Rebuilding Employment Services will take more than a few virtuous words

Dec 13, 2023
A businessman in blue shirt is holding object in his hand, is searching for personnel or people. Image: iStock/Ivan-balvan

Pearls and Irritations’ weekly roundup this week commented on the paucity of analysis regarding the House of Representatives Select Committee’s report Rebuilding Employment Services. This is not surprising given the number and complexity of its recommendations. However, it is hard to pin down many specifics in the report other than the current system is useless.

Rebuilding Employment Services is a big-picture document with noble intentions – a manifesto of the virtuous, more than 12-months in the making. There’s little to disagree with the need to rebuild a responsive and effective service and that this should be a public service model, although even that is hedged – exactly what are “service partners” alongside a “public service core”? Politicians’ track record with the word “core” is not good.

What does the report mean beyond the crowd pleaser slogans and when will it happen? Julian Hill’s recent article in P&I offered few clues. The promised land is beyond the hills with no map to get there.

Hill rightly criticises the Department of Employment’s capacity, stating that “the Department has literally no view these days on what an effective service model is.” The same department that will lead the charge in the radical overhaul. The same department that for decades oversaw the steady decline in capacity and in its submission suggested that everything is fine with only a few tweaks needed. The necessary radical thinking from the Department of Employment seems as likely as Kathryn Campbell coming up with a client-centred model of welfare payments.

I agree that a publicly run employment service is the correct way forward; however, as I have argued elsewhere, the Commonwealth is the wrong level of government to deliver local employment services. States and Territories are much better placed to be responsive to local needs and is what happens in most countries. Plus they have the advantage of having no interest in mutual obligations and therefore would not get caught up in the dog’s breakfasts of the Department of Social Security and the Department of Human Services. The Department of Employment has been in their thrall for years and there is little in the report that even acknowledges this problem, let alone how to prevent it from happening in whatever future design we end up with.

That the current system is a failure will hardly surprise anyone that has had even the most casual encounter with Workforce Australia and while this report acknowledges the failure, unemployed workers will remain stuck with it – probably for years to come. “We know the system is irredeemably useless, we know the system is irredeemably harmful, but just stick with it guys.” I wish it were hard to imagine a more stupid and cruel example of public policy, but I’m spoilt for choice these days.

The recommendation to retain both Work for the Dole and Mutual Obligations expecting that they can be done in some humane, client centred way is naïve. In his meeting with unemployed worker advocates after the release of the report, Julian Hill admitted that Work for the Dole stayed there because he didn’t want an unnecessary fight with the Coalition. Both policies need to killed stone dead. If they aren’t, the dissenting report from Liberal Aaron Violi gives a sense of the speed with which they would be ramped up again as soon as the Coalition returns to power. Violi who bothered to turn up to only two of the public hearings and asked next to nothing in either of them, illustrates perfectly that the Coalition is not interested in evidence over beliefs when it comes to the unemployed. The Labor Party has never understood the need to thoroughly extinguish zombie policies whenever they have the chance, because there will inevitably come a time when they won’t be in power, and the Coalition only needs the faintest spark to rebuild any dumpster fire. The history of Robodebt should be a salutary lesson.

It seems that Labor also has only a faint grasp of the concept that they are in government.

The report lauds two state-run agencies, Jobs Victoria and Tasmania’s Regional Jobs Hubs, both voluntary, a fact not lost on the Victorian government’s submission. One detail missing from the report and notoriously difficult to extract out of the Department of Employment is how many people currently volunteer to use Workforce Australia. My hunch? A round number less than one.

Simply abolishing Workforce Australia and replacing it with nothing might be a less terrible interim solution – it’s not like the labour market needs it, unemployed workers certainly don’t, and if it is not for those two interests, it begs the question, who is it for? At the very least, make it voluntary while the reform process develops. We’ll see what emerges in the form of policy and legislation arising from this report once it has run the gauntlet of well-funded vested interests that stand to lose their place at the trough. My bet is that things won’t remain quite so virtuous.

As the reform proceeds, the devil will be in the detail, the only problem is for the moment, despite the report being more than 600 pages long, there’s not nearly enough of that to be found.

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