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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 37

Mr KATTER (4:39 PM) —I rise to speak on the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill 2006. I am working on a book on Australian history, and some of the things I have read are very interesting. The journalist and historian Paul Kelly, in describing John McEwen as a patriot with very strong convictions, used a phrase that I memorised. He said that John McEwen was a politician before the age of television politicians, who are characterised by a certain ‘vacuous lucidity’. I thought that was a delightful phrase which is very relevant to the debate we are having today. I do not know about other people’s experiences of the last election campaign, but I found that health was a constant and continuous issue, and another issue was tradesmen. It did not matter whether it was Karumba, a little town in the Gulf of Carpentaria; Julia Creek; the big industrial city of Mount Isa; Innisfail, in the heartland of the coast; or the burgeoning northern suburbs of Townsville that I represent—all of them had the same cry: ‘We are desperately short of tradesmen.’

Just a couple of days ago a tradesman charged me $45 an hour. I did not want to say to him that I was very pleased that he charged as low as that. The free market system in this country has dictated that a lawyer, when he graduates, probably gets between $35,000 and $45,000 a year. Up my way, a plumber, when he graduates, can get maybe 50 per cent more than that. So the marketplace is sending out a signal. But if there is no means by which you can become qualified as a tradesman then you are in desperate trouble. This brings me back to ‘vacuous lucidity’. I have heard speaker after speaker say in this place that we have a very serious problem with tradesmen. Being a simple country boy from Cloncurry, I looked at the TAFEs where we train people.

When I was elected as the federal member for Kennedy in the early 1990s—and I hope my memory serves me correctly here—there was a TAFE in Mareeba that turned out skilled tradesmen—electricians, plumbers and carpenters; a TAFE in Innisfail that turned out these people; and a TAFE in Mount Isa that turned out these people. I have attended graduation ceremonies at Innisfail—I think I may have even attended one before I was a member of parliament—and about 700 people were there. I doubt whether you would get 100 people now. And they are not writing home to mummy to say they are a qualified diesel fitter; the diplomas they are getting now are in social welfare, community training and counselling services. Whilst most of these courses are very valuable, they are simply a triumph of the self-evident. The average mother who has raised a family—a person who has lived in the world—would have a very good working knowledge of relationships. But ordinary people are not qualified to be a diesel fitter, a motor mechanic, an electrician, a plumber or a carpenter. These are highly skilled trades. Even elementary things such as bricklaying are not taught in the TAFE courses. The courses deal with ethereal issues that are not of practical value to the area in any shape or form.

Having said that, when I became the member for Kennedy in the early 1990s, there were three huge buildings—probably about $30 million or $40 million worth of installations—in those three towns. They had a cadre of lecturers and trainers who talked together and increased their mutual knowledge and understanding of the various fields in which they worked. We looked forward, for example, to the aquaculture training group at Innisfail becoming one of the most advanced knowledge groups in the country in the field of aquaculture, and I include the universities in that. They were in the very heartland of the prawn and fish farming industries. We had these buildings that are now empty. They advertised and placed articles in the newspaper saying, ‘How are we going to use these empty buildings?’ The graduation ceremonies consist of nobody. Those lecturers and trainers who lived in Innisfail, Mareeba and Mount Isa no longer have jobs there.

The trades university, one of the little universities that existed in those three towns—or cities, if you like—no longer exists or functions that way at all. In fact, in Mount Isa it has now been incorporated with the local high school. That is what has become of this once magnificent TAFE, which we thought might become one of the great schools of mind for Australia. That was our dream and the dream of the head of TAFE at the time. The head of the TAFE at Innisfail, Julia Thaggard, had a dream at the time that they would ultimately be one of the outstanding places of learning in the world in the field of prawn and fish farming, and they were well on the way to doing that. This semester there is no course in prawn or fish farming at all at the Innisfail TAFE. I hear, though I cannot confirm, that discussions are under way that, like Mount Isa, it will also become integrated with the high school—or ‘sort of’ integrated.

We get back to our vacuous lucidity. Everyone in here talks about training. I do not know who is being trained. I see the amount of expenditure and then I find out what it is being expended on. It is being expended on social worker courses. That is where all the money is going at the Innisfail TAFE. I do not want to knock that. Thank heavens we have something going on there. What I want to say is that people are not being trained whatsoever in the essential trades that we require for our standard of living. The training program being undertaken is a bit scary. Basically they say: ‘You at this sugar mill or you at Mount Isa Mines develop a training course and we’ll stamp it as approved. Then we’ll say that that person who has done your course is now a diesel fitter.’ He might be qualified to do some fitting work in the lead smelter in Mount Isa, but when he goes to get a job at a mine in the Gulf Country or in the Cloncurry area he knows nothing about fitting in that sort of industry. If he wants to go across to a sugar mill, or a trained sugar mill person wants to go across to a mine, which occurs all the time in North Queensland, he has none of those essential skills. He has been trained narrowly in the interests of his employer—and I am not knocking the employers here. He has been trained in the interests of Mount Isa Mines owners, Xstrata, or in the interests of Bundaberg Sugar in the case of the mills.

I must emphasise that I am not criticising either of those corporations. I have done so from time to time, but I am not doing that here. They naturally will undertake whatever they need to undertake to fulfil their own narrow business needs. It was the job of government to say: ‘We will develop a group of people, whom we will certify, who can work as electricians, diesel fitters or whatever the skill may be.’ I might add that we have a lot of foundries—what in days past we used to call blacksmiths, and I think that is still the best name for them—such as Wilkinson’s at Atherton, the Wangan foundry and Camuglia’s at South Johnstone, near Wangan outside Innisfail. Each of these firms requires highly skilled tradesmen. No matter how much they work at it they cannot train all their own people and hold onto them. People do a trade and then they want to move around and see the world or chase big money out in the mining fields for a few years, and they might come back but they might not. The Wilkinsons and the Camuglias—and the Mount Isa Mines and the sugar mills of South Johnstone and Tully—need to be able to attract qualified people. They need to know that these people are genuinely qualified. There is no longer any facility that facilitates this. We have a mickey mouse arrangement.

