2009

SOCIAL SECURITY AMENDMENT (NATIONAL GREEN JOBS CORPS SUPPLEMENT) BILL 2009

November 18, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10.01 am)
— In joining the debate on Social Security Amendment (National Green Jobs Corps Supplement) Bill 2009, I would like to state my overall support for the program that has been announced by the government. I suppose there is no surprise in that regard considering the opposition implemented a very similar—almost identical—system when it was in government as a work experience and training system. Apart from that, there are a few key points I would like to make as part of my contribution to this debate. Firstly, I want to state quite clearly that this is not a green jobs program, as the government has attempted to spin it in the wider community; it is a work experience and a training initiative. Secondly, I make the point that more needs to be done to address the rising tide of youth unemployment in my electorate and throughout regional Australia. Finally, I make the point that this government has to stop the rhetoric about green jobs and start investing in the people who are doing the practical environmental work in our region right now—those being the Landcare facilitators and coordinators who face an uncertain future under this government’s quite euphemistically named Caring for our Country policy.

I will begin with the details of the bill before the House. The bill amends the Social Security Act 1991 to allow a training supplement of $41.60 per fortnight to be paid to participants in the program who receive Newstart allowance, youth allowance or parenting payments. From January next year the program will allow for up to 10,000 young people to develop skills in environmental projects through 26 weeks of accredited training and work experience. These words have been taken from the Parliamentary Secretary for Employment’s second reading speech, so there is no question that it is a work experience and training program.

It is simply not a jobs initiative as the government has tried to portray it in the community. Having said that, I am a strong supporter of work experience within my community, particularly for the longer term unemployed. It is important to give young people the opportunity to develop their skills. Just as important though is to create a work ethic for those people who have not necessarily had that opportunity. The discipline of getting up and going to work on a daily basis, the pride that it gives them for contributing something important to our community through initiatives like a green corps program is something that the government is quite right in pursuing. As I said, it was an initiative of the previous government which, from my experience, was very successful in the broader Gippsland community. It does give purpose to young people’s lives while they are looking for more permanent work and, as I said earlier, it also makes them feel part of the community, that they are making a contribution, and that is one of the most important aspects of these programs. But in terms of actual employment outcomes, I fear that the Green Jobs Corps, as it is portrayed, is more spin than real job outcomes at the end of it. It remains to be seen whether we will ever see this turn into real jobs. As I will indicate later, given the government’s cuts to Landcare funding, I have doubts about the government’s commitment to practical environmental work in a paid capacity.

The sort of work experience that young people receive is going to be critical to the success of the program. It depends entirely on the quality of the projects that are put forward by the community, and also the approach taken by the department and the minister in what they approve. I hope there is going to be a rigorous commitment to real environment initiatives and not some mickey mouse projects that do not actually achieve environmental outcomes.

I am referring to the parliamentary secretary’s second reading speech, where he indicates that the type of work experience and training projects will be along the lines of:

* Bush regeneration
* Erosion control
* Developing community information and education projects
* Beach and dune rehabilitation
* Habitat protection

He goes on to say:

These projects will make environmental improvements now and help develop green skills that will increasingly be needed in the labour market of the future. Participants in the National Green Jobs Corps will undertake work experience and skill development, including 130 hours of accredited training leading to a nationally recognised qualification.

So it is positive to see that young people will emerge from this program with a nationally recognised qualification. That is a definite step forward for the program participants. In addition to doing something positive for their communities, the participants will become more employable at its conclusion if the program meets the guidelines as pointed out by the parliamentary secretary.

As I said at the outset, the rising tide of youth unemployment is a major concern in Gippsland and throughout regional Australia. The shadow minister, the member for Boothby, highlighted this concern during his contribution to the debate on the bill before us and he correctly pointed out:

Youth unemployment is not receiving anywhere near the amount of attention it deserves.… … …

The rate of unemployment for teenagers who are not in fulltime education has risen to 18½ per cent in 2009, up from 12.2 per cent in 2008.

