Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (3.08 pm)-I move:
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Employment Participation and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Government Service Delivery (Senator Arbib) to questions without notice asked by Senator Fierravanti-Wells and Senator Fifield today, relating to employment services.
The coalition introduced a paradigm shift in the provision of job placement services in 1998. The old CES, the Commonwealth Employment Service, was progressively replaced by the Job Network-a system of support and placement for the unemployed which, combined with a strong and growing economy, saw unemployment at record lows. When the coalition were in office, we, like this government, re-let a number of contacts in this area. There are always winners and losers in any competitive tender-such is the nature of the process-but the outcry from providers of the Job Services Australia tender round is unlike anything seen or heard before in this sector. But Minister Arbib seemed completely unaware of the controversy swirling around the JSA tenders; unaware that a full day of Senate estimates was devoted to questions from Senator Cash alone about the tender; and unaware that, on a motion moved by Senator Siewert and me, a Senate committee is inquiring into the tender.
Mr Deputy President, I am quite fond of Senator Arbib, as you may know, so it pains me to say that I think that, if Minister Arbib had spent some time being briefed about his portfolio rather than parading around work sites in his rainbow selection of safety jackets and hard hats, he may have been aware of some of these matters.
He may have been aware that the weighting in selection criteria for past performance had been reduced to 30 per cent. He may have been aware that well-regarded, highly performing providers had been turfed out. He may have been aware that, as a result of this tender bungle, 47 per cent of job seekers will be reassigned caseworkers and job providers on 1 July. I am at a loss to understand how forcing 47 per cent of job seekers to new caseworkers and new service providers at a time of slowing growth and rising unemployment helps those people find jobs. That is something Minister Arbib needs to explain. The reason for this debacle is that 100 per cent of services in employment service areas were put to tender. The minister was also unaware of this fact. He was unaware as to why 100 per cent of contracts were put up for tender and he was unaware as to whether advice had been tendered to the department, to the then minister, recommending that approach of tendering 100 per cent of services at the same time. The minister was also unaware about the tender process itself and whether any provider deemed not to be a preferred tenderer was subsequently offered business-something which goes to the very heart, integrity and probity of this tender process.
The minister needs to get briefed-and get briefed fast-on his portfolio. He needs to get briefed and he then needs to answer why 100 per cent of contracts were put up for tender at the same time. He needs to answer why the weighting for past experience for service providers was reduced to 30 per cent. He needs to answer how it is that 47 per cent of clients having to find a new caseworker, and a new provider, helps them in their search for work. And he needs to confirm the very integrity of the tender process. In particular, he needs to confirm whether during the probity period there was any communication relating to purchasing matters between the previous minister, his staff and a tenderer. While he is doing that, he should also endeavour to establish whether there were any communications between the former minister or his office and the department regarding additional contracts being let, as I asked him in my question-something of which he was completely unaware.
Minister Arbib has been in his position only a few a weeks-I grant him that-but the tendering arrangements for Job Services Australia go to the very heart of what his portfolio is about. It is about helping Australians out of work find work. He does not understand the first principles of how his portfolio seeks to bring that about. He needs to get briefed, and get briefed fast.