Friday, October 24, 2014

Are We Better Off Now?

The right of politics can't work out whether we're better off now or better off in the past. The Prime Minister describes the Menzies era as a golden age of prosperity, saying "These years of low unemployment, low interest rates and strong social cohesion are the gold standard by which all governments will be judged". He describes this period as one of expanding Universities, the building of Canberra, and home ownership being brought within reach of most families.

The Institute of Public Affairs, on the contrary, titled a recent report "Things are Getting Better All the Time", and claims that life has improved dramatically for Australians in terms of earnings and work and economic changes.

They should try and explain this to our young people, who are today caught in an Axis of Financial Evil – student debt, job insecurity, and housing unaffordability.

We would be better placed to judge whether life is improving or not if we produced more accurate performance indicators than the deeply flawed and inadequate GDP, and adopted in Australia, as other countries and States of the USA have done, a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Death of Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam was a towering figure in Australian public life. I think he was the greatest man to ever grace the Australian Labor Party, and the most influential Australian Prime Minister of the past fifty years. He did this after enlisting during the Second World War with the RAAF. This was of course a very dangerous thing to do - my father's older brother John, after whom I have my middle name, did this too, but did not return.

I was a year twelve student in 1972, and had a bright orange It's Time sticker on my school bag. I remember that after he won the election one of my schoolmates said to me that while he was keen for Gough to win, Gough would not be able to put an end to Australia's involvement in Vietnam, and to conscription, any time soon. I was crestfallen by this, and delighted when only a day or two later Gough's two-man Cabinet did precisely that.

His leadership and vision for Australia was one of the key things that inspired me to join the Australian Labor Party, which I did in 1974. It was against the run of play, as Gough's government was thrown out comprehensively at the end of the next year.

But his legacy has proved to be so longstanding that I think he can rightly claim to be the most influential Prime Minister of the past 50 years. It was such a monumental body of work that I cannot do justice to it, but there are a number of features of it which I want to single out. The introduction of free tertiary education. It made such a difference to the lives of so many. The more I look at it, the more I think it was a mistake to move away from that.

Medibank, which was of course the predecessor of Medicare. It gave Australia quite possibly the best health care system in the world, where everyone, rich and poor alike, has access to high quality health care.

The protection of the environment. Gough took the National government into the area of environment protection, preventing drilling of the Great Barrier Reef, ratifying the World Heritage Convention, the RAMSAR Convention, and passing the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act.

Indigenous Affairs. Gough passed legislation to abolish discrimination against aboriginal people, and granted land rights to indigenous people, and returned lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people.

People will always draw on the aspects of someone's legacy that are consistent with their own views, and I am no different. In that vein I point out that in 1974 he wrote that traditional forms of democratic government are under challenge, and listed population growth as first among these. Later in that article he said “I do not envisage any dramatic increase in our present population, and indeed I would not wish to see one". I think he was absolutely right in that assessment. And indeed he cut migration numbers during his time as Prime Minister, which is perhaps not widely known.

I had a number of conversations with him, and there are two that stick in my mind. The first is when I rang him as a young Member of Parliament with an interest in fixed-term Parliaments and knowledge that Gough had championed this cause, including a proposal for simultaneous Federal and State elections. I was pleased that my call was put through, and astonished that Gough was able to rattle off, without any forewarning of my call and in the days before the Internet and Google, the electoral arrangements for many of the states of the USA.

Later on I won an afternoon tea with Gough in a Labor Party raffle. This time he did know I was coming, but it was 2002 and he was by then 86. I was again astonished to see that at the ripe old age of 86 he had gone to the trouble of looking me up on the Internet and coming to the afternoon tea extremely well informed about my background and interests.

No doubt Gough made mistakes. But the fact is that anyone in public life makes decisions every day, and it is unreasonable to expect every one of those decisions to be correct. And a Prime Minister makes hundreds, even thousands of decisions. Yes he was defeated decisively after three years, but that should be understood in the context of coming to power after a 23 year absence for Labor, and bumping into a world which had been shaped by and was dominated by his political opponents. After the change of government Malcolm Fraser acknowledged the need to make the Senate more representative and sponsored a referendum to require State Parliaments to fill Senate casual vacancies with the nominee of the Party the Senator had belonged to. And it should also be understood that Gough was newly in power when the OPEC oil shock of 1974 hit - this generated inflation and unemployment, and most Western governments unfortunate enough to be in power at the time did not last for long.

Gough's struggle with Malcolm Fraser was titanic. I remember United States commentators at the time remarking on the ability of the two men, and wondering why American politics was not throwing up leaders of comparable calibre.

