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Tuesday, 14 June 2005
Page: 86

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (8:17 PM) —In finishing his contribution to the second reading debate on the Skilling Australia’s Workforce Bill 2005 and the Skilling Australia’s Workforce (Repeal and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2005 the member for Hasluck made reference to the fact that there were key stakeholders involved in the process of developing these bills, which will be enacted if passed by both houses. However, one thing he failed to mention—and indeed all members of this parliament who belong to the political parties currently in government have failed to mention this—is that there has been no proper consultation with the states. This is an area where the states provide more funding than the Commonwealth. The employees of these institutions are not employed by the Commonwealth. With regard to the two major components of the Skilling Australia’s Workforce Bill 2005 the Commonwealth has shown an utter disregard for the states, an utter disregard for cooperation between tiers of government and an utter disregard for a collaborative approach to education and training.

Earlier, in her contribution, the shadow minister made it very clear that this is a watershed. This is a watershed because it is the death knell of cooperation between genuine stakeholders who are concerned about educating and training Australians. Those stakeholders realise that there is a causal link between skill acquisition and productivity in the workplace and are concerned that those important innovations that must be brought about in this key area of public policy are done so genuinely in a collaborative manner. These two bills before us today are an assault upon states’ rights. They are an assault upon what has been, for at least 13 years, a collaborative approach to training. One of the reasons that the government has chosen to do this—and this is the primary reason that the bills appear in the form they do currently—is that from 1 July the coalition will have effectively a majority in both houses of parliament. It seems to me that, given this rare occasion where a government manages to find itself in the position of having a majority in both houses, it no longer has regard for states’ rights. Indeed the Prime Minister has shown his disregard for reconciling differences with the premiers and the respective state governments in relation to very important areas.

The community is sick and tired of governments blaming each other in areas of public policy—blaming the states or blaming the Commonwealth for a particular failure to meet the expectations of the citizens of this country—but Labor do not believe that the best approach is to attempt to grab all of the jurisdiction in this area. As I said earlier, this legislation is an extraordinary assault on the states, given that most funding in this area is in fact not provided by the Commonwealth. We are seeing the end of what has been a collaborative approach. Through the passing of these bills we will see the end of the Australian National Training Authority. I am of the view that ANTA had flaws and that it could always be improved.

When I was working with and was a member of, for example, the Australian Local Government Training board and dealing with ANTA, I held the view that there were better ways in which we could be developing competencies—that is, measurements of skills. I did not always agree with the way in which ANTA approached matters, but I do not think it is right to throw the baby out with the bathwater in this area, because what we had with ANTA was a tripartite approach to vocational training to ensure that the skills of this country were suitably high for us to be able to compete globally. That was the expectation and the intention of ANTA. It did not always meet its mark, but we have been left instead with nothing. We have been left with an absence of policy to bring together the relevant stakeholders of vocational training to work out what is required by workplaces in this nation.

Over the last five or more years every objective commentator has been warning this government about Australia’s lack of workplace skills. There are skills we have that are currently not in demand—and that happens from time to time in an evolving economy—and there are skills we do not have that are currently in demand. But the government has failed to anticipate those skill requirements and, as a result, has left us short of the skills that are required to compete internationally. Every objective commentator has remarked upon that. When listing the priorities of organisations, surveys conducted by employer bodies have found on each and every occasion that the No. 1 problem confronting employers is a lack of skills in areas of demand, in the new economies. These failures by the government are not going to be solved by bashing ANTA, by abolishing a tripartite body or by obsessing about the government’s industrial relations agenda.

We know that this Prime Minister and this government like to obsess about industrial relations. This government has a hatred of and an enmity for unions that has been unparalleled since Federation. Since Federation no other government has shown such contempt for the entitlement of employees to organise collectively if they so wish. Indeed, that is written in this legislation. It has again insidiously found its way into an education and training bill. It is quite remarkable. If I were to think about the minister who may have been involved in drafting this bill, I might have thought it was the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. I may reasonably have been mistaken and thought that this bill on education and training is a bill about industrial relations because one of the fundamental planks of this bill is a provision that will force employers in a given industry—in this case, the education sector—to offer Australian workplace agreements to their employees if they want their funding. Indeed, they will not get their funding, I would contend, if they do not accede to the provisions of this bill.

That is a very serious step, even for this government. When I compare its record and its attitudes towards working people and unions, I do not compare them with those of Labor. I do not compare this government’s views with our views of a fair system, which believes in tripartitism, fairness and having a decent and independent umpire. To get some measure of its radical attitude and its hostility towards organised labour, I compare this government with recent coalition governments, including the Fraser government and the Menzies government. I conclude—and I am sure it is very hard for anyone to argue otherwise—that this government stands out as being one that is clearly obsessed about destroying the right of employees to collectively bargain.

