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Tuesday, 24 August 1999
Page: 8937

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (5:55 PM) —In speaking to the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 1999 , it is also my pleasure to second the second reading amendment which has been moved by the member for Dobell. Before going to the content of the bill, it is appropriate that I set out a few facts on the issue of employment for the edification of the member for Forde. We should face up to the fact that, if it had not been for the participation rate falling under coalition policies aimed at directly discouraging the work force participation rate, we would currently have an unemployment rate in the order of 8.2 per cent. It is about time the Australian community understood that the biggest contributing factor to the fall in unemployment in more recent times has been a drop in the participation rate by 0.8 per cent, almost one per cent, since the election of March 1996.

On the issues of employment and vocational education and training, since the Howard government began to slash funding for Working Nation in 1996, the number of very long-term unemployed—and we are talking about people who have been unemployed for 24 months or more—has increased by 5,000, not decreased. I compare that with Labor's last term in office when the number of very long-term unemployed decreased by 40,000. It is also interesting to note that, in the 3½ years this government has been in office, it has created half as many full-time jobs as Labor did in its last term.

What do we say about the coalition's rhetoric? It is failing on the full-time jobs front. It is failing with respect to the very long-term unemployed, and the biggest contributor to the decrease in unemployment since the election has been a reduction in the participation rate. That is a very public statement by Australia's unemployed—especially those who are long-term unemployed, those decent workers who have difficulty gaining access to employment because of a lack of skills—that this government is not prepared to deliver decent training of a vocational education nature or of a more basic nature, which would assist those people in obtaining employment. With respect to the employment record, Labor reduced youth unemployment by 31,500 in our last three years. Despite the coalition's rhetoric, it has reduced youth unemployment in its first 3½ years by just 23,000.

Having dealt with the facts—and it is very important for people like the member for Forde to deal with facts—it is now appropriate that I deal with the second reading amendment moved by our shadow minister for education, the member for Dobell, and, in doing so, deal with the bill before the House. This bill formalises the ANTA agreement with the states, though I do not believe that can be called an agreement at all. As those who follow the vocational education debate know, ANTA did not want this outcome. ANTA accepted it because they had no choice. It concerns me that this is not the basis on which Labor established ANTA as an important initiative back in 1992.

Vocational education and training, as we all understand, is critical to our nation's future. Importantly, there is now widespread recognition that it is more than the poor cousin of the university or the alternative to leaving school early. It is central to our future as a nation. Its status in the community among industry, students, parents, educators and young and old people is a major determinant of the nation's long-term future. More importantly, it is not only a community issue—a determinant of our long-term future as a nation—but also a key determinant of an individual's opportunity in life and the opportunity that that individual might be able to offer his or her family. One's skill base determines one's employability, which in turn determines the nature of the job that one will get, which in turn determines one's career opportunity and, from time to time, one's capacity to achieve a certain continuity of employment.

More than ever, as we look to the future, we are not going to be able to adopt the view that we will be employed for a long period by a particular employer or even in a given industry. That initial skills base—that education and training opportunity—is going to determine not only our opportunity in life but also our employability and capacity to be employed for a gainful life throughout our whole working life. That is why I suggest, in this context, that leadership is required. But the call for leadership has unfortunately not been heard by the Howard government. Doubts about the status of vocational education and training and limited receptiveness to lifelong learning imply a need to actively promote cultural change. It is Labor that has responded and that will continue to respond, just as it did with the original development of ANTA back in 1992.

Our leader Kim Beazley has staked his claim, as the Education Prime Minister, that this is where we as a nation should go. I believe that compares rather favourably with a Prime Minister who wants to be seen in historical terms as the GST Prime Minister. That is a fundamental statement of priorities. Do we as a nation invest in the training of our young people and our middle aged who have lost employment or, alternatively, do we go down in historical terms as having had a GST Prime Minister? I am with Kim Beazley. He is about substance. He is about delivering to all Australians, not just to the more wealthy—the better off in the Australian community—who are frankly doing all right anyhow. As Education Prime Minister, Kim Beazley is demanding that skills be placed at the centre of the debate. I contrast that with the approach of the Howard government and with this bill, a bill which once again fails to recognise the growing importance of vocational education and training.

