BILLS, Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014 Second Reading

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (13:10): I take the opportunity to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014 and acknowledge that its purpose is to amend the Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security Administration Act 1999 for three specific purposes: firstly, that recipients of Green Army allowance are not also able to receive a social security benefit or pension, with the exception of family assistance and childcare payments where participants are eligible; secondly, that income-testing arrangements that will apply to the social security pension for the partners of Green Army participants; and thirdly, that participants in the Green Army program who are not Green Army team supervisors are not to be treated as workers or employees for the purposes of certain Commonwealth laws.

I acknowledge that the shadow minister, the member for Port Adelaide, has moved an amendment to the bill. It does not decline to give the bill a second reading, but it seeks that the House note a number of matters. I indicate that I support the amendment put by the shadow minister. The amendment requires that the House note, firstly, that the program will be deeply flawed in its design and implementation, given the poor environmental record of the current government; secondly, that the bill provides insufficient protections for participants in the areas of occupational health and safety, workers compensation and rehabilitation; thirdly, that the government should clarify why participants do not have employee status, even though they are to be removed from the social security system and paid an equivalent training wage; fourthly, that the government must provide assurance that the Green Army Program will not displace or reduce employment opportunities for existing workers; fifthly, that there is a lack of detail of the training provisions in the program, namely specified minimum hours, provision of accredited and recognised training and opportunities for ongoing training and career pathways; and, finally, that it is important to support young people to make the transition to meaningful work and further training opportunities.

I would like to take the opportunity today to outline why the amendment is worth supporting, as it raises a series of very important issues about the program that need to be debated. Whilst this bill deals only with the social security elements of the Green Army Program, it is clear that this is as much an employment program as it is claimed to be an environmental one. I will not go specifically to the issues about the total inadequacy of this initiative, as it sits forlornly in an environmental framework that has torn apart action on and protection of our natural environment by this government. The shadow minister for the environment addressed this extensively in his speech during the second reading debate. I would in particular draw the House's attention to the article referenced by the shadow minister in that speech that was published in TheIndependent in the United Kingdom and entitled 'Is Tony Abbott's Australian administration the most hostile to his nation's environment in history?' It is a harsh assessment but, I would suggest, one that is pretty accurate.

In considering the merits of this particular program, I would acknowledge that the concept of combining action on environmental challenges with commitment to training and lifting the skills of the population is neither new nor a concept that this side of the House is opposed to in and of itself. In fact, we believe that environment based work and training programs can be an effective opportunity for job seekers who have an interest in, and a capacity for, this type of work—an opportunity to gain some real skills, knowledge and experience in a sector that should see growing job opportunities in the future.

I refer members to the May 2011 report of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, AWPA, on emerging and future skills needs in the green and energy efficiency sector. In its report, the agency identified a call for jobs and skills in a range of sectors and courses. It is of course likely that many of the emerging industries and jobs that were discussed in the report have been very negatively impacted by the decisions of the Abbott government to walk away from responsible environmental action in this country.

I take this opportunity to put on the record my personal appreciation of the excellent work that has been done by AWPA and to express my great regret at the decision by this government to disband this agency. AWPA was established in 2012 by the former Labor government, replacing Skills Australia, to provide expert, independent advice to government on current, emerging and future skills and workforce development needs. It brings together—it has not quite been disbanded yet but soon will be—the peak national bodies, such as ACCI, the Australian Industry Group and the ACTU, to achieve industry leadership on these matters. Disbanding the key national policy and research body on skills while we have jobs being lost across the country is nonsensical.

Clearly there is a real opportunity to provide, and a sound basis for providing, work based and training opportunities in this industry sector. However, the bill before us does not lay out the detail that is required for a full analysis and discussion of its efficacy. The questions raised in the shadow minister's amendment must be addressed. I acknowledge that some of these issues have been the subject of an inquiry in the other place and that, since this bill was introduced, further information on how the Green Army will operate has been released, although this information has only slowly emerged piece by piece—and only as it has been requested.

From the perspective of my own shadow portfolio, it is the nature and the quality of the training that is intended to be provided that is of significant interest and importance. Many members of this place will be well aware, sadly, that pushing people through round after round of training that is not relevant, targeted or of quality actually has a negative impact on the job seekers who are involved. There is nothing more disheartening, or discouraging of a positive view of lifelong learning, than to have continual negative experiences of training. Access to formally recognised training delivered by a registered training organisation under the Australian Qualifications Framework is noted in the statement of requirements as an optional component of the program to be negotiated with each participant. This gives me no confidence that participants will actually get relevant, quality training.

We now know that participants will, at the bare minimum, be provided with first aid and work safety training. If it is deemed appropriate, they will be given cultural awareness training as well. However, no more than this basic training is guaranteed. There is no explicit obligation for any further training to be provided to job seekers. At Senate estimates, I asked the Department of Industry, within which my shadow portfolio sits, about further training to be provided. Their response was that they were working with the Department of the Environment and they also said:

… we understand the Green Army program Service Provider(s) will negotiate an individual training plan with each participant they recruit as part of the Participant Agreement, which will consider the individuals' skills needs and the skills required to fulfil the project. The Service Provider(s) will then identify which RTOs in the local region are available to provide this training.

This response leaves more questions than it answers, as this sort of individual skills assessment, individualised learning program and course enrolment by one-off students is one of the most expensive training models—if it is done properly. I seriously doubt that the government has actually provided for such an extensive training opportunity.

It should also be noted that a significant number of the job seekers likely to participate will no doubt require literacy and numeracy support, as well as work readiness training, before they have the capacity to do specific skills training. None of these issues are clearly addressed in the Green Army information made available to date. I strongly argue that it is cruel to hold it out as a real pathway to employment for people if it does not provide them with industry recognised and valued qualifications at the end of the program.

As the shadow minister for the environment also outlined, we on this side of the House have some serious concerns about the workplace protections to be put in place for participants. We remain concerned that this bill does not provide adequate protection for these participants, most specifically in the areas of occupational health and safety, workers compensation and rehabilitation. We have been assured that participants will be covered by relevant state legislation and by insurance held by service providers and the Commonwealth, and that work safety will also be subject to auditing by the department. We accept that these measures may protect participants to a certain level, but the price of safety will indeed be constant vigilance. As with everything, Australians are right to be suspicious and uncertain of the commitment and motives of the government. The government has made it clear that health and safety is not a top priority.

I indicate to the House that these are legitimate and serious questions that have been raised by the shadow minister in his amendment to the bill. He has indicated that it is our intention to support the second reading, so I hope it is taken that, in this process, the effort is to ensure that those people who participate in the program have an experience that has value and meaning for them and that it actually then puts them on a pathway to employment. This is so that when people come out of the program they would have, as many members on the other side have indicated, not only some good environmental outcomes for particular places in their electorates but also work experience of value to employers and qualifications and training that are recognised by employers. Therefore, they will have honestly been provided with an increased opportunity to gain employment out of it. There is nothing worse than putting people through round after round of these sorts of programs only to have them feel that, at the end of the day, they have gained nothing that has value in their local community's workplaces and that has simply left them back where they started.

I commend the amendments to the House. I look forward to, piece by piece, slowly getting more answers to the significant issues and questions that the shadow minister has raised.