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  Issue No 81 Official Organ of LaborNet 08 December 2000  




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Back to Work

Interview with Peter Lewis

After a stretch of unemployment following the 1996 election, former Keating Minister Robert Tickner is now helping others find work.


What is a former Keating Minister doing running a jobs network, a concept that would have been anathema to the government when you were in power?

Well, the first thing to say is that the Job Network enjoys now a large measure of cross-party support. I notice that Cheryl Kernot distributed a letter to Job Network members only this week, in which she expressed her support for the Job Network. I think that the major focus of the Opposition seems to be on an independent monitoring authority and a greater level of accountability for the Job Network, and insofar as Job Futures are concerned, we are quite comfortable with that.

For my part, on a personal level, I went through a period of unemployment after the loss of my seat in parliament in 1996 - and it was a substantial period of unemployment, and through no fault of my own. I guess there just needed to be a little passage of time before I was eventually able to secure a position working in the not-for-profit area, which is an area that I was particularly committed to. That period of unemployment hit me in the same way it hits every other person, - even with a strong academic background and a lifetime of experience in dealing with different situations - I went through a period of depression; a period of loss of confidence. Eventually I secured this position with Job Futures, which is a national not-for-profit network. I guess upon reflection that period of unemployment was almost meant to be, because it has given me a very strong commitment to tackle these issues. And that is honestly what's happened.

When Labor was in power the CES was the central body that would run employment services. So argue the good case for the Job Network. Why through a Labor prism is this Job Network a better model?

Well, I have to make it absolutely clear that in my life these days - I have I put my active politically involvement behind me. My job is to relate to government and opposition; to people from all walks of life. But I think the important point to make here is that again, there is a large measure of cross-party support for the Job Network. Why? In part I think it is because the world has moved on - for better or for worse, whatever the original circumstances for the creation of the Job Network. The fact is that it does enjoy a very large measure of support in the community. I don't frankly think that there is going to be a turning back of that, whatever the circumstances of the original creation. I think both sides of politics now make that clear.

There are, I think, some very strong advantages of the current system. The most important is the active involvement of the not-for-profit sector in the Job Network and the potential that that has for enriching and strengthening the capacity of the community to get people jobs, and to get long-term unemployed people back to work. And I don't run away from that. I've seen it work; I've seen the energy, the dynamism; and I think that that needs to be clearly recognized, as indeed both sides of politics do.

There are some areas, however, where the Job Network is failing long-term unemployed people. I don't want to dwell on the negatives but one area that must be spoken of is the position of indigenous people. The secretary of the Department of Employment & Workplace Relations and Small Business, Dr. Peter Schergold, who happens to be a former CEO of ATSIC, has come out with a scathing criticism of the Job Network's failure to address the position of indigenous people. We have to try and work very closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and with the Department to lift the game of the Network. We see it, as the government I think does, as an important priority area.

Just for those that aren't across Job Futures, who are your basic constituents and what is your vision for a job creation network?

Job Futures is a national not-for-profit network of community based organisations and the membership includes a diverse range of organisations from big and powerful and influential organisations like the Brotherhood of St Lawrence in Melbourne, renowned I suppose for its fierce advocacy of social justice, to smaller community-based organizations that are very influential in their local communities. These include Work Ventures, based in Surry Hills, and MTC Marrickville. These are organisations essentially that emanated from originally small, local community groups. Some of them were skill-share organizations, others evolved from community-based organisations operating outside employment services, but the common feature of all of them is the local community links.

For my part as the CEO of this organisation, I'm trying to drive the process of strengthening those community links and building on them right across the country. I think they are quite fundamental in opening up employment opportunities for people. If you have got an employment organisation operating in the local community, which is in touch with local employers, the local Chamber of Commerce, politicians from all different political parties, trade unions, education providers - that opens up a great network of contacts that helps get people jobs and it helps keep our community based organisations in touch with their communities and makes them more effective.

What is the main challenge running an organisation that is effectively a group of community organisations, and having to be their advocate on a much more national and large scale?

Well, it is a tremendous challenge because we are not a monolithic body where some edict can be issued from central command. And I don't think that's a problem. I think it is actually a tremendous strength in that we really have a degree of diversity reflecting the communities in which our member organisations operate. There are some 45 of them around the country. We want to build and grow our network, but what we have been doing over the last six months is strengthening the links between those organisations and lifting the standards of performance and service of all our members by building networks and relationships between the operational people in the members to ensure that we provide an even higher standard of service. But you are right to say yes, it is a tremendous administrative and organizational challenge, but it is one that I am passionately committed to and enjoying very much.

One of the things that you have done is sign off on an agreement with the trade union movement. That is basically a strategic relationship. What is your thinking behind that?