I fear that the rate in Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley is much higher. Also we have a concern in my community that the youth unemployment rate is hidden to a large extent because so many of our young people who cannot find work in our communities are forced to move away to seek opportunities in larger cities. So the youth unemployment rate in regional areas is hidden to a large extent.

The shadow minister made some very good points in his address when he pointed out that around 295,000 young Australians who are not in full-time education are not in the labour force or are unemployed. I will just quote from his speech:

What we do know is that those people who do not make a good transition from school, who spend periods outside the labour force, not in full-time education and unemployed, will have a very intermittent work history throughout life. So youth unemployment is an area that needs a lot more attention from the Rudd government. All of those young Australians who voted for Kevin07 two years ago would never have dreamed how much their opportunities would dry up under this government. We see that the Rudd Labor government has no strategy to create actual jobs for young Australians.

That is a real concern in my community. While I welcome the Green Jobs Corps initiative as a positive step, the government does need to go a lot further in terms of its strategy for youth unemployment. This is very much a green work experience program and it is not a jobs program, as I indicated previously. That is not to say that it does not have the potential to do a great deal of good work in the community. I urge the government to stop trying to spin everything that it puts out there and actually just let the results speak for themselves. If the program works, the community will embrace it and it will look for an extension of it in the years ahead.

I spoke quite recently in the House about my concerns relating to youth unemployment in Gippsland in the broader sense and the lack of support services which exist for young people. I am seeking clarification from the minister in relation to allegations of cuts to Centrelink funding for specialised youth workers who assist the long-term unemployed in regional areas like Gippsland. Youth unemployment is very much a specialist area, as I am sure you are aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, in your own community. You need to build trust with young people. There is a lot of one-to one support to help them through whatever issues they may have in their lives beyond just the need to secure work. They can be quite high-maintenance clients for the Centrelink staff in terms of getting them to turn up to programs or getting them to apply for jobs and getting them back engaged in the community. A lot of them have dropped out of school for a whole variety of reasons. There are often some underlying social issues involved.

I urge the government to ensure that funding is provided to support this specialised assistance, which is required for young unemployed people, particularly in regional areas. If we lose these young people at a young age, we actually lose them for life. We have a real problem in parts of my electorate where we have generations of welfare dependency—where the young people have not had the opportunity to see a positive role model getting up and going to work every day. It becomes very difficult to break that cycle. There is potential with a program like the Green Jobs Corps to start breaking that cycle and getting young people engaged and developing those work ethics I referred to earlier.

I do have some concerns about the quite restrictive nature of the eligibility criteria of the Green Jobs Corps program and the fact that there will not necessarily be jobs available at the end of this work experience unless the government changes in its policy direction in relation to practical environmental work, which I will refer to again later on. The criteria of 18- to 24-year-olds— and I think there are 10,000 places in the initial announcement— I do not believe will go far enough in the longer term. I would encourage the government to consider that. With the likelihood of the community embracing this initiative, there is going to be a need to extend it and probably extend the eligibility criteria as well.

One area I am particularly concerned about is the possibility of the government considering special exemptions to broaden the criteria for newly arrived immigrants. We have a situation in Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley at the moment where we have had quite a strong influx in recent times of Sudanese refugees. It is a situation where a lot of them have been processed, have moved to Australia, have had their first move to a suburban area and have not enjoyed the experience, have heard that there is housing available, particularly in the Latrobe Valley, and have made that move only to find there is not much work available for them there.

The availability of affordable housing has been the carrot, if you like, but when they have arrived they have found that there is not a great deal of employment opportunity. I fear that we have a situation brewing in Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley which may be a significant social and economic concern to our wider community. These people are ready, willing and able to work, but we need to help them take that first step and get some practical experience of working in the Australian environment.

I think one real opportunity for them may be a program along the lines of a Green Jobs Corps initiative, where there is some supported training, to allow them first of all to get out into the community and meet people, which is always difficult when you have just relocated to a whole new community. There are real opportunities here to build some positive spirit within the community directed towards the refugee population in the sense that, if they are seen to be out in the community doing some positive and practical environmental work in this case, it will be well received by the broader Gippsland and Latrobe Valley communities, keeping in mind that there are large sections of my community recovering from the bushfires of early this year. The bushfire rehabilitation task is enormous and, to the government’s credit, there has been some additional funding allocated for some projects in that regard.

