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Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Page: 27

Mr WILKIE (10:48 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2007. This bill amends the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Act 2005 to provide funding for three additional Australian technical colleges announced in the 2007-08 budget to be located in Perth, Brisbane and Western Sydney. I say to the honourable member for Moreton, who has taken off out of the chamber as we speak, that his mindless drivel on the TAFEs in Western Australia is absolutely incorrect. We have some incredible facilities, some of them located in Swan, which I will talk about during my contribution.

Many of us here today 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’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 training throughout Australia. This centrepiece was the establishment of the Australian technical colleges, or ATCs. Ever since that day, the Australian technical colleges have stood as a testament to the way this government develops bad policy for political purposes, no matter what the cost or how stupid the idea.

While I welcome the additional expenditure in the critical area of vocational education and training, I do not believe that the establishment of the Australian technical colleges was a sensible choice for responding to the national skills crisis that now threatens the viability of our economy. Had the money that has been wasted on this initiative been allocated to existing TAFEs, the system would have worked much better and many young people would have already received the training that they need, which could have alleviated the current skills crisis.

The Australian technical colleges are simply a quick political fix to a policy problem of this government’s own making. I say a ‘political fix’ because from the very beginning the Australian technical colleges initiative has been a farce and it has done precious little to address Australia’s growing crisis in skilled labour—and those who sit opposite know it. In this government’s new model of uncooperative and antagonistic federalism, this policy accords well with those wishing to marginalise the power of the states. But, out there in the real world of critical skills shortages, where employers simply cannot find the trained workers they so desperately need, this policy has been nothing short of a failure. According to the government’s own figures, over the next five years Australia has a projected shortfall of more than 200,000 skilled workers. But the Australian technical colleges are expected to produce only 10,000 graduates by 2010. That is little more than a drop in the ocean.

The growing shortage of skilled workers in Australia undoubtedly represents one of the greatest policy failures of the Howard government’s 11 years in office. As members know, the Reserve Bank has repeatedly warned that the skills crisis that has developed under this government is a major constraint on economic growth and is causing inflationary pressure; therefore, pushing up interest rates. This government’s failure to invest in skills is part of the reason that interest rates are being forced up. This is being done by the mob that says it is keeping interest rates at a record low level. This government is creating the environment that is driving up interest rates.

Like me, most people would have presumed that this government would implement practical measures to end this crippling shortage of skilled workers. But, no, rather than choosing the common-sense option and allocating additional funds to increase the size and scope of existing vocational infrastructure, this government chose to bypass the TAFE sector—run by those nasty little state governments!—and to establish its own colleges, 90 per cent of which just happen to be in coalition or marginal seats.

I have an idea that tomorrow, when the government makes the announcement about where the colleges will be established in Perth, lo and behold, there will be a college in the northern suburbs with two campuses, and I am pretty sure that one of them will be in the electorate of Cowan—which the coalition thinks it might have a chance of picking up—and the other will be in the electorate of Hasluck, where it knows its member is under pressure. I also believe that it will duplicate a service provided by Midland TAFE by establishing a facility there. That is a total waste of money and political pork-barrelling. If the government were genuinely interested in addressing our chronic skills shortage, the funds that have been allocated to these colleges would have been spent on existing vocational education programs and more Australians could have already been beneficiaries of new training and work opportunities.

TAFE is the major provider of vocational education and training in Australia. With more than 1.2 million students and accounting for 85 per cent of all training, the TAFE system is Australia’s provider of choice in vocational training. In my electorate of Swan, for example, we have the aptly named Swan TAFE, which has campuses at Bentley and Carlisle that provide excellent courses in hospitality, baking, refrigeration, business studies, engineering, occupational health and safety, health sciences, nursing, vet nursing and animal studies. Swan TAFE also has campuses in Balga, Thornleigh and Midland. These campuses have excellent reputations for the high standard of training that they provide and the outcomes they have achieved. Far from what the member for Moreton has been drivelling on about, these TAFEs provide excellent services to the people of Western Australia.