First and foremost, we are committed to building networks, relationships and practical methods of cooperating with others that we see in the not-for-profit sector, where we can operate essentially for the common good and for mutual advantage. So, in that regard, what we have done is revamp and reorganize some earlier relationship agreements that were intended to proceed with the NSW Labor Council to ensure that there are no political or legal problems. Although the idea for a relationship with the NSW Labor Council was not mine - it is one that I warmly welcome, and I particularly welcome the constructive approach that has been taken by the Secretary, Michael Costa, and by Chris Christodoulou in working with our members. We realize we have a big responsibility to give effect to that relationship and I look forward to talking to affiliates of the Labor Council in the New Year about how we might advance the agenda.

What we are seeking to do is to ensure that at Job Futures, that we are ready, willing and able to provide outplacement services to workers who have lost or who are in danger of losing their jobs in the near future, to ensure that get the counseling, both financial and otherwise, the training and upskilling; the capacity to be able to get a job and to remain out of the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

When people lose their job it can often be a time of great crisis, especially when people have been in a job for 10 or 15 years; perhaps in their 30s or 40s and find themselves out of work. They may not have any skills in writing a job application; preparing a resume, and losing your job is a very debilitating thing. People often get very angry, understandably so; but all these things have got to be dealt with and if people are going to get back into the labour force. So, another relationship that we are exploring as a part of all this is our relationship with Chifley Financial Services because we see financial counseling and support as another very important backup for workers who have lost their jobs.

It is a tough call though isn't it? You see someone say, in a mine out in central western NSW and we know that there is a shortage of 40,000 IT workers. How do you get that person to take up that opportunity?

It is extraordinarily difficult in some cases, especially when people have their links in the community where they may have lived for a long period of time. And we don't pretend that we can wave a magic wand. What we do however say, is that we know the labour market, we know the feelings that people have and the detail of the situation people find themselves in when they lose their job. What we are able to do is essentially put before people all the available options that will enable them to take the best decision they can and exercise the best choice they can to get a job. Now sometimes that involves some hard choices and there are no simple answers in lots of cases, but we are committed to that outplacement service which we see as an absolute fundamental to opening up those choices for workers who do lose their jobs.

If you look at the stats, all the economic indicators say that it is a buoyant job market at the moment. Being on the ground, does that accord with what you are seeing?

Well, it is a buoyant job market in some parts of Australia - Sydney is obviously a case in point. But if you look at other parts of the country, and I have just come back in the last week from Tasmania, there things are very different indeed. It is important to understand that it is a big country, there are lots of different labour markets and that is why local knowledge of those conditions is important. It is not all a bright picture, although some signs are encouraging, and that is to be welcomed.

One of the big issues that is consuming a lot of time in the union movement at the moment is the yearning for job security amongst workers. What is your take on this debate?

That is obviously an area of frontline interest to the trade union movement, and obviously as an organisation involving employment services we want to see people in well paid jobs in which they are treated well, which have long-term career prospects. But there are limitations on what we are able to do to advance that agenda. I think that it is a very rapidly changing world and the more skills people have, the more they will be able to cope with change and with evolving conditions. I mean, I just think about my little boy who is eight years old and goes to school down at Shellharbour. What kind of life do I want him to have, and how do I want him to go through life? I have to say, the more skills he has; the more education; the more capacity he has to adapt to change; the more secure his life prospects are going to be.

And even in my own case, I think it is important to learn more; to undertake more courses; find new skills; and that is an important part of coping with the change process.


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*   Issue 81 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Back to Work
After a stretch of unemployment following the 1996 election, former Keating Minister Robert Tickner is now helping others find work.
*  Media: Reality Check
Aiden White, head of the international journalists' union, argues that online journalism presents a new set of challenges for organising.
*  Economics: In the Same Boat
In an unprecedented move, a coalition of industry, community and trade union groups have joined forces to address long-trerm unemployment.
*  International: Nepalese Hotel Workers Ask for Support
Hotel workers in the small Himalayan nation of Nepal have finally decided to vent their anger and call a general strike for Monday - over a 21 year old dispute.
*  Unions: Speaking in Tongues
Labor Council's Mark Morey outlines the successful campaign by local government workers for a community language allowance.
*  History: Fighting Words
The anti-conscription campaign of 1914-18 tore the ALP apart; but this was not the first time the labour movement took a militantly anti-war stance.
*  Politics: A New Socialism
In an extract from his new book, political economist Frank Stilwell argues the need for a new radicalism to counter the Third Way
*  Satire: Roy Slaven on the Rampage
John Doyle's history of the ABC stretches back to a 1958 evening in Lithgow on which he was "scared shitless" by Blackboard on Mr Squiggle.
*  Review: Mauled in the Bear Pit
Vengeance may be sweet but it is always made better when you are able to write a book about yourself that also provides the opportunity to dump a bucket load on those who undertook your removal.

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»  The Soapbox
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Letters to the editor
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