But there needs to be recognition that the Sudanese community in this case is going to need some specialised assistance to integrate into the Latrobe Valley community. This is one area where the government could look at the eligibility criteria of the Green Jobs Corps, look at the age criteria as well and perhaps look at whether there is an opportunity to expand the criteria and to provide that level of intensive assistance which I think the Sudanese community in particular are going to need in the months and years ahead as they become established and go on to become highly valued and much respected members of our broader community.

As we all appreciate, the key to settling into regional communities is the decency of a job and being able to pay your own bills and afford your own home. That is one area where I think we are letting down these new settlers to our region. We have not been able to provide them with the work that they so desperately want.

We have many opportunities in my region for the Green Jobs Corps. The government has some real opportunities to work closely with the state government, which has made an absolute mess of its funding of public land management, to leverage off any available projects with the state government in partnership to undertake addressing some important environmental issues. This could be done with a commercial focus, too, in some of our state and national parks, where the tourism infrastructure is so poor. There have been many years of neglect of the public land in the Gippsland region.

While I have spoken about the Sudanese community and their capacity to be involved in Gippsland and particularly in the Latrobe Valley area, further east in the East Gippsland area there are real opportunities to focus a green jobs program like this on our Indigenous community, where the unemployment rate is way beyond the state and national average. The classic example closer to home for me in Lakes Entrance is the
Lake Tyers Forest Park on the outskirts of the Lakes Entrance township. The condition of the park facilities there is appalling.

There has been a lack of funding by the state government over many years. There is an opportunity here though for the state government, the Green Jobs Corps and our Indigenous community in the Lake Tyers area to work in partnership, to link together in this program to build some positive spirit within our community and to have long-term unemployed people gainfully engaged in the community and carrying out some work which has some benefits for the broader community.

There is a natural link to the land in our Indigenous community. They have a great affinity with some of the projects they have undertaken in the past in my region, and there is an opportunity to use that natural affinity to the advantage of the community and to the benefit of Indigenous people.

As I said earlier, it is so important that what comes out of this Green Jobs Corps program leads to real work at the completion of the training stage. Apart from the eligibility criteria, I am concerned that the government is really in the process of downgrading in general its support for practical environmental work through its Caring for our Country program. There is a very strong link between these two initiatives when you consider that the Green Jobs Corps is directed towards areas such as bush regeneration, erosion control, developing community information and education projects, and habitat protection. When you read the list of projects that the Green Jobs Corps is going to be focused on it sounds a lot like Landcare. This government is in the process of gutting Landcare by its refusal to provide guaranteed funding for the network of Landcare facilitators and coordinators who support the more than 100,000 volunteers across the nation. The Green Jobs Corps initiative is about 10,000 work experience program participants. These are volunteers who are unemployed and need a helping hand, and I fully support that. But the government is at the same time refusing to talk about its lack of support for the 100,000 volunteers involved in more than 4,000 community groups across the nation through the Landcare movement.

There is a growing awareness in our community that the government talks a lot about its green credentials but when it comes to rolling up the sleeves and getting the job done—digging the holes, planting the trees, fencing off river banks, controlling feral animals, undertaking the erosion protection work, that hard, physical, practical environmental work—the government goes missing in action. I would like to quote from a letter in the Snowy River Mail from 4 November. It is from Dawn Parker, the Far East Victoria Landcare secretary. Dawn makes some very strong points about where she sees the government’s commitment in relation to environmental projects.

She says:

Both the potential for practical environment works and the health and vitality of rural communities are being damaged by the cuts to the number of Landcare facilitators across Victoria.

The role of group facilitators was to be in close contact with local communities to encourage and enable their engagement in natural resource management activities.

She goes on to say:

Recognising the role of volunteers in achieving significant environmental services, successive federal governments invested directly in supplementing volunteer input by funding some paid staff and leveraged even greater attainments.

