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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 50

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR (5:40 PM) —Welcome back to the session, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams; as usual, you are looking resplendent in the chair. The Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill 2006 is one that the opposition will be supporting. However, I must say that I support the second reading amendment which has been moved by the member for Jagajaga in her speech to the House on this matter.

We ought to cut to the chase in all this, because this initiative, according to the government’s own description, was the centrepiece policy on skilling Australians. Those are not my words; they are the words of government members. They told the Australian people that the Australian technical colleges initiative was their centrepiece policy on skilling young Australians. They announced it some 20 months ago as the government’s response to a skilling crisis which the opposition had pointed out was evident for years. Proposing this initiative was a knee-jerk response by the Prime Minister. It was not well thought out and not really attuned to meeting the needs of the Australian economy at this point in time, so let us judge the government on its record.

Some 21 months after it was announced that we were going to have 25 colleges, four have been opened, as I understand it, with only 300 students. If this is the centrepiece policy on skilling Australians for the challenges this economy now faces, then heaven help us all. You cannot get a greater example of useless incompetence than this. We have some 300 people enrolled in these colleges when in fact the government told us that they would have at least 1,200 enrolled in four colleges. The government’s commitment was that there would be 300 students in each college and that there would be 25 colleges—7,500 students to meet Australia’s skill crisis—but we have 300-odd of them. I say to the members opposite: you have got to be joking! You cannot defend this proposal. This is absolute, utter incompetence from a government that was told not just by the opposition but by business in this country, by unions in this country and by the community of Australia that they wanted investment in education and training of their young. And what do we have? We have a billion dollars wasted on a war in Iraq, with the policy failing as we speak, and a billion dollars blown up against the wall in useless advertising to prop up the government’s political position over a decade—and this is called modern government in Australia. If you come up with a policy proposal and you put it into the political ring, I think there is an expectation that you will do what you say. That is a reasonable expectation.

I will debate with members opposite the concept of these Australian technical colleges, but if the government says that it will introduce 25 of them and that they will have 300 students, the government should at least do it. It is absolute, utter incompetence. That is the problem with this government. For too long this government has got away with a breathtaking incompetence behind the very bland statements that this Prime Minister has made about the Australian economy.

Let us revisit some of the facts on the Australian economy, because it is the economic argument that we are talking about here today—how best to prepare Australia for the next 10, 15 and 20 years, and what is going to be the foundation of our prosperity. We on the opposition side have been arguing that one foundation of that prosperity is in the skilling of Australians—on continuing education for all Australians, particularly young Australians, giving people the skills that will equip them in a flexible workplace to cope with an ever-changing global economic environment. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that that is the imperative. Every other country comparable to Australia realises it and has ramped up its expenditure in the skilling of its people.

What has the Prime Minister done? The smirk on the faces of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer! What have they done? They have reduced expenditure in the technical education and higher education sector. They have exposed this country, like never before, to the economic winds of change that are swirling around the globe and that will consume us if this government is allowed to continue with this incompetence.

The bill we are debating tonight brings funding for the proposed 25 Australian technical colleges forward from 2008-09 to 2006-07. The total level of funding remains the same. We have supported this in principle. We are not going to deny this expenditure to the education system. But we have been critical of the narrow scope and the now bungled implementation of the government’s policy.

I have spoken previously in this House about this proposal’s flawed concepts—for example, standards and quality issues. Why will parents choose to send their children to these new colleges? By the time students reach year 11 and year 12 they have had very well established affiliations with other students and have a career path in mind in other institutions. There are day-to-day practical school administration issues; there is an assumption that there are employers who will freely embrace the concept and provide time and resources to train these young people for one day a week; and there is an assumption that local businesses, industry, education and training providers, parents and the wider community will all cooperate in the development of these colleges. That is a simplistic proposition, to say the least.

At the end of the day this is a futile enterprise that demonstrates clearly the ad hoc nature of the Howard government’s policies in relation to education and training, immigration, industry and the existing TAFE system. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Jagajaga, has proposed a second reading amendment. I am going to read it out because it encapsulates all of the argument here and it is worth putting it on the public record again. The proposed amendment begins:

... whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government for:

(1)   creating a skills crisis during their ten long years in office ...

That is a fact. There is a skills crisis. This government has been in power for over 10 years. Those opposite have had their hands on the levers. And everybody in this economy says that there is a massive skills crisis. The amendment continues:

(2)   its continued failure to provide the necessary opportunities for Australians to get the training they need to get a decent job and meet the skills needs of the economy ...

That is a fact again. Some 50,000 people are being rejected from our skilling institutions—young people who cannot get a spot in them because this government has curtailed the funding to those institutions. The amendment continues:

(3)   reducing the overall percentage of the Federal Budget spent on vocational education and training, and allowing this percentage of spending to further decline over the forward estimate period ...

How dumb can you get? How absolutely dumb can a coalition government get? I will argue with this government on a whole range of policy issues, but this is one we ought to agree on—the skilling of young Australians. You are a dumb, incompetent government when it comes to the skilling of Australians. The amendment continues:

(4)   its incompetent handling of the Australian Technical Colleges initiative as evidenced by only four out of twenty five colleges being open for business, enrolling fewer than 300 students ...

That is self-evident, isn’t it—their incompetence in this regard? The amendment continues:

(5)   failing to be open and accountable about the operations of the Australian Technical Colleges, including details of extra student enrolments, funding levels for the individual colleges, course structures and programs.

