also takes good plans with communities onside. It is a very significant investment, and we are very keen to get it right.

As has been discussed, announcements have been made in 56 of the 59 remote regions, and the remaining announcements will be made shortly. While there has been a slight delay—and the government acknowledges that—in the announcements, it was critical to the long-term success of the program that the RJCP recommendation review committee was able to have adequate time to best assess the detailed applications. The care taken by the government and the RJCP recommendation review committee in selecting providers underscores the importance this government places on providing people in remote Australia with the opportunities they need to get jobs and to participate fully in their communities. While the government congratulates the successful RJCP organisations, it is also conscious that unsuccessful applicants have made a significant investment into their applications. As part of the announcement process, the government has asked the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations to contact these applicants to advise them of the outcome and offer debriefing processes on their applications.

The government is committed to Indigenous employment. (Time expired)

3:25 pm

Photo of Alan EgglestonAlan Eggleston (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Education and employment are very much what I regard as the key to the door to the modern world for Aborigines. It is the way they are going to fit into modern Australian society, and it is absolutely essential that the government should be there providing opportunities for education and job skills training so that Aborigines can get employment and can fit into modern Australian society. Something like 85 per cent of Aborigines now live in the large cities and towns of Queensland, New South Wales and WA, in big cities like Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and in the larger regional centres of the states. They are just part of mainstream Australia. They access mainstream services like education; they attend schools; they access Medicare; and, increasingly, they are just there as part of our society.

But the group of Aborigines who we really have to be concerned about is not the 85 per cent who live in our large cities and towns of eastern Australia and who are really just part of the Australian community; it is the 15 per cent who live in remote areas like the Kimberley, the eastern Pilbara and way up by the Northern Territory border in communities like Punmu and Kiwirrkurra; in parts of the Northern Territory where it is possible for them not to encounter the rest of the Australian community for almost the whole of their lives; and in parts of Queensland. It is very important that Aborigines living in these areas have access to services which can provide them with job skills training and education.

I was told at a Kimberley economic forum that I went to a couple of years ago that there were something like 6,000 unemployed Indigenous youth, mostly boys, in the East Kimberley alone. That is a very frightening statistic because it means that, while the hotels and tourist trade in the Kimberley at that forum were looking to bring in guest workers from East Timor, there was no suggestion that they could access the pool of 6,000 unemployed young Indigenous people in the East Kimberley, right on their doorstep. That is why Indigenous employment and training programs for remote areas are very, very important.

These people have been able to access CDEP payments for a very long time. But CDEP has been a kind of mickey mouse training scheme. Nobody really expects to get a job because they have had some sort of CDEP training. It is regarded very much as sit-down money. One welcomes the initiative of the government in seeking to set up a remote area training program of the kind that we are talking about. But, like many other programs under the Gillard government, this Remote Jobs and Communities Program has been already somewhat stuffed up.

What has happened is that, in anticipation of this program being put in place, the CDEP were supposed to start the Remote Jobs and Communities Program on 1 July, which is not very far away. The CDEP were told that they would be closed down. They have closed down, but unfortunately no money has come through for the Remote Jobs and Communities Program, and no money is expected for several months. This means that Indigenous people living in remote communities, who have been talked up to believe that there would be a great employment training program beginning for them in the near future, are now faced with the fact that not only is that program not going to start on time but the CDEP, which was providing them with funds to cover their living expenses and so on, has ceased. So there we are. This government has put these Aboriginal people totally in limbo, and I think that is disgusting. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.