Every government dollar invested in support personnel returns at least three more dollars from local input and co-contributions.

The Caring for our Country business plan endorsed be Messrs Burke and Garrett is undermining the core functioning capacity of Landcare.

Over 50 per cent of Victorian facilitator positions have been lost and more are to go.

Whether by design or through incompetence the vital network of support staff has been effectively dismantled and many Landcare volunteers will reduce their input as their access to information and resources diminish.

Was this what Tony Burke and Peter Garrett intended?

If these outcomes are accidental, how soon will they be undone?

Her letter goes on to say:

Genuine consultation with local communities is needed without bureaucratic intervention.

Repair is needed now.

I recommend that the ministers responsible get a copy of that edition of the Snowy River Mail to get an understanding of what Dawn is referring to, because she speaks on behalf of many people throughout the regional communities who are terribly concerned about this government’s lack of commitment to Landcare.

Whenever members on this side of the House criticise a government program we are accused of scaremongering or of simply not understanding what is proposed. I can assure you though that Gippsland’s small army of Landcare volunteers and professional workers understand what is happening to them. I will refer to another quote, from the East Gippsland Landcare Network, and I am happy to provide a copy of it to the ministers so they can read it in its entirety.

It says:

Landcare support staff across the country are losing their jobs due to the Australian Government’s ‘Caring for our Country’ grants not funding community facilitation and support.

This is because the Caring for our Country grants which Landcare support staff have traditionally relied on did not allocate any funding to the ‘community skills, knowledge and engagement’ section of their business plan even though it is stated as a ‘Priority of Investment’ in the business plan.

Landcare Networks and groups that were not lucky enough to be included in the CMA ‘regional core’ funding had to submit applications in the national ‘competitive’ section of the fund scheme. Out of approx 1300 applications to the government across Australia only 57 were funded (4.3%) leaving many Landcare groups with no funding for on ground run projects let alone to support groups.

It goes on, but time prevents me from going into the full details of the East Gippsland Landcare Network’s submission, but the link to the Green Jobs Corps bill before us is obvious. There will simply be no jobs in practical environmental work for these young people in the future unless the government changes its policies.

It is a cruel hoax to get these young people involved and interested in practical environmental work through Green Jobs Corps while at the same time cutting funding for professional staff involved in Landcare. Landcare volunteers do a mountain of work in my electorate, but the paid support staff are very much the glue which holds it all together. They provide the project management advice and assistance, they provide technical advice to landholders, they generate newsletters to keep everyone informed, they apply for grants and make sure the money is spent according to the guidelines, and they also promote environmental sustainability.

They are probably the same people whom the government is going to rely on to be the training coordinators for the Green Jobs Corps program in the first place but right now they are in the process of trying to fight for their own jobs, the facilitation and coordination roles they play with Landcare.

The Landcare volunteers and professional staff who have contacted me have expressed their fears that Landcare groups will not be able to function the same way in the future without guaranteed funding for professional facilitators and coordinators. It is a concern that I share, and I will table a petition in the near future on behalf of my community. Last week more than 200 people rallied in Orbost to raise their concerns and they initiated a petition. The petition, which is in the process of being signed throughout the Gippsland electorate at the moment, calls on the House of Representatives to immediately reinstate the funding of local Landcare facilitators and coordinators in order to allow Landcare groups to function effectively and to address the Caring for our Country priority of community skills, knowledge and engagement.

If the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry thinks that he can ignore these concerns I think he is in for one hell of a shock. As I said, there are more than 100,000 volunteers around Australia and more than 4,000 community groups, and the anger is growing throughout the community. The minister knows about these concerns. I wrote to him about the issue months ago and I have raised it before in the media and in the House.

He is defending the government’s decision on the ground that he has the right to set national environmental priorities regardless of community concerns. The minister needs to appreciate that there are people on the ground coming up with local solutions to local problems. They are engaged in the process of practical environmental work and they should have the opportunity to make sure that those projects are undertaken.

So I urge the government to make sure it does not make the same mistake with the Green Jobs Corps—

(Time expired)

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