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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 27

Mr HARTSUYKER (10:44 AM) —It is always an honour to participate in this debate with the member for Hasluck—the best member for Hasluck that we have seen in the history of this parliament. This is a man who is passionate about vocational training—a man who is leading the drive to ensure that the people in his electorate and in the country generally receive the sort of training that they need to get on with the job and to get the skills they need to boost productivity in Australia. I congratulate the member for Hasluck on his contribution.

It is a great pleasure that I now have the opportunity to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007. This legislation is in addition to the coalition government’s commitment to provide practical solutions to the skills shortage and to encourage the vocational education and training industry. In speaking on this legislation today, I would like to emphasise three important points. Firstly, I would like to highlight how the coalition government’s policies are improving the skills base and delivering real outcomes to address the skills shortage. Secondly, I would like to outline how my electorate of Cowper is benefiting from this government’s commitment to improving vocational education and training. Thirdly, I would like to lend my support to the detail of this legislation, which will provide further progress towards meeting the skills shortage in Australia.

Thanks to the prudent economic management and intelligent policy decisions of this government, Australians are enjoying one of the greatest periods of national wealth in our history. Unemployment is at a 30-year low, wages are at all-time highs and there are more people in work than ever before. It is a great economic time for this country. We have arrived at this place not by way of some fortuitous accident, as members opposite would like us to believe, and not purely because of the mining boom, as members opposite like to say. The growth in jobs in my electorate is substantial, and we do not have mining. Mr Deputy Speaker Haase, you have mining in your electorate. I know you are not representing your electorate at this point in time; however, I know that you appreciate the importance of mining and that other areas are growing, despite not having a major presence of mining. This puts paid to the myth that it is only the mining boom that has created the jobs growth and wealth and prosperity that we have seen in this country.

Since the introduction of the new industrial relations system, Australian industry has had the freedom to create over 400,000 new jobs, and most of them are full time. When we introduced the legislative changes to industrial relations in March last year, what we heard from the union movement was that the sky was going to fall in, there were going to be mass sackings, wages were going to fall and there were going to be mass industrial disputes. What happened? Were there mass sackings? There were none; in fact, there were mass hirings—some 417,000 new jobs were created. Did wages fall? No, they did not. Wages actually rose three per cent in real terms. Was there mass industrial unrest? No. Industrial unrest is at record lows. The Australian people have now seen through the improper claims made by the unions and the Australian Labor Party. We are seeing record prosperity, record jobs growth and record improvement in wages, despite the ridiculous claims made by the Australian Labor Party.

We have seen the highest levels of workplace participation. This is a great thing. We have more people coming off the dole and getting into work. We have an increasing number of older people coming back into the workforce. The level of long-term unemployed is falling dramatically. This is great news for Australia—great news economically and great news socially. In addition, Australian industry has matured; it is entering new fields and expanding in others. Our trade and industry policies have seen strong growth in emerging and growing sectors of research and development, manufacturing and exporting. Coupled with the resources boom and an ageing population, exceptional economic management and employment growth have resulted in Australia facing a serious skills shortage.

It is interesting to note that under Labor there was no skills shortage. When you have thrown a million people on the scrap heap you do not have a skills shortage. There were more people looking for jobs than there were jobs. We have a very pleasant problem at the moment, if I could describe it as that. We have more jobs chasing fewer people—a stark contrast to the achievement of the Australian Labor Party, which put 11 per cent of the population on the unemployment scrap heap. Almost 11 per cent of the people in this country were in the unemployment queue. That is bad for society, and it is bad for the individual. More than one in 10 working-age Australians were unable to find a job. That is hardly an economic record to crow about.

Yet when it comes to economic policy the Australian Labor Party say, ‘Me too.’ They have voted against every measure that has got us to where we are today, but they somehow seem to claim that there is bipartisan agreement on economic policy. We have a Leader of the Opposition who does not understand the current tax policy or economic policy, but he is trying to claim that he does. However, he has been seen through as a fraud. He has been seen through as a policy fraud and an economic fraud. He does not understand the implications of Australia’s tax system. He does not understand the implications of good economic policy for the future of this country.

In 1996 this government inherited a vocational education and training system that was underfunded. It was lacking in vision; it was lacking in forward planning. In their last year of leadership of this country, the previous government spent only $1 billion on vocational training and further education. Compare that to the coalition government’s commitment of $2.9 billion to address our skills needs in 2007-08 alone. Since 1996, the coalition government has provided over $22 billion for vocational and further education and over $12 billion to the states and territories for TAFE and vocational training.