The best thing we can do to honour Gough's monumental legacy is to protect it. Whether it is tertiary education, or health, or environment protection, or indigenous affairs, we should honour and protect his legacy. Most of all I hope we remember his commitment to politics as an honourable profession. It is unthinkable to imagine Gough taking on a job as a corporate lobbyist or company director in a post political career. The idea of using a parliamentary career as a stepping stone to a cushy corporate job would have been anathema to him.

I hope his life and example continues to inspire Australians to undertake public service, and to believe in the capacity of the political process to produce good outcomes, to make people’s lives better, for many years to come.

Friday, October 17, 2014

We Must Tackle Youth Unemployment

I believe that local communities working together with local businesses, local government and social services can play an important role in helping build meaningful partnerships between young people and job opportunities in the current economic climate.

I support the Jobs for Youth Campaign which will be running across Moreland, Darebin and Yarra in October, which aims to match 100 people aged 16 to 24 with local employment opportunities, and attempt to stem joblessness in our region.

The Jobs Expos being hosted as part of the campaign will put young people directly in touch with real employers and real job opportunities, including McDonald’s, Aplus Apprenticeships, Traineeship services along with other businesses and agencies. Young people are encouraged to bring along their resumes, or can seek help by making one there. The Darebin Jobs Expo will be held on Tuesday, October 21 at NCAT Preston, Yarra Expo on Wednesday, October 29 at The Reading room Fitzroy, and the Moreland Expo will be held on Friday, October 31 at the Coburg Town Hall.

The Real Industry Job Interview (RIJI) Program has recruited volunteers to participate as interviewers this coming Friday, October 17. The Program will engage almost 700 young people from local schools from the Cities of Yarra, Darebin and Moreland; to assist and guide them in resume, job interview and job application preparations. This sort of program is highly beneficial for young local jobseekers and students as they seek to enter the a very tight and competitive job market. I will be participating in the interview day and am looking forward to helping give young people some hints and tips about effective ways they can apply and succeed in looking for work.

In April I met with local Youth Connections providers, and wrote to the current Liberal Government to support the Youth Connections program that was set up by Labor in 2010 to stop young people falling between the cracks. Youth Connections has already helped 75,000 young people reengage with education and employment. The program helps young people who drop out of school either head back to the classroom, or complete an alternative year 12 qualification, combined with work. It is disgraceful the Liberal Government has refused to support ongoing investment in such programs.

These are great initiatives and I commend Moreland City Council, City of Darebin, City of Yarra, Youth Connections, Darebin Youth Commitment, Moreland Youth Commitment, Yarra Youth Commitment, and Inner Northern Learning, for spearheading the need for more young people to be employed and engaged locally. More information on these initiatives can be found at www.jobsforyouth.com.au

Victorian Labor’s Jobs Plan which will help create 100,000 full time jobs for the unemployed through the $100 million Back to Work Act, payroll tax relief, incentives for business to hire long term unemployed, retrenched workers and unemployed youth, the Premier’s Jobs and Investment Panel, a Future Industries Fund of $200 million, a Regional Jobs Fund, Super Trade Missions, and through the removal of 50 level crossings, build the Melbourne Metro Rail, removing 5,000 trucks from the Westgate Bridge, creating 10,00 construction jobs and guaranteeing $2 billion for country and suburban roads. These are all worthy initiatives that will begin to kick start job opportunities for our unemployed young people.

Along with investing in our manufacturing, skills and education sectors, supporting our local community initiatives, the Federal and State Victorian Liberal Governments would be better off cutting back our migrant worker programs that are placing unfair competition on local young people’s chance of getting a job.

Under the current approach they’re adopting, youth unemployment will get a lot worse before it gets better. Providing young people with good quality job opportunities from an early stage helps our overall economic and social wellbeing by giving our next generation hope. Hope that they can make a good income, hope they can hold a decent standard of living, hope that they can one day buy their own home, raise a family, and live a comfortable, safe and healthy life. Giving young people the chance to build their self-respect, resilience and dignity, is incredibly important and goes hand in hand with giving young people the chance of having a job.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Youth Unemployment Levels Risk a Lost Generation

Youth unemployment must be one of the highest priorities for all levels of Government if we are to secure our economic, skills, social and environmental future as a nation. The sad fact is youth unemployment has been rising over recent years on the watch of the free market neo liberal Federal and State Governments, whose policies of withdrawing investment from our manufacturing industry, cutting investment from our higher education, skills, TAFEs and secondary education sectors, proceeding with harsh welfare reforms, and ramping up migrant worker programs, are hurting Australian young peoples’ chances to find and keep a job.