However, rather than strengthening our existing system of vocational training, in conforming to its motto of never letting bad policy outcomes stand in the way of its narrow ideological agenda, the Howard government chose to undermine it. Over the past decade the Howard government has slashed investment in vocational education and training. By decreasing Commonwealth allocations for vocational education by 13 per cent between 1997 and 2000, and increasing it by a paltry one per cent from 2000 to 2004, this government has failed grossly to provide the necessary funding to redress our growing skills shortages. In terms of revenue expenditure, vocational education in Australia has fallen behind other education sectors in both aggregate terms and on a per student basis, despite it being the area that bears the greatest responsibility for the vocational training of our workforce. The result has been a public system starved of cash. Students and staff suffer with reduced course durations, increased use of casual staff and fewer course offerings.

Due to this government’s utter neglect of vocational education and training, each year more than 34,000 applicants are turned away from TAFE because there simply are not enough places. However, while the TAFE system has suffered from numerable cutbacks under this government, more than $500 million has been allocated to the establishment of the Australian technical colleges. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul. For a government that likes to talk up the benefits of eradicating duplication and waste between the state and federal levels of government, that is a strange policy decision indeed. Creating an entirely separate layer of schooling funded and administered directly by the Commonwealth simply does not make public policy administration or financial sense.

The member for Moreton talked about all the state bureaucrats who would get the additional money if it were allocated, and said that the government could not do that. But it has created its own system with its own level of bureaucracy. How stupid is that? It has duplicated the existing system. In fact, little about the Australia technical colleges stacks up in terms of practicality. In effect, the Australian technical colleges are Commonwealth run secondary schools, but the Commonwealth has no history or expertise in establishing or running stand-alone secondary schools.

Instead of going through the established channels of the TAFE system, this government has embarked upon a costly and unnecessary project that will duplicate the vocational education and training infrastructure that exists elsewhere in the country. The inherent inefficiency of this system is plain to see. The cost to taxpayers of the 21 technical colleges that have been established—including capital set-up costs—averages out at nearly $175,000 per student. For that amount of money the government might as well have loaded the students onto a couple of jumbos and flown them to Harvard to learn their plumbing and carpentry skills. It is an absolute waste. One can only imagine what kind of facilities our TAFE system would have if each of its 1.2 million students were allocated anywhere near the level of per student funding that the government’s technical colleges receive.

Even with that level of funding, the ATCs are still struggling to find students. While only two met their target enrolments for 2007, some are operating at less than half their capacity. The Australian Technical College East Melbourne fell short of its enrolment target of 180 by a staggering 94 places. Some of these colleges must be getting used to operating under their full capacity by now. As I am sure many members recall, the Australian technical colleges got off to something of a slow and rather embarrassing start. For example, for some time the Australian Technical College Gladstone had only one student enrolled. I am sure that student would have received a very good education. Despite placements in apprenticeships being one of the primary features of the technical colleges, many have struggled to find placements for students.

Most damning of all, however, is that these colleges, which were specifically set up to provide skills and training to our young people, are having to outsource much of their work back to the TAFE system or other registered training organisations. In Victoria alone, five out of the six colleges built have had to outsource their training functions to TAFE—the very same system that has seen its funding slashed by this government over the past 11 years and the very same TAFEs which the federal government said were inefficient and which it used as justification for the establishment of the Australian technical colleges. What a debacle! Put simply, Australian technical colleges have been an expensive and unnecessary waste of Australian taxpayers’ money and they will do little to help end the growing shortages of skills in this nation. They have caused needless duplication between the state and federal layers of government and have failed to offer anything more than a token bandaid solution to the nation’s growing skills crisis. Yet, according to the Minister for Vocational and Further Education, the colleges are ‘going gangbusters’ and ‘working their socks off’. Once again, a Howard government minister either is seriously misleading the public about the abysmal state of one of the government’s policies, or simply has no idea of what he is talking about. I suspect it is probably a little bit of both.