The federal government has developed a number of initiatives which are designed to address skills needs, particularly in traditional trades. Perhaps the most exciting vocational education initiative of recent times has been Australian technical colleges. This initiative, while still only in its infancy, has already proved an unqualified success. Contrary to the claims, the whingeing and the moaning of the members opposite, Australian technical colleges are a success. They are state-of-the art facilities that allow our young people the opportunity to work towards a trade in the final two years of their secondary schooling while still completing a year 12 certificate. This is flexible training meeting the needs of future employers. It also meets the needs of our students by allowing them to earn a year 12 certificate. It is a real win-win for students. But all we hear from the members opposite is negative carping, moaning and whingeing. Over 2,000 students have already enrolled in these colleges, with enrolments expected to reach nearly 10,000 by 2009. It is expected that, once fully operational, each college will graduate as many as 350 students each year, with students having already completed one-third of a trade qualification.

While the members opposite have continued Labor’s 20-year legacy of denigrating the trades by ridiculing those successful colleges, their alternative is a trade training centre policy. A policy is a bit of a change from a committee or a review, however feeble the policy is; we have to grant them that. A feeble policy is better than a review or a new bureaucracy. A feeble policy is better that no policy at all. What does a trade training centre policy do? It puts a microwave oven or a lathe in the corner of a classroom. That is hardly quality vocational training. The best the school could do is perhaps heat up a pie in the microwave and get a soggy outcome. If that is the best they can do in trade training it is pathetic.

In addition to the Australian technical colleges, the government has introduced a group of initiatives designed to encourage participation in apprenticeships in skills shortage trades. These initiatives include a wage top-up of $1,000 for two years for eligible apprentices and $500 per year for two years to help cover the cost of training fees. There are also toolkit vouchers worth $800 for Australian apprentices in skills shortage occupations and allowances for apprentices in regional areas and apprentices that are living away from home. These are very important because apprenticeship wages are relatively modest, by their nature, when students are in the training phase. So the government is supporting those people in rural and regional Australia who have to live away from home to obtain training. These are good initiatives which try to smooth out the bumps in delivering training to people from a range of areas.

To encourage mature Australians to retrain and gain new skills, the government has provided wage subsidies of up to $13,000 for mature-age apprentices. That is a great initiative, because when I talk to people in my electorate many employers say that they would like the opportunity to take a mature-age worker and upskill him through an apprenticeship. The previous arrangements, with many industrial instruments and the apprentice pay structures, would not have permitted, for instance, a 30-year-old person with two children to take up an apprenticeship, by virtue of their inability to earn enough income to support their family. This top-up will allow them to do that. This top-up will have great benefits in developing Australia’s skills base and it will have great benefits for individuals.

To encourage employers to hire new apprentices, the government offers incentives to employers of $4,000 per apprentice and has increased funding for Australian apprenticeship centres to allow them to increase retention and completion rates. This commitment to vocational and further education is already reaping dividends.

During Labor’s last year in office, how many apprentices completed an apprenticeship? Was it 100,000? No, it was not. Was it 50,000? No, it was not. A feeble 30,900 people completed an apprenticeship during Labor’s last year in office. In the past four years, over half a million apprentices—some 544,000 people—have completed apprenticeships. That is a spectacular contrast. It compares the initiatives of the coalition government with the apathy of Labor in government—not with Labor rhetoric but with Labor in government.

There is no silver bullet that will instantly fix the skills shortage. Some of the factors affecting the skills shortage are beyond our control, but there are some we can control. Investment in skills training is one of the things that we can do, and the coalition government is committed to improving outcomes in vocational education and training. Our investment in vocational education and training has increased by 99 per cent, to almost $3 billion, under the coalition government.

I also note the opposition’s plan to combat the skills shortage—not a greater investment in skills training, not a policy to expand the Australian technical colleges and not a plan to encourage new apprenticeships. No. What is Mr Rudd going to do as part of his plan? Mr Rudd is going to form a committee. It is amazing what Mr Rudd is going to do with his whole range of committees. I suggest that very soon he will have to establish a committee to coordinate his committees. So there will be range of committees and an overarching committee to coordinate all of those. Skills shortages affect every region in this country and the Leader of the Opposition proposes to create another bureaucracy. That is the best we can expect, I guess. The Leader of the Opposition does not have a plan to overcome the skills shortage. A couple of microwaves stuffed in the corners of classrooms is hardly a plan, and forming a committee is hardly a plan. The coalition government is making the hard decisions and making the right decisions to address our skills shortage.

