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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 54


Ms KING (6:00 PM) —It is a great delight to follow the honourable member for Corio in this debate; despite reports to the contrary, he appears to be in very fine voice this evening. I think he absolutely pinged the government on this issue. He pinged the government in relation to its Australian technical colleges but, in particular, he also pinged the government on the problems we are facing across the board in our economy at the moment: the skills crisis and a failure by the government to invest in skills training, innovation, and industry plans for manufacturing. The member for Corio completely pinged the government’s record on economic policy.

I rise to speak on the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill 2006. If ever we had an example of the Howard government’s ineptitude it is in the management of the Australian technical colleges, but more starkly it is in the complete and utter failure to avert or address the skills crisis in this country. We face some very serious challenges in our economy at the moment. There is a shortage of skilled workers and a lack of investment, both public and private, in infrastructure, and that is nowhere more starkly evidenced than by Telstra’s decision to pull out of high-speed broadband. There is no innovation or industry plan, particularly for our manufacturing sector, which those of us in regional economies are so desperately reliant upon. There is no plan to boost productivity, to develop our skills or to bring down our critical levels of foreign and household debt. The government has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to these issues. It has been paralysed by leadership tensions since the 2004 election and has been unable or unwilling to deal with the major challenges facing our economy.

The second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister for education goes to the heart of the government’s failure on this issue. The government has failed to avoid a skills crisis, through its ineptitude during its 10 long years in office. It likes to blame everybody else for economic problems. It likes to share in the glory when there are economic good times, but when there are economic problems it tries to go back 10 years. The government has been in office for 10 years, but what has it been doing to address these issues? It has failed to provide the required opportunities for Australians to access training that will ensure their future employment and ensure that the future skills needs of this country are met.

We need training now to meet the projected shortfall of 100,000 skilled workers by 2010. The government has failed to commit to vocational education and training. It has not maintained the overall percentage of the federal budget that is allocated to vocational training and education. It has in fact allowed this percentage to reduce over the forward estimates period. How short-sighted can you get? Its one policy solution to the skills crisis, which is the policy solution lauded by the Howard government at the 2004 election as ‘the centrepiece of our drive to tackle skills shortages and’—wait for it—‘revolutionise vocational education and training throughout Australia’, is proving to be an abject failure.

Of the proposed 25 Australian technical colleges, how many are actually open? There are just four open for business today. Of the promised 7,500 students to be enrolled, working towards their trade in a school based apprenticeship, how many are actually enrolled today? There are 300. Of these 300 students, how many are extra students convinced to undertake trades training because of the technical college initiative rather than students who would have been enrolled in these institutions or like institutions anyway? We do not know, because the government is too embarrassed to talk about it.

I supported the original bill in this place, which introduced the Australian technical colleges, because investing in trades and technical education is of critical importance both to the individuals involved and to the Australian economy. I supported the original bill to establish the colleges, despite the lack of detail available and despite the flaws in the government’s proposal. And I will support this bill before us today which attempts to get the money for the colleges spent more quickly.

But, unfortunately, to date the government has not made a great deal of progress on its Australian technical colleges, and it has been pretty reluctant to provide much detail about any progress. The Minister for Vocational and Technical Education has an opportunity in the consideration in detail stage of this bill to give more information about the progress on the colleges. From what we have been able to glean so far, they are simply taking too long and the reality of the colleges nowhere near matches the government’s overblown rhetoric about them.

In Ballarat we were pretty disappointed to see that we were not considered for one of these technical colleges, not because we so desperately wanted one of the government’s colleges but because we would have been grateful and grabbed with both hands the opportunity to access federal funding to address our skill crisis and our high teenage unemployment rate. We have been screaming out for assistance in Ballarat, but the government has now so highly politicised its decision-making process that it allocated these colleges not on the basis of need but on the basis of patronage.

There has been absolutely no transparency about how the locations for these colleges were selected. Were the locations selected on the basis of need in relation to lack of training availability, apprenticeship numbers in a given region, unfilled job vacancies, employment prospects or industry demands? Who would know? This is a cobbled together policy, with the 25 locations announced in the context of a federal election.

The skills crisis is of particular concern in the electorate of Ballarat. There are simply not enough individuals in the traditional trades and there is a high youth unemployment rate, which is running at around 25 per cent. I know that there is a great deal of anger in the region about the fact that Ballarat was overlooked as a location for an Australian technical college by the Howard government, despite the situation facing the region. There was no transparency around the allocation process, and certainly there is now no transparency about the apparent reallocation process for these 25 technical colleges.

The minister has recently been on ABC radio in Ballarat stating that Ballarat now may be considered for one of the Australian technical colleges. He has raised some hopes in the community about that. It is not because he has suddenly seen the light and realised that, if the government were being transparent about locating these colleges on the basis of need, Ballarat would have been allocated one in the first place but because he cannot get them up and running in other areas. With only four of the 25 colleges operating, the minister now has to scrabble around for alternative areas.