Unemployment figures released on October 8th show Australia’s unemployment rate at 6.1%, with almost 30,000 jobs lost in September. The reason why the unemployment rate is not rising higher is because of a 0.2% fall in the participation rate to 64.5%. Victoria’s unemployment rate is at 6.8%, the highest in 13 years.  Unemployment in Victoria is growing 12 times faster than new jobs. It’s increased from 4.9 per cent in December 2010 to 6.8 per cent today. Almost 68,000 more people are out of work. Youth unemployment is at a 15 year high; on average as of July at 13.8% up from 12.3% last year.

As reported in the Moreland Leader (29/9/14) youth unemployment in the northwest is 17.2%, up from 13.1% last year, driven by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and job cuts in the retail and hospitality sectors. Compounding these issues are the cuts by the Liberal Government to our manufacturing industry, including Ford, Holden, and Toyota, such as the $500 million cut from the Automotive Transformation Scheme. The possible offshoring of Australia’s new submarine fleet will further hurt our manufacturing sector, along with the Government’s failure to develop a domestic gas industry. The billions of dollars in cuts by the Liberal Federal and State Governments to our skills, training, TAFE, higher education, secondary and primary education sectors will hamper job opportunities for young people. Punishing young people by making them ineligible for Centrelink New Start Allowance, will only place more obstacles rather than real job opportunities in front of young people.

The fact that the first job advertised for the East-West Link Tunnel Project is for a 457 Migrant Worker Visa Coordinator is extraordinary. Apparently it does not matter that Victoria has its highest unemployment rate in 13 years, apparently it does not matter that youth unemployment in Melbourne’s North-West is now over 17%, and apparently it does not matter that we already have over a million non-Australians in Australia on temporary visas which give them work rights.

Victoria’s economy has not been creating enough jobs to cope with the state’s booming population growth. Between December 2010 and August 2014, the number of working aged Victorians (aged 15 and over) swelled by 303,200, equivalent to 6,891 people added every month. Over that four year period to August 2014, manufacturing employment in Victoria dropped by 11,600. Over the same period, employment in construction fell by 13,900, while retail sector employment increased 21,300, healthcare employment by 29,100 and education and training employment by 8,000.
 
Victoria’s traditional manufacturing and large industry jobs base is evaporating. Even in these new emerging sectors such as health and education, young Victorians face stiff competition from overseas workers. Despite the rhetoric that high skilled migration is needed for the mining and agriculture sectors, the reality is a high proportion of migrant workers come to Victoria. The Skilled Migration Program grew from 125,755 places on 2011-12 to 128,973 in 2012-13. In 1995-96 the Skilled Migration Program was just 24,100. The Occupations with the highest number of primary visa grants were professionals (4,656 or 51.1%) and technicians and trade workers (2,416 or 26.5%) in the 457 Visa Class. Under the Skill Stream, there were professionals 6,083 (65.5%) and technicians and trades with 1,502 (16.2%). According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s State and Territory Migration Summary Report of March 2014, Victoria absorbed the second largest proportion of 457 visa grants in the first three quarters of 2013-14 with 23% or 17,432 people. Under the Skill Stream Victoria took in 19.3% (19,976 people).

Yet as reported by Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker in The Age on 7th August 2014, as many as 9 in 10 skilled migrant visas may be fraudulent. A 2010 investigation concluded that around 90 per cent or more than 40,000 visa applications in the General Skilled Migration Program lodged per year for the previous three years were suspect. A 2009 investigation concluded that the student visa program was failing, the general skilled migration program was failing, and the falsifying of qualifications was prolific.

Sir Robert Menzies said on 2nd October 1964 at the opening of Chrysler Manufacturing Centre in Tonsley Park South Australia:

“…I don’t need to be told that there are quite a number of people here, as I go around, who are what we used to call New Australians, who are people who migrated here since the war. There are millions now- anyhow, something well over one million- in Australia, and every large factory I go to contains a high percentage of people who have come in these years. There could not have been an immigration policy or programme without employment on this scale in industries of this kind. The rural industries, vital as they are to the survival of Australia, can’t employ people by the scores of thousands extra every year. We know they cant. It is industries of this kind which enable the migration programme to continue, and the fact that the migration programme continues, that you have remarkable increase in the population every year by year has given strength and tone and optimism to the people who run retail stores in Australia, to all sorts of other manufacturers who produce things that are in demand by stores and which are bought by them because they are in demand by their ordinary customers. This is the whole interwoven structure”.

