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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 85

Mr JENKINS (8:03 PM) —I rise to join the debate on the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill 2006. I indicate my support for the second reading amendment proposed by the member for Jagajaga, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. The bill before the House further amends the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Act 2005 by way of the reallocation of funding from 2008-09 to 2006-07 and the insertion of a new provision in the current act to enable the minister to distribute program funds between particular years by regulation instead of by legislative amendment. As has been said earlier in this debate, it is not the opposition’s intention to oppose this bill. Rather, we have made quite clear our attitude to the matters that arise from this amendment bill by way of a second reading amendment.

The greatest concern that this bill gives us is, of course, that it is a very mealy-mouthed response to the burgeoning skills shortages that confront Australia as a nation. It is not as if the government should have been unaware of the problems that confronted it. It regrettably has been distracted by some of its internal machinations. It also has been distracted by the fact that it believes that it is in control of an economy that is running well. This has blinded it to the need to take action as a government to ensure that we have an economy that is sustainable and that is robust in not only the short term but the longer term. Of course, last week’s interest rate rises and the comments of the Reserve Bank in its statement on monetary policy are of great concern, because they have underscored the things that the opposition, the Australian Labor Party, have been emphasising for quite some time.

It is clear to any observer that there is a strengthened labour demand that has led to labour shortages. But, underlying that, the important aspect that has not gained enough attention is that these are labour shortages not only in numbers but in the quality of that labour. In that, we are not talking about the people themselves; we are talking about the investment in those people by way of training and ensuring that their skill levels are at the optimum to ensure that Australia’s progress is able to be continued in the longer term.

What do we see happening? We see a response from government that leads to quite extraordinary things like special visas to allow apprentices from overseas to come to Australia and take apprenticeships. For goodness sake, this is not really a form of skilled migration. By definition, the government is saying to us that it is willing to bring in people that then require training as apprentices. Where is the logic in that?

Why is it when the opposition raises this that it can then be construed that in some way the opposition is taking a very narrow view about bringing in people from overseas to fill skills shortages? That is a nonsense. It is not that one cannot conjure up the need for people to come in in the short term or that we cannot of our own will ensure we cover the skills shortages but, for goodness sake, to bring in people from overseas to be trained up, when there are Australians willing to take the places if they are available!

It then gets back to having a look at what the government’s performance has been in ensuring that we are investing in our human resources. And that performance is appalling. That performance, when compared to the performance of the countries that we compete against in global trade, is appalling. We only have to go to the OECD figures that have been produced to see the damning evidence of the way in which this government is willing, for whatever reason, to drop the ball in this area. At a time when China and India are producing a staggering four million graduates a year, the performance of the Howard government with respect to university funding shows a staggering $5 billion cut since 1997. Public investment in our universities and TAFEs has fallen by eight per cent since 1995. In comparison, the OECD average is in fact a 38 per cent increase. We come in last. The country that is coming in second last—the next worst performing country—gets there by actually increasing its investment by six per cent. These are damning statistics, and there is nothing that the government can say that justifies Australia being in a position like this. When we dissect the outcomes from the proposal that is included in this bill, we see that the efforts of the government are miniscule. In fact, in comparison to OECD countries, we are now one of only three countries where public expenditure on universities and TAFEs is less than half of all spending and, in terms of public expenditure per student, we are well below the average of comparable developed countries.

One of the concerns that Labor has about the proposed new Australian technical colleges system is that it is very much driven by an ideological bent of a single minister who has now moved on. What is my evidence for this? Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I attend question time every day. When Minister Nelson was in charge of this portfolio, one of the things that he liked to do was to rail against state administrations and their technical and other forms of training. So, at the conclusion of this, despite further debate about forms of new federalism and the way in which the federal government should cooperate with state governments, we in fact had a minister who proposed a system that is a dual system—a duplicate of something that the states do—whereby they actually go in and compete against the states, without any recognition of what had been achieved as a result of the cooperation between state and federal governments in this area. It is a decision that was taken as though this had not been an area where work had been done.

If we really look at the area of training we see that this is a classic area where great advances have been made by what we now know as the COAG processes, but back in the early 1990s it was known as the Ministerial and Premiers Council. We had the creation of ANTA, as an overarching authority, which gave a national approach to training matters. That then led to greater cooperation between the states and the federal government, where in fact we saw the Commonwealth government contributing by way of resources to the effort but, in an agreed fashion, allowing the states and territories to preserve their control over this sector. We on this side of the House, in the long tradition of the way the Australian Labor Party has tackled these issues, can say that that has been the basis of the way that we see Australia going forward in these areas.