If the government announces a college for Ballarat, we will welcome it because, frankly, we need federal funding to assist us in dealing with our massive skills crisis—a crisis created by this government and one that it has done very little to address—and in dealing with our high teenage unemployment rate. We will gladly take your money, Minister. But, if the proposal seeks to enforce the minister’s narrow criteria and model over existing training structures in Ballarat, it will be absolutely doomed to fail.

In Ballarat, we already have a strong VET and VCAL in schools program. We have terrific secondary colleges. Sebastopol College, which used to be Sebastopol Technical School, after years of declining enrolment now provides a huge range of options for young people. Whether the kids from there go into university, stream into TAFE, go into arts or go into their own businesses, there is room for every one them at Sebastopol College. It is seen as one of the desirable schools in my electorate. Sebastopol College, Mount Clear College, Ballarat Secondary College’s Barkly Street campus and Ballarat High School have for some time been offering pathways into trade and vocational education and training. These colleges are working together. They have specialised in areas where they know that they have strengths. There is transportability of kids between the four secondary colleges if they do not have the equipment or the training for a particular trade.

These schools, alongside the state government, have invested in upgrading equipment for vocational training and they provide that training to many private schools in my electorate. These schools have got together with the department of education, the local TAFE, other training providers, local industry and the local learning exchange and are implementing a model to increase trade pathways for young people. The Bracks Labor government has funded a technical centre for school-age young people at the TAFE to improve pathways into trade training.

If the government were really serious about assisting industry and employers to do something about the skills crisis, it would invest in the existing structures and programs in Ballarat—not seek to create or duplicate those that do exist. It would fund our secondary schools better so that they could have better trade training facilities. It would invest in TAFE and ensure that other training providers had better opportunities to develop. It would not seek to impose what is proving to be an unworkable model on a local community and pitting providers and schools against each other. Rather it would look at what already exists and assist the community in developing a model that provides better funding and coordination of existing activities.

The minister has been on ABC radio telling the people of Ballarat that he will be considering them for an Australian technical college. He has raised hopes and expectations in the Ballarat community. I am not holding my breath on that, I have to say. It is unfortunate that, if we get an Australian technical college, it will be at the expense of another community that has not managed to convince the government that, despite local interest, they have a proposal that the government deigns to fund in their local community.

I look forward to the government’s announcement. If the minister is going to make an announcement about a technical college in Ballarat, which he said on ABC radio he is seriously considering, then let us make sure that it is a proper announcement that builds on the existing structures and existing programs that many people have worked very hard to establish to provide trade pathways in my electorate.

The real problem with the Australian technical colleges is that they are based on a policy that was poorly thought through from the start. The policy was cobbled together in an election context. The department—and I feel very sorry for them—have very little experience in this area. They have been scrabbling around ever since the announcement of this policy, trying to implement it and to make sense of what was, in essence, a sound grab—a very limited sound grab in the context of an election policy. The department have been charged with the task of making it real. I have not envied them that task at all.

We see in this the failure of the government to get more than four colleges up and running, the low numbers of students who are enrolled in them and the rejection of proposals from local groups where the need for a college is clear. The minister has threatened to withdraw the promised colleges in some areas, possibly to Ballarat’s advantage—but, as I said, I am not holding my breath. Colleges have been held up because they do not want to comply with the government’s extreme industrial relations agenda or because it involves the local TAFE. What we have seen with this cobbled together policy is the government unable to implement it in the time frame that it had hoped to do so. There has been a lot of hot air coming from the minister on the Australian technical colleges, but he has delivered very little.

The policy was totally bereft of substance in the first place. It failed to address important issues relating to incentives for students to complete training or to gain meaningful employment following training. We are now seeing the results of that. Where was the foresight to ensure that enough young people were supported to fulfil their training requirements in the first place and to graduate as skilled workers? Where was the government’s policy on enhancing relationships between employer groups and Australian technical colleges so as to ensure appropriate employment at the end of training? Where was the commitment to work with states and territories in order to achieve the skilled worker goals that this nation must have in order to compete with the rest of the world? Where was the commitment to work with the states and territories and to build upon the funding that was available from the states and territories for technical trade colleges for the VCAL and the VET programs that they are implementing within their areas?

Where was the idea to use federal funding as a bit of leverage to increase state funding and the availability of what was around in local areas? Where was the acknowledgement that our young people need and deserve better choices, and that our current education system needs and deserves better facilities and better structures to train them in vocational and educational training? We will not find any of these things in the Howard government’s Australian technical colleges policy and, because of that, we now see only four of the colleges up and running.