Through a commitment to vocational education and training, the government had an opportunity to remind the Minister for Employment Services—and this was an important reminder—that the supply side of the labour market depends not just on choices but also on capabilities. The government had an opportunity to spell out that the barrier for some of those people who cannot find work is not welfare or name-calling—describing people as `job snobs'. It is something more fundamental: it is in essence a lack of skills. Rather than calling people `job snobs'—as the Minister for Employment Services all too frequently refers to them because of his own personal failures on the employment services front—and threatening to reduce their payments, we as a nation could be assisting them in developing their skills to help them become employable. That is what skills are about—making sure that people are employable.

The problem is that this government has spent the last three years cutting the employability of our people and also, as this bill suggests, that it has not learnt from the mistakes of the last 3½ years and intends continuing to go down that unfortunate path. It is just not those missing out on the opportunity to develop their skills that suffer. When you start to think about how we can deliver to employers the workers that they need—and that is what skills development is about; it is not just about the workers themselves, it is also about meeting the needs of employers—you come to see skills as the common thread. It is a common thread right throughout society. Everyone needs skills: the individual, the family, the community, the employer and the nation. It is what holds this nation together and, in turn, creates prosperity and an Australia that is a competitive nation capable of competing not only domestically but also internationally. The difference is that Labor recognises this but the coalition does not.

I therefore say to the House this evening that one of Labor's goals is to increase year 12-equivalent retention rates to counter the falling demand of recent decades for low skilled labour. We know in turn that this means closer links between academic and vocational education and also between school, TAFE and university. We also know that it must involve industry at every step. It is about a partnership—a common thread of skills development to bring it all together in a partnership. As a community, we therefore need to provide a range of learning options and in doing so ensure that they are adequately resourced and funded.

It is ironic that, at the very time we need to do more for those who are struggling to achieve this, this government is increasing the privilege associated with a private education and even squeezing the public school system harder. The general case under this government is that those from poorer families and poorer neighbourhoods are to lose out while the privileged actually increase the gap which exists in the Australian community. It is also clear that we cannot see learning as something which is confined to schools. We need to encourage parents to be involved in learning, to ensure that the family environment is helpful and not hindering school performance and to be more imaginative in our use of small scale committee networks where family support mechanisms have broken down.

As a society, we must make a commitment to our youth—yes, to all of them. It must be made not just to those who have better opportunities through the private school system but to all our youth, irrespective of whether their parents are employed or unemployed, irrespective of the suburb or the region in which they live. As a nation, we must strive to ensure that every young person gets the same opportunity in life. That is why we must ensure that family and community support networks, our relations with others and our sense of community are the things that count in considering the issue of vocational education and training and, therefore, in considering the issue of skills development which, in turn, determines one's employability.

We cannot comfort ourselves by assuming that all young people ultimately will make their way into the work force, because in some places where this government has failed to create job opportunities and where support networks have been neglected these kids really feel on the outer. Not only are they alienated in some instances from their parents, their families and their wider family, from their school and the broader community in which they operate and from the political processes; they also feel completely alienated because of the failure of government, the failure of all political parties in some instances, to develop a capacity in this country to make sure that we have in place opportunities to give people skills which, in turn, will make them employable.

These kids are entitled to point the finger at all political parties and say, `It is high time you got vocational education and training in this nation right, because if you don't get it right you are not only hindering our opportunity in the future but more importantly hindering the opportunity of Australia to do even better in the future.' That is why a lot of those young people who are alienated at the moment in those disadvantaged suburbs and communities are right. They do not want Australia to be further divided into the haves and the have-nots. They want hope for the future. But that takes leadership, and leadership is based on genuine compassion—something that is missing from the Howard government. Unless we get compassion in leadership, we will not be able to deliver and fulfil the needs and aspirations of those young people.