The truth of the matter is that an independent expert report by the Australian National Audit Office has heavily criticised the Howard government’s Australian technical colleges, finding that insufficient attention has been paid to state and territory governments—we know that; they are trying to blame them for everything, so they are not going to work with them. It found that tenders for nearly half of the colleges were awarded based on only one or two applications, that enrolments had been overestimated, that initial tender applications were weak and inadequate and that there was little choice among Australian technical college applicants. The report confirmed that the Howard government’s Australian technical colleges were nothing more than a cynical political response to a critical policy challenge.

Unlike the government, Labor has a real plan to address the chronic skills shortages in this country. If Australia is to create a high-skilled workforce and an economically secure future, we need nothing short of a revolution in vocational training and education. In order to attract and train the estimated 200,000 skilled tradespeople needed over the next five years, Australia needs a truly national approach, not a ridiculous symbolic commitment for only a small number of students. Committed to working in partnership with the states—no matter which party holds office in those states—Labor has a cooperative approach to addressing the nation’s growing skills crisis that aims for outcomes and not the narrow ideological interests pursued by this government. We will work with the states and territories to ensure effective training policies and to ensure that funds are allocated to those learning institutions that are capable of delivering the best educational and training outcomes.

According to the Chairman of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, one of the best opportunities for improving productivity rates in Australia lies in ‘raising the performance and accessibility of our education and training systems’. Not only is a higher level of investment in education necessary for higher productivity growth but making sure that investment in education is used efficiently and effectively is necessary as well. Australia must therefore focus its resources on the areas of maximum impact, such as TAFEs and on-the-job training places and trade places. The first step, however, is to increase the emphasis and quality of vocational training opportunities in our secondary schools.

To this end, Labor has announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion trades training centres plan targeted at the 1.2 million students in years 9, 10, 11 and 12 in all of Australia’s 2,650 secondary schools. Designed to create a stimulating educational and training environment that prepares young people for vocational occupations and encourages them to remain in school by making studying in trades more attractive to students and more relevant to industry, Labor’s trades training centres plan is a practical and effective means for encouraging a greater number of students to pursue skilled, vocational career paths.

In my home state of Western Australia—the state that is responsible for much of the nation’s current prosperity—Labor will spend $284 million to build state-of-the-art training centres, ensuring that our booming economy is not stalled by a lack of qualified workers. In addition, Labor will also devote $84 million as part of its trades training centres plan to ensure that students involved in trades training receive at least one day a week of on-the-job training for 20 weeks a year.

As well as improving vocational and trades training in secondary schools, Labor also plans to introduce a Job Ready Certificate for all vocational education and training. Obtained through on-the-job training placements, the Job Ready Certificate will assess the job readiness of secondary school students engaged in trades and other areas of vocational education and training, providing employers with a tangible reference, including whether students are capable and ready to work. Presently, there is no such requirement for education and training providers to formally issue a statement of employability skills, despite the fact that there have been repeated calls from industry groups for their introduction.

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. While Labor will not close down any of this government’s expensive and inefficient technical colleges, we will work out the best way of folding their management back into the state based educational system. The states have had a longstanding responsibility in this area, and simply trying to arrogantly bypass them, as this government has done, will only result in more bad policy outcomes.

In closing: Labor is not opposing—and I am not opposing—the appropriation of funds for the three additional technical colleges provided for in this bill. Nor will we seek to close any of the existing colleges upon assuming office. We will, however, consistently remind the government of its utter failure to address the growing skills crisis and its appalling neglect of vocational training and infrastructure over the past 11 years. The longer that this government clings to the belief that a few technical colleges can end the skills crisis or make up for its 11 years of neglect in vocational education and training, the greater the damage this government will do to the prospects of our children and our economy. Only a federal Labor government can fix this disaster brought upon our country by the mismanagement of education and training by this lot opposite.