It has always fascinated me that the great proponents of the free-market system in this place decided that we should have multiskilling, which serves the very narrow interests of the employer, but really there is no-one skilled in a trade. Their small level of knowledge over a wide area does not qualify them to do a proper job in a narrower but much more demanding knowledge environment, such as that of an electrician. So multiskilling led the TAFEs in Queensland down the pathway to partially training in the narrow interests of the employer without providing the sort of training that a university provides. We constantly hear people say that workers should go into trades. I do not know how you qualify as a tradesman except to serve the narrow interests of the employer, and that does not qualify you as a tradesman to move from one industry to another—and I use the North Queensland example, where we have foundries, engineering works, sugar mills, mines and giant processing plants such as Yabulu that process nickel et cetera. It does not enable workers to move from one industry to the next; their qualifications are far too narrow to achieve that end.

In Queensland, Vince Lester—he worked against me at the last election and the election before last; I am holding no candle for him personally—brought in Bill O’Brien, one of the three O’Brien brothers who ran what I think may have been the second biggest wheat-milling and flour-milling operation in Australia. They always said it was hard to buy a loaf of bread in Queensland without the O’Briens getting a quid out of it. Theirs was a very dynamic company and one of the great dynamos in that company was Bill O’Brien. So Vince Lester took Bill O’Brien and made him head of the TAFEs in Queensland and he very much made the TAFEs related to and serving the interests of the great industries of Queensland. But he did not do it by sacrificing their ability to produce fully trained tradesmen that could move from one industry to the next. In fact, the TAFEs prospered under him. It was after his period of time that I came into this place. The Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland had fallen and it had been replaced by a Labor government—so it was really after his time—and the TAFEs were still going strongly. The period I described when 600 to 700 people were turning up to graduation ceremonies in Mount Isa, Innisfail and, I presume, Mareeba as well—that period of great growth in Queensland—was a result of the eighties under Bill O’Brien.

I do not know of a single company in Queensland that complained about those arrangements. But we then moved into this airy-fairy multiskilling, where everyone is multiskilled but no-one is highly skilled enough to actually perform as a tradesman and there is no facility to train them. There is no facility in the Kennedy electorate of 200,000 people. There is not a single facility that now trains a plumber or an electrician or a diesel fitter or anyone in any of these trades. They still do some low-level training. They teach them how to ride a backhoe or drive a truck, but that is the extent of the actual practical training—and the TAFEs were for practical training; they were not social welfare areas. It does not cost you anything to have a social welfare area but, if you are going to train someone as a fitter and turner, you have got to have lathes, you have got to have people to look after those lathes and people that know how to work those lathes. You have got to have highly skilled people in near enough to permanent employment working all of the time. In fact, there were those people working all the time. I do not know, but clearly the expenditure on TAFEs has increased. I would not say ‘dramatically’ but I would say ‘significantly’, and I accept the government’s arguments here. But I am asking myself where the hell the money is going, because as far as Kennedy is concerned—and I suspect this is the same for other electorates throughout Australia—there is no longer an ability to train any of the basic skilled tradesmen that we need inside the Kennedy area. Not one single TAFE performs that function.

We see with escalating intensity the very similar situation that arose in South Africa, where the country brought in a myriad of people from north of South Africa. They were very poorly paid when they were brought in. They basically worked for nothing, and they lived in towns like Soweto. Suddenly the people woke up one morning and those that were South African suddenly realised that they were a very small minority group in their own country. What is happening here is that we have liberalised the immigration laws—and I for one stood in this place and said it was a good thing. But I would have never conceived in the wildest stretch of my imagination that any government would remove the award system and related arrangements. I quote that very great Australian, John McEwen, who said, ‘I always believed in the award system’—he thought it was a good system—‘and it delivered to the people.’ He said that if a worker enjoyed a decent wage and if, through tariffs, the secondary industries enjoyed a good income, then it was only right and proper that farmers should also get support through some of these arrangements. He said very proudly, ‘Every single industry in Australia now has statutory marketing arrangements of a significant size that deliver to those people a moderately acceptable income.’ He said that when he left this place—and it was profoundly true.

But we now find that our tradesmen have to come from overseas because there are no tradesmen being qualified in Australia. I cannot speak with authority for the whole of Australia. All I can speak on behalf of are the 200,000 people that live in the electorate of Kennedy, and there is no training whatsoever there now, so we have to bring them in from overseas. I do not know how many people are going to come in from overseas. The opposition in this place has pointed out, quite rightly, that in Australia now there are meatworks half of whose employees are from Brazil, Indonesia or the Philippines. Hardly a week goes by in my electorate without people wanting to bring more people in. All of the tradesman and a very large proportion of the professional people in North Queensland, whether they be doctors or mining engineers, are coming from overseas. But now we see a huge flood of unskilled workers and tradesmen coming into this country. There are two reasons for this. One is the abolition of the award system. Previously there was no incentive to bring this cheap labour from overseas into Australia, but now there is. Previously you still had to pay them the award whether or not they were from Third World countries. You still had to pay them the award as if they were an Australian. Before they had to pay the award but now they do not. There is a huge incentive to bring into this place people from Third World countries. That is exacerbated dramatically by the fact that we have very low levels of skilled tradesmen in this country. That increases the movement towards massive numbers of people being brought in from overseas. Our young people that were once being trained in their home towns are no longer being trained in their home towns. (Time expired)