Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014

I rise today to support the amendment moved by the member for Port Adelaide to the second reading debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014. Labor has always believed in the need for people in our society to work and in the dignity it brings to the individual and to the community. We also know that the vast majority of people in our society want to work. They want to earn money. They want to make a contribution. Having meaningful work is integral to one's sense of self.

This is why Labor are focused on creating the conditions for low unemployment and for fair work conditions and why we fight to keep workers in their jobs. This is why we have moved this amendment. This discussion needs to address how participants in this program will be protected if they are injured, sick or mistreated. We need to address what training will be given to the participants. What will be provided to help them transition to full-time work? What are the risks for the displacement of existing workers? These are all questions that need to be asked and answered.

Labor agrees that we need to do everything we can to get people into work, but we need more than a thought bubble here. The implications of this legislation need to be carefully and rigorously thought through. Given that this is a Green Army, the government's environmental record seems to be a good place to start—and I mean on the big environmental issues. This government already has an unenviable reputation as a retrograde administration when it comes to the environment. It is the only government in the world that has asked the World Heritage Committee to delist a currently listed wilderness area. It has a radical anti-environment agenda—from disallowing the endangered community listing of the Murray from the Darling to the sea, to the marine park stretching from Cape York to Fraser Island, to the reserve in the great Alpine National Park. In six months this government has conducted a relentless, destructive campaign when it comes to the environment. I have not yet mentioned its flat-earth-society approach to climate change or the oxymoron that is this government having a Minister for Environment.

The Australian government, regardless of which party is in power, has a sacred duty to protect and maintain our Great Southern Land's unique and magnificent natural assets. Those opposite must realise that they are stewards. They have been entrusted by the people of Australia, and by our children and children's children, to take care of this fragile place. At the moment, those opposite are failing in this duty. In fact, they actively and shamefully neglect it.

It is worth looking, too, at their record in protecting and supporting the vulnerable, given this bill will impact on our vulnerable young people. In the six months since they took office, they have abolished the Council on Homelessness, followed soon after by axing the National Housing Supply Council. More recently, they have refused to commit to the National Affordable Housing Agreement and to the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness.

Their record on workers is also instructive. They have abandoned manufacturing workers at Toyota, Alcoa and Holden, giving no guarantees of assistance despite the time elapsed since these heartless decisions were made.

There is a theme that has developed in the short time this government has been in power. The Prime Minister has told us that there are goodies and baddies. In this case, market is good, regulation is bad. It is here again in this bill—a failure to do the hard work that will ensure positive outcomes for the young people involved with an eye only on the prize of less regulation, as though less regulation is an end in itself—a value. This government know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

However, the government are good at a few things. They are good at spin. They are great sloganeers. They excel at reducing debate to nonsensical repetitive sentences. Their three word slogans are becoming legendary— 'cutting red tape'. We all know this is a euphemism for removing protections. Just this week I heard an argument form the member for Farrer that childcare workers should not monitor and record children's progress as part of their duties—that somehow this was an example of evil red tape and a waste of time. Again, the cost is highlighted rather than the value—the value of early detection of learning, health or social issues that would lead to better outcomes for the child, the family and the community.

We see it here again with the Green Army legislation. The purpose of the bill is unclear. Is it about getting young people into work? Is it about developing work-ready skills? Is it about long-term outcomes through training and experience? Or is it about the market and this government wrapping itself in green and pretending it cares about the environment and the vulnerable? This bill provides exemptions from the Fair Work Act 2009, Work Health and Safety Act 2011, and the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988. This is alarming. These acts cover occupational health and safety, workers compensation and rehabilitation.

Labor is concerned that this bill does not provide adequate protections for participants in the Green Army scheme. Participants will not be treated as employees, and so they will be denied the rights and protections normally afforded to employees. These pretty basic rights are quite important for the smooth running of our society. They are there to ensure that unwarranted risks are not taken on the job site, to ensure workers are trained appropriately to minimise injury and to ensure that, where this fails, workers are rehabilitated and compensated for their injuries. They are hallmarks of a civilised society. They are what a First World country expects. They are about risk and harm minimisation. It seems they are the one cost that this government does not understand—the cost of a young person who works too hard to impress the boss and damages his or her back, who is then judged to have a permanent injury that will prevent them from ever joining our armed forces. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

As I said earlier, cutting red tape is a euphemism for removing worker protections. It is not credible that any government would introduce a scheme that did not provide these basic protections. This legislation raises more questions than answers. Why do participants not have employee status even though they are being removed from social security and paid an equivalent training wage? The government is attempting to take an employment program, rebadge it as an environmental program and abdicate from their responsibility as an employer—all at the same time.

