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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 3167

Ms LEY (11:46 AM) —It gives me pleasure to rise today to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Bill 2010 and related bills. At the outset, may I say that the coalition does not support the passage of these bills. The Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth spoke of broad support from industry training organisations and stakeholders. The coalition also support the establishment of a national VET regulator in principle—no argument with that. However, particularly in light of the coalition senators’ dissenting report following the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee inquiry into the bills, we have grave concerns about this process and whether it will truly produce a national VET regulator that achieves the results that were described by the minister in such glowing terms. As I said, we in the coalition are broadly supportive of this concept. Ensuring that, across the board, vocational education and training, VET, is of a high standard will be critical to progressing Australia’s productivity into the future. We acknowledge the need for a consistent approach to provide regulation to boost the quality of a sector that has come under much fire of late.

Given that there are approximately 4,500 registered training organisations across Australia, with many of these operating across borders, it is easy to understand the motivation behind a national regulatory system. While states have the primary responsibility for the funding of VET and subsequent responsibility for the regulation of these providers, there has been a significant shift from a strictly state based environment. Given Commonwealth funding initiatives such as the highly popular skills vouchers offered by the former coalition government, there has been a further shift towards more Commonwealth influence in the VET sector. Certainly, Australia faces critical skills shortages, especially in VET qualified staff. A national approach to the sector therefore makes sense. However, for a national VET regulator to ultimately achieve its objective of national consistency, the states must refer their powers to the Commonwealth and, in turn, cease their own regulation.

We have certainly seen an emphasis by the present government on a COAG approach and the consequent referral of powers from the states to the Commonwealth, and it is not difficult to see why this makes sense from a Commonwealth regulatory perspective or, indeed, any other Commonwealth perspective. But one must also understand that, in referring powers, states take very great care. No independent jurisdiction wants to give up its constitutional right to anything without having caveats in place and being absolutely convinced that it will work in the interests of that state. I believe that that referral situation is where this bill comes undone.

All the states have indicated that they are supportive of a national VET regulator. However, the model proposed presents stumbling blocks for both Victoria and Western Australia. While there is in-principle support from other states, there is also no definite time line for the referral of their powers to the Commonwealth. Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania have made little more than a vague overture to refer their powers some time within the first year of the national VET regulator coming online. In the meantime, they will continue to operate their own state regulatory bodies alongside the national model—sort of a ‘try before you buy’ approach. Given that we have two states that have such serious concerns about the design of this regulator that they are unwilling to refer their powers to the Commonwealth and the other states are yet to officially commit to referring their powers, one has to question just how national the system is or would be in the future.

Education is our fourth largest export; yet, for Australia to show the international community that we have a world-class VET sector and have acted to raise the bar, we also need to show that we are taking a serious and well-thought-through approach to its regulation. This National VET Regulator Bill does not achieve that.

The coalition do acknowledge that some providers of education services for overseas students, ESOS, have been in the media for all the wrong reasons. We are committed to ensuring that Australia regains its reputation as a provider of high-quality education offering a safe environment to those who would come here to study. Whilst we agree that a national VET regulator would be beneficial in addressing issues surrounding providers being established solely to provide a residency pathway or those who fail to train students to a satisfactory standard, we believe that the government’s inability to get a sign-on from all the states will diminish the status of the national VET regulator to such an extent that it will be little more than window-dressing—and it will be expensive window-dressing at that.

The financial implications, as provided by the fabulous Parliamentary Library in its Bills Digest, indicate that funding was provided in the last budget—$105 million over four years—to establish national regulatory arrangements for the VET system including $92 million over four years for the establishment of the NVR and $10 million over four years for the establishment of the national standards council. Consistent with the explanatory memorandum, the information provided on the DEEWR website refers to a commitment of $55 million over four years, which will be in addition to fees received by the regulator for regulatory activities.