As has been alluded to by the shadow minister for education and other speakers on this side of the House, proposed section 12(1)(b) effectively means that all TAFEs will be forced to offer Australian workplace agreements to their staff. That is interesting, because another Commonwealth law says that, pursuant to the Workplace Relations Act, the instrument to be used to settle a dispute or to make an agreement is to be determined by the parties to that agreement or dispute. I am paraphrasing, but in effect the Workplace Relations Act says that it is not for third parties—not this Commonwealth government, nor indeed any other party—to compel parties to an agreement as to what agreement that would be. It does not place Australian workplace agreements above collective agreements, whether they are non-union or not.

I understand the media—some deliberately, probably some unwittingly—quite often think this is an argument between the right to a collective union agreement and the right to an AWA. I am suggesting it is more than that. This is a right to choose a section 170LK agreement, which is a collective non-union agreement; a section 170LJ agreement, which is an agreement to which a union or unions are a party; or an AWA. What the legislation has never said and still does not say is that another party can bribe, compel, force or bludgeon parties to an agreement—whichever instrument they choose—into picking a certain type of agreement.

This is a very unusual bill but it may well be one of many we will see this term that force parties to enter into arrangements they do not want to enter into. The Prime Minister likes to get up on his soapbox—and he is of a stature that probably makes that all the better for him—and say, ‘Third parties should not intervene in agreements between industrial parties.’ But here we have a government introducing a set of bills which, if enacted, would compel another party to offer AWAs to their employees. We have a remarkable, and I would say unprecedented, situation of using education and training to force through an IR agenda.

We have seen a pattern of this being foreshadowed since this parliamentary term commenced, and we have seen the same sort of approach mentioned by the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Indeed, we have seen the Minister for Education, Science and Training and the Minister for Vocational and Technical Education attempting to spend Commonwealth moneys—taxpayers’ money, by the way; it does not come out of their back pockets—in a way that would force people into a contract—because that is what a registered agreement effectively is—that they may not want to enter into. It is a very coercive and prescriptive approach to legislation, and it will sully any positive impacts that the government may have in areas of public policy. If they are always trying to push an IR agenda in an area of policy that is not related to IR then I think they do themselves and this country an injustice.

It is also important to note and to return to the fundamental problems confronting this country in relation to skills. The abolition of ANTA will clearly occur as a result of the enactment of these bills. The imposition of IR dogma upon other parties will of course occur if these bills are passed. But what we need to know is: what measures are in place to meet the skills crisis we have in this country? That is what the government should be focusing on—not on what mean and tricky ways they can find to force parties into agreements but on how to fix the skill shortages.

Working for Australia’s future: increasing participation in the workforce was tabled in this House in March this year but has yet to be debated fully. This is a report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Workforce Participation. Much of the work of the inquiry that culminated in this report was done in the last term, and a lot of the hard work in collating the evidence and putting it together into a report was undertaken by the committee members early in this term. I have already commented on the efforts made by government members and Labor members in coming together to produce what I think is a very important document.

I probably do not have to tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, that the area where we differed was industrial relations. There were a few efforts to find ways to, as I think the government likes to call it, make ‘flexible’ workplace arrangements. We know that the word ‘flexible’ is pretty much a one-way street. But there are a number of areas—and I have commended the government members on this, and in particular the member for Deakin, the chair of the committee—where we agreed. Overwhelmingly, we agreed in relation to some of the problems confronting increasing participation in the work force. At page 97 of the report, under the heading ‘Skills shortages’, the committee members unanimously made a number of points. Firstly we indicated, following on from an earlier chapter:

Another important trend in Australian employment has been the emergence of a number of skills shortages which place a substantial burden on the economy through lost productivity. Manpower Services (Australia) believes that Australia risks economic irrelevance in the global economy and a lower quality of life.

Manpower Services was one of the witnesses we had before the inquiry. The report continues:

Increasing educational participation is an important factor in increasing labour force participation. There has been an increase in the proportion of higher skilled jobs as a share of employment growth in recent years.

The report goes on to state:

Service industries have increased in importance to the Australian economy while the goods-related industries have decreased in importance ... In rural and regional areas, the importance of agriculture, forestry and fishing industries in particular has decreased, which means that people often need to learn new skills to remain competitive in the labour market.

The report then goes through further evidence about the deficiencies of skills in this country. This is the work of 10 members of this parliament, six of whom are government members. The committee recommends:

... that the Australian Government in cooperation with the State and Territory Governments, industry, unions and educational bodies expand programs to maximise the uptake of apprenticeships in areas of skills shortages and ensure that the training is relevant to the apprentices, the businesses and the industry.

Further, the report states:

The Committee recommends the Australian Government establish, as a priority, a dedicated cross-portfolio approach to develop a coordinated long-term strategy, including a series of newly funded programs and defined outcomes, to address national skills shortages.

There is not a dearth of ideas on the other side; it just seems to me that they are not able to get through the Prime Minister and through the minister’s own obsession with industrial relations. If we started to embrace some of the ideas that government and Labor members have discussed in this report, it would go a long way to fix the problems we have in this country. (Time expired)