Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (3.03 pm)-I move:
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Employment Participation (Senator Arbib) to questions without notice asked by Senators Fifield and Payne today relating to employment services.
I should point out-as Senator Arbib leaves the chamber-that in response to my question, Senator Arbib said that the last time I asked a question about employment services in this chamber was when, in government, I asked one of Senator Abetz. I am very disappointed I have made so little impact on Senator Arbib. I in fact asked Senator Arbib questions on Tuesday, on Wednesday and on Thursday last week. I thought I meant much more to Senator Arbib, but clearly not!
The killer line from those opposite in defence of their Job Services Australia tender is that the coalition introduced competitive tendering for employment services. Senator Collins usually interjects in these debates that the coalition introduced competitive tendering in government and that Labor’s tendering bungle is therefore somehow our fault. I have to say that is typical Collins logic. The coalition did indeed introduce a paradigm shift in the provision of job placement services. The old CES, the Commonwealth Employment Service, was progressively replaced by the Job Network. A system of support and placement for the unemployed was introduced which, combined with the strong economy under the coalition, saw unemployment at record lows. When the coalition was in office, we relet a number of contracts. There are always winners and losers, as those opposite have pointed out, as there are in any competitive tender. But the outcry from providers in this government’s tender is unlike anything that has ever been heard in the sector before.
The opposition’s concerns in relation to the Job Services Australia tender, as I have said previously, initially related to its design. Our prime concern was that 100 per cent of provider services were put to tender at the same time and also that the weighting for past performance was only 30 per cent. As a result, many providers with a great track record lost contracts. I cited one today in my question to Senator Arbib: Wesley Uniting Employment, which provided employment services for 11 years under the Job Network. They have to close 60 of their 68 sites, which will see 350 staff lose their jobs. The other part of this is that there are some job services providers, like Wesley Uniting Employment, which went the extra mile. Wesley will be forced, as a result of the tender process, to withdraw $300 million from services they provide to the community-extra things which I mentioned in my question such as a campsite for disadvantaged children, rehabilitation work in jails and a regional Homes for Hope program in Port Macquarie. Minister Arbib did not address Wesley Uniting Employment in any way, shape or form in his answer, so I can only assume he is completely unaware of that situation.
The 47 per cent of job seekers will have to find new providers and new case managers as a result of this tender arrangement. Senator Payne asked some very thoughtful questions today on indigenous transitions. Senator Arbib did seem to confuse Indigenous employment programs with Job Services Australia transition. I am sure Senator Payne will touch on that, but these are two separate things. Confusion aside, the minister, again, has assured the Senate that all is well and that job seekers will be fine-we will wait and see. He has also assured us that failed tenderers will be okay, but we already know that the Agency Adjustment Fund has been well and truly oversubscribed.
We learned last week, as a result of questions from Dr Southcott, that there are now questions that need to be answered by the government in relation to the probity and integrity of this tender process. We learned that phone calls were placed between a tenderer and the former minister’s office during the tender process. The former minister’s defence was that those discussions on the phone were purely logistical in nature. But the communications protocols for this tender do not provide a get-out-of-jail card for logistical communications.
They say-and it is clear-that:
… persons who have been identified as being in positions of potential influence over the operation of the tender process will not enter into discussions or otherwise engage in any activity with tenderers …
That happened. This needs to be referred to the Auditor- General for a full inquiry and it should happen immediately. This government has discovered a new found fondness for the Auditor-General, and this should be one task that he is given today.