Though there might well be savings for the states from their referral of powers and functions to the national VET regulator, the apparently revised federal budget figures and the reported concerns by the VET Regulator’s interim chair raised questions about the adequacy of the VET Regulator’s funding to meet its stronger investigative and analysis functions. We have a VET Regulator that is already in train, that already has a significant allocation of Commonwealth money and that has a model that enables it to cost recover from the training providers and presumably the states. One should always be very wary of side-by-side, parallel regulatory cost-raising activities. Think of the training providers struggling to meet the daily costs and wanting to provide good-quality education, handicapped by two sets of regulators auditing with clipboards, talking about two different sets of standards and making sure that both are applied to. It is not painting the picture of simplicity and quality that it should be.

With the expectation of full cost recovery by 2014 and a fee structure for services yet to be developed and approved by the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment, there has been speculation that fees in some states are likely to rise. There was early speculation that the reason Victoria may have refused to refer its powers was that it wanted to be confident there was to be adequate funding. We cannot endorse a process which is incomplete and which is as costly as this one.

In addition to these concerns, the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee’s inquiry highlighted further areas where revision could improve the effectiveness and status of the VET Regulator. I refer to and quote from the coalition senators’ dissenting report, which homes in on the real concern, as I mentioned before, that the position of Victoria and Western Australia is that they would not refer their powers.

… the evidence presented to the committee is that the NVR Bills have the potential to undermine national regulation. While Victoria and Western Australia have indicated they are prepared to introduce mirror legislation in their state parliaments to give effect to this aspiration,—

And that is certainly the impression the minister gave in airbrushing over those issues entirely—

Western Australia has advised that it is unable to do so on the basis the NVR Bill as currently drafted:

The Western Australian evidence said:

Our position on this bill is that the December 2009 agreement made by our Premier at COAG on the regulation of VET has as yet not been sufficiently reflected in the bill as it currently stands. The Commonwealth legislation being considered by this committee falls short of that agreement and the state is, therefore, not able to keep its side of the agreement until it is honoured in the legislation.

So if we pass this bill we have no indication that Western Australia will pass mirror legislation because at the moment they have indicated that they do not like the look of this bill. I know the minister has just talked about amendments, but, what a messy process. Can I suggest that the consultation to occur with the sector in April and May—the minister has left the chamber—should have taken place already. This has been severely under consulted. There will be a dash out to the sector to consult in April and May, amendments are to be introduced into the parliament in August meanwhile the regulator starts work in July. There is enormous cost associated with it, a new regime is being established and we do not even know where we are with at least two of the states.

The Senate select committee was informed that Western Australia was given assurances that the national system would not result in the transfer of regulatory responsibility for state owned RTOs. The Commonwealth bill does not reflect the assurances given to the our Premier from the then Prime Minister at the COAG meeting in December that these reforms would not result in the regulatory takeover of state owned public providers, including Western Australian TAFE colleges. Of course the Western Australian government is going to take care with the regulation of its own TAFE colleges. It runs a very good TAFE system.

From the discussion that occurred at COAG, there was a clear understanding from the officials that were attending and the Premier that the undertaking was made that the Western Australian TAFE providers would not be party to the national VET regulations arrangements and it was on this basis that the Premier agreed to the recommendations made at that meeting. Western Australia has recommended the Commonwealth attempt to address these concerns through amendments to the draft legislation to ensure that the state retains responsibility for state owned RTOs. That is the position of Western Australia, it would appear. Again, the principle is supported but the methodology and the state of play at the moment is simply unacceptable.

Victoria also noted its concerns regarding potential implications for the regulation of apprenticeships. By exempting apprenticeship laws from override for some states but not Victoria, the clear implication of the bill is that Victorian apprenticeship laws—at least to the extent that they may affect national VET registered providers—are to be overridden. Again, no equivalent arrangements will be established by the National VET Regulator Bill to replace the state laws it displaces. This appears to create a substantial regulatory gap. When it comes to apprentices, the trades in which they are involved, the licensing of those trades and the confidence people need to have in the licensing regime—this really does open up a lot of holes in this legislation.