May I take a few moments to draw attention to the growth and development of vocational education in my electorate. I recently had the privilege of attending Kempsey High School to present a vocational student prize to Renae Stevens, a year-12 student who has excelled in the Vocational Education and Training in Schools program. For her outstanding achievements I had the honour of presenting Renae with a prize of $2,000 and a certificate. These awards send a strong message to the young people of Australia about the value of vocational education and encourage others to embrace that career path. When Renae finishes high school later this year she will have the option of training as an Australian apprentice pastrycook or baker, with the added incentives of wage top-ups, toolkits and training vouchers. As a result of the coalition’s investment in vocational education, the Cowper electorate now has 2,100 apprentices in training. This compares with only 700 at the time of the Labor government. There were virtually no apprentices in Cowper, under Labor, before 1996. We have seen a 300 per cent increase to, as I said, 2,100 apprentices in the electorate of Cowper.

Perhaps a good example of the coalition government’s policies in action is Mr Darryn Phinn and his business, Coffs Mechanical Repairs, in Coffs Harbour. About three months ago Darryn needed to hire another mechanic. At the same time, Haman Coulter, a 22-year-old farmhand from Macksville, was trying to decide on his future career direction. With the incentive of $5,000 in government assistance for Darryn, and an $800 toolkit and additional financial support for Haman, Darryn now has a new mechanic in training, and Haman will be a fully qualified motor mechanic in less than four years. I know that Darryn looked for a qualified mechanic also, but with the incentives on offer from the government he has been able to invest in training a young person to fill that role rather than having to compete in the market place for senior qualified mechanics, who are very hard to find.

Last year alone, the coalition paid almost $3 million in incentives to businesses in my electorate that employ apprentices. Cowper now also has four apprenticeship centres that provide advice and assistance for employers and job-seekers throughout the electorate.

I would like to turn to the legislation before the House and note that it is an extension of the government’s commitment to encouraging vocational training. In essence, the bill provides FEE-HELP to students undertaking full-fee diplomas or advanced diploma level courses with an approved vocational training provider. The government believes that it is important to raise the status of vocational and technical education. The bill demonstrates the importance that the government and industry attach to high-level technical qualifications, and will serve to raise the self-esteem of students undertaking these qualifications.

The vocational education and training FEE-HELP measure is just one of a suite of initiatives designed to raise the status of vocational education and training in Australia. Undertaking trade or vocational training is just as important as undertaking a university degree and just as important a pathway to a successful career. Simply put, people should be encouraged to do what they do best and, if that happens to be in a technical area, we should be encouraging them to pursue a career in that area.

This legislation will make it easier for students who have chosen to pursue higher education through the VET system rather than through a university which offers a similar qualification. It increases access to diploma and advanced diploma level courses, which would currently not be eligible for FEE-HELP unless offered through a university. This bill will provide real choice for students wishing to pursue vocational education in preparation for work or university study.

Although Australia is currently experiencing a period of strong economic growth, Australian industries are increasingly competing in a global market and need to maintain a competitive edge through innovation underpinned by a highly skilled workforce. It is estimated that eventually over 60 per cent of jobs will require high-level qualifications, especially high-level VET qualifications at the diploma and advanced diploma level. This legislation makes access to this training easier by removing the barrier of up-front full fees. This measure will also provide the opportunity for Australians wishing to change careers or to improve their skills base and will provide an option apart from the traditional choice of furthering your higher education in the university sector. A recent study published by the Treasury found that, although VET at the diploma and advanced diploma level can improve an individual’s earning potential, up-front fees were often a deterrent to participating in such courses.

FEE-HELP is a loan scheme that currently assists eligible students to pay their tuition fees in non-Commonwealth supported university places. FEE-HELP can cover all or part of a student’s tuition fees. The Australian government pays the amount of the loan directly to the education provider. The student repays the loan through the tax system once the student’s income has reached a minimum threshold. Students also have the option to make voluntary repayments on the loan.

Under this legislation, FEE-HELP will be extended to full fee paying students in diploma and advanced diploma courses that are accredited as vocational education qualifications where those courses could be then accepted as credit by a university. Training organisations will be encouraged to seek approval to facilitate FEE-HELP diploma and advanced diploma students, provided the organisation has an agreement with a university that their students can transfer to a related degree qualification. This requirement ensures that VET students receive appropriate recognition for what they have already completed in their subsequent university studies. The government expects to lend about $221 million to students over the four years to 2010-11, depending on the number of VET providers which seek approval to provide VET FEE-HELP assisted courses and the number of students who enrol for VET FEE-HELP.

This government takes very seriously the issue of the skills shortage. It takes very seriously the importance of vocational training and trades. We are very focused on the fact that, as a result of the strong economic growth in this country that has resulted from good economic management under this government, we face a challenge in developing and improving our skills to remain world competitive. This government is focused on doing that. This government is delivering the sorts of solutions that are going to build a stronger education sector both in the university sector and in the trade and technical sector. I commend the bill to the House.