Release type: Speech

Date:

Speech by Brendan O'Connor

ACOSS National Conference Sebel Albert Park

  • I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri People, and pay my respects to their elders and their laws.
  • It is my pleasure to be here today with you to continue the discussion about how we can work together to reduce poverty and inequality in Australia.
  • And I would like to thank ACOSS for organising this timely conference.
  • I also want to acknowledge and thank you. Not only for the work you do each day to help people and improve their quality of life, but your willingness to contribute to this dialogue.
  • Many of you will have heard the Deputy Prime Minister articulate today the Government’s perspective on social inclusion.
  • A critical part of that social inclusion agenda is ensuring that all Australians have the opportunity to secure a job.
  • We know that work isfundamental to economic and social prosperity. It helps to define us as individuals - and is often the first question asked of someone after being introduced.
  • Work, along with family and community, gives meaning to life. It creates opportunities for financial independence and personal fulfilment and benefits local communities, regions and the broader economy. Communities are more prosperous and cohesive when those whocan workare working.
  • And while our nation has enjoyed strong economic growth this growth hasn’t been uniform. In fact over the life of the Howard Government, the proportion of long-term income support recipients doubled.
  • And while the overall number of jobless families has fallen over the years, in June 2007, jobless families still accounted for 13.5 per cent of families with dependent children under-14. This equates to 303,000 jobless families and over 500,000 children.
  • The long term implications of such a statistic will impact upon numerous social and economic indicators for the rest of these children’s lives, and their children’s lives.
  • I think we are right to ask how this could have happened, with strong economic growth, low levels of unemployment and wide-spread skills shortages.
  • What we do know is the previous Government neglected those who face the greatest barriers to gaining employment over their year term. They did little to adjust employment programs to suit today’s workforce landscape.
  • Assisting these marginalised job seekers is a key priority of our social inclusion agenda. But increasing employment participation is also critical to Australia’s future prosperity. Australia simply cannot afford to leave anyone behind.
  • The Government believes that without a meaningful support network that genuinely helps people find jobs, too many Australians will be excluded from these opportunities.
  • More than 700,000 people are on Disability Support Pension. We need to make sure that those whocan workare working, and that those who can’t are adequately supported.
  • That’s why we are working on a National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy.
  • This strategy will put forward clear and practical steps needed to overcome the barriers that people face in gaining and keeping employment.
  • We want to encourage innovative and creative ways to help people gain and retain work.
  • That’s why the strategy will be developed in close consultation with people with disability and mental illness, employers and experts.
  • The Government will be releasing a discussion paper next week, which will outline the scope of the strategy.
  • In addition to face-to-face consultations, there will be an opportunity for people to make written submissions until the end of June.
  • The consultative process illustrates how, at its heart, social inclusion is as much about how we do things, as it is about what we do.
  • And this Government believes that we need to work closely with the community and community leaders to achieve our goals.
  • I have also used this approach in reshaping our employment services.
  • First, there are the users of the employment system.
  • Job seekers have not been backward in expressing their views of the current system, telling us in no uncertain terms what works and what doesn’t.
  • They have explained the difference a good case manager makes in helping them achieve their employment goals.
  • And, perhaps more frequently, I am told of the system’s frustrating inflexibility.
  • But I believe that employers have also been a neglected player in our employment services system.
  • If we want the most disadvantaged of Australians to find jobs, we need to make sure that employers are getting what they need from our jobseekers.
  • And finally, but no less importantly, as experts who represent people on the margins of our society, many of you have already provided critical insights as to the problems in our employment services. I want to assure you that I have heard what you are saying.
  • While I could never expect a single voice from such a diverse range of interests - there are some key themes emerging from the more than 260 plus submissions I have received.
  • I don’t think many will surprise anyone here:
  • The red tape hamstringing innovation and client services
  • That the ‘work first’ approach is too narrow and prevents people accessing training and developing new skills
  • And the ineffective and counter productive compliance regime.
  • The Government is carefully considering how we can achieve a better balance in managing our employment contracts to ensure that providers do not, as they have indicated to me, spend potential client time on paperwork.
  • We are taking the first steps to address the training and skills deficit in employment services, with the provision of 175,000 training places to the most marginalised jobseekers, with 20,000 of those places to be taken up before June.
  • We have also been told that the former Liberal Government’s compliance system is counterproductive.
  • I have been told that once suspended from receiving income, people are not sighted again by their employment services provider, at least
  • for the duration of the penalty. How can that be a productive way to re-engage people?
  • There have been 31,789 eight-week non-payment periods imposed from July 2007 to March 2008 – more than double than for the whole of the last financial year.
  • This is a significant increase and cause for concern.
  • A Melbourne Citymission survey of186 vulnerable job seekers found that over half had at some stage been breached or had their payments suspended by Centrelink.
  • Of those living in insecure housing,72 per cent had experienced a suspension or breach and as a result,almost half were unable to pay for necessities such as food, anda quarter were unable to pay for accommodation.
  • The survey also found that13 per cent reported resorting to illegal activities such as petty theft and fare evasion.
  • An earlier report on the impact of breaching on income support customers by the Social Policy Research Centre also found that30 per cent of people lost their accommodation as a result of receiving an eight week penalty.
  • Quite apart from the impact on each of the individuals concerned, there are obvious flow-on effects to the State and the community sector.
  • Providers have told us they would like greater capacity to use their judgement in how to engage job seekers rather than automatic compliance action.
  • I am working closely with my colleague the Minister for Human Services, Senator Joe Ludwig, on ways which we can ensure that the system is administered compassionately and fairly.
  • We are exploring how we can reinforce the discretion that providers and Centrelink have when considering participation failures, in particular their ability to take into account a client’s individual circumstances.
  • I must point out, however, that the current compliance regime is enshrined in legislation and any significant changes will take time to address.
  • While I cannot pre-empt the final outcomes of the employment services review, I can say that we want to maintain a strong, effective compliance regime with consequences fornon-genuine job seekers, we also want a system that encourages participation and employment.
  • In the spirit of making a more effective and fairer system, I have asked for a report into my Department’s social security appeals arrangements to ensure that our approach is reasonable, and avoids costly and unnecessary litigation.
  • This report – undertaken by a committee of departmental and welfare advocates – has been recently completed and I will be releasing that shortly
  • The lesson we have learned in reviewing many of themistakes of the previous Government is that it is critical that even after the initial
  • glow of new government passes (and of course, I hope it never passes), that we continually evaluate and refine what we do.

    Conclusion

     

  • There is much work ahead of us to ensure we create a system that helps jobseekers overcome the barriers they face in not only finding jobs but also retaining employment.
  • We want to continue to hear your views and thoughts on how employment services can be improved.
  • I can assure you that the Rudd Government regards the community’s views and suggestions ascentral to developing a better employment system for all Australians.
  • And I genuinely look forward to hearing both about the goals, benchmarks and targets you think we need; and the strategies you think we need to achieve them.