Victoria’s submission to the Senate committee echoes the view expressed by Western Australia that the draft legislation does not affect a best practice approach to national regulation. Victoria seeks to limit the scope of the national VET regulator through this bill to only those providers based in referring states. Non-referring states, Victoria and Western Australia, should retain responsibility for the regulation of all VET providers based in their jurisdiction, including providers that operate interstate and/or offer services to international students.

Victoria has consistently supported a nationally consistent approach to the regulation of the VET sector. In place of a practical approach to national regulation agreed by all six jurisdictions, the Commonwealth’s use of its powers to override states’ constitutional responsibility for education is inappropriate and undermines the federation. If that is the approach Victoria has here, I do not see that the consistency the minister speaks of is going to happen any time soon. Victoria recommended the Commonwealth seek to address the concerns through amending the bill to clarify that the legislation does not affect the authority of non-referring states to manage TAFE institutes and regulate apprenticeships.

The minister talks about amendments. I am not sure whether he talks about those amendments because the amendments that he sought to discuss a few moments ago reflect the concerns the Greens had in the Senate when this bill arrived a couple of days ago, and I believe they are quite a different set of concerns. So coalition senators and the coalition in general feel very strongly that more work needs to be done by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations to draft legislation which actually meets the requirements of the two non-referring states so that a truly nationally consistent VET regulator process can be presented to the parliament.

On the basis of the evidence heard, the coalition will not support this legislation. I want to emphasise that we do support a national VET regulator, but it does need to be properly designed. This is just another example of Labor rushing in boots and all, more focused on the big picture and omitting the minutiae in the process. That is why this bill is undercooked, underdone and needs more work. We urge the government to go back to the drawing board.

May I also say that a lot of time is spent on the government side in articulating various problems relating to skills shortages, regulation, interference and big-stick approaches, and it all hangs off the numerous COAG committees. To a certain extent with our system of Federation we are all stuck with that process when we want to get something nationally consistent, but we have to stop articulating the problems and actually do something about them. Instead of just telling the Australian people all about the skills shortages faced across the country, we have to take genuine, committed action to find policies that address those shortages, not allocate $105 million over four years to what is essentially a regulatory regime that is going to cost providers, and that means it is going to cost students; that is not even going to be national; and that is going to face, and already is facing, a very confused and muddled start. I would prefer that we saw government dollars and public policy allocated to something that produces real results on the ground.

I just have to mention this example from last week of an announcement in this area on ‘delivering skilled workers to the resources sector’. It is an 18-month apprenticeship training program for 1,000 workers—small, but I applaud it—with $200 million to fund targeted training projects for skills in critical demands. Again, that is small, but one would support the government’s efforts in that area. But I was a little bit surprised at a particular pilot promoted by the Minister for Resources and Energy, and that is for a Cairns based fly-in fly-out coordinator to be appointed to match job seekers with mining, construction and infrastructure projects. I went to the webpage of the minister for resources—I do not have the media release here—which was trumpeting this particular pilot project for a coordinator. I do not know how much the coordinator will cost or what type of secretariat support will be involved or what offices it might occupy. And who knows how big it might get. But one of its major jobs is to put airlines in touch with mining companies.

It is a preposterous suggestion that mining companies are not already talking to airlines about their needs when it comes to fly-in fly-out workers. In fact, when I went to Brisbane recently there were big signs everywhere saying ‘Direct flights from Brisbane to Broome’, so significant numbers of fly-in fly-out workers are going from Brisbane to Broome. That is just an example of what is happening because the marketplace responds to what is required. Where there are shortages of course that is indicated. But for this government to be appointing a Cairns based fly-in fly-out coordinator whose job it is to put the airlines in touch with the mining companies and try to find workers is nothing but a joke.

To return briefly to this bill, we invite the government to go back to the drawing board, as I said, and do the job properly. In the meantime, the coalition will not support the bill.