It kind of sums up the Abbott Government—mad policy alchemists trying to conjure solutions to difficult problems out of thin air, while doing none of the hard work required. It is irresponsible, it is dangerous and it is not on. This government does not have an environmental policy. This is why it is forced to take from employment policy and dress it up as environment policy. But let us be clear: it is an employment program and, as such, participants should be treated as employees. It is a good thing that the Green Army participants will be paid the equivalent of the training wage. It is not a lot of money, but it is more than Newstart pays. These payments will also be similar to the training wages received by thousands of other young Australians who are in vocational training or education. What is troubling though is that, while they are being paid by the Commonwealth, they will not be treated as Commonwealth employees. This leaves them in an undefined place—a place without standard worker protections and entitlements, yet with the same risks as workers in the workplace.

A further concern for Labor is the concept of additionality or the potential to displace existing workers. There is no point training people for roles that are already filled. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is no way to govern. This is another example of the government trying to conjure solutions out of thin air without doing the hard work required. The thing about governing is that it is hard work. I am not certain those opposite have fully comprehended this fact. It is not all swanning around parliament and cutting ribbons. It is certainly not about taking the reins of government and then slinking back to the office or the restaurant and leaving the market to do the work. It is about working with and for the community. It is about working with business, workers and people to build the economy together.

Sometimes in question time, when I hear the cries 'Get out of the way!', I wonder what would happen if we did just get out of the way and let this government put the markets in charge of our lives. What would happen to the young people who set off to the job site without protection under the law? When I read this bill I know the answers. While this amendment bill omits much of the detail related to workers' rights, benefits and protections, the associated statement of requirements is equally bereft of detail. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, causes great hardship to workers, their families and their communities. Entrenched unemployment is a cancer on the economic strength of our nation.

Those on this side of the House believe that some people need help getting work and that there is a role for government in this process. People need the right training, work experience, incentives and, most importantly, the appropriate level of support. A close reading reveals that access to the formally recognised training requirements delivered by RTOs are an optional part of this program. What then will compel those charged with delivering the program to include this training in it? We all know that training costs money. What impetus will drive the delivery of training within the program? And, if the training is to be delivered, of what nature will it be? What vocations and skills will be provided within the program? Have they been identified by the Australian Workplace and Productivity Authority as areas of emerging and future skill needs? There are many questions to answer because there is so little detail. If we look at the decisions and choices this government has made, we get an insight and again we get bad news—this time for our youth. This government has cut trade training centre funding and will cut the Youth Connections program funding—two initiatives that assist our young people in becoming contributors to our society through education and work preparation.

Environment-based training and employment programs are an effective way of getting people to work whilst at the same time training them up in skills that our country needs to remain economically strong. This country cannot afford to look for shortcuts. We need to invest in training now, but that is not in this government's plan. Their plan is to cut and cut and cut again. You cannot cut your way to prosperity. The Green Army scheme, if delivered as intended, not only will help train young people and the unemployed in skills our nation requires but will also go ways to conserving our natural environment at a local level. However, if we leave out the training, those in the Green Army will become little more than gangers with no pathway to a better future and few skills to help our economy.

Youth unemployment must be addressed. It must be addressed for the sake of the youth in question—a citizen, an Australian, someone's son or daughter. It must be addressed for the sake of the workforce. There is a skills shortage. Training our youth is an obvious solution. It must be addressed for the sake of our economy. The unemployed not only cost the economy in terms of benefits but also deny the government revenue in the form of taxes and productivity when they are not taking part in the workforce. This government needs to show a commitment to fair wages, meaningful work, training and the opportunity for people to progress in the workforce. It is now time they look the problem of youth unemployment in the eye, roll up their sleeves and start doing the hard yards required to solve this complex problem.


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