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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 7683

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (9:58 AM) —As the House and more importantly the broader community appreciate, vocational education is extremely important to this nation as we strive to be an international leader in the knowledge economy. As a trading nation in the global economy, it is critical that Australia is ahead of the game in meeting the very complex challenges ahead of us. The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002 provides additional funds to the Australian National Training Authority for distribution to the states and territories for the fundamentally important issue of vocational education and training purposes. I have no wish to inhibit the supply of extra support for vocational education and training and as a consequence I support the bill. But in doing so I also speak in support of the second reading amendment moved by our shadow minister, the member for Grayndler.

Universities, TAFEs and research facilities in other higher education and learning institutions are critical to Australia's future. They provide the opportunity for Australians to compete in the global economy. Australia will compete on the basis of the most skilled work force in the international community, not on the basis of trying to lower wages and conditions of employment or of walking away, alternatively, from our requirements to invest in research and development and to pay proper regard to the need to improve our performance on the environmental front. It is for that reason that I believe that, through educating our young people, we have the capacity to provide the leadership, teaching support, ideas, knowledge and, most importantly, the partnerships that will enable the communities and regions to compete globally.

The vocational education and training system and particularly TAFEs—unfortunately somewhat forgotten in some people's thinking—form a vital link for many Australians. They facilitate the acquisition of skills and knowledge and provide an entry point into the knowledge economy. Higher learning institutions have the potential to engage with local communities and regions to provide the opportunities for significant sustainable development because they have the capacity to actually assist in creating a new leadership in those regions. That raises the important fundamental requirement of the Australian community to form partnerships with learning institutions to ensure that sustainable development is capable of being achieved in our regions that are doing it tough at this point. There is a capacity to provide opportunities for all communities and regions, especially those that have fallen behind under neo-liberal policies of the Howard government.

Apprenticeships have played an important role in the development of this country and, more importantly, they can play an important role in the future development of this country. Tradespeople and apprentices from many different countries have built this country. Businesses in this nation have in the past recognised the value of providing this training. Some employers recognise the value in training more people than they need, with the knowledge that they are providing for expansion of the industry and expansion of Australia's economic capacity. The result is, therefore, a highly skilled work force, many of whom have advanced in their companies to senior positions. It has also provided people with the opportunity to branch out on their own and establish new small businesses. Often these new businesses have contributed to the development of the region and also, importantly, opened up new export opportunities and import replacement opportunities for those regions. New ventures have taken advantage of new opportunities. The end result is that the regional economy expands and diversifies. Importantly, more employment opportunities are created and, therefore, more training opportunities are established.

However, I suggest that, whilst that was the tradition and the approach in the past, under the Howard government this tradition has been ripped apart. Whilst the government cries about the number of new apprentices, our nation's regions recognise that this is just a smokescreen. As you travel around Australia at the moment, you clearly gain the impression that our regions can see that the number of people trained in the traditional trades has diminished. Tradespeople such as plumbers, carpenters, brickies, boilermakers and hairdressers are in short supply.

Instead of encouraging training schemes to address this major challenge, the coalition government focuses on encouraging multinational giants to cream off wage subsidies for low-skilled work. Only recently the House learnt of the multinational company that opened a new outlet in Sydney employing 50 staff. All of these staff, it is interesting to note, were engaged as trainees. I suggest to the House today that we should start asking who trained them, what was the quality of the training provided and how many of these trainees will go on to actually achieve a trade qualification. Alternatively, we should suggest that maybe we should investigate whether this is simply a wage subsidy for big business. Is it another example of the Howard government looking after its big mates so as to ensure that, on the roundabout, they make significant contributions to its election funding campaign accounts?

Later in the same week, the Minister for Education, Science and Training announced that he was making it easier for big business to access this big business wage subsidy. He is paying big business more money up front. I actually think training is an investment in a business's future. Under the announcements of the minister, a business can now take on someone, pay them at the national training wage rate and collect more than $3,300 as a wage subsidy from the Commonwealth government. The problem is that there is no requirement for the trainee to stay on after 13 weeks for the business to keep the full $3,300 of taxpayers' money.

It is interesting to note that this is barely more than the trainee wage provided by the government. In essence, it is nothing more than a short-term wage subsidy without a long-term requirement to train these people, classified as so-called trainees, and to ensure that they gain a long-term career opportunity. There is, interestingly, also no requirement for the trainee to finish the training. There appears, however, to be a pretty large incentive—and this is the key issue—for employers to churn people through these positions for 13 weeks at a time without any long-term employment or training opportunity for the person selected as a trainee. I contend that these are very serious policy issues that we as a community have to focus on. Partnerships with learning institutions, alternatively, have the potential to provide opportunities to all regions, not just those that are electorally valuable to the Howard government.

Across a range of portfolios, the Howard government—as we all appreciate—has a new approach to government. That, in essence, rests on a premise that its responsibility and role in government is to provide funds to mates on the pretence of supporting problem regions or communities. There is an alternative approach. We all know that the Howard government approach only creates busy but unfocused local action. It creates, yes, lots of activity in the media. It takes—and this is what the government wants to achieve—people's minds off the real issues, the real challenges and the real problems confronting their local region, their state and the nation at large. It also unfortunately removes something that I regard as important to the challenge of solving problems at a local regional level: local control.

