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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 60

Mr WILKIE (6:20 PM) —I rise to speak in favour of the amendment to the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill 2006, moved by the shadow minister for education, training, science and research, the member for Jagajaga.

Many of us here tonight will recall the coalition’s campaign launch in the last election in Brisbane, when the Prime Minister announced what he described as the centrepiece of the coalition party’s response to the skills crisis. In fact, on that day, 26 September 2004, the Prime Minister said that this centrepiece would ‘revolutionise’ vocational education and training throughout Australia. It was truly revolutionary; no other PM in history has been so stupid at a time of great skill shortage to propose duplicating a system that already existed. In this instance the words ‘revolutionary’ and ‘stupid’ could be interchanged.

The centrepiece, of course, was the establishment of 24 Australian technical colleges. The bill being debated tonight will bring forward some funding from future allocations to enable the colleges to be established more quickly. This bill, in itself, is a confession of abject failure by this arrogant and out-of-touch government. Almost two years after the Prime Minister announced this centrepiece, the government’s progress in getting these colleges up running has been nothing short of disgraceful. So much for the revolution promised by the Prime Minister.

If the government were genuinely interested in training and addressing our chronic skills shortage, the very funds which have been allocated to these colleges could have been spent through existing vocational education programs, and more Australians could have already been beneficiaries of new training and work opportunities. But no. Because of its ideological hang-ups, the government was intent on bypassing the TAFE sector run by those nasty socialist state governments and establishing its own centrepiece colleges.

This is typical of the approach of this government. Far from supporting the principle of federalism, this government has attempted to centralise all government programs in Canberra because it does not trust the states to deliver. If any of the states had been Liberal or coalition states, I wonder whether this would have been the case. I doubt it. Obviously, this is just an attempt to try and bring discredit to states which are actually delivering a very good outcome for their people.

Indeed, in the case of vocational education and training, in his speech on 26 September 2004 the Prime Minister makes much of the fact that these centrepiece colleges will be run independently of the state education system. He obviously sees this as a plus. Yet, if the proof is in the pudding, the fact that the Commonwealth has so far failed to deliver on its promise to establish 24 colleges is now an indictment of that whole approach. And so, two years after the announcement of this plan, we have the government hastily bringing forward funds in this legislation because it realises that this centrepiece will be seen as nothing short of a sideshow if it is not more fully established by the time of the next election.

Let us examine progress to date. Only four of the proposed 24 colleges have been established, enrolling only 300 students in total across Australia rather than the 300 per college announced by the Prime Minister. In other words, at present only 4.2 per cent of the total number of students which the Prime Minister announced would be taught in the colleges are actually in attendance at them. The four colleges so far established are in Gladstone, Port Macquarie, eastern Melbourne and the Gold Coast. And in the infamous case of the Gladstone college there is only one student enrolled.

Two hundred and twenty of the total 300 students benefiting from this prime ministerial initiative are attending the college at Port Macquarie. It is worth noting that, of the 220 students at Port Macquarie, 185 were enrolled at St Joseph’s vocational college in Port Macquarie last year. In effect this means that the net gain for Port Macquarie in having the new prime ministerial college is 35 students. So much for the revolution. This point goes to emphasise the fact that Australia would have been significantly better off if the additional funds for vocational education and training which are tied up in these colleges could have been allocated to increase the size and scope of existing vocational education infrastructure.

Part and parcel of this ‘revolutionary’ policy approach is that teachers can only be employed at these colleges—aha, here is the catch—if they sign up to the brave new world of Howard government industrial relations. Given the government’s failure to implement the Prime Minister’s vision for these colleges, it is not surprising that, of the $343 million allocated over four years, only $18 million had been spent as of this May. If I were the Prime Minister, I am sure I would wonder whether the minister really had his heart in what the Prime Minister clearly thinks is an excellent initiative. Perhaps the minister actually thinks this program is a prime ministerial indulgence and, indeed, a crock.

