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Wednesday, 18 October 2006
Page: 201

Ms BIRD (4:53 PM) —I appreciate the opportunity to speak this evening in response to the Prime Ministerial statement to the parliament, Skills for the Future. It is certainly welcome that the Prime Minister has turned his attention to the issue of the skills crisis that has been affecting this country for quite a while now. Indeed, as has been indicated on a number of occasions, particular skills categories have been on the skills shortage list for nine out of the last 10 years. On top of that, ongoing warnings have been provided by the Reserve Bank almost each year for the past five years about the impact that that skills crisis was having on the economy, and in particular the role that it was playing in contributing to the increase in interest rates—indeed, three consecutive increases to date since the election and seven on the run.

It is, no doubt, one of the most important challenges facing the nation and I note that the Prime Minister, as a background to his announcement, outlined that he thought the problem was that the labour market is the strongest it has been in generations and what we were suffering is the sort of problem we want to have because the economy is going so well. The unemployment rate, as it is measured, is so low it is a predictable problem, and in fact it is not really a problem but certainly something the government had finally decided to turn its attention to.

I want to take issue with a few of the presumptions in the backgrounding that the Prime Minister provided in his statement. In particular, it is true that the overall unemployment levels have dropped, but this ignores the fact that there are within those figures categories of people who continue to experience high unemployment. For example, in the Illawarra region, which I represent, there have consistently been general unemployment figures of double the national average rate. Sadly, we have not seen a great improvement in that situation over the time that the Prime Minister has trumpeted the achievements of his government in the economy.

Even more damning and more concerning is the fact that, in the last recorded figures on youth unemployment, youth unemployment in the Illawarra region hit 40 per cent for the first time. That is an unacceptable level of unemployment amongst our young people. It is certainly something that concerns the parents of my constituents, who are concerned about the future for their young people.

It is true that the Prime Minister can point to general averaged-out improvements in unemployment, though even there we could have an argument about the changes that were made to how we measure unemployment and whether work for one hour a fortnight really constitutes employment. But putting that aside, even if we presume that the average has hit that level, the figures ignore the fact that there are significant pockets of people who are not getting the benefits of the good times of the economy. It is incumbent on the government to address that. I profoundly believe that a government experiencing good times as well as bad should not just sit back and say, ‘Well, that’s tremendous. Everyone is doing fine.’ It has the responsibility to identify those who are missing out even in those circumstances and find ways to assist those people to be part of the good economic times.

The statement that the Prime Minister made on Skills for the Future is welcome in that it addresses some of the issues for mature age people in the workforce, who may want to upskill. There is no denying that that is a useful thing to do, but it does not particularly address or target the issues in regional areas that have not experienced the sorts of growth that we might see in states such as Western Australia and Queensland and it certainly does not address the issues faced by many young people who are still locked out of those employment opportunities.

I make that point because it has been very frustrating to me personally—as I know it has been to the Labor Party generally—that the Prime Minister has consistently refused to acknowledge that there was a problem. Having been a TAFE teacher for seven years of my life, before coming into this place, and having had sons in the age group looking for work, it is certainly something that has been consistently at the front of my mind. In March 2005, when there was a debate going on about the skills crisis in the country, the Prime Minister responded to a question asked by the shadow minister for education about the skills crisis. The Prime Minister said:

... I have absolutely no intention of embracing this absurd rhetoric—which is quite false, when you actually look at the increase that has occurred—that there is some kind of skills crisis.

In March 2005, the Prime Minister was saying that it was all rhetoric, that it was absurd, that there was no problem. Was it a one-off brain snap? In March 2005 did he perhaps find himself anticipating an Easter break and perhaps not being on the ball in the game? No. He repeated it again, in September this year. He obviously continued with the view for at least 18 months. He said:

All I ask is that you not mistake boiler-plate rhetoric about a skills crisis ... with anything approaching actual policy insight.

In September this year, only a month ago, we had the Prime Minister saying that we should not mistake rhetoric and concerns on this side of the House with any real policy imperative—that there was not a crisis, that there was not anything that had to be addressed. You can imagine how gobsmacked I was when this non-problem had $800 million thrown at it! That is what we saw from the Prime Minister’s statement to the House, which we are addressing today. According to the Prime Minister’s own definition, that is $800 million to fix a non-existent crisis—probably a first for any government.

So, to me, what that reflected was that the Prime Minister well knew that the reality out there in communities was that people knew there was a skills crisis. So did businesses—indeed, I have had several representations in my local areas from the Australian Industry Group talking about exactly that problem. I look back over several surveys of small businesses, done by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, about what the key significant issues were for them and what they felt were the key blockages to business expanding, and they have consistently identified, for at least the last four years, that the major issue for them was access to a skilled workforce. Obviously all of those voices, including the voice of the Labor Party, made it clear to the Prime Minister that he could not continue to dismiss the issue as ‘boilerplate rhetoric’, but had to acknowledge that it had real bite in the community and that, in fact, people were seeing the reality of it on the ground and there had to be something done about it.