Back in the Whitlam era, the Australian Committee on Technical and Further Education was established, chaired by Myer Kangan, which led to the creation of the first Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission. So we have had a 30-year tradition of the way in which the TAFE system has developed across Australia. Each one of us as local members can come into this place and talk about how their local TAFE has impacted upon the way in which regional skills levels have been increased, because at a local level TAFEs reflect the sorts of things that are important to their local area.

So I can come in here and say that the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE has been a significant training provider for the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Why is that so? Because of the expansion that we saw throughout the eighties. We saw the creation of campuses of the northern metro TAFE at Epping and Greensborough. We saw northern metro TAFE venture into the member for McEwen’s electorate by way of its work at Yan Yean and the different things it has done at Eden Park. In fact these TAFEs became very much partners in local communities. They were deciding not only where the skills shortages were but also the way to tackle those skill shortages. The northern metro TAFE is interesting because the region that it serves goes from the manufacturing heartland of the northern suburbs of Melbourne right through to the rural fringe. It has done great work in making sure that the shortages that were there have been tackled.

What do we have here in this decision by the present government? We have duplication—a system that is thrown at different places around Australia. I do not stand here being churlish in my criticism of this system simply because the northern suburbs of Melbourne, the electorate of Scullin, missed out. The outcome of putting in place this investment in skills training might be that 1,000 people come out of the sausage factory with additional skills and qualifications in 2010. The simple fact is that if this money had been invested in the existing systems we could have seen a greater outcome. If the government was critical of the way in which those systems were operating, it could have been innovative in sitting down with the states and territories and deciding the types of projects that it might like to have assisted. In an area like Scullin, where the unemployed still number in the thousands—there are four or five thousand unemployed—and where people are looking for a way to get back into employment, skills acquisition is important. There are innovative ways in which the Commonwealth government could have come on board.

Let us have a look at Northland Secondary College in East Preston. It is a training provider to the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Some decades ago I think it was called the East Preston technical school. It then changed its name to the Northland Secondary College, when there was a change in the way that state governments decided to deliver their secondary education. As that secondary education system has evolved, not only in Victoria but also in other states—and this is something that the Commonwealth government does not acknowledge—there has been a recognition that there are groups of students that need assistance with the old trade type education. There has been a movement back to ensuring that special things are done for those students. We have seen in fact the development of avenues for getting qualifications outside of VCE. We have seen the development in states like Victoria of qualifications such as VCAL, which is an important avenue for students to gain education in skills that they can use to give them fulfilling employment in the outside world.

When this particular policy was hobbled together for ideological reasons in the run-up to the last election, there was no acknowledgement of that. It was decided that a number of these new technical colleges would be put in place. There was no transparency in the way that that was decided. It was a simple sop done on an ideological basis, because this was supposed to be one of those barbecue stoppers where the type of people who support the present government stand around and say, ‘The present system’s not doing the job.’ There was no investigation of what sort of job the present system was actually doing; it was a case of, ‘We’ll find a bucket of money and we’ll start our own system.’ What a waste. What unnecessary duplication. It is not going to give the outcomes that will turn around the types of skills shortages that confront Australia, the types of skills shortages that are leading to the foreign debt crisis that confronts Australia—that is not mentioned when economic matters are talked about in this chamber.

All we hear is the government harking back to the late eighties and early nineties and interest rates under the Hawke-Keating government. What a vacuous argument. We hear the argument that Australians have never had it so good, because their assets are so highly valued. But there is no acknowledgement that the problem in that justification for the level of household debt that people confront is that basically the punters do not own any more. They are actually not better off; it is the banks that actually have the greater value, because they are lending more. The point we have to get back to is that this government as a national government should see that what is required is a national approach to the skills shortages.

This delayed discussion of this piece of legislation has allowed the Leader of the Opposition to deliver his blueprint for Australian schools and training in the winter recess. He outlined the lethargy that this government has shown towards these issues and the way in which this government has ignored the skills shortages. This government has not even listened to people like the Australian Industry Group, which estimates that our economy will soon be short of at least 100,000 skilled tradespeople. If there had not been a decline of seven per cent in the past decade of people in training—which equates to 122,000 people—we would not be confronting this problem. So where has the government been? Where have the ministers who want to accept the glory for things that they imagine about the economy been when these things have been discussed? These things are important.

Labor’s approach is not that we have to reinvent the wheel but that we have to go into partnership with those who deliver the training at the moment and give them the resources that will allow them to produce the outcomes that are required to rectify the problems we confront. The Australian Labor Party has suggested a ‘trade in schools’ scheme which would increase the number of places available for people in years 11 and 12 who want to complete school based apprenticeships. We have a system in which we have not given the support and understanding that is required not only by the individuals themselves but also by those employers that can assist. We need a ‘trade taster’ program at years 9 and 10 that will encourage our young kids to take up these trades. We need a cooperative approach to these problems to save Australia’s economy. (Time expired)