I think the community, beyond the coalition government, recognises that local people are capable of responding to local challenges. The problem is that the Howard government basically has the view—as can be seen by its policy mix—that local people should respond to outside influence rather than putting forward initiatives in a strategic, comprehensive and logical progression. These bribes also stifle enterprising initiative. With everyone busy doing the government's bidding on unproductive tasks, they have no time or energy left to think about innovative, local, sustainable, long-term solutions. It is enterprising initiatives engaging with the global economy that will drive regions forward and create long-term sustainable employment and training opportunities. These initiatives will create economic activity that stimulates employment, adds to our population and creates new service sector activity that can lead to sustainable growth for regions.

The time has come for the Australian community to send a message to the Howard government. That message is that the Howard government must learn that its prime responsibility is to support the process of being enterprising in regions. At a regional level, the culture should not be one of handouts, as that then breeds a culture of dependency on government handouts rather than working out local sustainable solutions for the purposes of growing the local economic cake, creating employment and training opportunities and thereby establishing a capacity to keep people in local regions.

In that context, if we are to make progress at a local regional level, providing infrastructure also supports the process of being enterprising. It enables businesses and communities to take the initiative to develop their own local solutions. It enables communities to generate and implement new ideas. Increased community capacity will encourage effective local leadership that can, in turn, galvanise the enterprise strength of the local community from within. It would bring the community together and make it worth while for its members to provide their own social capital. It would increase trust in the communities and boost cooperative action and innovative outcomes. Increased community capacity will also assist in building vital networks and partnerships in and between regional communities. It can lead to the creation of a momentum of local success breeding further local success, based on best practice initiatives in other regions. By bringing people together, we will enhance cooperation in the building of strong informal and formal networks and partnerships.

However, the problem is that the current government has continued its longstanding tradition of politically motivated handouts, without accountability, to a few, thereby dividing communities, partnerships and regions. All this does is reinforce a culture of dependency on government handouts. When it inevitably fails to achieve the stated objectives, this leads to a further loss of trust at a local level in the role of government.

Mr Melham —That's right.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —Without trust, as the member for Banks acknowledges, communities will not enter into the true partnerships that are required to sustain regional development. The crux of the debate is that, as a community, we have to accept that government does have a role to play in regional development in partnership with local communities and regions. Yet the Howard government's policies have effectively undermined confidence in government. Regional communities, as I know through my frequent travel around Australia, now recognise that the present government quick fix does little in making a region sustainable either now or in the future. The global economy is becoming more and more a knowledge economy. To participate in it—and this is what the debate today is about—people need knowledge and skills. They need a sense of community, a sense of place and a sense of pride in their local community. Government should help to enable people in the regions to gain these attributes and to successfully use them to maximise their development opportunities.

To participate in the knowledge economy, regions must develop social skills that enable them to develop strong local independent leadership. These leaders must be from the community, for the community and in the community. They must be able to work productively in the community at a local level. Importantly, local leadership will need to have or develop skills and to network with people and organisations from outside the community. People in communities and regions must also be able to work more closely together. Regional communities must develop a strong trust in each other. Based on trust and through subsequent cooperation, strong formal and informal networks, partnerships and clusters will emerge and we will get success, and success will breed further success at a local level.

People from regions must be able to harness strength from local leaders, local networks and partnerships and, importantly, there must be a local desire to interact and compete with the rest of the world. Therefore, they must build a strong local social capital base. At the end of the day, this requires local innovation and enterprise. Businesses will need to rise from the communities and harness the local people, local skills and knowledge to create economic and employment opportunities. They will also be skilled in identifying and building strategic partnerships with infrastructure such as is available at universities, TAFEs, local health services, interested private sector organisations, local sporting clubs, churches and so on.

What then is the government's role? The government's role in this vision is to provide the support to enable it to happen at a local level. You cannot do it from Canberra. Government must work closely with local communities to assist them in developing the necessary long-term strategies aimed at achieving these results. In doing this, we must acknowledge the individual circumstances of each local community. There is no one model or one quick fix.

It is our responsibility in doing so to give these communities time and strategic resources to achieve the outcomes that best fit locally. Genuine apprenticeships are part of this. Genuine apprenticeships with a strong emphasis on both on and off the job training over a number of years have been invaluable in building our nation for the future and have the capacity also to be invaluable in further building our nation in the 21st century. Apprenticeships have also been a vital link in the pathway for working families in Australia.

TAFE is just as important as university. Being a brickie or a hairdresser is just as important as being a lawyer or a doctor. For working families who have never sent a child off to university, the first step can often be in the trades. The next generation has often had more opportunity to take another step to actually support their children if they desire to go to university. We must never accept the view that universities are the start and finish of life. The trades are just as important. It does not matter what your background is or your family opportunities in the past, we as a community must encourage and support further opportunities in the trade areas around Australia. What a fantastic thing this is for Australian working families. It is something they can aspire to and something they are proud of. These traditional apprenticeships also provide important opportunities for regions as they stimulate enterprise and regional development.

I suggest that, unfortunately, this government has cheapened the system. It has set up a process of providing wage subsidies for business mates for churning under the guise of so-called training. Employers historically trained in Australia. The time has come for governments to actually try and encourage employers to do more on the training front rather than just depend on handouts—so-called subsidies to enable them to churn out workers to subsidise their local employment opportunities without long-term genuine commitment to training and career development.

In closing, I strongly support the second reading amendment moved by my colleague the member for Grayndler. The government's lack of action in following through on election promises and the negative impact of their policies on young Australians must be condemned. Let us have further support for ANTA and for the good work being done by the state and territory governments to create long-term commitments by employers to training, and in doing so to broaden our trades base, especially in the traditional trades area, on which we are going backwards at the moment. There are skill shortages in metropolitan and regional Australia in those traditional trades areas. Do not use subsidies to subsidise employers. Let us have genuine training. (Time expired)