It is important to address the issue, not only because of the real human stories behind families where there is insufficient work or there are young people who are unable to access work and make a start in a career but also because it is fundamental to our economy. That has been the message of the Reserve Bank consistently—in particular, the impact that it has on productivity growth. We had a pretty amazing record under the Hawke-Keating governments of achieving really significant—and, in fact, world-leading—productivity improvements and we have seen those basically disappear over the last 10 years. We have here a challenge, in the human stories of people in communities that have not been able to access the growth that has happened in the economy. They are saying: ‘We need our young people in jobs. We need our mature age workers who were made redundant through restructuring to be able to access jobs.’

Then we have had organisations like the AiG, the ACCI and the Reserve Bank saying the biggest blockage to our future expansion is the inability to access the skilled staff that we require and to improve productivity through upskilling staff. The frustration that we felt, I have no doubt, they were feeling. You only had to look at the number of times they kept putting reports out as a signal to the government to say: ‘We think this is important. For goodness sake, do something about it. It is not good enough that you have cut the funding through TAFE significantly—in fact, quite dramatically—up until 2000 and, begrudgingly and very gradually, reinstated some of it since 2000. Your brain-snap campaign ideas, such as Australian technical colleges, are too little, too slow and unlikely to really address the problems we are facing.’

So what we had was an accumulation of all those circumstances. The Prime Minister finally had to acknowledge that there was a problem and that he had to do something about it. So he gives us $800 million to fix a crisis that he has been denying for many years.

Ms Macklin —Is still denying.

Ms BIRD —Indeed, the shadow minister is quite right—which he is still denying.

In the proposal that the Prime Minister put forward, obviously the most significantly funded item is the provision of vouchers to people over the age of 25 who have not completed a HSC to go and get themselves literacy and numeracy training. I have to say—and on this comment I hope I am wrong, but I doubt I am—if somebody is out there in a job and is over 25, I very much doubt that they are going to be rushing to the government for a voucher to go and do some literacy and numeracy training at TAFE. I think that that is a bit pie in the sky. I think if they were going to provide a voucher they would have been better off providing a voucher that could be utilised for skills which were actually job related.

I was an English teacher and so I think it is really important and a useful thing to do to upskill people in their literacy and numeracy. This is a pragmatic response. I think the take-up on this system is going to be very slow. And we saw bungling with the literacy voucher that this government implemented for school age children—a captive audience; it was not hard to identify who they were or how you had to access them—which dragged out to the point where there were kids who had failed the exam, were entitled to the voucher and did not get it until two years later when they were sitting the next exam.

So I think my cynicism about this particular program can be forgiven because of the track record the government has on these sorts of programs. Nonetheless, I will acknowledge that it is a worth while thing to do. I just think it is an awful lot of money for a not very well thought out process, and I suspect a lot of that money will still be sitting there at the end of the year.

The other thing that the government has done is to look at providing traineeships for mature age workers. That is a good idea. There are people in industries who do a lot of work that gives them skills and, if they had the opportunity to get the actual qualifications to become a full apprentice and then a tradesperson, they would certainly take it up.

The problem I have with this program is that, in an area like mine, the vast bulk of the apprenticeship opportunities actually sit in small businesses. If you are a small business—I am talking five to 10 people—it is highly unlikely that you are going to have the capacity to allow somebody who is working as a full worker for you now to become an apprentice. So who will be able to access these opportunities? Medium to large sized businesses. That is where the apprenticeship opportunities will happen. In my area, many small businesses utilise some programs whereby the group training companies employ the apprentices and they are then placed in small businesses to create those opportunities. The problem with this program is that it does not enable small businesses to effectively access it. I encourage the government to have a look at that, because it is worth while giving mature age people with practical skills they have got on the job the opportunity to upskill.

The biggest gap in the whole thing, in terms of $800 million, is addressing that issue that I raised about an area like mine, where you have 40 per cent youth unemployment. When my son, who is now 23, finished school, for two years there were five boys sitting at my house every day. Four of those boys would have killed for an apprenticeship opportunity. They were desperate for an apprenticeship opportunity. All four of them eventually got one when they turned old enough to have a car and be able to travel to Sydney. That was the reality for them. So they all now do that terrible commute from Wollongong to Sydney, like 20,000 people do.

Since the package was going to be this significant, I would have liked to have seen part of it target those young people, creating opportunities for them and supporting initiatives by people like the Illawarra Business Chamber, who have been targeting our chronic youth unemployment by providing expanded opportunities for young people in apprenticeships. It is a massive hole in this proposal.