The government has not even been transparent about the funding provided to the technical colleges. Whilst this bill brings forward the funding for the proposed 25 Australian technical colleges, at the end of this month just how much of the $185 million that has been committed to the colleges will have been spent? The government has in fact dramatically underspent on these colleges. It has refused to reveal funding details for each of the colleges—and no wonder. It is more than likely too embarrassed to do so. To underspend in a program designed to revolutionise vocational and educational training—a program that is at the centrepiece of the Liberal Party’s response to the skills crisis—at the time of massive skills shortages and chronic teenage unemployment across the country shows chronic incompetence and the government’s complete inability to deal with the skills crisis.

The government has failed to address Australia’s growing skills crisis—and the Australian technical colleges with their 300 enrolled students are merely a drop in the ocean as to what is needed to fix this problem. The skills crisis is not new; it is not as though it should have come as a surprise to the government.

The skilled vacancy index, produced by the government’s own department, has consistently shown a rise in skilled vacancies, with vacancies in trades rising dramatically. Vacancies in electrical and electronics trades, construction, the automotive industry, hospitality and hairdressing have been on the skilled vacancy index not just for 12 months but, in some cases, for 10 years. What this country needs is a nationally coordinated approach to addressing Australia’s skills crisis, not a hastily cobbled together policy that still leaves this country 100,000 skilled workers short by 2010.

There are no excuses for the government. It has had years to develop an innovative approach to the skills crisis. It had years to listen to employer groups, unions and the media warning about the skills crisis. You would think that this government would have heeded those warnings and supported the TAFE sector, but instead the government decided to starve the TAFE sector of funds. It was deaf to the employer groups, unions and the media. The government was also blind to the cumulative result of declining numbers of Australians engaging in trade apprenticeships.

Instead the government again—all spin, no substance—was more obsessed with how the apprenticeship numbers were reported by the media to the public. It created New Apprenticeships. New Apprenticeships effectively counted trade apprenticeships and one-year traineeships together. This new system obscured the fact that trade apprenticeships were declining.

New Apprenticeships provided the smokescreen that the government needed to hide the fact that they were heading for a skills crisis. Instead of spin and smokescreens, the government would have done better to consult with the states and territories about developing a national plan to address training and skills needs. Instead of cutting the training guarantee, the government should have realised that it provided a significant incentive to employers to provide continual upskilling of their workforce, which in turn allowed us to stay ahead of the problems of the workforce as it was ageing.

We can do much better in this country in relation to the skills crisis—and Labor has planned to do this. Our skills blueprint, which was released in 2005, provides a program for getting skills into our schools. It includes: offering young people better choices by teaching trades, technology and science in first-class facilities; establishing a trade-in-schools scheme to double the number of school based apprenticeships in areas of skill shortage; and providing extra funding per place. It establishes specialist schools for the senior years of schooling in areas such as trades, technology and science and it establishes a trades taster program so year 9 and year 10 students can experience a range of trade options that could also lead to pre-apprenticeship programs.

In my own electorate—and, I know, in many other electorates—the Mindshop Excellence Program has been running for some time. It is actually running at the moment as part of the Australian Industry Group’s Ballarat ‘manufacturing 31 days’. It used to be Manufacturing Week, but we now have Manufacturing Month—and a bit. The Mindshop Excellence Program is a great example of what you can do. It takes young people into the manufacturing sector and they get to experience not just trades across the manufacturing sector but also the real problems that they can face in trying to come up with innovative solutions to manufacturing problems. These young people are integrated into the businesses and learn what manufacturing can offer them. They get to come away, provide a presentation to leaders in the local community and present these solutions to companies such as FMP, McCain and MasterFoods. It provides people with a real taste of what it is like to be in a trade but, more specifically, in a trade in manufacturing. I think that is certainly a program that Labor will look at very seriously.

We have also planned to increase the number of young Australians completing apprenticeships, through incentives such as an $800 a year skills account which would abolish up-front TAFE fees. The money, which would be paid directly into a skills account for every traditional trade apprentice, could be spent on TAFE fees, textbooks or materials. We have also introduced a $2,000 trade completion bonus, under which traditional apprentices would receive a $1,000 payment halfway through their training and a further $1,000 payment at the completion of their apprenticeship. This scheme aims to achieve an 80 per cent completion rate, compared to the abysmal 40 per cent completion rate that we have now.

That is just the start of our skills blueprint. We came up with that in September 2005. The government has done very little. Its two policy solutions—the Australian technical colleges and importing apprentices from overseas—are the only two measures that it has introduced to deal with this massive skills crisis. I supported the previous bill on the Australian technical colleges and I will support this bill because, frankly, I think something is better than nothing when trying to assist young people into trades that better match industry needs. But when you look at the government’s incompetence in introducing this initiative, an initiative designed to see 7½ thousand enrolled in trades but that only sees 300 to date and 25 technical colleges but only four open for business to date, you have to ask yourself, ‘What has the government been doing in relation to the skills crisis?’ When you see the incompetence that has been exhibited in the way in which they have introduced these Australian technical colleges, you have to really worry about what this government is doing to deal with the skills crisis in this country.