Personally, I am concerned for the single student in Gladstone, as he or she must be feeling pretty lonely. Perhaps they sympathise with the sole occupant of the refugee camp at Manus Island, who was surrounded by a contingent of guards and cost taxpayers more than $200,000 a month. Perhaps the lone student also yearns to play team sports and talk to fellow students—opportunities denied to him or her. The movie Cast Away should give the lone student some tips on survival. Remember the volleyball that Tom Hanks found and named Wilson? Perhaps the budget at Gladstone college could enable a volleyball to be purchased so that the student could have someone to talk to. I guess, on the plus side, presumably there are excellent opportunities for one-on-one education—but not many for anonymous assessments of teachers.

Unfortunately, when you list these aspects of the implementation of this college initiative so far, there is a sense of the shambolic about it. But that diverts attention from the severity of the skills crisis in which Australia finds itself. As members of the House know, the Reserve Bank has repeatedly warned that the skills crisis is a major constraint on economic growth and is causing inflationary pressures and therefore pushing interest rates up. We have all seen evidence of these interest rate pressures in the last few months. According to the OECD, skills shortages in Australia are a critical hindrance to future economic growth.

Even the government’s cheerleader in draconian industrial relations, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, states that the skills shortage is the No. 1 complaint from businesses. Heather Ridout, from the Australian Industry Group, has also highlighted the skills crisis and pointed to the fact that we should take advantage of the current minerals boom to put in place the necessary policies to protect our economy when the minerals boom fades. In fact, at the recent minerals industry dinner here in Parliament House, the Prime Minister announced that one of these technical colleges would be established at Newman in Western Australia to train people in the mining industry—an excellent initiative, but one which could already have been up and running if the existing TAFE networks in Western Australia had been used. The Australian Industry Group estimates that by 2010 Australia will need an extra 100,000 skilled workers. Even if these colleges were fully up and running, they would only cater for 7,200 students, barely a drop in the ocean compared to what is required.

The truth of the matter is that Australia is the only developed country to reduce public investment in our TAFEs and universities over the last 10 years. More training opportunities for Australians are vital if our economy is to experience non-inflationary economic growth. Our skills shortage is directly related to the government’s failure to put in place effective training policies. I believe that we should allocate more funding to meet our skills needs. The cruel hoax behind the Prime Minister’s college indulgence is that the $343 million allocated could have already been put to good use to train more Australians into work.

At present, our economy is riding to a large degree on the success of the minerals boom—thanks, of course, to my home state of Western Australia. We should be taking advantage of this situation by putting in place the training and infrastructure policies to ensure that our economy can be competitive in the absence of such benign conditions. Unfortunately, this bill is indicative of the government’s ideological hang-ups in not using already existing TAFE infrastructure as a vehicle for vocational training, and it is further evidence of the government’s indulgence of prime ministerial whims in election campaigns.

Unlike the government, Labor has a plan to address the chronic skills shortage. We will work with the states and territories to ensure effective training policies. Our skills blueprint involves teaching trades, technology and science in first-class facilities. We will establish a trades in schools scheme to double the number of school based apprenticeships in areas of skills shortage. We will establish specialist schools for the senior years of school in areas such as trades, technology and science, as well as a trades taster program enabling years 9 and 10 to experience a range of trade options, which could also lead to pre-apprenticeship programs.

Labor will also overhaul the failed New Apprenticeships scheme and ensure that it is substantially funded and effective in meeting industry needs. It is vital that we ensure that apprentices complete their training. Currently 40 per cent of apprentices do not complete their courses, and this figure must be reduced if we are going to improve our training performance. We will also introduce an $800-a-year skills account to abolish up-front TAFE fees. We will also introduce a $2,000 trade completion bonus, which would involve traditional apprentices receiving a $1,000 bonus halfway through their program, with an additional $1,000 to be paid at the end of the course.

These initiatives will enable a Labor government to address Australia’s skills shortage in a meaningful and effective way, unlike the failed technical colleges program of this tired and out-of-touch government. Labor understands these issues, and the very fact that this bill is here today is evidence of the Howard government’s abject failure. Given the snorting going on by the minister at the table, I can understand his frustration in not being able to adequately address the very issues we need to address here: skills shortage and the problems in our TAFE system.