(6)   denying local communities their promised Australian Technical College because of their ideological industrial relations requirements; and

(7)   failing to provide enough extra skills training so that Australia can meet the expected shortfall of 100,000 skilled workers by 2010 ...

Let us not kid ourselves on this. Australia has a massive skills crisis and this initiative will not even scrape the surface in addressing it. Where does the Australian economy go? Where do communities go? Where do young people go? Where does our prosperity go as others grow around us and consolidate their hold on future prosperity?

Government members will say, ‘There is an inherent contradiction in what the honourable member for Corio is saying, because this economy has been prosperous for the last 14 years.’ Who gave you the prosperity? Labor did.

Mr Hunt —I know! You were—

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —The honourable parliamentary secretary may be dumb when it comes to skilling issues, so let me spell it out for him. We gave you four per cent growth over four years. Is that a fact or is it not?

Mr Hunt —And a $96 billion debt.

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —Are you so much of a political imbecile that you do not understand the economic history? We gave you four per cent growth for four years. Is the honourable member going to debate that particular proposition? He will not because he cannot; it is economic fact.

Mr Hunt interjecting

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —The honourable member talks about inflation. Labor broke the back of Liberal inflation. You left us with 11 per cent and we reduced it to two per cent. If the honourable member wants to dispute that and stay in fairyland, I am quite happy for him to do so. The honourable member for Lyons understands this because he was around then, but the parliamentary secretary was not around then so he likes to argue from the point of recent history. I am giving you the economic history of Australia when your former Treasurer—the Prime Minister, Mr Howard—relinquished the reins of government. Labor broke the back of Liberal inflation, Labor laid the basis for the low interest rate regime, and Labor gave you four years of four per cent growth. But what did your Prime Minister give Labor? He gave us an economy that was going backwards and losing jobs. He gave us 11 per cent inflation. He gave us interest rates of 11 per cent. Of course you do not mention the 20-odd per cent that they went to while Mr Howard was Treasurer, when the Liberal Party was in power.

We could go into a range of other areas if the honourable member wants to debate modern Australian economic history—I am quite happy to refresh his memory—but the simple fact of the matter is that the Australian economy is on a knife edge. We are saddled with debt. We are labouring under interest rate increases as a result of the debt that Australians are carrying. That is not my analysis; that is the analysis of your Treasurer and your Prime Minister. They said that high levels of debt would feed directly into interest rates. And what did the government do? It promised it would bring them down but it did not.

One thing you can be absolutely certain of is that the government will either not address the skills crisis that Australia faces or it will put a proposal into the ring that it cannot deliver on. Another certainty is that interest rates will rise under the Liberals because, since the last election, there have already been three increases. Some buffoon on the other side, who happens to be a member of the executive, said that those interest rates have been overdramatised. I say to him: come down to my electorate of Corio and see the families that are struggling now because their penalty payments have been removed by your industrial relations system, resulting in a contraction in their incomes. They are now forced to work in places away from Geelong. They have to drive to Melbourne and fork out more for their petrol every day. But not only that, they also have to suffer Liberal interest rate rises. They are not Labor interest rate rises; they are Liberal interest rate rises. When they go to the supermarket they face Liberal increases in inflation.

The reason why we have an inflationary situation in this country is that this government neglected to invest in skills, resulting in pressure on Australian businesses. That is the reality. You can talk about a commodities boom that is sucking skilled workers to the west in Queensland but the simple fact is that 21 months ago the government said it would establish 25 colleges and it has established only four. The government said there would be 300 enrollees in each of those colleges—a total of 7,500—and there is a total of 300. That is your record: high Liberal debt and increasing Liberal inflation. The certainty that Australians now face, courtesy of the coalition, is a rise in interest rates, which burdens households, farmers and workers, yet you have the gall to get up and say that the state of the Australian economy and the prosperity that Australians enjoy is the result of all your work, when in fact you were left with four years of four per cent growth and a low inflation rate.

The Australian people are finally waking up to the fact that this prosperity can be very illusionary when their household incomes are under pressure from high Liberal interest rates, from high Liberal inflation and from petrol prices that are a result of the government’s failed energy policy. When the Australian people look at their kids, who were supposed to go to these colleges and be skilled, they see a skilling process that does not meet the needs of the Australian economy. In a knee-jerk reaction, the government has delivered immigration policies that enable workers to be brought into this country on low rates, and the kids of Australian families have to compete with those people in the marketplace under the government’s industrial relations system. Nobody is under any illusion. I say to the honourable member opposite: don’t try to hide behind the economic facts. I am quite happy to debate them with you.

Mr Hunt —We wouldn’t dream of using economic facts!

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —I have just used a few.

Mr Hunt —What was unemployment?

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —I could quote to you 11 per cent unemployment that your Prime Minister left us. Would you like to discuss that?

Mr Hunt —I would.

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —I am quite happy to discuss that. I am quite happy to discuss that, while unemployment was at 11 per cent, there was also the 11 per cent inflation rate, the 11 per cent interest rates and the economy that was losing jobs by the thousands every day. I am quite happy to discuss that. But when is this government going to face up to the reality that this country needs its young people to be skilled? We need that so that our economy can compete in the future in an economic environment that will be very taxing for this government. The government has failed on this very important policy initiative. We all know when this policy initiative was cobbled together: it was cobbled together before an election as a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that Australia still faces. (Time expired)