That was Sir Robert Menzies. Now the Federal and State Liberal Governments are unravelling it. They’re keeping the migrant worker programs- indeed they’re bigger than ever, but they’re killing off manufacturing in general and the car industry in particular. Only a couple of weeks ago the Victorian Liberal Government was boasting that Victoria’s population has continued to grow at record levels, by 1.8% outstripping the 1.7% national average, growing by 108,757 people in the year to March 31, which consisted of 38,467 natural increase and 61,923 from net overseas migration and 8,367 from net interstate migration, to a total of 5.8 million Victorian’s. Mark my words, this is not going to end well for Australia.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hong Kong CEO Should Stand Down

Revelations in The Age today that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive C.Y Leung received more than $A7 million from an Australian engineering company, which he did not publicly declare and while other shareholders and unsecured creditors got nothing, are a matter of great concern. It is important for Hong Kong’s reputation as a place of commercial integrity that these reports be thoroughly investigated and that Mr Leung stand down from his position while this is carried out.

The Age reports that the Australian engineering company UGL bought an insolvent firm called DTZ Holdings, and secretly paid Mr Leung more than $A7 million as part of this process, but left DTZ’s other shareholders and unsecured creditors with nothing wiping out investments worth tens of millions of dollars.

These are serious allegations which require an appropriately serious response.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

East West Link Puts Foreign Workers First

It beggars belief that the East West Link project is already looking for foreign workers, without even the faintest pretence of trying to find unemployed Victorians to work on the project. The first job advertised on the East West Link project is for a 457 visa co-ordinator!

  • Apparently it doesn't matter that Victoria has its highest unemployment rate in 13 years.
  • Apparently it doesn't matter that youth unemployment in Melbourne’s North-West is now 15 per cent.
  • Apparently it doesn't matter that Australia already has over one million temporary visitors whose visas give them work rights.
  • Apparently it doesn't matter that the Victorian Government has been touting job creation as the key justification for a project which will wreck Royal Park and the Moonee Ponds Creek, raid Victoria's transport budget and leave the cupboard bare for years to come, and which has secret contracts and no public business case.

This scandalous project has now achieved a new low. The Federal Liberal Government wanted the unemployed to apply for 40 jobs every month, but the Victorian Liberal Government is writing off their chance to apply for just one.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Increase Foreign Aid and Alleviate Global Poverty

Today I met with representatives from the Oaktree Foundation’s, End Poverty Road Trip, delegation which visited Parliament House to speak with Parliamentarians about the need to lift Australia’s foreign aid investments and help address global poverty.

It was a pleasure to meet with constituents from North Fitzroy and Brunswick, Max Pfeifer and Jayden Holmes, who formed part of the 500 strong Oaktree Foundation delegation to Canberra.

I had a constructive discussion with them on the need for the Australian Government, through the upcoming G20 Summit in Brisbane this coming November, to address international corporation tax avoidance, improving transparency on company ownership, countries working together to improve profit and loss reporting of multinationals, the automatic exchange of information for developing countries and most importantly the need for Australia to increase its foreign aid.  I am a strong supporter of these measures.

I was concerned to read in today’s 2/10/14 The Australian Newspaper ‘Foreign Aid Cuts to help fund on terror’, of reports that the Liberal government is considering further foreign aid cuts to those which were contained in the May Budget, to help pay for the military operation in Iraq. The report stated that Australia’s military operation and deployment in Iraq will cost about $500 million a year while the increase in funding for spy agencies and the Australian Federal Police costs over $630 million over four years. The Liberal Party unveiled a

$4.5 billion foreign aid cut in the days before the last election and then announced a $7.6 billion saving in the May budget. The changes have frozen the increase in aid outlays for the next few years. The report claims Cabinet Ministers are canvassing an extension to the freeze in the annual aid increase, perhaps for another two years.

Cuts in Australia’s foreign aid budget hurt our diplomatic relations, undo much goodwill we have built over time through aid projects, and compound global poverty, health and education issues. 

I have seen firsthand how Australian Aid projects in various international communities are very warmly received, appreciated and are achieving great results. These projects build trust towards Australia while also helping lift living standards for some of the world’s poorest people.

The fact is rather than prioritise precious Australian taxpayer dollars on extravagant military equipment and conflicts, Australian money would be better spent at helping alleviate the root cause of much conflict- poverty. When young people are born and raised in an environment where there is no education, no healthcare, no reliable sources of food, water and safe access to basic services that many of us take for granted on a daily bases; and where fear and uncertainty is common place in daily life; this is a recipe for violence and conflict.

The Australian government ought to have budget priorities which ensure we are building goodwill in our neighbourhood, improving life expectancy and outcomes for the most vulnerable in the world.
 
I commend Max, Jayden and the 500 Oaktree Foundation delegates for their passion, enthusiasm and advocacy, and hope the Australian Government will raise and address global corporate tax avoidance through the G20 Conference in Brisbane in November.