The fact is that, for many kids, attachment to the work force will not happen on its own, and that is something that should concern all of us. When young people cannot fulfil their promise, their potential, our nation cannot fulfil its promise, its potential. As we all know, our young people are our work force of tomorrow. As our population ages, they will be called upon to help support retired workers. That is why there is a need to be more active in monitoring the school to work transition—to ensure that this transition effectively links classrooms to careers. Unfortunately, under this government we have had a couple of pilots here and there and a lot of rhetoric but no structured coordinated response to that challenge. Given that the Howard government sees our disadvantaged youth as the source of the problem, that should come as no surprise. Such a response is a cruel and bitter distortion of reality. It is the sort of thing that people of little imagination and even less compassion resort to after discovering that answers are not simple.

Our kids are an asset. It is only by seeing them as such and supporting their development that we will reap the benefits. They are a pool of talent and ideas awaiting the opportunity and support which they need to make their way. By far the best thing we can do to keep people at school is to get in early—a theme about which we on this side of the House have been vocal. There is common recognition that labour market programs cannot remedy a problem stemming from years of educational neglect; the Labor Party acknowledges that. Early intervention, alternatively, is a necessity.

We must develop targeted strategies to assist those who are not part of our current prosperity but who are critical to ensuring continued prosperity. Left behind kids in left behind families in left behind communities are a mistake; they are a disgrace to Australia. They are a problem, and it is a problem we all share ownership of and responsibility for. So let us try and start to get it right. On that note, we must ensure that young people from rural Australia have a chance and that youth from the outer fringes of our cities are in the inner circle of opportunity—not the outer circle of opportunity and disadvantage. But to do that requires a commitment that educational resources, particularly for VET, be directed appropriately. That is a commitment this government has not met.

At the other end of the spectrum, the labour market performance of older males in recent decades also offers us an important lesson. The current cohort of older workers began their working lives with different expectations about the labour market and `a job for life'. These older workers, often located in declining industries, are being asked to bear the brunt of economic change, and they are receiving precious little assistance. The truth is that they are not being assisted under the Job Network because they are no longer a profitable investment for employment agencies. They have limited access to retraining because they face cultural and economic barriers to re-entering the education and training system. This group has very little in the way of social support networks because its members typically have been seen as the providers rather than the recipients. If the idea of shared responsibility is falling down anywhere in our society, it is here. Our training system could be more accessible in both institutions and in opportunities in workplaces. But, again, this would require a commitment beyond this government's capabilities.

The bill is about opportunity. As a government and an opposition, we are required to ensure that there are policies in place which guarantee that generations are more adaptable and that there are more flexible career structures. That, in turn, implies a need to improve occupational mobility, and a solid skills base is critical to that. In particular, the past decade has seen a major rise in the use of interactive skills, a shift that our institutions are still struggling to respond to. That is why Labor openly talks about the need, for example, for some young people to have a week based on three days at school, one in the workplace and one in TAFE. This is the way of the future.

We on this side of the House take this opportunity to say that we believe the bill fails: it fails to deliver a proper vocational education and training system. It is a bill, unfortunately, that once again is based on cutting Australia down rather than building it up. In an age when investing in the skills of our people is virtually the same as investing in the nation's economic and social future, the government has failed sadly. We take the view that investments in education and training are the single most effective way of insuring the nation against future unemployment. This bill is further confirmation that the government is not prepared to skill our nation for the future and, in doing so, to make sure that our future is guaranteed.

The problem is that this government is not prepared to invest in the employability of our people and is not prepared to commit to the ideal of a knowledge nation. That, we believe, is going to make a fundamental difference in the ensuing months. We must deliver new options to make sure that we create opportuni ties for those who have been disadvantaged, for those who do not currently have access to a decent skilling, a vocational education and training opportunity and, therefore, a guarantee of their employability for the future.

With over 650,000 Australians unemployed, it really is not a debate—as the Treasurer would have us believe last week—about further tax cuts, especially for those who are better off in the community. It is a debate about how we as a nation invest in our future. It is a debate about how we put additional resources into education and training and employability. That internal action will determine our prosperity in the future which, in turn, means we will have better opportunities as a nation. (Time expired)